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Does Your Personal Spending Propagate a Global Problem?

One million plastic bottles a minute...

Near the entrance to our neighborhood is a well-traveled road that connects a couple of suburbs to downtown Atlanta. As you can imagine, I drive this road frequently when I’m out running errands, and I’m always amazed at the amount of litter that has gathered in certain stretches along this road. Eventually this litter will be blown or washed into a nearby body of water and ultimately make its way to a lake or ocean.

Last week I read an article updating the size of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Although it sounds like the title of a Charlie Brown special, it truly is a real thing. The patch is located in an area of the Pacific Ocean where wind and ocean currents converge, and essentially trap tens of thousands of tons of waste (mostly plastic) into a floating mass of garbage. This patch was first identified in the early 1990s, and has since grown to an area equivalent to twice the size of Texas. Let me write that again – twice the size of Texas!

At its core, pollution is a result of consumerism. Think about it for a minute – litter, air pollution, chemical pollution in water. And most of it results from things done or manufactured to make our lives easier. I’m as guilty as anyone else when it comes to contributing to this, but my hope is that we, as people, can slowly turn the ship around. One of my favorite quotes related to this is below. The exact origin of the quote is unknown, but it reads:

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

Mindful spending saves money and minimizes waste

Living below your means is the key to financial independence. Plain and simple. If you are able to spend less than you earn, consistently over time, you are well on your way to financial independence. It’s not about what you make; it’s about what you spend. Creating a budget, separating wants from needs, spending money on experiences (not things), and spending in ways that match your goals and values are all ways to make the most of the money you earn.

Based on what I’ve shared with you above, I think it’s safe to say that your (our) personal spending has a direct environmental impact too. In a world of convenience and on-line shopping, we’ve got more plastic bottles (a million are purchased per minute globally), plastic bags (100 billion used last year in America alone), and cardboard boxes (35.4 million tons produced in 2014) in the environment than ever before.

Our son’s school auction was this past weekend. Each year I volunteer my time to help get everything set up, and this year was no exception. Among my responsibilities this year was to remove some of our auction decorations and chachkies from their packaging so they could be put out. Not only was most everything in its own small cardboard box, but it was wrapped in plastic inside the box too! As the boxes and plastic bags piled up, I couldn’t help but think that everything I was unwrapping would be tossed in the garbage at the end of the night – a total life span of a mere 5 hours before being discarded.

I asked the event coordinator at the venue if they recycled, and she assured me that they had a separate area for recycling in the building. But deep down, I knew the chances of any of those boxes or plastic bags being recycled was remote. Even if they were separated, I know it’s not realistic to think that every single item we put in our recycling bins gets recycled. It’s a very manual process, and I’m sure plenty of it never gets picked off the conveyor belt, or it ends up in the landfill due to cross-contamination in the truck or plant. I know that not everything I put in my recycling bin will get multiple lives before going to the landfill, but those things definitely aren’t getting recycled if we don’t try in the first place.

Recently I’ve been more intentional about not using the little plastic bags when I buy produce. Do we really need to bag foods like avocados or oranges that come with their own packaging? And why bother bagging a vegetable that is going to be cooked, thereby killing any germs on the food anyway?

Speaking of groceries, did you know that the average American family spends $1,500 per year on wasted food, and 90% of that wasted food ends up in a landfill? The minimal amounts of food we keep on hand in our house have become somewhat of a running joke among our friends, but you won’t find any food waste here!

Every little bit helps

What are some ways you can help? Pick up that piece of litter you come upon while you’re walking the dog. The next time you’re at the store, do me a favor and try to eliminate at least one plastic bag from your shopping. Think before you bag that produce. Decline the plastic bag if you’re only buying one or two things. Intentionally focus your efforts on recycling more than you do now.

I promise I didn’t write this post while snacking on granola or chained to a tree to protest construction of a road, and I realize some of this content may elicit some eye-rolls, but I really do have some concerns about the impact we’re having. When we’re gone, what mess are we leaving for our kids, and the generations after them, to clean up? We hold the key to a cleaner environment or a more polluted one, and the choice is ours. I know which one I’m making.

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