Good Millennial Caring About the Environment
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
For the last couple of weeks, climate change is everywhere. It started in my mailbox: The Economist published their annual Climate Issue. It continued on Facebook: Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a sailing boat to attend the UN climate summit. It continued through the news and the call for a Global Climate Strike. It popped up on Reddit: People attended a monument unveiling at the site of Okjökull, Iceland’s first glacier lost to climate change. The commemorative plaque reads:
“A letter to the future. Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
Climate change is everywhere, and everyone seems to be talking about it. But behind the words, behind the pledges and public commitments, behind the protests, what is left?
Moving to North America would make anyone painfully aware that not much has changed. The contrast with Europe is sometimes flagrant.
In my opinion, Europe is pretty environment-friendly. At the minimum, efforts to tackle global warming can be witnessed everywhere. Most people recycle at home, have a compost in their garden, and like to grow their own food. People use public transport regularly. Single use plastic bags have been banned for years. Even driving and parking in cities is restricted to green(ish) cars only. More and more people are becoming vegetarian, or reducing their meat consumption. I started noticing this trend in the early 2010s, among university students. In the last couple of years, it is all I hear.
European Environmental Policy is also a popular topic at home and now abroad too, thanks to Greta Thunberg. The European Union (EU) is considered by some to have the most extensive environmental laws of any international organisation. For instance, they established the first Emission Trading Scheme, which is still to this day the biggest in the world. Just last year, Belgian high school students demonstrated for weeks in the capital asking our politicians to be much more ambitious in protecting the environment.
European youth is upset. Europeans in general seem to care. North Americans? Well, it depends who you are talking to.
I want to say I care about protecting the environment too. It is something I have always been conscious of. It started simple enough, but also in a crucial way. From early on, I considered biking to be an appropriate means of transportation. Wallonians - inhabitants from the French-speaking part of Belgium - like to use their cars a lot. My mum does too to an extent, but she’s also always been a huge fan of cycling - another big passion of Belgian people. Since I was a little girl, I have been on a bike.
I have not really lost the habit since. I cycled as an undergrad student in Maastricht, in the Netherlands, as an exchange student in Jyväskylä, in Finland and this last year in Brussels. Cycling is just so convenient, particularly in Belgium. It is usually much quicker than a car or public transportation.
What do I do now?
Nowadays, I am lucky enough to live in downtown Toronto, so I do not need to rely on a car. I actually almost never use public transport either. I have an annual pass for Bike Share Toronto. At $99 a year, you will struggle to find anything cheaper. The rest of the time, I walk. I will take a cab once every couple of weeks, usually if I am running late.
I recycle as well, but I would hope by now, it has become the norm for most people. It is the easiest part of being environmentally friendly. All you need to do is to check the requirements from your local city council, and buy a couple of different bins. The recycling system they put in place in my condo building is not ideal, but at least we have one. Trash is divided between organic, plastic and aluminium, glass, cardboard, and the rest.
They could do more by implementing a system similar to what we have in Belgium. Local councils distribute a fixed number of trash bags to all households. The number will depend on a household's composition. The city will only collect trash that are in those bags. If a household throws away more trash than what has been allocated by the city council, they can go and buy additional ones for a hefty price. The system rests on a simple principle: pollute and you will pay.
My household has also embraced the reusable trend. Funnily enough, we do not have any glasses. We have so many reusable cups and bottles that we never felt the need to buy some. We use a water filter tank rather than buying plastic bottles. We generally do not drink sodas either so we rarely get rid of cans. It might seem daunting to some, but it is mostly a question of habits. We drink tea whenever we crave a tasty drink, coffee because that is life, beer and wine in the evening, and water the rest of the time. We have also invested - and invested is a big word, as I believe we paid $6 - in reusable metal straws. We each have one on us at all times, ready to use whenever we decide to get coffee on the go.
We have reusable grocery bags, and we have become quite good at not forgetting them at home! At the grocery store, I do not use the plastic bags available for fruits and vegetables either. This is an important step that I had not thought of before - what is the point of you using reusable bags if you consistently take five to six individual plastic bags from the produce section? I do not know about you, but I clean my fruits and vegetables before eating them, so no, I do not mind that they might touch the conveyor belt - I mean, they grew out of the ground, and that cannot be much cleaner.
In the realm of reusable products, I recently read an article by National Geographic on ‘How tampons and pads became so unsustainable’. It was an interesting and highly informative read. Did you know that a woman menstruate for about 40 years, and will use between 5 and 15 thousand pads and tampons during that time? It blew my mind.
A friend of mine recommended the menstrual cup a couple of years ago, and I have been using one ever since. Recently, I have heard concerns being raised about their safety. I am no doctor, and I am sure that this solution might not work for everyone. But I am satisfied with mine. It takes a little bit of time to get used to and a tiny bit more organization, but barely. I always make sure I sanitize mine before and after every cycle. It might be that I have to change for reusable pads if the health concerns surrounding the cup are confirmed. What is important to know is that there are alternatives out there.
What else? Ohh, I know: water usage. I only take showers. Seriously. I probably take a bath once every six months or so. The only time I will take longer than five minutes under the shower is on Sunday when I wash my hair. I am sure my fellow girls with natural hair will understand the struggle. Another easy shift in the bathroom: I never use sprays. I was told years ago that deodorant and other products that come from sprays seriously harm the ozone layer. I have only used sticks for years, and I do not think I became more smelly in the process!
What could I improve?
Takeout meals and drinks. I might use a metal straw, but the cup that holds my coffee is still made of plastic. Yes, even the Tim Horton’s/Starbucks paper cups have a plastic lining - how else would it hold liquid? I have reusable cups at home, but it is cumbersome to carry in a handbag. Clearly, I need a new and bigger handbag. Voilà!
Another area I would need to change is meat consumption. When I moved to England, I decided to stop buying meat. I would only eat meat if it was made for me, and sometimes at restaurants. I discovered a variety of ways to eat delicious and varied food, even on a vegetarian diet. I did so for a few years, but my habit changed when I moved to Canada. I still eat vegetarian meals for breakfast and lunch, but I have definitely increased my meat consumption in the evening. I have started working out a lot more, and I was struggling to meet the required amount of protein my body craved. My partner is also a big meat eater, and I grew tired of eating - and sometimes cooking! - different meals.
There are also other types of food I know I should avoid. I am obsessed with avocados. Did you not read how good of a Millennial I was? Unfortunately, I know my passion is unsustainable. Ontario is clearly not producing avocados. The negative impact of increased demand for food like avocados on the environment has been documented. I might not own a car, but my food is travelling thousands of miles to reach me. This is no good.
This change is just not so easy for me. I love food, and I love cooking. I also pay particular attention to nourish my body well. It can be a struggle to do so when your conception of healthy food is based on Instagram bloggers. One of my many flaws.
In addition, I travel a lot by plane. North America is just too big not to. My job also requires that I go across the country a few times a year. I have at least tried and taken the train whenever possible, including the five-hour trip between Toronto and Montreal. Even then, my family is based in Belgium. We try and see each other twice a year, but to be honest, I would do it more if I had the money.
Finally, another sector I have just started paying attention to are beauty products, cleaning products and the chemicals that are being used to produce them. I have not made the shift yet, partly because I am still a novice in the area, but also because it will require a significant budget to buy chemical-free products. This is however an area to be explored to create more sustainable habits.
I am not perfect, and there is room for improvement. Those conversations happen frequently in my household. But I truly believe it is the only way forward. It won’t happen overnight, but every little step counts.
So tell me. What do you do to contribute? Is there something I have not mentioned, but I must adopt? Comment below.