Introduction

We’re increasingly worried about our effect on the environment and the sustainability of our actions on a global scale. At the individual level, although we might question whether we should engage in particular actions and activities, we might not be fully aware of their consequences. As a result, this blurring of how damaging a particular action is tends to limit the changes we make towards a sustainable living space for all.

Carbon footprint and Ecological footprint

The term ‘carbon footprint’ has been around since the early 1990s as a means of quantifying specific gas emissions into the atmosphere as a result of individual, organisation or community activities. A typical example at that time involved the burning of fossil fuels to satisfy a subset of human consumption demands.

Carbon footprint sprung from the broader ‘ecological footprint’ concept, a term used to roughly signify all land resources required to sustain a particular set of demands1. It categorises these resources as: carbon (mentioned already), built-up land, forest, cropland & pasture and fisheries.

Tracking footprints

Research increasingly shows how our actions affect the environment and natural resources, with many organisations tracking these effects.

Image of vegetation and barren ground side by side
Elizabeth Lies

For instance, the Global Footprint Network uses ecological footprint to seek improvement in national sustainability, provide ecological insights for policymakers and help individuals understand their impact on the environment2. One way they do this is by measuring the demands on and supply of nature at national level. Data showing the resources needed if the world’s population lived like the population of a particular country makes for interesting reading3.

In a similar vein, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) monitors threats to the environment and wildlife using ‘human footprint’, a term also based on the same categorisation above4.

Unfortunately, the effects don’t stop there. Research conducted by the Netherlands Institute for Applied Scientific Research in conjunction with the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency goes beyond these resource-based footprints to ‘damage footprints’. They consider the effects of our activities on human health and biodiversity (a measure of ecosystem health) too5.

So, while the question might be ‘How can I reduce my carbon footprint’ or even ‘How can I reduce my ecological footprint, a broader awareness might simply be:

How can I move towards a sustainable footprint?

How One Person can make a Difference

The Irish Writers Centre (Dublin, Ireland) recently invited submissions for a ‘Writing for a change’ competition6. The topic: climate change. Climate change is just one of the issues under the broader sustainability umbrella.

A search online for #sustainability, or any of the myriad related hashtags, returns a vast wealth of information on the subject. A random sample shows:

  • France’s advancement in food sustainability7
  • A Japanese village’s aspiration to become waste free8
  • A Netherlands retailer making inroads into offering plastic-free shopping aisles9

Each of these began with a single action. These worldwide projects show the innovative ways people can make a difference, but on a global scale, we’re not doing enough. Without a similar local target to partake in or aim for, it’s easy to succumb to disillusionment and not take individual action at all.

Image of tons of discarded rubbish in what otherwise would be a picturesque scene
Antoine Giret

Waiting for an action plan at organisation, community, national or international level is no longer a viable option. There is nothing stopping any individual from making improvements now. When it’s difficult to start something or see how individual change could ever make a difference, starting small is one way to overcome this reluctance to act.

What can we change?

Cue the slogan:

1-step, 1-cup, 1-spoon, 1-thought

A change in one step, one cup, one spoon or one thought would be a significant force if everyone capable of making a change takes action.

The categories are broad in reach:

  • 1-step: related to our exercise regimes and improving healthy habits
  • 1-cup: related to our liquid intake or use and the sustainability of resources required to get those liquids into our hands
  • 1-spoon: related to our food intake and the sustainability of resources required to get that food into our hands
  • 1-thought: a catch-all related to how we think about our consumption wants and needs, health, waste, recycling etc.

Start Small

It’s well known the first step is often the hardest, but once taken, small steps inspire habits and habits breathe change. Therefore, any individual can decide on an incremental action in one or more of the categories mentioned, one to which they can commit. The action can be as small as necessary to make the first change towards reducing your footprint.

For example:

  • 1-step:
    • Walk 100 metres extra this week
    • Next week, walk an extra 200 metres
    • The following week, walk an extra 300 metres

Develop the Habit

Once you’ve started and a habit is beginning to form, continue adding the incremental change every week. Persist with this until you reach your limit (perhaps you cannot spend any more time exercising, or cannot go beyond a certain distance etc.). Adding just 100 metres extra per week, one person would reach 5 kilometres within one year.

Furthermore, as there are close to 500 million 15-64 year-olds in Europe, results quickly reach significant proportions . Even a collective 1 kilometre (on average) increase in exercise habits, would result in a walk to the sun and back per week. The knock-on health effect would be significant.

Similarly, food waste reduction, plastic packaging improvements, recycling efforts, energy reduction, or any other sustainable practice, would be significantly impacted by collective change.

