You think you’re helping but you’re not

With the erosion of the Australian coastline and the increasing severity of bushfires, it’s no wonder that 80 per cent of Aussies believe that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Over the past decade, environmentalism as moved from the realm of the ‘hippy-dippy’ into the mainstream, with many Australians trying to make the ‘right choice’ for the planet.

Despite all the concern and good intentions, however, many people are falling prey to these sustainability mistakes.  

Cotton shopping bags
In today’s day and age, single use plastics can be equated to the boogie man – and for good reason. Plastic Oceans estimates that 50 per cent of all plastic is produced for single-use purposes. Each year an estimated 100,000 marine animals die from ingesting or suffocating on a plastic bag, and by 2050 there is expected to be more plastic in the oceans than fish.

While major supermarkets may have given the boot to single-use plastic bags – a big win for the planet – we’re not out of the woods yet. Many people have purchased cotton reusable shopping bags as replacements, but too few of us consider the environmental impact of their production. While plastic bags are harmful to the planet at all stages of their lifecycle and require a huge amount of petroleum to be made, cotton bags produce 606 times as much water pollution during production. In fact, you’ll need to consistently use your cotton bag for 11.5 years to offset the water pollution costs of their production.

Further research has confirmed that canvas and cotton bags are more environmentally costly than plastic bags in terms of water and air contamination as they require more resources to produce and distribute.

Does this mean we should bring back the era of the plastic bag? No. What it does mean is that we must consider the environmental costs of more items, not only those that scream ‘let me kill a dolphin’. Use what you’ve already got – whether it be cotton or plastic – and if you require more, try to source them second hand or reuse brown paper bags.

Buying ‘biodegradable’
For big business, money comes first. Greenwashing products to lure in customers is nothing new, it’s just ramping up in scope and scale as sustainability becomes one of our highest priorities. You’ve probably seen the label ‘biodegradable’ slapped on all kinds of products, but it probably doesn’t mean what you think it does.

Biodegradable plastics are those that are broken down when exposed to microorganisms. But rather than disappearing – as manufacturers would have you believe – plastics simply break down into smaller components to wreak havoc at lower levels of the food chain.

It’s no surprise that we’re consuming more pollution and plastics in our diets than ever before. In fact, we are estimated to consume five grams of plastic – the equivalent of one credit card – every week.

Crushing beers cans
Most drink cans are made from aluminium, the mining of which produces toxic by-products. Luckily, aluminium is completely recyclable – when done properly.

We’ve all done it, crushed our beer or soda cans to make more space in our recycling bin. But doing so can make the cans unrecognisable to the sorting machines used in many recycling plants, meaning they are wrongly categorised and go unrecycled.

There is also the problem of ‘aspirational recycling’, when eco-minded people put things in the recycling bin that they think should be recyclable but aren’t. When we put things such as single-use coffee cups, shampoo bottles or yoghurt tubs into the recycling, this can contaminate recyclable items, or interfere with their identification process, meaning that they, too, get thrown away as waste.

Buying eco products
So, you’ve seen a bamboo toothbrush, shampoo bars, hemp shirts and reusable laundry nuts instore and you’re biting at the bit to do the right thing for the environment. But calm down your inner eco warrior, because pouncing on these products could be contributing to the problem.

The old mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ focuses far too heavily on the latter two, partly because they make us feel as though we are doing something good, and because they allow large companies to continue to benefit from mass consumerism. The ‘reduce’ element, however, may be the most important part of the process.

Rather than purchasing more products, which have an environmental cost to manufacture, focus on using what you already have. Only when your products and belongings have reached the end of their lifespan should you consider researching and purchasing the most environmentally friendly replacement.

Have you committed any of these sustainability missteps? What changes have you made in your everyday life to help out the planet? Do you have any eco tips to share with other readers?

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Liv Gardiner
Liv Gardiner
Writer and editor with interests in travel, lifestyle, health, wellbeing, astrology and the enivornment.
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