Last week-end, a naturopathic medical student from Bastyr University-California organized a beach clean-up in Cardiff. After the group collected more than 55 pounds of trash from the beach, the student (Kendall Smith) led a powerful panel discussion including experts in sustainability & oceanic endangered species (Chef Rob Ruiz of The Land & Water Company), climate change (Dr. Bruce Bekkar of Surfrider Foundation), conservation & wilderness preservation (Kyle Gunderman of American Conservation Experience), beach clean-ups (Lorenzo Diaz of H2O Trash Patrol), and me. The focus of our discussion was on one basic question: how do our every day lifestyle choices affect the environment?
After the discussion, most people asked: “What can I do?” Probably the most important thing that we all can do is to educate ourselves and make efforts to live a life that is less damaging to the environment. Every day. In every way that we can. Second, support and promote restaurants, stores, and other organizations that are less damaging to the environment.
Here are some of the more important choices you can make to improve the health of you, your family, and the environment:
Number 1: Eat less meat and meat products. And, be more conscious about the meat you do eat.
This is first on most lists for many reasons, including findings that animal production:
Requires significant water consumption (~1800 gallons/pound of beef, enough to shower every day for 3 months),
Is a large source of greenhouse gases (nearly 1/5 of greenhouse gases are produced through animal production), and
Uses massive amounts of land (about 30% of non-ice covered land in the world is currently dedicated to feeding and producing animals to eat).
In total, researchers out of the UK reported meat eaters have twice the total carbon footprint as vegans.
Not eating meat is good for your health also. Eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies seems to lower the risk of some cancers. Vegetarians are much less likely to die of heart disease (heart disease is still the #1 cause of death in the US). They are also less likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes. Cholesterol (total & LDL), blood pressure, and body mass index (BMI) is more than likely lower in vegetarians when compared to meat eaters. (1)
Some of you reading this are already eating a largely plant-based diet. Fantastic. Everyone else, please be nice to those of us that prefer to eat mostly plants. We really aren’t just trying to complicate your BBQ. Promise. You might even venture to the end of the menu with us to find the vegetarian options. It really isn’t that scary. Promise. If you want to learn more, Forks over Knives has a great article discussing why many Americans are eating less meat along with tips for getting started.
When you do eat meat, choose meat that has been consciously produced: free range, grass-fed/finished, organic, hormone-free, locally-raised. It seems to do less damage to you and the environment. The Environmental Working Group has a great site called The Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change & Health, if you want some more information.
Most research seems to suggest that responsibly sourced fish may also be a part of a healthy diet. The difficulty is that not all fishes are created equal. Some are delicious and some are vicious. Some can also be quite damaging to you and the environment through over-fishing, waste from fish farms, and fishing practices that harm endangered species. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium has a program called Seafood Watch that educates about sustainable fishing efforts, plus they have a helpful app for choosing fish more consciously.
Number 2: Eat local and organic.
California produces an estimated half of all fruits, veggies, nuts, and other produce in the US. Still, the National Resources Defense Council (NDRC) estimates that in California food imports are responsible for the same amount of greenhouse gases as two power plants. (2) “Food miles” is a concept used to define how far our food travels. While this is not a complete measurement of the impact of food production, it does allow some perspective. Fresh produce travels on average 1,500 miles throughout its lifecycle. This would almost get you to New Orleans!
Yesterday, I was looking at cucumbers at Sprouts, I make an easy hummus that is especially delicious with crisp cucumbers. The underbelly of this humble organic cucumber proudly boasted a sticker claiming “Made in Spain”. Seriously folks, a cucumber grown in Spain to be sold in Southern California? Completely unnecessary. The celery and carrots are just fine this week.
The approximately 75 million pounds of pesticides used by Americans annually have to go somewhere. Most of this gets into all of our bodies somehow: directly through eating the food, drinking water or eating fishes that have been contaminated by the run-off from nearby farms, or breathing pollutants in the air.
Studies have linked pesticide exposure to reproductive abnormalities, altered immune function, decreased IQ, cancer, and reproductive abnormalities to name just a few. (3) Consuming pesticides doesn’t just harm us and the environment, a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group found that organophosphates and other common pesticides were found in human umbilical cord blood. Meaning, we are also passing these pesticides on to our children.
The Environmental Working Group has great resources on avoiding pesticides in our diet, including their famous Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen. These guides are particularly helpful for those shopping on a budget. San Diego also has a ton of farmers’ markets throughout the county and many Community-Supported Agriculture organizations, CSAs, to make eating local and organic a little easier.
Number 3: Drive less.
