Aaron Brunet's best tips for going eco
Five years ago I remember feeling that the environmental problems of the world were just too big. I wondered how I could possibly make a real difference. My reaction was to stick them in the too hard basket. I kept putting out the recycling each week and changed to energy-efficient light bulbs, but when I thought about my daughter's future, I wanted to do more.
Discovering the huge environmental impact of food production was a game changer for me, and I made a personal quantum leap and went plant based overnight. That one choice halved my food-related emissions, and I love the health benefits and ethical aspect too.
After a period of wishing everyone around me would go vegan too, I can see it's a big step. Food is so close to our hearts and such a deep part of family culture, for most people it's a process of gradual transition. Reducing the amount of animal products in our diets is easier and amazingly seems to be almost the new normal.
Given that around a third of all food produced in the world ends up being wasted, there's another hugely powerful choice we can make.
This is my favourite new recipe: buy less food so I waste less, and eat mainly plants (which alone can cut your CO2 significantly). Win, win, win. If we can make it over the hump of the “pleasure trap” (where we get hooked on intense junk-food tastes) our taste buds rapidly recalibrate and natural food becomes delicious. After all, hunger is the best seasoning - at the end of a long tramp I've been in raptures over stale bread ;)
This gets to the core of my new perspective on living in the modern world: choosing to use less is cooler, sexier and more fun in so many ways.
Otherwise we spend so much time chasing more more more and end up having less joy in our lives. We are constantly sold the idea that a huge house, new car and expensive clothes will make us happy, when it turns out health, human connection and less stress are way more likely to make life feel meaningful and worthwhile.
My new buzz is to consume less overall. And to choose experiences over products sometimes. Movies, live music, art, pop-up dinners, dance parties, out-there workshops. I find it deeply pleasing to enjoy simple things like the handmade ceramic bowls I found at an opshop. I appreciate them each time I use them, valuing the care and attention put into each one. I see young people doing these things too which gives me hope for the future. As a bonus I've been able to reframe my view of myself. I now feel like more of a creator and less of a consumer.
The world certainly could do with less of us consuming more than our fair share. Working in the recycling industry for two years brought home to me just how much trash we all produce. It might not seem like much each time we put the bins out but seeing it all in one place made a big impact on me and inspired me to action.
One new habit is to make a game of avoiding plastic packaging wherever I can. Using less is way more effective than recycling when it comes to plastics (they may only make one or two trips round before ending up in landfill). If I forget my reusable shopping bag I'll often just buy less and treat it as a balancing act - can I get everything perched in my arms back to the car? Shopkeepers used to look at me weirdly but lately they seem a lot more understanding! Another fave trick is using the paper mushroom bags for other items if I can't just chuck them into the trolley loose. It also opens up an opportunity for micro activism - when the checkout person looks puzzled I can ask “hey wouldn't it be great to have more paper bags in the veggie section?”.
Following my auntie's example I've built up a stash of favourite jars. I buy the same cereal drink regularly and it's like I'm buying a nice glass storage jar for $5 that comes with a bonus free drink. I love taking the same old paper bags to bulk bins and using them to ferry nuts, seeds, beans etc back to my pantry. There's a real satisfaction in feeling part of a circular system rather than supporting a one-way process of extracting resources which get used for a brief moment before being buried in the ground where they'll last thousands of years.
As much as I focus on whole foods, it's also exciting to see new food products appearing which are kinder to our environment. Vegan cheeses have a bright future - every single person tells me cheese is the one thing they'd find hardest to give up. Until a few months ago most of the ones I'd tried were obviously imitations - I might use them here and there as an experiment but they weren't fooling anyone. Then I tried a couple of cashew-based blue cheeses that I literally couldn't tell weren't dairy. Wow. At the moment they're expensive but as an occasional treat they really nail it. I like the French approach - a little bit of something special is more satisfying than a lot of something mediocre.
New plant-based and synthetic or “clean” meats are making a big impact in the US and starting to appear here too. I've been playing with some of these products recently and they can be really delicious. Not exactly like meat but satisfying and enjoyable all the same. It can be scary to let go of our traditional ways, but I've been finding it really fun exploring new ways of cooking and creating new favourite meals.
That experience of food reflects how my perspective has shifted since 5 years ago. The things I was afraid of doing because they seemed too hard or too weird have turned out to be easy and fun and have made my life better. I'm less hooked into consumer culture, more in charge of my own health, and less financially pressured.
I do have a word of warning to anyone contemplating these topics though, once you start looking closely at the world there's no going back. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube ;)