Over the past few years, our global consciousness has expanded to recognize the importance of individual actions in preserving our planet.
2018, for example, has been the year of the “straw ban,” led primarily by individuals through grassroots social media efforts. The “straw ban” has been particularly remarkable because the efforts of average people, harnessed on a mass scale through the magic of the internet, have caused sweeping tangible results. In September, California became the first U.S. state to ban straws by prohibiting full-service restaurants from providing single-use plastic straws to a consumer unless requested by the consumer. Earlier in the year, the European Commission proposed banning single-use plastic products such as straws and replacing them with alternatives made from sustainable materials. And in Britain, mega-corporation McDonalds’s announced that it will be phasing out plastic single-use straws to be replaced by paper straws by the end of 2019.
However, big movements such as a straw ban sometimes take time. The U.S. city of Seattle, Washington, birthplace of Starbucks and Amazon, first passed an ordinance to ban plastic straws and other single use plastic products in 2008. Despite this early action of a large city, it has taken 10 years for the global sustainability culture to catch up.
In fact, the impetus for the cultural movement against plastic single-use straw can likely be credited to a viral YouTube video uploaded in 2015 by Christine Figgener, a marine biologist, which shows a sea turtle in Costa Rica with a plastic straw lodged in his nostril. Figgner and her team filmed the bloody removal of the straw in graphic, close-up format. The heartbreaking video galvanized a social media movement of individuals around the world who, possibly for the first time, saw a real-life connection between human action and its effect on the globe. Remarkably, without this video, it’s possible that Seattle would still be standing alone in the fight against single-use plastic straws. It’s important to remember that without the collective energy of the millions of people who saw this video and advocated against plastic straws, the global pressure on governments and corporations probably would not have occurred.
In spite of the effectiveness of the straw ban, there is still much work to be done to create a more sustainable globe: plastic cups and bottles are still readily available and highly utilized (over 500 billion plastic bottles are currently being consumed globally on an annual basis), high global consumption of animal products means that almost a third of all water used for global agricultural production is expended through animal production, and there is still a massive 79,000 metric ton garbage patch floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is comprised primarily of abandoned fishing gear.
For you and me, who are sitting at home with a reusable water bottle and a recycling bin, these global sustainability issues feel huge, untouchable, and unsolvable. As a person who is already not using plastic bottles, what can I do to stop global widespread use of these single-use plastic products? What can I do about fishing nets if I don’t own a fishing company? What else can I do about limiting animal production if I am already vegan?
We can continue to make global changes for sustainability in the same way that we, collectively, made the “straw ban” work: we advocate in our own local communities until it swells like a rising tide across the globe.
Here’s how to advocate as an individual in your local community:
1. Use your voice. It can be scary, but practice makes it easier.
Once you’ve identified a sustainability issue that you care about, use your voice to advocate for it throughout your normal day.
For example, I try to avoid using plastic and plastic-lined cups in coffee shops and restaurants. It’s important to me to be mindful about the disposable products that I consume and to use reusable products when they are available. If I am ordering a coffee, I either kindly ask the barista to serve my coffee in a travel mug that I brought with me, or in a ceramic mug to be consumed on premises.
Although it can be intimidating and difficult to make a special request, I continue to make these requests as a form of advocating for what I, the customer, wants. Making these requests indicates to local businesses that the community desires sustainable container options. Like the straw ban, if enough people speak up and ask for sustainable alternatives, then local businesses will want to change to meet the demands of their customers.
2. Use technology and social platforms.
Our modern era provides a platform for regular people that didn’t exist to the same degree even 10 years ago. With Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social networks, you have the ability to easily share your thoughts with many people. As demonstrated by the straw ban, social media can be a powerful tool to enact change. Share information on your page that you think is valuable and that you believe in. Write thoughtful posts about issues that are important to you. By advocating for what you believe in, you may bring a personal connection to a distant, global issue and help to positively influence behavior. Use your background and your experiences to bring a fresh perspective to old issues.
However, be careful not to get lazy. Fact-check the posts and videos that you share to be sure that you are supporting a cause that you actually believe in. An accurate advocate is a better advocate.
As always, be kind and considerate when interacting with other individuals on social media. Not everyone will share your views or be educated on every issue. Advocacy is most effective when it’s done thoughtfully.
3. Talk to your local representatives.
If there is a sustainability issue in your community that has been overlooked, talk to your local representatives about it! Write a letter or an email to your city council members or other local representatives. Attend a local legislative/city council meeting to share your facts and viewpoint. Even more, create an advocacy group with other members of your community to disseminate information to a broader audience and add legitimacy to your concerns.
Again, always be considerate when sharing your concerns, and remember that real change takes time.
The goal is to work collectively like a swelling wave to bring attention and change to sustainability problems. Don’t give up because it seems that these problems are bigger than your ability to solve them. Individually, we can be part of a influential movement for change. Advocate locally to bring change globally.
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