This is good for your health. This is bad for your health. This is good for the environment. This is bad for the environment. Every day, I add something else to what seems like a never-ending list.
Okay, so I do some research, read my labels and it says ‘organic’ but is it truly organic? What does that even mean? If I use organic practices to grow my vegetables but my neighbour sprays with pesticides, can it still be organic when we share the same soil? Probably not! Oh great, I think – that straw is ‘biodegradable’ or that food container is ‘compostable’ which is good right? Except it’s not necessarily great. What’s the difference between the two and which is the better alternative?
Unfortunately, we live in a world of chemicals and toxins, from the air we breathe to the water we drink and the food we eat. How do we truly know what is good or bad for us, our environment and the economy too? Can we even trust the labels? What about ‘greenwashing’, an increasing trend where businesses and organizations provide misleading or false information to consumers on a product or service to portray an environmentally responsible public image?
As consumers, we have a responsibility to make conscious choices but must navigate a space filled with a tremendous amount of information. Every day, new research is published on what eating something or using something can do to our health or that of the environment, which makes the journey to more conscious consumption a potentially challenging one.
Here are some questions to ask yourself from when you awake on a morning to when you go to sleep at night to increase your awareness of your daily consumption habits:
What are you eating for breakfast? Is it packaged and potentially filled with preservatives? How much sugar does it contain? Do you grow any vegetables? Are you spraying them with pesticides?
Do you ever think about the journey of your food from farm to table or ocean to plate?
What about your personal care products and cosmetics, from the moisturizer that you lather on your skin to the foundation that you wear daily, the perfume that you spray, to the sunscreen and the hair products that you use? Are they made with potentially harmful ingredients such as parabens and phthalates or do they include the word ‘sulphate/sulfate’ and are capable of being absorbed into your skin?
What are you flushing down your toilet? Where is it going? Could it be blocking the sewage system?
Are you brushing your teeth with toothpaste that contains plastic microbeads?
Are you someone that has a 15-minute shower while belting out the latest tune, especially in a country that already has water woes?
What about the impacts of that bleach or other cleaning chemical that you just poured down the sink?
Ever thought about the potential impacts of agricultural run-off or chicken farm waste to coral reefs and near shore water quality?
What about the materials that your clothes are made of? Are microfibers entering the water supply every time you wash and ultimately ending up in our already fragile ocean and maybe even entering the food chain?
Could the radiation from your cell phone be causing cancer?
What is the impact of the transport that you use?
What about the bottle that you just pelted out of a van? Could this be blocking our drains leading to increased flooding as was experienced just a few days ago?
Or what about that cup that you threw overboard while on a pleasure cruise? Or maybe that lost fishing gear?
What is in your garbage right now and where does it end up?
I don’t know about you but I have just sighed and felt slightly overwhelmed and I have been asking myself these questions for a few years!
By assessing our consumption patterns – the food we eat, the items we buy and often waste and the things that we do, this can help show us how we can eat healthier, live slower, buy less, buy better, throw away less and reduce our use of the Earth’s natural resources – sustainable living. For me, it is all about balance. We must start somewhere. Focus on a few things. Do them well.
There may be no best option but there are better alternatives. There is no one solution or one size fits all model and no, that Ocean Cleanup machine circulating on social media will not solve our plastic pollution problem.
I believe that we must continue to focus on how our country and region can work towards sustainable development and transition to a circular economy while becoming more resilient to changes in climate. Being sustainable also includes looking at our lifestyle and working to prevent non-communicable diseases and ensure that not only is our population healthier but our environment too; after all, if our environment is unhealthy, our people will be unhealthy.
In terms of environmental sustainability, shifting to greater use of renewable biological resources while looking at new design is a good place to start. Under this circular economy framework, industry would be responsible for the post-consumer life of products. Assisting with disposal and manufacturing would include reuse of materials to create new products creating a closed loop. We must take it a step further and place greater focus on our bio-economy and how we can produce these same renewable biological resources and convert them and waste streams into value-added products such as bio-energy.
