I've been asked a lot more and thus talking a lot more about sustainability recently, and so I want to cover the topic in more depth and share the fundamentals of my own sustainability efforts.
Living in the World that we do, and in the state that it is, it is nearly impossible to live sustainably 100% of the time. This is something I have trouble coming to terms with, as, despite my best efforts, there are always things on which I could improve or wish I could avoid. However, the reality is, unless we retreat to the countryside or relocate to the jungle and live as completely self-sufficient beings, in self-built homes, wearing self-made clothes and eating self-grown produce, we're never going to be as sustainable or eco-friendly as we'd like to be. Things have simply gone too far.
In centuries gone by, we were doing pretty good, but with the introduction of all kinds of technology, we discovered ways to make things much easier for ourselves, and apparently either didn't fully understand or didn't care enough about the consequences these things would have on our environment, experiences and ultimately our evolution. We live in an age where we can have what we want, whenever we want it. This of course has its benefits and is a wonderful way to live, but it doesn't come without its side effects. We have become complacent, much lazier and are producing far more things and far more waste than ever before. We are consuming more than we need to, and the processes involved in the mass-production required to meet our constant needs and demands are often highly toxic, unethical and unsustainable; affecting the environment and the state of our land, our air, our oceans and our ecosystem, along with the welfare of people involved in production and the welfare of us, as consumers of lower quality products (especially when it comes to food).
I dream of a time when - although tougher and of course less luxurious - people had limits. A time when people would grow their own foods or buy from local suppliers and accept that when something wasn't available, they could go without. A time when clothes were made better and, although more expensive, would be more of a luxury or in some ways, more meaningful. If you didn't like something enough, you wouldn't buy it, or if you couldn't find something you liked, you could take the time to make something yourself. This time I dream of seemed much simpler. Alright, we didn't have half the things we depend on and enjoy most in the modern day, but we got by just fine without them, and our environment suffered considerably less. There were less products, less advertising for things we don't really need, and less options. We made do with what we had, and that was enough. Chances are, we were happier too. Some of the poorest countries and cultures I have experienced are some of the happiest, and I am passionate about finding ways to simplify our modern lives so we can live with less, do less and enjoy ourselves, our time and our planet more.
Whilst I am no saint when it comes to sustainability, I try to live as naturally and consciously as possible. In making several sacrifices and taking time to discover ways to swap modern essentials for more natural necessities, I am doing my bits, however small they may be.
Modern-day materials and more eco-friendly alternatives
To me, beyond just generally consuming and buying less, the materials involved in the things I do buy are of major importance to me. In general, a non-biodegradable material is anything that air, sunlight, water, and ground soil cannot break down. There are many manufactured / synthetic materials which are non-biodegradable, but are favoured for being cheaper and easier and quicker to produce. Of those, plastic and cotton most commonly come under widespread scrutiny. Here's a few flash notes on why, and some more eco-friendly and sustainable suggestions.
Plastic uses gallons of water to produce. It takes more water to produce a plastic bottle than the amount of water that it in it.
Plastic, if not recycled and reused, takes years to decompose and biodegrade. Once you throw away something made of plastic, it will sit in landfill or end up in the Oceans, killing the sea life by polluting their habitats, getting ingested or physically harming them in other ways. There is a figure floating around (excuse the pun) that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. I'm not sure how they can determine this or how likely it is, but I'd say its enough to make you think twice about using so much plastic, and about how you dispose of it.
The process of making plastic (which is made of polypropylene - a material composed of petroleum and gas) requires lots of energy, involves non-renewable fossil fuels and contributes to the level of greenhouse gases in the environment.
Cotton is another concern. It requires a lot of water to produce, and is commonly heavily treated with pesticides, unless organic.
Paper. We all know what's happening to the rainforests. Although it biodegrades, and is easier to recycle, paper still requires a lot of water and wood to produce, and our rainforests can't grow fast enough to keep up with the demand.
There are plenty of other materials - such as styrofoam, polyester, cans and tins, rubber, nylon, cellophane to name a few - that we should also be conscious about using, and serious about cutting down on.
So, what's good?
Other plants, such as bamboo, are generally more sustainable, renewable and more efficient options. Bamboo doesn't require any pesticides, and it is self-replenishing. 1/3 of the amount of water is needed to grow bamboo than is required to grow cotton. 1 acre of bamboo yields 10 times more than 1 acre of cotton. Bamboo is also much more absorbent than cotton and is stronger, meaning its more efficient in serving the purposes we tend to use cotton for.
Bamboo can be used in a solid form to replace plastic, and its fibres can also be used in fabrics and materials for things like clothes, furniture, packaging and more.
Organic cotton is also better than standard cotton, as there is no use of pesticides or other chemicals in the production process. It is cleaner, and better for the environment, but it still uses a lot of water, energy and labour to produce. If un-dyed, cotton biodegrades, which is why its best to buy organic as it is safer and cleaner to biodegrade.
Plant fibres such as hemp, flax, coconut (coir), sisal, jute, silk/wild/peace silk, pineapple (Piñatex), beech tree (modal) and many more make really great alternatives to cotton and can be used to make things like clothes, shoes, furniture and other materials. I also love tencel which is made from wood pulp fibres.
Linen is one of the most biodegradable fabrics used in fashion items. Try to buy it un-dyed as it is fully biodegradable that way.
Using recycled materials is also good, but it does require a lot of energy, especially up-cycling things like plastic. With clothing, buying second-hand and customising or altering something is a great way to give new life to unwanted clothes.
Obviously, to be 100% sustainable, you would have to stop buying things all together. Even these natural fibres will contribute in some way to pollution through processing and will eventually end up as waste, but the good thing is they will biodegrade much more efficiently. Things made with natural fibres tend to cost more too; you are ultimately paying that little bit extra for more careful and ethical practices, for better quality clothes and to support smaller businesses and their authentic morals.