Image of water being wasted from a running tap
Imani

Even something as trivial as turning off a running tap when you are brushing your teeth would help.

What does it take to start?

1-step, 1-cup, 1-spoon, 1-thought

The Power of One Person and Collective Change

There are thousands of possible changes that can be made. Numbers quickly take on interesting proportions when you total the potential average collective effort.

 A sample set is listed below:

1-step

  • Increase in yoga practice in the first week (there are simple exercises that can be performed at home): 15 minutes, incrementing by 5 minutes per week. A sample upper limit might be 1 hour per week
  • Increase in running exercise: 100 metres, incrementing by 100 metres per week. A sample upper limit might be 5 kilometres

If 500 million people take the same actions, that’s about eight trips to the sun and back per week.

image of a girl running among grass, flowers, shrubs and trees
Nine Köpfer

Not getting enough exercise is one of the top ten health concerns. Globally, one in four adults aren’t sufficiently active, while an earlier study shows four in five adolescents aren’t sufficiently active10.

1-cup

  • Reduction in time spent in the shower in the first week: 1 minute

This equates to approximately 10 litres per shower, or roughly 50 litres per week.

On average, 144 litres of water per person per day is supplied to households in Europe11. A one minute reduction in shower time would reduce water usage by 7%.

  • Reduction in plastic littering: recycle one plastic water bottle per week

Globally, one million plastic bottles are bought per minute12. 90% of these bottles (and plastic in general) are not recycled and end up as litter13.

Image of a discarded plastic bottle
Brian Yurasits

Assuming the average plastic water bottle is 500ml, 23% of European plastic water bottles would be recycled by this ‘one bottle per week’ action using average European usage statistics14.

1-spoon

  • Reduction in food waste: focus initially on one specific food type, incrementing by one further type per week. Within a few months, one complete food category, such as vegetables, could be monitored and wastage reduced

A third of all food produced globally is wasted. One in seven people are hungry. Globally, 800 million people are undernourished and do not have enough food to lead a healthy life15.

  • Replacing unhealthy foods: replace one spoonful of processed food with a healthier alternative. Within a few weeks, this could become one snack or one meal. Use nutritional labels to help determine how healthy food is
Image of a plate filled with beef burger, onion rings and fries
Arteum.ro

Nearly 2 billion adults worldwide are overweight. About one third of these are obese. 40 million children under the age of 5 are obese16.

1-thought

  • Reduction in non-essential car trips: bundling of recycling trips into one journey per month to cover the different recycling shops, centres and banks, conserving energy in the process
  • A family member’s clothes that no longer fit and hang unused could be sent to a local charity shop
  • A switch in a utility company’s communication method would conserve the paper used previously
  • Introduction of new ideas that affect product demand, such as product footprint labels

These and many others can be started by simple actions that take:

  • 1 minute per day
  • 2 minutes per week
  • 1 cupful or 1 spoonful per week
  • 1 thought per month.

That’s less than the time it took to read this article or a very small percentage of your liquid or food intake.

Conclusion

Image of closeup of new green vegetation growth
Bruno Soares

The manner in which we live today is not sustainable. People are worried their children and grandchildren will have to bear the consequences of our actions.

Consequently, any positive action, no matter how small, is better than no action at all. These individual actions can and will make a difference. The real power comes from our collective effort.

Start your actions today.


References

1 https://journals.sagepub.com/toc/eaua/4/2 (Ecological footprints and appropriated carrying capacity: what urban economics leaves out; William E. Rees. First Published Oct 1, 1992; pp. 121–130)

2https://www.footprintnetwork.org/our-work/ecological-footprint/

3https://www.footprintnetwork.org/

4https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/the-human-footprint

5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5463270/

6https://irishwriterscentre.ie/products/writing-for-a-change-flash-fiction-competition (This competition ran in partnership with the National Botanic Gardens (Dublin) and the Five Lamps Arts Festival (also in Dublin).)

7https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/11/france-is-most-food-sustainable-country-u-s-and-u-k-faltering

8https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/the-inspiring-thing-that-happened-when-a-japanese-village-went-almost-waste-free

9https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-europe-43270605/world-s-first-plastic-free-aisle-opens-in-netherlands

10https://www.who.int/gho/ncd/risk_factors/physical_activity/en/

11https://www.eea.europa.eu/signals/signals-2018-content-list/articles/water-use-in-europe-2014

12https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2017/07/26/million-plastic-bottles-minute-91-not-recycled/

13https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/

14https://www.statista.com/statistics/455422/bottled-water-consumption-in-europe-per-capita/

15https://www.foodaidfoundation.org/world-hunger-statistics.html

16https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight

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