We could then continue talking about plastic pollution but not without acknowledging that a key to tackling this crisis falls under more effective waste management, starting with you as an individual at home or at work including a shift in behaviour. We must learn to manage the very waste that we produce rather than expecting that someone else will clean it up or that it simply disappears once thrown away. We must take responsibility for our surroundings. Would you empty all the garbage in your home and leave it strewn across the floor to live in? Well then, don’t do that on the road, in a gully, at the beach or in the sea. We must care for and respect our environment, the very place that supports us – there is no Planet B!
Putting a small dent in this large problem includes sorting and separation at source coupled with curbside recycling as we focus on waste diversion from the landfill. Recycling may be part of the solution but it’s not a first choice; it’s often a broken system, something that China, the end market for more than half of the world’s plastic and paper brought to light earlier this year by no longer accepting undesirable foreign garbage. This must be combined with increased fines and enforcement for littering and illegal dumping.
Minister of Maritime Affairs and the Blue Economy Kirk Humphrey recently announced a ban on the importation and retail of styrofoam and many single use plastic items from April 1, 2019. This topic is at the forefront of many conversations. What items will be banned? What will be the permitted alternatives? How much will both the ban and the alternatives cost? Are these being made locally or where are they coming from? What are they made of? What are the guidelines and standards surrounding these? How will they be disposed of – are they going to end up in the already crowded landfill? Or does our country need to look into using an industrial composting facility? Or would smaller composting facilities around the island be able to do the job and ensure that the alternative is being made into a valuable resource which could in turn lower our import bill? Or rather, should we be making alternatives to styrofoam food containers from banana leaves, sugar cane bagasse or cassava locally? What will be the impacts of the ban on the small man? What about those who currently recycle or are waste haulers? What will I use for my garbage bag? All of these questions and more are currently being discussed with relevant stakeholders and will be part of a national education campaign.
Can we avoid plastics altogether? Probably not, but we can first refuse and then reduce our use of not only plastics but all items. We must tackle the waste management issue using a multi-pronged, holistic and collaborative approach. We need to take a step back. Rethink. Redesign. Innovate.
As the world talks about and acts on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Barbados joins the fight against plastic pollution, what are you doing as an individual to play your part?
Here are some simple swaps to help you on this journey, whether you choose one and commit to it for seven days or do one each day for the week and beyond.
Seven Simple + Sustainable Swaps
Skip the single use:
1. Plastic supermarket bag
2. Styrofoam food container
4. Cup + lid
And choose reusable or carry your own instead!
If you have already done the above, why not take it a step further and follow the below tips for living with less plastic that are better for your health, that of the environment and maybe even your pocket too!
I am on this journey of being a more conscious consumer with you. Much of this involves looking at my lifestyle and eating better, exercising, reducing my waste, making small changes and realizing that I, too, am part of the problem.
Get involved with one of the many organizations or businesses educating and acting on health, food, sustainability, waste, plastic and oceans such as Slow Food Barbados or the Future Centre Trust.
Are you a restaurant, bar or business and looking to become more sustainable while receiving a certification badge for doing this? Join me as I partner with Oceanic Global to create The Oceanic Standard Barbados Edition and the TerraMar Project to provide sustainability guidelines for the hospitality industry.
Interested in sustainable living? Check out some of the items below that will help you to make the swap, currently available in Barbados for delivery and coming to a store near you soon!
Living sustainably is a journey. What is clear is that we cannot carry on as we are. We live in a world of mass consumption and mass disposability; patterns that are overwhelming the Earth. A better form of consumerism may not be the answer but it will help until we can fix the political and economic system.
What will you do today to make the switch to sustainable living and become a more conscious consumer? Will you be on the right side of change?
Nikola Simpson is a marine biologist and environmental consultant that is passionate about spreading awareness on the environment and oceans that support us! To find out more, connect with her: