Dr. Maha Khalil (PhD)

It may be hard to believe that small choices you make on a daily basis, such as how you commute to work, what you eat, how long your shower time is, or where you travel to on holidays, can actually have a significant impact on global environmental issues. This way of thinking is an illustration of the concept of “The Tragedy of the Commons”: If each person believes that his/her consumption of resources cannot possibly affect the planet – and there are 7.5 billion of us sharing finite resources and thinking in the same way – the collective impact of our careless consumption becomes enormous! The “tragedy” is that this way of thinking works against the common good of humanity and, ultimately, your own.

In this age of constant inundation by bad news and media-led fear-mongering, it’s also easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless about environmental issues, perhaps reaching a degree of deliberate indifference for the sake of self-preservation and peace of mind. But the truth is that there is a lot that each of us can do every day to help slow down and eventually stop the demise of our planet. Many of these Earth-friendly choices, with time, simply become habits that you don’t have to think about all the time, and so, you will suffer no constant anxiety or inconvenience. Living an environmentally conscious life will simply become second nature.

This article is here to show you how to have the well-being of our planet in mind as you make daily choices in your life. As you read on, take note of the things you can do and don’t be too hard on yourself about the things you can’t! Simply do your best, have fun with it, and share the ideas with your friends and family!

  • Transportation

We all have to leave our houses and move from one place to another at some point, some of us much more often than others. This is why the choices we make about how we commute can have an enormous collective impact, not just on the environment, but also on traffic congestion and people’s health. I will list these choices in order of most to least environment-friendly.

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Walk whenever you possibly can. This includes even parking your car some distance away from your final destination and walking for a few more minutes to get there. Walking, of course, is the most obvious choice that burns no fossil fuels, takes vehicles off the streets, and is good for your health! While perhaps too obvious of a choice, I have met people who confessed to starting their car engines even just to move a distance of 100 meters. Being too accustomed to the luxury of driving, even if we actually hate driving, sometimes omits this obvious choice from our minds.

Cycle! Cycling has the added advantages over walking of being faster and transporting you much further than you’d be willing to walk – still without burning any fossil fuels or taking up much space on the road. You might even discover after buying your first bicycle that you have found an amazing new hobby! Even if you can’t cycle to work or on a daily basis, you might consider running very specific errands on your bicycle instead of in your car, such as going to the supermarket a couple of times a week, or going to the bank, etc…

Use public transportation. If walking and cycling are not viable options for you, consider taking public transportation as often as possible. Although we have now entered the zone of fossil-fuel burning options, public transportation modes such as buses, tok-toks and metros are more efficient in the sense that they transport large numbers of people in more compact spaces and using less power per person per kilometer. And you will still be reducing the number of vehicles on the road.

Carpool with friends and coworkers. Similar to public transport, by carpooling, you are transporting more people using less space and power, with the added advantage of it perhaps being more enjoyable and convenient. This may be a great option for routine trips, such as going to work with people who already live near you.

Take a taxi. Even if you take a taxi alone, you would still be using a vehicle that is already on the road anyway instead of adding your own car to the existing traffic.

If all else fails, drive. Well, if you must drive, there are still things you can do to minimize the carbon footprint of your car. First of all, choose a small, fuel-efficient or hybrid car. This will not only benefit the environment, but also your wallet! Avoid large gas-guzzlers or old models with inefficient engines.

  • Diet

Diet perhaps has a less immediately obvious impact on the environment. Nevertheless, its impact is indeed huge. As consumers, the choices we make at the grocer’s or the supermarket determines the scale of production of unsustainable products. For example, if we collectively buy lots of products containing palm oil, more rain-forests will be cleared in Indonesia to make room for palm oil plantations. And if we eat lots of Bluefin tuna, more of this endangered and unsustainably caught fish will be fished out of the oceans. Here are some basic principles and choices you can make about your diet that would help save the planet.

The easiest way to summarize how you can generally make Earth-friendly diet choices is this: Eat local, eat fresh, eat less meat, eat no endangered species.

Image Credit: Hong Kong Department of Health

Eating locally produced/farmed food means that you won’t be consuming foods that have traveled far distances to reach you by truck or plane or any other fuel-guzzling means. Buying fresh food, on the other hand, means that you will be buying less packaging along with your food, and so, producing less waste in the form of Styrofoam plates, plastic wraps, or boxes that you throw away as soon as they are empty.

Eating less meat, especially beef, means you will be discouraging the number one most destructive process of food production on the planet! Cows require enormous amounts of water and land to grow and feed, and they produce huge quantities of methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is about 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The reason why the beef industry is so unsustainable at the moment is, quite simply, that the demand for it is so large that it has to be produced on massive scales. If you switch to chicken, you eliminate about two thirds of the impact, and if you switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet, you reduce the impact by up to FIFTY times! In fact, beef is now so unsustainable that one single 225 gram beef burger consumed is equivalent to about 24 hours of window air conditioner use or to driving 68 kilometers in a Prius (a very fuel-efficient car). So, imagine how much less impactful your diet would be even if you just cut your beef consumption by half! At the very least, if you must have beef, try to buy from local sources and small cattle farms that do not mass-produce. But remember that, even if you switch to a vegetarian diet, you could still harm the planet by not sticking to locally-grown vegetables and grains and insisting on imported fad foods such as quinoa or kale.

When it comes to seafood, however, things get a little bit complicated. Generally speaking, seafood is more sustainable than beef, but it can still be quite unsustainable. You have to take care to avoid consuming fish that are endangered or caught or farmed unsustainably, such as most tunas and most salmon. Unsustainably caught fish includes species that are endangered, overfished, or caught/farmed using techniques that harm the environment or other non-targeted species. It also includes whatever is fished commercially without consideration for local fishing communities who depend on these stocks for their daily survival. With some deeper knowledge of particular species that you love to eat, you could also avoid buying juvenile fish that were indiscriminately caught before having the chance to reproduce. Here along the Red Sea, you should at least avoid consuming any of the following endangered and/or overfished species: any type of shark, napoleon wrasses, tunas, marlins, very large groupers (such as the giant grouper or very large individuals of other species), very small (juvenile) individuals of groupers, parrot fishes, and snappers. When fishermen realize that nobody buys the juvenile fishes they catch, they will return them to the sea when they accidentally catch them. Naturally, if you also somehow find out that a fish was caught illegally, in a protected area, or using illegal fishing methods, you should not purchase it. Some of the most sustainable and healthiest seafood choices (and good alternatives to tuna) are mackerel.

  • Waste

You may have previously heard the phrase: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. These are the general principles to remember when thinking about managing the waste you produce in a sustainable way, and they are listed in order of higher to lower priority. In other words, the most helpful thing you can do is to have as little waste as possible in the first place (reduce). Then, you can think about reusing things instead of throwing them away or recycling them (reuse). So, instead of chucking the glass jar that held your jam into a recycling bin, consider whether you might be able to wash it and use it again for another purpose. There are lots of creative and wonderful ideas online about how you could reuse or up-cycle items that are usually thrown away to either create beautiful art or build very practical things. Finally, if it has to be thrown away and can’t be reused, try to have it recycled.

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Since waste reduction is the most important priority, and since recycling is particularly difficult to come by in our part of the world, here are some ideas of how you could reduce your waste. I follow most of them myself, and they are very easy to do!

Take your own reusable shopping bags and containers to the supermarket. Plastic pollution is one of the most catastrophic forms of waste pollution that is suffocating life on this planet. Even if you properly dispose of plastic bags, huge quantities of them end up flying from landfills into the oceans and deserts, and you can see for yourself the massive scale of the impact of this problem on our oceans by watching this video and looking at these images. If you can somehow completely eliminate the use of plastic bags from your life – at least the use of free plastic bags – you will reduce your waste significantly. In the beginning, this might be difficult, as we are so used to the convenience of plastic bags, but once you get into the habit of having your shopping bags always in your car or near your front door so you don’t forget them, it will become second nature. You can also take your own Tupperware containers when you are buying deli products, so that your purchase can be placed directly into these boxes without the need for Styrofoam plates or plastic wrappings. I also take small reusable containers with me to buy nuts and spices!

Install a water filtration system at home. This will make drinking water available for you at home and eliminate the need for plastic bottles – another major plastic pollutant! It is also more economic in the long run. But if you do end up with a plastic bottle for any reason, remember to CRUSH IT before you throw it away. This is because the reduction of the volume of waste is just as important as the reduction of its amount. Crushed bottles also do not fly as easily in the wind. Let all the air out of the bottle, then, while still crushing it, screw the cap back on so that it stays collapsed.

Carry reusable coffee mugs and water bottles with you. Do you have a coffee habit that has you walking into Starbucks nearly every single day? Imagine if you handed the person at the coffee bar your own mug to fill instead of throwing away at least one paper cup every single day! Carrying a reusable water bottle also means you can fill it in various places throughout your day if you are out a lot and want to avoid plastic bottles!

