Illustration by Emer Sukonik

For the entirety of Michaelmas term, I’ve decided to try and live Zero-Waste. In this column, I will bring you on this journey with me whilst highlighting issues of climate justice along the way.

On the 9th of August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth report which stated that it is now indisputable that human influences have warmed the planet. The report warned about the likely rise of more than 1.5°C which would breach the Paris Agreement signed in 2015 by 196 countries. I used to think that I had a decent understanding of climate change and the impact our species is having on the planet, but the report sent me into another spiral of climate anxiety.

1.5°C doesn’t sound like much. But climate disaster won’t suddenly begin once we pass 1.5°C, it’s already here. 1.5°C was the temperature above pre-industrial levels that we told ourselves we couldn’t surpass if we wanted to live on a habitable Earth. 

Europe has just had its warmest summer on record with it being close to 1°C warmer than the 1991-2020 average and it is estimated that the mean global temperature for this year will be between 0.91°C and 1.15°C above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC has warned that eventually simply working outdoors during the summer will be dangerous. Up to a fifth of the population of El Salvador living in the Sugarcane region already suffers from chronic kidney issues presumably as a result of dehydration from working in fields which used to be comfortably harvested. At 1.5°C, we lose 80% of our coral reefs and the arctic will experience an ice-free summer every century. Shift that to 2°C and we’ve lost all our coral reefs, the ice-free summer in the arctic occurs every 10 years and we drag 50% more people into climate poverty. If we reach 4 degrees of warming, the deadly summer heat wave which hit Europe in 2003 and killed up to 2,000 people a day will be considered a normal summer and corn yields in the United States are predicted to halve. If the planet warms by 5 degrees, we could lose 50% of grain production whilst having to feed up to 50% more people than we are today by the end of the century. For mammals to cool off, the air needs to be low enough for it to act as a type of refrigerant. At 7 degrees of warming, this will become impossible for large areas of the planet causing people to simply cook from the inside out in a few hours. Every half degree of warming matters. 

I’m not here to brainwash you into thinking we can solve this by individually changing our actions like big oil companies did to divert from their endless greed. The term ‘carbon footprint’ was invented by British Petroleum as a way of shifting blame for climate change onto the individual. What we need is systemic change. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t change our habits to reduce our personal impact. I’m a firm believer that you can’t be a perfect environmentalist in a world which wasn’t designed for you to be one. When it comes to environmentalism, I’m a hypocrite just like everyone else living within the current system. You don’t have to live a zero-waste, vegan lifestyle off-grid to have the right to demand climate action. Shaming and calling out the hypocritical actions of activists has silenced the movement by making people reluctant to speak out on the issue. We don’t have time to alienate each other and must focus on building an inclusive movement.

I want to see how far I can personally go to decrease the waste I produce in a single term, and I would like to take you on this journey with me to examine just how much our world relies on plastic. I’m not saying I’m going to be perfect. Honestly, I’m terrified even thinking about what I have gotten myself into but I’m hoping it will be a fun journey and we can learn a few things along the way.

So, what are the rules?

·  I’m going to try and personally produce as little waste as possible starting from 0th week of Michaelmas term until the end of 8th week. 

·  I will be going plant-based which means focusing on foods primarily from plants whilst not necessarily being completely vegan as the meat and dairy industries contribute around 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. 

·  I will try to compost all my food waste as food waste stuck in landfills releases methane which is a greenhouse gas more than 25 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

·  All plastic will be counted as waste as on average less than 10% of everyday plastic is recycled in the UK and researchers have estimated that this year alone plastic production and incineration will pump over 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

·  As glass and aluminium are widely recycled, these will not be counted as waste if I recycle them.

·  I will use up any products in disposable bottles before switching to zero-waste alternatives as I don’t want to throw anything out before it is finished. These will not count towards the term’s waste as they were purchased before the challenge.

·  Obviously, I’m a student too so I do have a limited budget and, you guessed it, a degree to do which will affect what I can and can’t do in terms of reducing waste.

I have managed to convince my friends and fellow biologists Zach and Ellie to do this challenge with me. Feel free to join us even if it’s just for a day and let us know your experiences or if you have any ideas which might make our term even just a little bit easier. 

Wish us luck!

Further reading: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells