At the start of January, people typically make resolutions about health, money, and relationships, with the mindset of "new year, new me." In 2019, they need to add environmental goals to the list.
Last year was one of the hottest years on record, and rising temperatures along with climate-related changes are affecting the Arctic, wildlife, and people across the world. In November, a national report confirmed climate change is hurting Americans' quality of life, especially in lower-income neighborhoods and in some communities of color.
If you're overwhelmed by the 1,600-page document, or by the onslaught of climate-related news, know there are manageable ways to make the world a better, less polluted place.
For starters, you can vote for politicians who propose and support solutions to climate change. New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and more than 300 state and local officials endorsed a Green New Deal, a plan to "promote economic and environmental justice and equality." It proposed the formation of a Select Committee for a Green New Deal — and demanded that only congresspeople who refuse fossil fuel money be permitted to serve on it.
While Democratic leadership rejected the latter request, the focus on a Green New Deal helped bring the idea of a sweeping plan to tackle climate change into mainstream political conversations. Keep that momentum going by getting involved in your community and pressuring local officials to shift toward a clean energy economy.
Some recommendations, like eating less red meat or recycling food waste, can also help the environment. The key is to frame these lifestyle changes as positive adjustments, not as punishment or deprivation.
"If you are just a little bit more thoughtful, you can avoid wasting money and having a negative environmental impact," says Dale Bryk, the senior strategic advisor of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The nonprofit advocates for policies and laws that protect the environment.
There are subtle things you can do in your everyday life to help protect and preserve the environment.
Here are five habits to break and make in 2019:
1. Old habit: Buy individual plastic water bottles
New habit: Drink from a reusable bottle
At this very minute, humans around the world are buying a million plastic bottles. Plastic is particularly bad for the environment because it pollutes the ocean, ultimately killing marine animals. The Ocean Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group, has removed more than 220 million pounds of trash from the world's oceans in the last 30 years to help solve this issue. You can volunteer to help pick up the mess. No matter what you should invest in a reusable water bottle (check out these 11 models for ideas).
You can also reduce plastic waste by signing the pledge to stop using straws. The anti-straw movement has been criticized because plastic straws are essential for some people with disabilities. So rather than advocate for a total ban on them, don't use plastic straws unless it's absolutely necessary.
Every hour, 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away. My New Year’s Resolution is to carry a reusable water bottle instead of a plastic one. #ichooseplanet Take the pledge and pass it on. https://t.co/QKPZo5gA8j pic.twitter.com/R0KAgd7L47
— Nat Geo UK (@NatGeoUK) December 28, 2018
2. Old habit: Pollute water with plastic microfibers
New habit: Switch up your washer settings
Clothes made of synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, and spandex release microfibers in the washing machine, which make their way into the world's oceans. That's bad news because sea life may consume those plastic fibers, and that can have a potentially "toxic impact" on the food chain, based on what experts know about microplastics. To keep the initial shedding to a minimum, use the cold water setting when washing clothes. This practice will also conserve energy because the water won't need to be heated. To contain microfibers and prevent them from floating in oceans, consider purchasing a washing bag, like this one from Patagonia.
3. Old habit: Use rush shipping for your online purchases
New habit: Focus on sustainable shopping
There's no clear-cut answer to whether online or in-person shopping is better for the environment, but there are some practices to consider when doing either.
Same-day delivery may be fast and convenient, for example, but it can waste a lot fuel and packaging. Even non-rush shipping can involve excess boxes and non-recyclable packaging materials. Plastic packaging is the fastest growing form of packaging, but only 14 percent of it is recycled in the U.S., according to the NRDC. For that reason, it's important to have conversations with companies about their packaging practices.
51 trillion microplastic particles—500 times the stars 🌟 in our galaxy—litter the seas. Microplastics are a particular problem & produced when plastics start to break down. Actions to #BeatPollution are underway: learn about new innovation in textiles: https://t.co/WXGctfatkr pic.twitter.com/LdaD4ap7jX
— UN Environment (@UNEnvironment) December 29, 2018
"Can you be an advocate even as a consumer to say, 'I want to buy this stuff from you, but I don't want all this packaging. Give me a better option,'" says Bryk. (You'll want to ask for packaging that's easy and safe to recycle.)
Shopping online isn't all bad, especially when you consider how it can reduce fossil fuel pollution. Delivery drivers often find efficient routes to keep fuel costs and emissions low, but that's less likely when you order rush delivery. So be patient and avoid last-minute buys, and be on the lookout for goods, including food and clothes, that are made sustainably.
4. Old habit: Eat meat every day of the week
New habit: Vary your diet and explore plant-based options
You don't have to cut meat entirely out of your diet to make a difference. Start small and take part in Meatless Monday, an initiative that encourages people to ditch meat once a week. Meat consumption is not good for the environment because the production of lamb and beef generate high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. Bryk also points out that if you buy less meat, you can afford to eat meat that was produced sustainably. It's also a fun opportunity to explore recipes.
She emphasizes that there's no exact number or calculation that can ensure your meal choices make a positive impact on the environment. It's more about moving in the right direction and influencing the food industry to invest in options that don't pollute the planet and/or contribute to climate change.
"It’s not like if everyone doesn’t eat meat for five days a week, all our problems are solved," she says. "Part of people just doing things in their own lives is building a market for other things, like for organic vegetables instead of the traditionally farmed things."
Commit to improving your #kidneyhealth in the #NewYear by committing to #MeatlessMonday. Learn more about why @nkf promotes eating more #plantbased foods for kidney health at: https://t.co/4blyzrYyDD pic.twitter.com/kqNGK5RFDo
— Meatless Monday (@MeatlessMonday) January 3, 2019
5. Old habit: Throw away your food
New habit: Make a compost pile
Avoid throwing away your food waste, whether it's an entire sandwich or a half-eaten slice of pizza, because it gets sent to a landfill, which then creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. In other words, it contributes to climate change.
Composting is a resourceful and cheaper option for you in the long run. Use compost to fertilize your lawn and you won't have to buy chemical fertilizer, which harms the environment. Start a compost pile in your backyard or consider these low-cost, expert-recommended compost bins. If you'd prefer the scraps far away from home, research drop-off sites in your area or sign up for services that do the composting for you, such as Compost Now. Some cities, like San Francisco and New York City, collect food waste. The federal Environmental Protection Agency maintains a list of food waste prevention efforts happening nationwide.
Be mindful of how businesses dispose of their trash as well. For example, Pret A Manger partners with food rescue organizations to deliver unsold food to local shelters, soup kitchens, and food banks. Starbucks works with Feeding America, a hunger relief organization, to donate surplus food. Your consumer choices are always an opportunity to learn about and support business practices that are good for the earth.
Resolutions are all about the future, but if we don't do our part to protect the environment, there might not be a future — at least one we'd want to live in. So this year, remember that the personal is political. Your individual choices, no matter how big or small, make an impact in your local community, and inevitably the world.