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29/04/2023

Reading time: 11min

Lucy Davidson

Environmental Consultant & Environment Manager

How to be more sustainable: 7 ways we can all play our part

Sweco author: Lucy Davidson,

Earth Day falls on 22 April in 2023, and this year’s theme is ‘Invest in our Planet’. As earthday.org highlights, we need to ‘act (boldly), innovate (broadly), and implement (equitably)’ to be a meaningful part of the green revolution. Here are seven ways in which we can do small things to make a big difference…

1. Shop less – make the most what you already have

Everything we buy affects the planet. Before you buy something new, ask yourself, do I really need this?

While most of us recognise that throwing things away can cause environmental problems (habitat destruction, pollution of air, land and water etc.), did you know…

  • 45% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to the production of the cars, clothes, food, and other products we use every day1
  • Resource extraction and processing are responsible for over 90% of land- and water-related environmental impacts (water stress and biodiversity loss)2. For example, it takes 12,760 litres of water to produce one smart phone3

Making the most of what you already have is much less impactful to the environment and the wallet! Here are a couple of suggestions for how you could make things last longer:

Electricals

Take advantage of the recently introduced ‘Right to Repair’ laws that cover some appliances (currently dishwashers, washing machines, washer-dryers, refrigerators, TVs and other electronic displays). To find out more, checkout this excellent article by Which?.

Clothing

Washing your clothes less often, with natural detergents (keep reading for suggestions), on a cooler cycle, then air drying them will make your clothes last longer by slowing material thinning, shrinkage and fading. It also saves energy, water and reduces microfibre and microplastics pollution of our rivers and oceans.

According to a study by Plymouth University4, laundering one 6kg load of polyester clothing releases almost half a million microfibres, rising to almost 750,000 microfibres for acrylic clothing.

You could also learn to repair your clothes by using patches to fix tears, replacing lost buttons or cutting the item to turn it into something else – this is also a great way to change up your wardrobe! But if you do need something new, could you apply circular economy strategies to keep resources in use? Could you buy a used product? Or one made from recycled (and recyclable) materials?

2. Buy, sell and donate pre-loved goods

Buying, selling and donating used goods has a positive environmental and social impact. It saves resources, energy and water, reduces carbon emissions and helps avoid the escape of harmful and toxic substances into the soil, water and air from landfill and waste incineration.

If everyone bought one used item this year, we would5:

  • save 11 billion kWH energy, enough to illuminate the Eiffel Tower for 141 years
  • avoid 5.7 billion tonnes COemissions (same as taking 500,000 cars off the road for a year)
  • save 25 billion gallons of water (the same amount of water used globally every year by washing machines to wash our clothing6)

In this last year I have created accounts on pre-loved clothing apps Vinted and Depop not only to sell my unwanted shoes and clothing, but also to buy them. I also donate some of my clothes and footwear to local charities.

This year our Leeds office is supporting St George’s Crypt, a Leeds-base charity supporting the homeless, the vulnerable and those suffering from substance dependence. One of the ways we are helping is by gathering donations from colleagues in the office. I’m currently getting together a bag of unwanted warm clothing and food items to donate. https://www.stgeorgescrypt.org.uk/

One of the best buys (and sale!) I made was a pair of heels I’d first seen in a high street store that I wanted to wear to my friend’s wedding. I knew I was likely to only wear them once and was able to find a pair in my size at a cut of the price on Vinted. After the big day, I re-advertised them for another person to enjoy, rather than hiding them at the back of the wardrobe or throwing them away. When I posted them, I also made sure to reuse the packaging I had received them in.

Next time you spot something you want in the shops, why not see if you can find it second hand first?

If you can’t, then another thing to try is to buy products made from recycled materials…

3. Buy products (including their packaging) made from recycled materials

Buying products and packaging that are made from recycled materials has numerous benefits:

  • substantially reduces the need for extracting, refining and processing raw materials which causes significant pollution, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss
  • usually requires less energy to turn products being recycled into usable materials
  • encourages companies to use more recycled content
  • creates jobs – recycling creates 6 times more jobs than sending waste to landfill7

It’s encouraging to see more and more companies including the proportion of recycled content in their products and packaging on their labelling and websites. My boyfriend and I moved in together last summer and we are trying our best to decorate and furnish it with products containing recycled content. It’s taken a little extra time to do the research, but it was easier than expected and hasn’t broken the bank or resulted in reduced quality. Here are three of my favourites:

The dining table and bench in our kitchen was made from reclaimed scaffold boards by Leeds-based Bearclaw Reclaimed who we found on Instagram

The green paint on our living room wall was created by Leeds-based social enterprise Seagulls Paint. Seagulls collect unused household paint donated to the household waste recycle centres around Leeds. They separate the good paint (c.60%) for selling/mixing in their shop at a much-reduced price, from the bad (c.40%) which they send for recycling. Seagulls can mix the paints to match shades sold by well-known brands – ours was Valspar Fertile Ferns. I think you’ll agree they did a great job!

The curtains in our spare bedroom are from John Lewis and are made from 100% recycled polyester

4. Switch to reusable alternatives

Another great way to reduce resource demand, waste and avoid pollution is to avoid single-use items by choosing reusable alternatives. A great place to start is with things you use every day.

Here are some easy switches I’ve made that you could try:

  • Beeswax wraps instead of cling film. Wash them the same way you wash your pots. Refresh as needed in a low oven for 2-3 minutes or top up with beeswax resin.
  • Cotton turtle bags – use at the supermarket or greengrocers to bag up your loose fruit and vegetables.
  • Food containers – refill with cupboard foods (grains, pastas, cereals) at refill shops, or ask your butcher or fishmonger to package your produce in these to avoid plastic wrapping.
  • Silicon baking sheets instead of greaseproof paper and tin foil. I have two – one for savoury stuff like meat and fish, the other for baking sweet treats. Simply pop in the dishwasher to clean.
  • Washable cotton make-up remover pads and wash cloths instead of single use ones. These go in my usual whites wash and clean up like new.
  • For women – menstrual cups in place of tampons/ sanitary pads – in your lifetime you would avoid throwing away 11,000 throwaway period products8

5.  Make eco-swaps

Making some eco-swaps on everyday items helps avoid using and washing down the drain products that contain chemicals that persist in the environment, animals and people and can be harmful to wildlife and human health.

Even after passing through water treatment plants, small quantities of chemicals from cleaning products find their way into waterbodies, harming aquatic life e.g. algal blooms can be caused by phosphates in laundry and dishwasher detergent and surfactants in cleaning products reduce water tension, allowing other pollutants to be more easily absorbed by plants and animals9.

A couple of my favourite eco-brands for household cleaning and body/ hair care are Miniml and Faith in Nature. Like other similar companies:

  1. the products contain plant-based ingredients which is healthier and avoids harm to animals
  2. I can refill my containers with their products at my local refill shop or return empty ones so they can clean, fill up and reuse them, which minimises packaging waste
  3. some ingredients are locally sourced e.g. Faith in Nature uses water from the Lake District
  4. the products are British made which reduces carbon emissions from product transportation. In fact, Miniml products are made less than 20 miles from me near Skipton!
  5. they list avoided ingredients on their websites
  6. they use packaging containing recycled content
  7. the products don’t cost a fortune and when buying in bulk can actually cost less than less environmentally friendly equivalents

I have also switched to beeswax and soy wax candles. Paraffin wax, used in candles typically found in shops and supermarkets, is derived from petroleum and when burnt releases toxic fumes into the air. Beeswax and soy wax are natural ingredients and are clean burning. If you can find locally made beeswax candles then you will be helping the local bee population and supporting local businesses.

6. Avoid ‘forever chemicals’, look for PFAS- and PFC-free

Per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of over 4,700 industrial chemicals10 that first came into use in the 1950s in everyday products including food packaging, toiletries, non-stick cookware, waterproof clothing and outdoor equipment, carpets and fire extinguisher foam. There are a number of environmental and health issues associated with PFAS11 – they are extremely persistent (some take over 1,000 years to degrade), bio-accumulative and toxic to humans and animals.

You can help to reduce the release of forever chemicals by buying products labelled PFAS/ PFC Free or searching for a product on this website before you buy: https://www.pfasfree.org.uk/current-initiatives/pfas-free-products. I’m currently looking for a new pair of PFC-free hiking shoes and have found outdoor clothing brands like Jack Wolfskin, Keen and Patagonia are selling PFC-free products.

 

In case you’re interested in watching some films based on true events that have helped bring the issues surrounding PFAS intro the public eye, here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. Erin Brokovich – Brokovich was instrumental in building a case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) involving groundwater contamination in Hinkley, California.
  2. Dark Waters – inspired by the true story of Robert Bilott, an attorney that built up a class action suit representing the people living near a DuPont chemical plant that had contracted diseases allegedly in relation to contaminated drinking water stemming from the plant.

7. Don’t try to change everything at once!

Successfully changing your habits and behaviours in order to be kinder to the planet is no different than when you’re trying a new diet or switching up the daily routine. In this blog I’ve provided a range of examples of changes I have made, but I wouldn’t have succeeded by trying them all at once!

3 top tips for sustainability success

  1. Set yourself an overall ambition and take it step-by-step. One of my goals is to make my shower plastic free. By changing one product at a time, I’m finding this process a little easier.
  2. Start with the easy wins. Why not make an eco-swap to something you can buy during your usual supermarket, local or online shop?
  3. Take your time and enjoy the journey. I found that by doing this I have not only helped the planet, but I have learnt a lot, found special and unique things I otherwise wouldn’t have, supported local businesses and in most cases saved money or spent no more than usual.

Useful references:

  1. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2021. Completing the picture: How the circular economy tackles climate change. https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/completing-the-picture
  2. International Resource Panel (IRP), 2019. Global resources outlook 2018: natural resources for the future we want; Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (ISPBE), Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services (2019)
  3. Water Footprint Calculator, 2022. the Hidden Water in Everyday Products. https://www.watercalculator.org/footprint/the-hidden-water-in-everyday-products/
  4. We Forum, 2019. Fashion’s hot new trend: clothes you don’t need to wash (very often). https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/07/here-s-fashions-hot-new-trend-clothes-you-dont-need-to-wash-very-often/
  5. Loop generation, https://www.loop-generation.com/blogs/news/why-buying-second-hand-clothes-matters#:~:text=Second%2Dhand%20clothes%20have%20a,like%20a%20good%20deal%2C%20right%3F
  6. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017. New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/a-new-textiles-economy
  7. Plastics for Change, 2021. Five reasons you should buy recycled products. https://www.plasticsforchange.org/blog/why-buy-recycled-products#:~:text=BUYING%20RECYCLED%20PRODUCTS%20SAVES%20NATURAL%20RESOURCES&text=Recycling%20reduces%20the%20need%20for,substantial%20air%20and%20water%20pollution.
  8. Mooncup, 2023. Saving our planet, one period at a time. https://www.mooncup.co.uk/
  9. BBC Science Focus. How do household cleaning products affect the environment? https://www.sciencefocus.com/planet-earth/how-do-household-cleaning-products-affect-the-environment/
  10. Chemtrust, 2023. PFAS – the ‘Forever Chemicals’. www.chemtrust.org/pfas/
  11. PFASfree, 2023. What are PFAS? https://www.pfasfree.org.uk/about-PFAS#problem