Can you single-handedly avert the climate crisis through plastic-straw abstinence? No. Are 100 fossil fuel companies responsible for 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gasses ever? Yes. Does this mean you should live out the apocalypse in a bacchanal of wanton waste because nothing you do matters anyway?
You could—or you could take a few tangible steps that will actually make a difference when combined with other people doing the same. “In Venezuela, we have a saying: Every grain of sand builds a mountain,” says Alejandra Schrader, author of The Low Carbon Cookbook
. “Individual actions can be so powerful as a collective effort.”
1. Slow down on the steaks
“Food has a vast impact on climate change,” says Schrader. “The latest science says 25 per cent of all greenhouse emissions come from food, from production to consumption and then food waste.” If you do one thing to address this, try to cut down on meat and dairy. “If you look at the carbon footprint of any ruminant—cows, goats, sheep—it’s off the charts because of the way they digest their food,” explains Schrader. “It’s called ‘enteric fermentation,’ or as I describe it to kids, the way they burp and fart really damages the environment.”
Schrader’s diet is plant-based
, but she knows that isn’t doable for everyone. Instead, she advocates only having red meat on your plate three days a week, not seven. “Even if you cut your red meat intake by 50 per cent, you can eventually cut your own carbon footprint by 40 per cent,” she says. “This includes cutting your intake, but also sourcing it from sustainable, preferably regenerative, farmers.”
2. Serve out-of-season strawberries
While a carton of fresh raspberries can be a balm to the soul in mid-January, it’s a nightmare for the environment. “Berries, blackberries and strawberries especially, are real offenders because they grow under very specific conditions and they need to be transported by air, which is horrendous for carbon emissions,” says Schrader. Ditto asparagus, and tomatoes grown in hothouses, which generate huge amounts of greenhouse gas. She suggests growing vegetables of your own in the summer—tomatoes are doable even on a condo balcony—and old school preserving and canning to use up veggies over the winter. You can also do this by shopping at farmer’s markets, or subscribing to a local sustainable agriculture box.
3. Eat (all) your vegetables
We waste an average 40 per cent of the food that comes into our homes. That’s why Schrader’s pet peeve is when people grab a bunch of carrots in the grocery store, rip off the greens on top and discard them. “There is so much good stuff in those carrot greens, like antioxidants,” she says, pointing out that they make a great chimichurri
or salsa verde. Veggies like beets, radishes, cauliflower and broccoli all have delicious, good-for-you greens that can be used in salads or roasted. “Stop peeling stuff,” she advises, too. (She recently served plantain peel “shredded beef” at a dinner attended by the President of Colombia and Jeff Bezos.) “Even strawberry tops are highly edible,” she says. One way to redeem those raspberries you bought out of season, perhaps?
4. Spend your clothing budget wisely
While we’ve all gotten the message that fast fashion is bad
—not just from an environmental standpoint, but also in terms of its human impact—many of us have been tempted by the lure of a “conscious” or “eco” collection from our mall staples. “The overconsumption is going to outweigh any benefit from buying a slightly better T-shirt from a brand that’s still ultimately causing a lot of problems,” says Georgina Wilson-Powell, author of Is It Really Green?
. She suggests choosing local designers who prioritize waste reduction and circular production processes, and finding second-hand options via vintage stores or online consignment platforms
like Depop or Poshmark.
5. Switch to a shampoo bar
Our beauty cabinets are one of the trickiest places to make sustainable switches, thanks to all the plastic beauty product packaging
and ingredients from far-flung locales. One easy win is a shampoo bar. “For every bar you use, you save two plastic bottles,” says Wilson-Powell, noting that the category has come a long way from the drying, latherless options you may have tried in the past. “There’s one called Ethique, which is a solid triangle you can melt at home, so it turns into a liquid and you still get that bottle-with-lather feel.” Another quick switch is ditching single-use razors, which can’t be recycled because of the plastic/metal mix. “Swap to something like a stainless-steel razor,” she says. “They no longer look like something a man in the 1950s would use. They look lovely beside your bath.”
6. Minimize your digital carbon footprint
Not all pollution comes from tangible objects. “The carbon emissions from the information and communication technology sector are as big as the airline industry,” says Shashi Kant, director of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program at the University of Toronto. Each time you send an email or watch a TikTok, a tiny amount of energy is used to power your device and the WiFi, not to mention the carbon emissions from the servers that house all that information. Shashi recommends turning your computer off when you’re not using it (which seems obvious but when was the last time you did that?!), unsubscribing from newsletters you don’t read, blocking video auto-play and choosing analog over digital where possible, i.e., a real book versus an e-reader.
7. Learn what actually goes in your recycling bin
The bad news? Canadians only recycle 20.6 per cent of our waste. The better news? There are some easy ways you can help boost that rate. First, stop putting things in your municipal recycling bin that don’t belong there. Not properly cleaning or rinsing recyclables is one of the primary reasons items you think you’re recycling end up in landfill instead, says Alex Payne, North American public relations manager for TerraCycle. “The second is improper sortation,” which is when items not accepted for municipal recycling (like batteries, aerosols and plastic bags) are mixed in with recyclables. Become well-versed in what your municipality does actually accept, and find alternate ways to recycle the things they don’t, like using TerraCycle’s programs for beauty and oral care packaging or snack and candy wrappers.
8. Find the easy wins
“There isn’t a single, simple solution for everyone,” says Wilson-Powell, who advocates tracking what you buy and do each week, and using that to find alternatives that work for you. “Nothing has no impact, and you have to make judgment calls.” For instance, while she eats vegetarian at home, Wilson-Powell would order locally caught sustainable fish at a restaurant rather than a dish made from quinoa and chia seeds imported from across the world. Give yourself little challenges you can easily achieve, like Car Free Sunday, swapping one flight for a train journey on your next vacation, or hanging your workout gear to dry to cut down on microplastic shed.