Transportation accounts for 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US. By taking public transportation instead of driving even a short work commute of 20-miles round-trip, you will reduce your carbon emissions by more than 4,800 pounds per year. It would take about 100 forty-year-old trees to consume this much CO2 every year.
Driving less will have provide some benefit to the environment. The real benefit will be to you though: improved health due to a more active lifestyle. The Federal Transit Administration also notes money savings and risk from accidents. Researchers presented findings last November of “lower risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and being overweight” in those that regularly used public transportation to commute to work. Those that walk about 30 minutes per day (just 6-9 miles per week) had less high blood pressure, high cholesterol, rates of Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, cognitive impairment/memory loss, depression, anxiety, and stress.
Number 4: Use less disposable packaging.
I work to give my opinions related to health only when asked. Really, I do. The other day, I just couldn’t help myself though. What can I say? #ndsmakethebestfriends ...
My friend was pouring a hot drink in to a plastic drinking cup. I created this delicately crafted story about how the warmth of his drink was causing more chemicals to leach into the tea he was about to consume. And how some of these chemicals, referred to as xenoestrogens, had been known to disrupt the hormone system. He is a smart man and it was obvious that he was considering this as he titled his head slightly. His eyes widened as we discussed how these hormone disruptors contributed to fertility issues, reproductive system cancers, altered sexual development (including sperm formation and prostate size), and increased body fat.
The NDRC outlines some of the environmental concerns with plastics:
Increased pollution: a plastic PET bottle emits more than 100 times the amount of toxins into the environment as a glass bottle the same size.
Most plastics are made of petroleum made from fossil fuels which require millions of years to form, causing these resources to be “non-renewable”.
Only about 7% of plastic is recycled annually, and most of this incorrectly. San Diego Department of Public Works has a page describing what is recyclable here in San Diego County.
Plastics are only about 10% of our waste, but a larger percentage of this waste seems to be ending up in our waters.(4) Countless sea creatures die every year from choking on this plastic. Even more absorb chemicals or eat small pieces of these plastics. And then, we eat the fish.
And unfortunately, many suggest that biodegradable plastic may actually not be that much more degradable. Plastic is also in many unsuspecting places: lining your paper coffee cup or aluminum can and even recycled paper itself. Just for the record, an estimated 200-billion paper cups are thrown away every year, in the US alone. Add in the 25-billion styrofoam or styrene cups thrown away every year. Plus the nearly 22-billion plastic water bottles. And the entire country pretty clearly has a drinking problem. At least a drinking container problem. Some argue, quite humorously, that styrene foam coffee cups are less damaging to the environment than paper coffee cups. Seriously, folks, is it really necessary to throw away nearly 250 billion coffee cups and water bottles every year though? Most places will even give you a small discount for bringing your own cup.
So, please, y’all, next time you go out for coffee, grab your mug. Plastic storage containers can easily be replaced with glass storage containers, mason jars, and other re-used glass jars. Keep a couple of clean containers in your car for the next time you have left overs or want take out. Buy a water filter or filtered water in reusable glass containers.
Number 5: Educate yourself and get involved.
Most research seems to indicate that people who volunteer are happier, and people give more when they are happier. So volunteer for your health and for our future.
If you want to learn more about other easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint, The Nature Conservancy has a great tool on their website. Georgetown also has a great resource for reducing your carbon footprint. If you are interested in being more involved, join the efforts of the the Climate Reality Project, support the Environmental Working Group, or plan to attend San Diego’s EarthFair on April 17th.
Around 1990, I organized my first events and a supporting organization that worked towards greater environmental awareness. We organized beach clean-ups and Earth Day Celebrations, featuring 6th graders rapping about their knowledge of groundwater pollution from a course that I taught to them. We talked about issues like Climate Change (we called it Global Warming back then), the benefits of a plant-based diet, water quality, and industrial processes that were harming the environment. These are still our same issues, we just have a whole lot of more evidence about the stress we are placing on our environment.
But, more people than ever are choosing to make choices that improve their health as well as the environment. More Americans are eating less meat. 35% of American households grow at least some of their own food. More schools are implementing farm-to-school food programs. Americans purchased some $28billion in organic food in 2012. More people used public transportation in 2014 than in 58 years.
This all seems to make the decision to order a conventionally farmed cheeseburger a little more important. Hitting the local farmer’s market a bigger priority. Walking or riding your bike a better idea. Remembering your traveler’s mug for coffee and bags for groceries a little easier. Maybe even volunteering for the environment more of a hobby. And when you do go out, tell the businesses and organizations that you support how important these options are to you.
Please, we need everyone’s help.