We know sustainability and mental health are important. But how does one affect the other?
Uggianaqtuq. This is a vocabulary word of the north Baffin Inuit that describes the feeling of being homesick while at home. It has now become a popular word among their community to express the baffling feeling of living on this planet that no longer feels like home.
The climate crisis is affecting our home, and this inevitably affects our mental health. Research shows that 25-50% of people who experience extreme weather disasters are at risk of experiencing mental illness in their lifetime. The Greenlandic Perspective Survey reveals that 90% of Greenlanders believe climate change is happening – and that this is causing them to experience extreme levels of depression and anxiety. During a survey of local Greenlanders’ reactions to climate change in 2019, a resident commented: “Climate change is our vulnerability, and it is bad for us.”
The effects of climate change and the increasing breakdown of environmental sustainability is directly connected to our mental health. It makes sense, then, that finding ways to practice sustainability in our life salves our mental and emotional states, even if for the simple fact that we’re doing something to help protect ours and our planet’s futures. Earth care IS self-care.
In this blogpost, we are going to define what sustainability is and provide you with 3 simple sustainability practices you can institute right now in your life to help boost your mental health.
What is Sustainability?
Sustainability is defined by the IISD as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” We practice sustainability when we consider the environmental, economic, and social equity when making lifestyle choices so we can create resilient and diverse communities. In short – sustainability is about understanding that your life is part of a greater whole and about choosing actions that preserve the future of people and planet. What does this look like?
We practice sustainability when we consider the finiteness of resources. For instance, turning off a faucet when brushing our teeth because we realize that the water coming out of the tap is not infinite. Or when we stop to consider how much trash we produce each day and make choices to limit our purchases because we know that trash does not magically just disappear from the earth once we throw it away.
We also practice sustainability when we find ways to give back to the earth. If we are taking resource from the planet, it is our responsibility to replenish resource as well. Composting is an example of sustainability. We gift portions of the food we’ve received from the earth back to it, providing it with the nutrition it first gave us.
Reflect + Replenish = Sustainability.
Now, how do we put this into action in a way that makes the earth and ourselves feel better?
Here are 3 ways you can practice sustainability every day to improve your mental health.
1. Bring Your Own Cup
50 billion paper cups are thrown away each year . . . just in the U.S. And 99.75% of them end up in the landfill. The term “paper cup” is misleading. Single-use paper cups actually contain a liner of plastic polyethylene to protect the paper from fully disintegrating – and this liner keeps these cups from being recycled. In fact, only a handful of specialist plants in the UK even have the capabilities to recycle these cups. When we throw to-go coffee cups in the recycling bin, we end up sending more items to the landfill by mixing the items in the recycling bin with unrecyclable items.
There is no magic disappearing act for trash. While the US only makes up 4% of the world’s population, we create 12% of the world’s trash. And the reality is that our consumption ends up in marginalized people’s and countries’ backyards, ensuring that those contributing the least to the world’s waste end up paying the most for it.
This is where small, daily, personal choices can help boost your state of mind and help our world.
Beginning today, practice carrying a reusable cup and container with you whenever you leave your home. It requires a little planning, but it is a simple, easy, effective way to feel better and help the planet. This boosts your mental health by letting you know that you are caring for future generations by diminishing the mountains of trash on the earth and actively caring for marginalized communities by diminishing trash buildup in their backyards. It also provides a sense of pride and resourcefulness to not be contributing to disposal culture.
Stojo is a company that creates collapsible travel cups and containers that are leak-proof and hot/cold capable. Started by three Brooklyn dads as a solution to disposable culture, Stojo’s mission is to say NO to disposal, YES to sustainability. By bringing a reusable cup or bowl out into the world with you, you have multiple chances a day to reduce the amount of trash headed to the landfills.
If you need some extra incentive, here’s a list of 9 companies that reward you for bringing your own cups and containers.
2. Buy Second-Hand Items
Rob Greenfield, a radical environmental activist, visually disrupted Hollywood fashion last year when, for 1 month, he wore a transparent plastic suit that displayed every single piece of trash he disposed of in 4 weeks. By month’s end, the suit was 72 lbs.
Calling it his $2,500 trash suit, Rob shared in his TedX talk that it’s not enough to practice the 3 Rs of “Reduce, Reuse Recycle.” Instead, he encourages us to practice the 7 Rs – “Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Repurpose, Rot.” In this sustainability lifestyle model, recycling is the last resort because it requires energy and only 10% of plastics and 14% of clothing is recycled in America.
Buying second-hand is a powerful sustainability life choice that has myriad positive effects on the planet – and our minds! It reduces waste (remember that 85% of textiles are thrown away in America). It reduces pollution (“fast fashion” famously uses synthetic materials which take hundreds of years to biodegrade). It saves you money which can be utilized for other resources you find more satisfying. It removes the middle-man within a purchase, encouraging us to support each other individually and build community and local economy. It encourages creativity – you may need to put a little more ingenuity into creating a desire when you aren’t buying something new.
Buying second-hand is also a two-way street. The more that people are seeking out alternative options for shopping, seeking out individuals or small organizations for their needs, the more opportunity we all have to dispose of our clutter in a sustainable way – a practice which is an immense mental health booster
Below are some resources for excellent second-hand shopping options for all your needs. Let’s stop adding to the clutter and start shopping better!
3. Grow At Least One Food Source
It is no secret that gardening is good for our health – both physically and mentally. Studies show that the vitamin D supplied by the sun provides 90% of what people need for their mental wellbeing. By spending time out in the garden, you are improving your mood. Depression has been directly linked to lack of vitamin D – and, as we’ve learned from the Greenland study, depression is one of the symptoms of climate concern.
Growing your own food also provides you with higher nutrition. Most of the produce in our grocery stores travels long distances to reach us, during which time they lose nutritional value. Fruits and vegetables continue breathing once they are harvested – a process called respiration – which uses up the stored organic compounds and nutrients within the produce. One study from the University of California revealed that produce loses 15-55% of vitamin C within the first week – a crucial mental health vitamin that improves mood, chronic fatigue, and cognitive function.
The earth is also helped by the little bit we can rely on food from our own backyards or balconies. The more we supply our own food sources, we ease the earth by diminishing carbon emissions due to transport, pesticides that harm the soil, and fossil fuels that are utilized in modern-day agricultural for harvesting and planting.
Growing our own food is daunting to many of us. But we don’t need to have a massive, flourishing garden to reap the benefits of growing our own produce. Pick one food that you really enjoy or that you find yourself picking up a lot at the grocery. Research the type of planter, sun levels, and care it requires, get the seeds, and go for it, remembering that you only need to take care of one plant. And don’t be discouraged by your living situation – many people grow food sources in apartments or on balconies!
To get you started, here are a few resources:
Best Edible Plants to Grow for Beginners
Guide for Growing Plants in Small Spaces
12 Places to Buy Organic, Heirloom, & Non-GMO Garden Seeds
Let’s start relying on ourselves and the earth rather than the machine of modern-day agriculture.
We hope this has given you some inspiration to include sustainable practices in your day-to-day life. Remember – taking care of the earth and taking care of ourselves are truly one and the same.
If you have any questions or need more inspiration for earth and self-care, you can DM us on Instagram @nj_institute_of_nature or leave a comment below! We are here to help you and the planet live the best life possible.