Earth Day (22nd April) is almost upon us. And being frugal aligns nicely with being environmentally conscious and ecologically friendly. We’ve all heard the usual advice on recycling, turning off lights/taps when not in use, taking shorter showers, using cloth grocery bags, and replacing incandescent light bulbs with more energy efficient lighting. But there are a few more things (and some are super easy) that I feel would make a huge impact on our collective carbon footprint.
Some Additional Eco-Friendly Things We Can Do
1. Reuse Pens
Having lived in the US, I was very surprised to see that people here generally don’t reuse pens. In the US, nearly all stationary shops sell pen refills, and they typically cost 30% less. And if you buy refills in bulk, they might be 50% less. In Singapore, the financial incentives are not nearly as significant (you might save maybe 10%), and refills are much harder to find. I’ve asked around and nobody seems to know which shops sell refills.
But this is starting to change. Just last year, there was an awareness campaign on this topic, and an organization was formed to help recycle pens and redistribute unwanted used pens to less privileged school children. I hope this movement continues to grow.
2. BYO (Bring Your Own)
In Singapore, there are many people whose daily ritual includes a visit to the coffee shop and/or food court purely on a takeaway (dabao) basis. Starbucks, for example, sells 11 million cups worldwide every single day. Many of those sales are to repeat customers, out of which, less than 1% (in 2011) brought their own cups. A much larger problem here in Singapore is the container waste from takeaway food.
Many food courts use Styrofoam (polystyrene) containers, which are not recyclable. They decompose slowly over time and release pollutants back into the environment. A recent study showed that styrene oligomers (a by-product of decomposition) in coastal Pacific seawater measure at 30.4 ppb. This is much higher than the World Health Organization’s safety standard for drinking water (20 ppb for styrene monomers).
Bringing your own containers not only reduces waste, but also may save you money. Merchants may waive the takeaway charge or give you a discount. And I’ve also had many instances where merchants give me more than their normal serving (since my own containers are a bit larger).
3. Use a Fan.
In terms of energy usage, the average inverter single split air-conditioning unit equates to using more than 50 fans! For those who feel that a fan is simply not sufficient, before reaching for that air-con remote control, try this. Here’s a trick I learned from migrant workers in the US, who often spend their days working outside when it’s 35+˚C. Place a damp towel around your neck. The breeze (or fan) will trick your body into thinking it’s much cooler than what the thermometer says.
4. Manage Your Air-Con Settings.
There was a US study that showed that cycling your air-con usage to 15 minutes every hour maintains personal comfort levels. It can reduce your energy consumption by up to 20%. There are some devices and companies in the US that do this automatically. They power the air-con for 15 minutes, then switch it off for 45 minutes. Unfortunately, I’ve not come across a setting on any air-con here that automatically cycles, so I usually just do the cycling manually.
But many inverter air-con units in Singapore do have a lower-power “eco” setting. They also commonly have a “sleep” setting, which automatically switches off the unit after a period of time. The NEA also recommends setting your home air-con unit to 25˚C, though most people spend their days in buildings that are a lot colder. In Japan, many companies and organizations have imposed a no suit policy called Cool Biz. Just by “dressing down”, these organizations were able to increase their thermostat, and cut millions of tons of carbon emissions that would have been released into the atmosphere. I think Singapore should adopt a similar policy. I’ve heard many women tell me that they bring sweaters to work just to avoid freezing. How absurd is that?
5. Save Your Butt!
Cigarette smoking is on the rise in Singapore (currently, 1 in 6 adults smoke). We know that smoking add to environmental pollutants and to the PSI rating (since 80% of it is released as sidestream smoke). But the butts and everything contained in them (more than 5000 ingredients including arsenic, formaldehyde, acetone, ammonia and cadmium) often end up as litter. They can then make their way into our water supply.
Contrary to popular believe, the butts are not biodegradable. However, they can be recycled. There are movements around the world to recycle these butts, as they are the number one contributor to marine debris. There’s even a personal container that smokers can purchase that will extinguish their cigarettes and allow them to properly dispose of the butts at a later time.
Of course, quitting would be the more preferable (but much harder) thing to do. The money alone from a pack of cigarettes a day over the course of a lifetime, can be the difference between a comfortable retirement and barely scraping by. On top of that, there are all the future health consequences and costs associated with smoking. Many smoking cessation programs in Singapore are free (even Watsons has a quit smoking service). And there is even a 24-hour hotline called quitline that you call for immediate support.
6. Curb your Consumption and Consumerism.
Whereas the first five on this list were quite specific, this last one is very general. But even a small change in this category can far outweigh the impact of all the other changes combined (including the ones mentioned in the opening paragraph). Recently, I read a study reporting that a typical smartphone generates more than 4000 times its weight in waste products in order to produce it. Many Singaporeans will upgrade their mobile phones (along with other gadgets) every two years when recontracting. But their “old” phones (which are really not that old), even if resold, will still eventually add to the millions of tons of e-waste produced every year.
Much of this e-waste gets crudely recycled, often by children in poor countries, where the e-waste is dumped. Extracting the metals from these devices can release toxins into their environment and drinking water. By delaying your purchases, using your current gadgets for a longer period of time, or buying used gadgets, you will help to reduce e-waste. The same thing applies to other consumables, such as clothing, furniture, appliances, and other household goods. Prolonging the useful life of an item also extends the life of all the energy, materials, resources, and labor that went into making the item, and delays the disposal of the item into a landfill.
These are just some things that we can all do to live more sustainably. And deveop a deeper respect for all the other inhabitants of our shared home. The fact of the matter is that mother earth really does not need us. She will do fine without humans. She may even do better without us. We must remember that it is we who need her. So for our own sake, we need to be kind to her. And this is yet another reason to be frugal!