3 simple ways to live sustainably during a global pandemic

Feeling stressed? A Japanese study that found just looking at plants reduced stress and fear. (Ffion Atkinson/Creative Commons)

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the current pandemic. The world has gotten to the point where we all know at least one person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. On top of that, so many things we take for granted have been disrupted, from graduations to birthdays to just going to work every day. However, there are some things that don’t have to be put on hold. On April 22, multiple organizations hosted events online to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day to continue advocating for a cleaner and healthier world.

Like the pandemic, climate change can feel like a massive, impossible problem that we as individuals have no control over. Fortunately, just like how people all over the world choose to wear a mask and socially distance from others every day, you have the ability to make an impact on the environment from the safety of your home. 

1. Whip out your green thumb 

As COVID-19 has held the world hostage for the past few months, not only has people’s physical health suffered but so has their mental health. According to a recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of American adults say that stress associated with worrying about the virus has had a negative impact on their mental health. Another survey conducted in early April by researchers at Yale University and George Mason University shows that about 66% of Americans “feel a personal sense of responsibility to help reduce global warming” even during the pandemic.

How can people address their stress about the state of the environment, while also managing their anxiety about exposure to COVID-19? Gardening might help. 

An article published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2018 explores the idea of green care, defined as therapy by exposure to plants and gardening. The article cites a Japanese study that found just looking at plants reduced stress and fear. Physically, patients experienced a decrease in blood pressure, pulse rate, and muscle tension. In terms of the current pandemic, gyms across America remain closed, in addition to a number of parks and beaches, depending on individual state restrictions. This has made staying active each day substantially more difficult. Gardening can be a way to get out of the house, get fresh air, and make an impact on the environment. 

On a larger scale, gardening reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increases oxygen. According to the National Wildlife Federation, trees can absorb up to one ton of carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere. So if every American planted one tree, millions of tons of carbon dioxide could be absorbed each year. Essentially, this would reduce global warming and improve air quality, which is particularly important during a pandemic that can affect the respiratory system. Gardens also attract pollinators, including insects and birds, which are “vital to the production of healthy crops” and essential for maintaining ecosystems, according to the United States Department of Agriculture

If you’re someone who lives in a city or doesn’t have access to your own outdoor space, you can keep plants inside your home. The NIH article mentions that indoor gardening has been used to treat mental health issues, not just for an at-home change in scenery but because plants can remove toxins and dust from the air with their leaves. If you don’t have the greenest thumb or feel stressed about keeping something alive, there are several types of low maintenance plants that thrive indoors. 

2. Take something off your carbon plate

During the pandemic, going to the supermarket has become a stressful experience as shoppers do their best to socially distance while searching the aisles for what their family needs. Many people have opted for delivery services such as Instacart but still face the issue of an increase in food prices. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of meat, eggs, and poultry jumped 4.3% from March to April, the biggest monthly increase in 50 years.

Is it possible to spend less time in the grocery store, save money, and eat more sustainably? The answer is yes, and it starts with purchasing less meat. 

Methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, which means it traps heat more efficiently in the atmosphere, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA also states that livestock, especially cattle, produce methane when they digest their food, specifically by belching. The storage of livestock manure also produces methane, making agriculture the largest source of methane in the United States. 

In addition to contributing a lot of methane, beef production takes up a significant amount of natural resources. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), one-quarter of the planet (excluding Antarctica) is used for cows to graze on. This pastureland is often the result of substantial deforestation. According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, cattle ranching is responsible for 80% of deforestation of the Amazon. The WRI also states that beef production uses between two to four times the amount of freshwater as other livestock does and 7.5 times more freshwater than plant-based food. 

If consumers were to swap beef for pork, poultry, or plant-based protein, the WRI predicts global greenhouse gas emissions would drop by 15%. Making that simple choice next time you’re in the supermarket allows you to make a positive impact. Plus, you can save room in your freezer. 

3. Do a little digging before you click 'buy' 

As weeks have turned into months, people have been scrambling to find ways to kill time while maintaining social distancing. Besides relying on streaming services, there has been an increase in online shopping. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Americans spent $146.47 billion online with U.S. retailers in the first quarter of 2020, increasing 14.5% from the same time last year. 

Major retailers specifically saw a jump in numbers. Target experienced a 141% increase in digital sales in the first quarter of 2020 and sales fulfilled by the delivery service, Shipt, went up by 300%. Amazon also had a successful first quarter, making $75.5 billion in net sales, an increase of 26% from the same time last year. 

With great power comes great responsibility — and a lot of packages. You have to wonder what the total amount of cardboard and plastic pollution will be when we look back on these few months of the pandemic. There are some numbers we do currently have. According to National Geographic, 8 million tons of plastic wind up in the ocean each year. We also know that companies like Amazon have struggled to make environmentally conscious choices in the past. Last year, The Washington Post reported that Amazon’s newly introduced lightweight plastic mailers created to reduce the use of cardboard boxes weren’t easily recyclable and clogged up machinery in recycling systems. 

On the other hand, Amazon has launched a few initiatives to become more sustainable, including a guide on how to recycle different types of packaging. If you’re still worried about contributing to potential packaging pollution, you can buy products from companies that have consistently prioritized sustainability. 

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the fashion industry emits about 10% of global carbon emissions and produces almost 20% of global waste water. However, companies like TOMS, Patagonia, and thredUP — the largest online thrift store — lead by example. There also are several organizations dedicated to educating people about conscious consumerism including Remake and Good On You. These resources provide a roadmap to sustainable online shopping so you can keep your life and closet guilt-free.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.