The new year is an opportunity to examine the actions you can take to live more sustainably, make more environmentally conscious choices and learn how to make real and lasting change. Cornell experts from a variety of fields shared their recommendations for individual actions – large and small – that can make an impact locally and globally.
Rise and shine – and turn your coffee into fertilizer
Steve Reiners, professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and chair of the horticulture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science, studies vegetable production, including the sustainability and profitability of the industry in New York state. Reiners offers a tip that can become part of your everyday routine:
“Americans drink more than 400 million cups of coffee daily. That’s nearly 10 million pounds of coffee grounds that end up in landfills every day. Landfilled coffee grounds convert into more than 800,000 pounds of methane, a potent global warming gas even worse than CO2.
“What can you do? If you brew coffee at home, compost both the spent grounds and the paper filter. No compost pile? Dry the grounds and spread them across your garden or lawn. It acts as a slow-release fertilizer and contains about 2% nitrogen.
“If you brew four cups at home each day, you’ll end up with 35 pounds of dried grounds annually that can provide enough nitrogen for a lawn of 750 square feet for a year or a vegetable garden up to 300 square feet. Plus, the coffee grounds add carbon to the soil, where it feeds the microbiome.”
Shop and dress smart to reduce plastics waste
Todd Walter, professor of biological and environmental engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, studies the interactions between hydrology, ecology and biogeochemistry, applying physical hydrology and water resources engineering to a broad range of multidisciplinary research interests, including the contamination of waterways and oceans by microplastics. Walter and doctoral student Lisa Watkins share what we can do to reduce our plastic footprints:
“Virtually all of us contribute to plastics pollution through the clothes we wear, commercial packaging, carpets, face masks and many other things we consume. Unfortunately, it’s clear that recycling doesn’t work for most forms of plastic, and current technologies certainly can’t keep up with the amount of waste we produce. So, the most direct solution to plastics pollution is consuming less in general – choose items with less packaging or opt to buy used and consider taking advantage of programs like Buy Nothing and Freecycle.
“Plastics, like climate change, aren’t going away in our lifetimes, if ever. In both cases, a lot of little changes will be needed to address the issues. Become more aware of your plastic footprint and share with your friends. Fibers from things like jackets and shirts are the most abundant microplastics in the environment, so think twice about how you’ll replace your fleece jacket – consider a more sustainable material like wool. When possible, avoid buying intensely plastic-packaged items like bottled water, and try to reuse your plastic packages in order to avoid buying a new bag, bottle or jar.
Change starts with awareness and evolves with behavioral adjustments; policies and commerce will follow society’s actions.”
Tasha Lewis, associate professor of fiber science and apparel design in the College of Human Ecology, studies sustainability, technology and behavior in fashion and the apparel industry. Lewis encourages us to look to our closets and laundry rooms to live more sustainably:
“The new year is an opportunity to revisit our wardrobes after the infusion of new items received as gifts or purchased during holiday sale season. The utilization rate (number of times a garment is worn) is low, which is often driven by a high volume of clothing items in one’s wardrobe. Editing and shopping your closet periodically can reveal items that you may have forgotten about and allow you to discover if they can be paired with more recent additions to the wardrobe. This can reduce both disposal and consumption rates for clothing, which are outpacing the recycling rates. There are also several resale sites where consumers can sell clothing they no longer want to wear. This is an alternative to disposing of clothing into waste streams and an opportunity to earn income on unused clothing.
“We can also adopt more sustainable laundry habits. Washing in cold water and air-drying clothing can reduce energy consumption, which has been found to be a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions during the life cycle of a garment.”
Know before you buy to protect endangered species
Angela Fuller, professor of natural resources and the environment in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and leader of the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, studies ecology and human-wildlife coexistence. Fuller encourages travelers to be wary of the potential ecological impact of gifts and souvenirs:
“As post-pandemic travel abroad is coming into focus, avoid souvenirs made from endangered species. The market in illegal wildlife trade often preys on unsuspecting tourists by selling products made from endangered species like ivory, tortoise shells, reptile skins, shark fins, corals, teeth, bones, horns and claws.
“The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species provides an indicator, or barometer, of the status of global biodiversity. For example, there are 200-plus mammals and 400-plus reptile species listed as critically endangered. The U.S. consumer demand for some of these species helps fuel the illegal and unsustainable trade of wildlife products. Be aware of products that might be made from endangered species and make informed purchases.”
Build greener, build better with sustainable infrastructure
Felix Heisel, assistant professor of architecture in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, recommends a shift in the way we design, build and manage our built environment, from linear resource consumption to circular material usage:
“Buildings and infrastructure – along their whole life cycle – are responsible for more than 40% of global carbon-dioxide emissions and more than 50% of solid waste production. In the U.S. alone, the sector generates more than 600 million tons of construction and demolition debris annually, twice the amount of everyday municipal garbage. The resulting damage to our economy, society and environment is enormous: Demolition and landfilling result in the loss of embodied carbon, water, labor and skill, as well as the social and historical values of materials and buildings.
“Circular construction addresses the direct reuse of already existing materials and components, new design strategies that understand future buildings as material depots and the growth of new and alternative biological materials.
“There are no globally applicable solutions for a circular economy, but rather concepts and methodologies that require careful adaptation to the local context and conditions. Ithaca’s ambitious Green New Deal and the Electrification Program provide an ideal foundation to change the paradigm.”
Take local action, advocate for global impact
Catherine Kling, the Tisch University Professor at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and faculty director at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, notes that individual action, while positive, is not sufficient to address the challenges of climate change and environmental conservation:
“My top tip for individual action to live more sustainably is to very actively promote change in federal policies that can create broad incentives and requirements for environmental improvements. As much as we would all like to think that our personal household decisions can solve the sustainable challenges we are facing, the truth is that most of these challenges require significant changes from millions of people. Change at the level needed can realistically only happen with requirements and incentives from the federal level.
“Vote, write letters to Congress, join advocacy groups that lobby for good policies, volunteer for get-out-the-vote efforts and then be kind to everyone.”
Nolan Lendved is a senior strategic communications specialist in University Relations.