The vile 12 months of 2020 are over and a lot of things are already on track to change in 2021. For instance, a vaccine for the deadly pandemic is rolling out and a new president (for better or worse) is taking office. But things that won't change unless people decide to modify their behaviors, are the calamities caused by climate change.
In Cincinnati, it may be hard to feel connected to 2020's unprecedented wildfires in Australia or deadly flooding in China. But collectively, experts say the choices made in all communities matter, and there's a lot people can do on micro and macro levels to contribute to solving global problems.
Find Your Five
At the Simply Zero shop in Over-the-Rhine, there's an array of beeswax wrap, reusable water bottles, stainless steel straws and other eco-conscious items for sale. It's also a refillery, where people can refill shampoo, body wash, and conditioner bottles from a bulk supply.
Founder Rachel Felous opened the store in early December. She says people wanting to make greener choices in 2021 need to first understand what kind of waste they're producing. The way to do that, she says, is by doing a trash audit — that means going through a full trash bag to see what's getting thrown away and where you can make an informed swap.
"What are the top five things that are dominating my waste bin? For some people that might be paper towels, it might be food waste ... it could be plastic straws, it could be Styrofoam takeout containers. It really depends on the person," she said. "But from that trash audit, you can really kind of get a glimpse of ... what kind of waste you're producing on a weekly basis, and then use that to make an informed plan in your first areas to swap."
For Felous, that was coffee cups from Starbucks and local shops. So she decided to make a cheap, easy swap.
"I just took a mason jar from my pantry and took it to the coffee shop and started getting my drinks, hot or cold, in my Mason jar," she said, adding that she immediately saw a huge difference in the amount of trash she was making.
Then she noticed she was creating a lot of waste from food packaging and switched to taking her own bags or jars to the store and buying in bulk.
She said by committing to a step-by-step process of slowly making changes, it made it more practical to stick to her commitment.
"My other big recommendation is just to start small, and choose one or two things to tackle first because a lifestyle is all about creating new habits. And so to try and do it all at once is just going to lead to burnout, or really just lead to overwhelm. And when we get burned out or overwhelmed, it's really easy for us to just give up," she said.
Felous says that also means making sure being eco-conscious isn't an insular activity. For instance, she has a micro-blog on Instagram and does community awareness and educational talks. As the threats from COVID-19 begin to subside in the coming months, she wants to see her store become a place to connect with others who are interested in the lifestyle and want to come together to create a more sustainable community.
Because if small personal changes are the first step to becoming more eco-conscious, community action is the second step.
COVID-19 And The Environment
In an unintended upside of COVID-19 shutdowns in cities across the globe, environmental scientists have been able to see what the world would look like if most people just stayed home.
The results are decreased tailpipe emissions, fewer fossil fuels burned and reduction in pollution in some major countries, The New York Times reports.
Bob Hyland, associate English professor at the University of Cincinnati, says some of that data shows how big, collective changes have big effects.
"I think that if we're going to make sustainable, lasting impact, we need to do it at the systems level," he said. "I think what COVID has shown us is it requires a systems level behavioral shift."
For instance, if someone resolves to ride their bike to work twice a week in 2021 and work from home twice a week, he says those kind of decisions add up. But making the choice to cycle to work only works if there's infrastructure to support it.
"It takes many individuals to make up a system," he said. "And so I think if one resolves in 2021, to bike to work rather than drive to work, I think a nice companion systems level resolution would be to also then seek to attend four meetings — community council meetings or committee meetings — at City Hall in 2021, to advocate for the type of city infrastructure that we're going to need so that people want to ride their bike to work, so that they feel safe riding their bike to work."
Hyland also teaches environmental writing at UC, and something he teaches his students is to pair with local organizations or nonprofits already doing the work they're interested in pursuing.
Hyland says Preserve Burnet Woods is an example of a local group's multi-faceted work.
He said about 33 volunteers recently worked to clear invasive species from the woods to help increase the tree canopy in the area, which in turn addresses urban heat spots that disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities.
"So even volunteering for half a day on Saturday to free an urban green space like Burnett Woods of invasive species would be a huge impact and collective impact. So if we have 30 individuals in there, it makes a difference," he said.