Ultimately, we need to start taking more responsibility as individuals for what we are doing to the environment. Making little adjustments in our everyday lives and being more aware of those things that damage the planet will contribute to making the world a healthier and more sustainable place.
According to The World Bank, the world’s cities generated 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste in 2016. That amounts to 0.74 kilograms per person per day. And while many people feel recycling is the answer to this challenge, the reality paints a grim picture. Statistics South Africa found that in 2011 only 10% of general waste in the country was recycled. The remaining 90% of the estimated 59 million tonnes we produce went into landfills.
In recent times, much of the focus has been on reducing plastic – a drive towards no more plastic straws, cups, or packaging. Cynics might even argue it has replaced the ‘save the rain forests’ mantra of not too long ago. With approximately 500 billion plastic bags used worldwide, and 300 million tonnes of plastic produced annually, they might have a point.
Of course, our planet is damaged by more than just general waste and plastic. There are a number of things we do as humans that damage the environment on a daily basis. However, there are also a number of things we can do every day to put an end to our bad habits.
While many might think that electricity is a clean and safe form of energy, the way it is generated and transmitted has implications for the environment. Power plants, as South Africans are only too aware, rely on coal, oil, natural gasses, or nuclear energy. Despite our recent woes with blackouts, the reality is that the country, like countless others, is generating a significant amount of electricity. This releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, contributes to air pollution, and even exacerbates waste disposal challenges. An easy habit that we can get into in order to conserve energy is to put off the lights and switch plugs off at the wall when we are not using them. If enough of us do this on a daily basis, imagine the amount of energy that we could save.
Our connected lifestyle has also resulted in a new and challenging form of pollution: electronic waste. Have you ever stopped to think what happens to your old smartphone, its battery, or even your broken television, computer, or laptop? Sending these appliances to landfill results in even more environmental pollution because of the lead and other dangerous components. Just imagine the effects of this on soil and water quality. Not to mention the resources required to manufacture just one computer and monitor (240 kg of fossil fuel, 21 kg of chemicals, and 1.5 tonnes of water).
Going forward, we must all recycle old electronics. Many countries, including South Africa, have recycling depots that can process e-waste. Alternatively, there are a number of big retail stores such as Makro, Woolworths and Pick n Pay that have collection points for e-waste.
Even something as innocent as applying sunscreen can be bad for coral reefs. A study has found that many sunscreens contain ingredients that break down coral, causing it to lose its nutrients, turn ghostly white, and die. Close to 6 000 tonnes of sunscreen enters reef areas annually, with the main harmful ingredients being oxybenzone and octinoxate. Thankfully, there are brands of sunscreen out there without these damaging chemicals. So it’s important to do some research around which products are less harmful to coral reefs before buying another bottle.
Other things like smoking (releasing pollutants in the air as well as the impact tobacco manufacturing has on the environment), over-eating (food waste releasing methane gas not to mention the impact of factory farms on animals), and even over-flushing the toilet (water wastage) are all seemingly trivial things that amount to massive environmental damage. These are all habits we can change to make a real difference.
Ultimately, we need to start taking more responsibility as individuals for what we are doing to the environment. Making little adjustments in our everyday lives and just generally being more aware of those things that damage the planet will contribute to making the world a healthier and more sustainable place.