Compost your organic waste. This is a more involved but fun endeavor, especially if you have a garden. Composting can be an enjoyable hobby as well as a waste-reduction method. Instead of throwing away most of the remains of your food (e.g., egg shells, tea bags, green stems, orange peels, etc.), you can put a lot of it into a compost bin and turn it into rich soil for planting in your garden or a friend’s.

Other quick ideas you could consider include using only rechargeable batteries, ordering less takeout food, and buying more fresh rather than packaged foods.

  • In-home Solutions

Our homes can also be set up and run in ways that minimize their carbon footprint (and save you money!). If you are a home owner, here are some great ideas you can consider to make your home as Earth-friendly as possible.

LED lighting. One of the easiest changes you can make in your home is to simply change all the light sources in your home from tungsten or halogen lamps to LED lamps. LED is even more efficient and long-lasting than fluorescent lighting. It is a small change that goes a long way.

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SWITCH OFF! It may be self-evident to say that if you switch things off, you consume less energy, but you would be amazed at how many electronics we have nowadays that we never actually properly switch off, but rather leave on standby. Examples include television sets, computer monitors, satellite receivers… Switching these appliances off properly, at least overnight, can make a significant difference in the long run. And of course, switching off lights when you’re not using them.

Cooling, heating, and insulation. Most of us cannot get through the summer without air conditioners, and for good reason! But there is a lot you can do to make sure your ACs and/or heaters run as efficiently as possible, thus reducing energy consumption (and lowering your electricity bill). First of all, make sure you get the right AC for the amount of space you will be cooling. The money you save by buying a smaller AC will be spent on your electricity if you get the wrong size. Then, make sure you clean your filters before the summer starts. This is something you will do only once or twice a year, but it makes a big difference! Finally, do your best to insulate your home properly. If your house keeps the heat or cold more effectively, your AC will work less to keep it at the temperature you want. So, close the doors and windows when your AC is on, add more rugs on your floors and walls in winter, fewer in summer, and if you can install properly insulating double-glazed windows all over your home, do it.

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Use natural cleaning detergents. You would be amazed at how much you can clean with just a bit of baking soda, vinegar and water. This reduces the amount of chemical waste produced by your home and is also healthier for you, your children, and/or your pets.

You can also try to use any heating appliances as little as possible, as those tend to consume more electricity than other appliances. This includes microwaves, irons, water heaters, space heaters, etc. You can also increase the efficiency of your fridge and freezer by never leaving them too empty, and you can consider using the shortest and most efficient washing machine cycles. Finally, if there’s anything you need to buy for your home that can be charged via solar energy (e.g., night lights), go for solar!

You can find out more about how to save electricity and make your home more efficient and environment-friendly by checking out the website of the company El-Noor Geh.

  • Traveling

Everything from your choice of destination to how you get there and what you do once you arrive can affect the size of your trip’s carbon footprint. Here is a brief list of some of the considerations you can make when planning your next vacation.

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The Destination. Simply put, the closer to home the destination is, the less fossil fuel you will burn to get there. Are there amazing locations in your home country that you haven’t seen yet? Apart from that, you can also choose destinations that are more likely to have green hotels or eco-lodges.

Mode of transport. The least sustainable mode of travel is usually international flight, so if you can avoid flying, you should do so. Trains are usually more sustainable than flying, followed by buses, followed by cars. It is somewhat more complicated than that, but this is generally the case.

Accommodation. Consider camping or staying in eco-lodges. Eco-lodges are establishments that have a minimal impact on the environment and the surrounding wildlife. They deliberately try to minimize their waste and energy consumption while still providing a comfortable and enjoyable experience for their guests. This would be a suitable option for you if you enjoy nature-based activities such as hiking, snorkeling, diving, etc. If you are more interested in night life and cities, consider staying in Airbnbs or, at the very least, in green hotels, which are hotels that have earned certificates or “green stars” for their efforts in running their establishment in sustainable ways.

Choice of activity. If you are a nature lover, you can choose activities to do on your trip that help promote conservation efforts in your destination. For example, go to national parks and pay the fees at the gate. Those fees help to keep these places protected and allow the rangers who work there to make a living.

Souvenirs. Be careful when buying souvenirs on your trip, as buying some types of souvenirs may encourage the destruction of nature or the poaching of endangered animals. For example, never buy anything made of coral or of ivory. The extraction of coral from the sea to sell as souvenirs is a highly unsustainable activity, and the purchase of ivory encourages the poaching of endangered elephants.

I hope this article has helped you to start learning how to be mindful of the environment as you live your life. And remember, you can always learn more by simply looking up any of this information. There is a huge global community of people trying to live mindfully and sustainably, so even if no one near you seems to be aware, what you do still counts!

This post is also available in: Arabic