Going green shouldn’t be this hard

October 21, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs

Okay, so I try to recycle. I’ve got my grocery tote bag. I even have solar panels on my roof. But in the back of my mind, I can’t help
thinking: Does any of this actually make a difference
when it comes to climate change? If you read the headlines, you quickly begin
to see that climate change is a massive problem. So is my reusable bag really going to change
the world? But not everyone feels that way. This is all of my trash from the past four
years… Oh, my god. This is Lauren Singer. She runs a website where she gives tips and
answers questions about living a zero-waste life. Okay, so you’ve got tiny little ends and
bits and things… Yeah. Are you really telling me that everything
else that you use for four years— Is— You’ve found some other use for? Totally, is compostable, infinitely reusable,
or 100% easily recyclable. You may look at the extremely eco-friendly
way Lauren is living and find it inspiring. Or maybe, like me, you’re totally skeptical. But a lot of what she’s doing is actually
pretty simple. When she wants coffee, she brings her own
cup. Or let’s say she wants to buy a pastry;
she’ll put it into a reusable cotton bag. A safety razor instead of plastic ones. There’s all this disposable stuff in our
lives that we’re not even thinking about. And what Lauren’s done is find some easy
substitutes. Everything else ends up in the jar. This is macaroni-and-cheese packaging, and
this was, like, four years ago, right when I started. That was, that was my weekend at Dad’s house. So these are… Oh, I know what these are. Plastic straws… Hot chocolate. This was a bad day, wasn’t it, for you? No, actually someone sent that to me in the
mail. These aren’t huge trash problems. The EPA isn’t up in arms about plastic straws. But you can see how these little bits of waste
can really add up. The United States is the No. 1 trash-producing
country in the world. If every country lived like the US, we’d
need over four Earths to make all the stuff we consume. Do you think little things make a big difference? Totally. If you reduce single-use coffee cups from
your routine and you’re a daily coffee drinker, that’s 365 cups per year. That’s not an insignificant change. If every single person did that, that’s a massive shift toward a more sustainable
future. And good policy can encourage this kind of
shift. Take plastic bags. Americans throw away about 100 billion a year. But California is trying to change this. Three communities have found that if you offer
a plastic bag for free, 75 percent of people will take it. But if you charge 10 cents for a bag, only
16 percent take it. It’s subtle, but this small fee makes people
question whether they really need a bag. And it reminds people to bring their own. Communities across the country are beginning
to adopt this policy, and it could create a large-scale shift. If New York City had a bag fee, we could save
roughly 7 billion plastic bags a year. And without good policy, it can be really
hard to do the right thing. Take recycling: In a place like Missoula,
Montana, where I live, you can’t recycle glass because doing so, it turns out, costs
my city too much. I think this is a fundamental flaw of governments
and their relationship with businesses. Businesses aren’t held accountable for products
that they’re putting into the waste stream. So they’re allowed to sell glass in Montana,
where there’s no adequate recycling, and completely wipe their hands free and not have to subsidize any infrastructure
to adequately recycle their product. So that responsibility for disposing of that
product falls on you, as a resident and the government. That is completely unfair. The funny thing is, we used to have a really
great system for dealing with glass. After you were done with a bottle, you would
just return it. Companies would clean it and use it again
and again. Around the 1950s, companies began experimenting
with single-use bottles and cans. Lots of other things became single use too. Like Don Draper here, people were just tossing
their garbage wherever. And all this trash started to annoy people. Do you remember that very famous commercial? Of this Native American, he’s, like, going down a river and there’s
all this waste, and a tear goes down. People start pollution; people can stop it. And it’s often credited for quote unquote
“cleaning up America” because we were reminded that we need to pick
up our trash. You see this commercial every Earth Day, but
it was actually funded by a group of companies — many of them from the can and bottle industry. They were worried that states would ban their
single-use products because people were getting sick of all the trash. So they created this incredible ad, which
is very powerful, which made us pick up trash. Which is actually trash that they were creating… And selling to us… Yeah— And profiting off of— It actually shifted. That was the moment… I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t
pick up trash. But as far as I can tell, it was the first
moment where we shifted this responsibility from the person selling to the person buying. That needs to change really quick. And once it does, we won’t even have to
talk about providing adequate recycling systems because
businesses will create products that are easily and conveniently recyclable
because it will make more economic sense for them if that burden is put on the business
instead of the consumer and the government. This gets to the heart of the matter. Climate change is a giant problem. We’re not going to solve it without government
and industry taking action. We live in this complicated web of carbon
emissions. I mean, every single thing we do as individuals
creates pollution. It’s overwhelming. But there’s one simple policy that could
make going green easier for all of us — and it could have an enormous impact:
We could put a price on carbon. Right now, companies can emit as much pollution
as they like. We’re basically treating our sky like a
giant sewer. As long as it’s free to pollute, no one’s going to stop doing it. You can’t just go out there and find one source
or one factory, one business, and shut it down and clean up your air. Everybody in a sense is part of the problem. If companies had to pay for the carbon they
produce, it would encourage better behavior. This is what California did in 2006. The state set a cap on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions and they lowered
it over the next few years. Companies could either reduce their pollution
or pay for carbon allowances. And so far, it’s worked. The state is on track to hit its 2020 goal — and they are looking to cut emissions
by another 40% by 2030. Now, California isn’t perfect, but this
is a huge reduction in emissions. It’s really larger than anything a person
could achieve on their own. The fears that were raised by opponents have
not come to pass. We’ve not seen an exodus of industries from
California or people unable to drive their cars. And as the state cut emissions, California’s
economy has actually grown by 12% — outpacing the national average. Going green at this scale isn’t an overnight
process. People like Mary Nichols have spent decades
fighting for better policies. We certainly have enjoyed a lot of political
support from all sides. I think that’s largely just because the public
in California has demanded that clean, healthy air is something that everybody ought
to have access to. So individual climate action does matter,
in the sense that it creates cultural change. When Lauren makes a video tutorial or shares
one of her zero-waste tips on Instagram, it has a social ripple effect. Do you want everyone to live the lifestyle
you’re living? I would never tell anyone how to live their
life. But I’d like to show everyone that there
are options. That the way that we’re told we have to
live in this hyper-consumeristic way isn’t the only way we have to live in order
to live in a modern world with modern luxuries. Folks like Lauren really help build the bottom-up
support you need for large-scale transformation. Look, climate policy can be complicated, and
sometimes it can be boring. But we need it to solve global warming. And to get better policies like a price on
carbon, you need to have public support. Because politicians and businesses won’t
take action unless people come together and demand it. So you may not be able to fit all your trash
into a Mason jar. But psychologists have been developing “green
nudges” that trick us into being more green. Want to know whether they are working their
magic on you? Visit to learn more.