August 12, 2019

The noble compost: how one habit changed my views on climate change


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In Now, more than ever, you must open your heart to nature, I wrote about biodiversity and wildlife decline. I attempted to convey that no matter how innovative or straightforward the solutions are, without public support, there can be no real, meaningful change.

Lesley Marian Neilson, the spokesperson for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, said, "There's a saying: 'People will protect what they love, and love what they know.' If they know nature and love it, they'll protect it. There's a chain effect." In other words, we need to make significant, unruly and overwhelming environmental problems personal, so we take action.

I think a lot about this quote, wondering how do we improve people’s relationship with nature? I work in a field where we design with the natural environment, creating spaces for the public to use and in turn, improving the connection between people and nature. In theory, this would, as Neilson put, produce a chain effect, but the problem lies in not “why”, but “how” do I protect nature? Or how do I reduce my carbon footprint and become a less wasteful person?

In landscape architecture, our work is supposed to help mitigate the effects of climate change, but I’m often left feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of it. It feels abstract, but the impact of climate change is everywhere. So, what can one person really do and do the actions of one person even matter?

To answer that question, I started thinking small, like my personal contribution, whether it was positive or negative, to the environment. I know there are many ways that I can lower my environmental impact, but I realized that over the past year, I have made many positive changes in my home without even noticing. My perspective on food, food waste and all consumption and waste practices had changed, and it started last summer with one back lane composter.

After we started composting, we were confronted with just how much organic waste a two-person household can create. Previously, if we let any food go bad, we felt a small twinge of guilt before tossing it in the garbage and never giving it a second thought. Now, however, if we let a head of broccoli go bad and toss it in the composter, for the next few weeks, it stares back at you, haunting you and nudging you to reflect on your purchase and consumption habits. And it works. I had never wondered whether radish leaves were edible, but in my pursuit to avoid unnecessarily throwing anything away, I Googled it—and they are edible and pretty tasty!

Over the last year, we learned that to prevent food waste is to buy fewer groceries, but more often.
However, while our kitchen garbage was no longer being filled with organic waste, we were confronted with just how much disposable wrapping and plastic waste a two-person household creates. This problem was not as easy to mitigate, and it became a little bit of an obsession for me and remains a work in progress. The anxiety I felt in a grocery store filled with plastic encouraged me to look into local food options and to sign up for a local farm share this summer to ensure at least our bread and vegetables would be package free.

It seems like one thing led to another, and our noble composter continues to be the catalyst for many more changes in our daily habits. It may sound like this waste reduction effort is taking up a lot of my time, but it’s really not. Don’t get me wrong, it does require work, and I think that’s an essential part of why it is satisfying and why there is momentum to continue to make more positive changes.

We live in a disposable culture but turning the compost in the spring and seeing corn cobs from the previous summer persisting is a good reminder about the lifespan of waste—that garbage and recycling may get carted away, but its impact is far from over.

So what? Everyone knows that composting and purchasing local food is good, and that food waste and disposable plastic is terrible. Of course, I already knew all of this information, but not until I made these problems personal and saw the impact of my actions for myself that I took any kind of action. Even so, I am just responsible for one household, so it’s easy to become cynical about the tangible difference I can make. However, D. A. Ortiz with the BBC presents a much more positive outlook about our individual choices: “social scientists have found that when one person makes a sustainability-oriented decision, other people do to”. He outlines many examples proving this point, including the fact that households were more likely to install solar panels if their neighbours already had them. 

As the saying goes “people will protect what they love, and love what they know”. I think this sentiment could also be interpreted as “you become an advocate for what you know”. This is definitely true for me, my friends, family and co-workers—who are aware of my composting and waste reduction journey—whether they want to know or not. Word of mouth and honest conversations with people in your inner circle are more effective than the most provocative or enlightening media article. 

Over the past year, I have been a little obsessed with waste reduction and have gone down many rabbit holes, some productive and others not so much. There is, of course, the value in my actions and my efforts, but the real power comes from my changed perspective and the conversations I have with other people. My own waste reduction effort is small potatoes in terms of climate mitigation but the main lesson I learned, that can be scalable as a designer, is just to start doing something, take action and be mindful of the results instead of feeling overwhelmed or helpless.


"The quickest way to reduce our energy consumption is clearly behavioural," says Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), a clinical psychologist who is promoting the addition of social and behavioural science research to environmental legislation on Capitol Hill. "It's going to take us a while to get to cellulosic ethanol or fuel cells or whatever...but we can change behaviour tomorrow." Even though I haven’t focused on energy consumption in this article, this quote remains poignant to the broader discussion and can be applied to any kind of changes we make in our daily lives to reduce our carbon footprint.