Stories from our international boarding schools

Working towards a more sustainable society

This week  we asked the question: How do we create a more sustainable society? From Oxford, A Level Y1 student Robby Ngai writes a thoughtful and creative piece on global sustainability:

Only One Earth, and it’s Not Just Ours

Every day, every second of every minute, that same familiar sound can be heard: crumpling. Like ravenous wolves we tear at it to get what we want, and then without a second thought, “plop” it goes, straight into the trash can. As soon we take the first bite of that candy, or load up that new video game we just bought, any memory we have of it disappears. “Memory of what?” you’re thinking to yourselves.

It’s the memory of the plastic, now a universal symbol of “safe for consumption”: a plastic wrapper tells us that our product hasn’t been tampered with, that it’s to be trusted. We take the packaging of our products so much for granted in today’s world that, without it we would hardly trust ourselves to buy anything at all. How else would we know that a stranger’s lips hadn’t touched that bottled water we were drinking, that the new earphones we bought weren’t defective? We have been conditioned by modern society to “do not use if seal broken” – I’m sure anyone reading will have seen this label in one form or another.

We forget about our waste because, frankly, it hardly has an effect on our everyday lives; the most it can do is steal a few minutes away from us to ‘take out the trash’. We are not the fish minding their own business in the sea, or the unknowing rabbits hopping around on land when countless tonnes of foreign chemicals and toxins are dumped into their living rooms. What’s worse is that animals often mistake this sludge as food, and it can even lead to the death of an entire habitat, taking the organisms with it. For us, we simply chuck our waste into the nearest trash bin for someone else to clean up later, and the expression ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ seems a good explanation why we fail to realize how significant our actions really are.  4.3 pounds. That’s not the price of a sandwich at your local grocery store – it’s the average waste generated by the average person per day – 1.6 pounds more than people produced in 1960.

Sustainability can be described as the Earth’s ability to maintain its resources: attempting to live sustainably would be to “produce as many resources as we produce waste”, for example planting a tree for each one cut down. However, some things such as the preservation of all wildlife species, and preventing pollution levels from rising, look to be virtually impossible to accomplish if our current way of life doesn’t change drastically. Our planet’s population is growing exponentially at about 1.13% per year, and with it our aspirations for new technology and increasingly higher standards of living. This is where the problem lies: yes, there will always be a valid argument for striving towards a more sustainable planet, but there will also always be a selfish, yet pragmatic claim against it. The majority of people on this planet, myself included, would welcome faster, thinner computers and quicker, cheaper flights to take us to our loved ones or let us experience life in other parts of the world – it is the technology that lets me be here at EF to write this today. Technology is a wondrous and powerful tool, and the pursuit of it’s advancement can often clash with our sustainability goals. The environmental sacrifices have been made ever since the first trains and cars were introduced in the early 1800s is astonishing: today our world produces almost four million tonnes of waste per year, and by this rate has been predicted to triple by 2100, experts say. With these rates increasing faster than ever, our earth cannot naturally process the waste we make back into resources nearly as fast as we made the waste, something it was capable of in the past. “If everyone lived like Americans we would need 4 Earths to live sustainably” – this was a popular headline of an environmental study conducted in 2012.

The good news is that everything’s not all bad, despite our rapid population and waste production rate increases. The “new vehicles of tomorrow” – the electrically-powered buses and cars in development (and have already premiered!) have fewer carbon emissions than current petrol and coal fuelled vehicles: this will presumably lessen the onset of climate change linked to these greenhouse gases. Another way our world is striving towards increased sustainability is through using the “low-flush toilet”, called as such due to it using much less water than conventional “full-flush” toilets.

However, the astonishing part is that this “low-flush” toilet still uses 6 litres of water per flush, with the full flushes averaging about 13.2 litres per flush. In fact, many more things require much, much more water to produce than you would’ve ever thought. It takes 91 litres of water just to produce 1 pound of plastic, and in the average plastic water bottle, it takes double the amount of water to produce than the bottle actually contains. This is not even addressing the fact that it would take about 450 years for this bottle to fully biodegrade on its own!

‘Well, all this is good and dandy but what can I do to help?’ you may be thinking… for one we could start by being more aware of the things we eat. Meat requires four times more energy to produce than grains do, and studies comparing carbon footprints (a measure of how many greenhouse gases we produce in units of carbon dioxide) have shown that the average vegetarian’s footprint (~1.7) is almost half the meat lover’s (~3.3). In other words, you could help significantly reduce the amount of waste you create by eating more vegetables and less meat, and for the average person it’d a healthier lifestyle change. However, if you still love your meat too much there’s good news – just eating chicken instead of beef cuts a quarter of your emissions from meat!

Carry reusable bags with you when you buy groceries, and use reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones – small things go a long way if everybody does them. Finally, if you want to be a direct contributor to a more sustainable earth, round up some friends, find a suitable location and go plant some trees! They gobble up carbon dioxide, and play a large role in helping the earth process our carbon emissions and converting them to resources we need. I’ve personally had this chance and it gives you a better sense of self-responsibility, knowing you’re not only letting our future generations have better lives, but also the species of flora and fauna that were here long before we were – the earth isn’t ours alone, and moving to Mars should not be our only solution.

By Robby Ngai

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