Illustrations by Chanelle Nibbelink
It’s safe to say that nearly everyone wants to impact change in the world. Unfortunately, it can be disheartening to realize that in the grand scheme of things, your efforts may not be as effective as you had hoped. For example, National Geographic estimates that 91 percent of the items placed in recycling bins end up being tossed by facilities, either due to program restrictions or because the items are soiled.
But don’t despair that your acts of kindness are failing. The trick is to focus on accessible and impactful ways to make a difference by selecting organizations and actions that have the most potent results. That way, every dollar you spend and every minute you devote to do-gooding has the biggest ripple effect possible.
Ready to earn your status as Armchair Advocate? We’ve compiled a few simple ways you can help spark a revolution on a local and global scale.
Revamp Your Recycling
You’ve likely been separating your garbage from your recyclables since you were young, intentionally or not. (Who doesn’t remember making paper roll puppets as a kid?) But many still don’t know the proper way to utilize the blue bin, making their environmentally conscious actions null and void.
The simplest thing to do is rinse all items that enter your blue bin, since food residue can contaminate not only your recycling, but all the other items it comes into contact with. If you need to leave a jar of stubborn peanut butter soaking overnight, do it, and if you can’t remove most of the debris, toss it in the trash—one jar not making it to the recycling plant is better than the alternative.
Another easy solution? Become familiar with what types of plastics are accepted in your area’s recycling program. Most cities and regions post this information on their websites. Print it out and post it prominently near your bin, and make sure others in your household are aware of the restrictions.You can also find creative ways to reuse sturdy plastic and glass containers; The Purposeful Pantry is just one site that has a list of interesting (and cute!) ways to upcycle Mason jars. Or you can reach out to your local daycare, library, or kindergarten class to see if they accept any items for craft time. Think about it: those empty yogurt containers might find new life as a pot for seedlings, or an adorable Mother’s Day gift!
Explore Your Hometown
Lockdowns across the country have had most of us itching to experience all the world has to offer, at the first possible chance. Who hasn’t gotten as far as the checkout page on Expedia before aborting mission?
Whether or not travel restrictions are confining you to your neighborhood, staying local is not only great for your regional economy, but it can also give you a whole new perspective on the potential of the businesses and programs in your own backyard.
“Local arts, restaurants, events, and other aspects of our local cultures are really important,” says Mark Brennan Jr., a sociology and education professor at Penn State University who has conducted studies on community development. “Even if we don't want to admit it, these things are incredibly important to our identity, the ways we get through life, and the things we hold dear.”
Locally owned restaurants and their staff need your support the most. The National Restaurant Association’s “State of the Restaurant Industry” report noted that at the end of last year, 110,000 restaurants and bars were closed, either temporarily or for good, and an estimated eight million employees were laid off or lost their jobs altogether.
As Brennan points out, even though the pandemic may have many of us going stir-crazy, staying close to home can have mental health benefits.
“The vast majority of our existence takes place within five to 10 miles of where we lay our head to sleep at night,” he notes. “But it’s still incredibly easy to get caught up in the backdrop of national and international politics.” Shifting your focus back to your community can help give you a sense of purpose and remove some of the stress caused by the unending news cycle. Plus, the positive results of your efforts, whether you’re supporting local stores or joining in a community event, provide instant gratification.
Build a Better Wardrobe
Sure, it’s exciting to get the latest fashion trends at the peak of their popularity for pennies on the dollar. The problem is that your purchase at “fast fashion” conglomerates can have lasting effects on the environment. “Most apparel today is sold by huge companies with a business model built around producing high volumes of product at low prices that are worn for short periods of time,” says Elizabeth L. Cline, author of The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good. “And even luxury products are worn and tossed aside at faster and faster speeds.”
Clothing and textile production is responsible for eight percent of the world’s carbon emissions, and one garbage truck of clothing enters a landfill every second, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. And all those cheap buys that make you look like a million bucks can cause harm when it comes to human rights. “The clothing industry has long been a key employer of women, but it also has high rates of forced labor, child labor, and low wages, which is inexcusable, especially in an industry so profitable,” Cline notes.
Of course, shopping secondhand or at consignment stores is a great way to make already-manufactured clothing go the extra mile. But if you must buy new, there is a growing number of companies that put sustainability at the forefront of their business model; Cline points to Eileen Fisher, Mara Hoffman, Oak & Acorn, and Nisolo, a brand that aims to produce clothing by using factories that provide their employees with living wages. Mainstream companies like Converse and Patagonia are also hopping on the bandwagon, introducing lines that use up-cycled materials.