With mindful choices, all of us can become sustainability champions

In September 2023, at a convening of policymakers and leaders from around the world at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York,  I spent time with Mia Amor Mottley, the Prime Minister of  Barbados and  discussed something that is at the core of transformative climate action. The idea of making the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) ‘personal.’ Imagine if each one of the 8 billion earth citizens decided to segregate waste, became conscious consumers, planted more indigenous plants and trees and conserved water and energy? Imagine the profound impact it would have on the climate and the well-being of the earth.

Endurance swimmer and ocean advocate Lewis Pugh also recalled at UNGA  how countless New Yorkers came together to cleanse the Hudson river of pollution. Today, it serves as a blueprint for all citizens who want to clean up water bodies in their countries and neighbourhoods.

He said that nobody needs to wait for permission to help change the world because far-reaching change begins with us. Not all of us can swim like Lewis   across the North Pole to highlight the melting of the Arctic Sea ice, but we can start where we are. Much like our very own ‘Champion of the Earth’ Afroz Shah who took on the challenge to clean the highly polluted Versova beach and turned it into  the world’s largest beach clean-up project. In fact, inspired by Afroz Shah’s work to clean up Mumbai’s beaches, the United Nations Environment Program launched the Clean Seas campaign globally.  Like him, all of us can pick up one SDG goal that we are passionate about and do something, anything to make a difference. One must also proudly mention LiFE here, which is an India-led global mass movement for “mindful and deliberate utilization, instead of mindless and destructive consumption.” It signifies quite clearly that each one of us can do something to protect and preserve our environment. Green Rising India Alliance, formed by #YuWaah, UNICEF India, Capgemini India, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, ReNew, SAP, and The Rockefeller Foundation is also all set to spark a revolution with its aim to equip 50 million young people  with the “knowledge, tools, and resources” needed to drive  climate action at the grassrooots.

 Last year, The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)  launched the fourth phase of Tide Turners, which is the world’s largest youth-led movement against the plastic crisis and at an event in Delhi,  it was a pleasure to meet many young environmental champions who are fighting plastic pollution from India and around the world.

The work of these individuals gains much significance especially at a time when UNEP has red flagged the dumping of an estimated 19 to 23 million tonnes of plastic waste in lakes, rivers, and seas annually around the world. Plastics have a virtually indelible carbon footprint and reports have stated that they add up to create over 3.4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic waste harms biodiversity in water and on land  and according to UNEP,  more than 13,000 chemicals have been identified as associated with plastics and plastic production across a wide range of applications. Microplastic particles are now found in our food chain and even in the placentas of unborn babies. We can change this grim narrative with intention and action.

In June last year, I saw both  during in a cleanliness drive in Simla’s tourist intensive areas like the Ridge and Mall Road.  Over the course of a few hours, hundreds of volunteers removed plastic waste from the streets of a town that has suffered from pollution apart from water scarcity and environmental as well as infrastructural crises.  It gladdened my heart to also see entrepreneurs and even young students turning trash into treasures and creating utilitarian and decorative objects. 

It goes without saying that more such initiatives are needed to help restore eco-sensitive regions struggling with pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss. The good news however is that all of us can become sustainability champions   by making more mindful choices everyday. Yes, we need governments, industries, researchers and innovators to find macro solutions but if  we, as individuals, just focused on eliminating single-use plastic (SUP) products, we could minimise our contribution to the plastic pollution crisis. Just by managing waste and avoiding SUPs, we can contribute significantly to improving the air quality and reduce  soil, water, food contamination and pollution. This was the thought that made me back the #BeatPlasticPollution” campaign and to phase out single-use plastics from my life.

The climate action rainbow is a good place to start and here are seven things that anyone can do on a daily basis to take better care of the planet.

Begin with the 3 R’s of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’  to mitigate the consumption  of  non-biodegradable products. Refuse tissue paper that is not made from recycled paper.

Say ‘no’ to plastic lined sanitary napkins and diapers, styrofoam articles and  all single use plastics.  Carry your own cutlery, water bottle, coffee cups, metal straws and take a few cotton bags with you every time you go shopping.  Switch to bamboo toothbrushes and ear buds.

Reduce energy consumption, replace CFL bulbs with LEDs and switch to energy-efficient appliances. 

Minimise  water wastage by fixing dripping taps, recycle grey water if possible for non-potable purposes and explore  basic rainwater harvesting.

You could also switch to a locally and sustainably grown plant-based diet as it reduces greenhouse gas emissions. 

Manage and segregate waste at source. I also compost all the wet waste at home to fertilise my plants.

Choose  chemical-free cleaning products.

And the final step would be to plant more indigenous trees.

Afforestation is an important part of tackling climate change and we can join forces with individuals and organisations that are working to increase the green cover of the planet, one sapling at a time. Having  planted more than  8000  trees over the years to commemorate birthdays and anniversaries, I cannot put into words the joy such a gift brings to both humans and the planet.

Doing my bit for Mother Earth also includes carrying my very own metal water bottle everywhere. At last count, just this small action  prevented over 12000 plastic bottles from reaching the ocean over a span of 8 years.

When Avyaan was born, it was important for me to ensure every piece of clothing and even the diapers that touched his skin were plastic-free and organic.

Whether it is a beach cleaning initiative, a start-up that converts plastic bottles into shoes or a green warrior like Jadav “Molai” Payeng  who single-handedly planted saplings along a dry sandbar by the Brahmaputra to create a  50 hectare forest, the point is simply this. We can all  bring more sustainability to our lives in our own unique ways. 

Environmental pioneer Barbara Ward once said, “We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do.” It is time to walk lightly on earth, be gentle with it  because our survival as a race depends on not exhausting its resources or taking its resilience and generosity for granted.