Towards a personal stewardship ethic – monthly sustainability challenge

We tend towards waste. As a nation, as a community, and in our personal lives, waste is ubiquitous and often imperceptible. That we can afford to discard is an unfortunate side effect of having a high quality of life. Waste is not always a bad thing, either. We’re comforted by the fact that our doctors use disposable needles, that food can be packaged and preserved, that soiled diapers can be discarded. Disposability is freedom from the tedious chores of our grandparents and great-grandparents. It is access to time that can be spent with our loved ones or engaged in more fruitful pursuits. But there is still plenty of unnecessary waste that exists purely for convenience.

Those of us who consider ourselves environmentalist, good stewards of the earth, are often just as guilty of waste, myself included. Over the next several months, I will be exploring ways to reduce my own waste production. Each month I will identify some aspect of my personal life that generates unnecessary waste and explore solutions. Plastic is my major target, but I will also be looking for other resources drains that could be made more efficient (or, if possible, eliminated).

Throughout this process I will keep three  principles in mind:

  1. Personal sustainability is a philosophy, not a solution for global problems. I have no grand illusions that replacing my light bulbs or cutting out plastic in my life is going to redress any of the major environmental problems in this world. Global problems require societal changes. However, in order to achieve larger societal changes, citizens need to develop and nurture a personal stewardship ethic.
  2. You cannot buy your way to sustainability. In some cases, leading a more sustainable life does involve buying new products, but rarely is conspicuous consumption part of a true stewardship ethic. It is changes in behavior that ultimately reduce waste. Solutions that involve significant financial investment are not practical.
  3. The math matters. Just because a certain solution claims to be “greener” does not make it so. Marketing is as prevalent in the environmental movement as anywhere else. An honest evaluation of a sustainability solution includes a full audit of the costs and benefits, in terms of time, money, and resource consumption.

So here’s my proposal: Each month I will identify a source of waste in my life and determine a practical, sustainable, and affordable solution. I will post an assessment which includes 1. the target behavior, 2. the problems associated with the target, 3. my personal solution, 4. the financial repercussions of that solution, 5. the time commitment associated with that solution, and 6. the potential waste reduction. Obviously, my solution is not everyone’s solution, and I encourage our readers to join in on this sustainability challenge. As an environmentally conscientious citizen, I’ve already incorporated many of the more conventional (and not so conventional) solutions into my life, so I will be focusing on more creative, unexpected, and rarely discussed ways to reduce waste.

I hope you’ll follow along and if you want to join in, feel free to let me know in the comments below. Follow me on twitter, @SFriedScientist, for more frequent project updates.


  1. Eric · May 1, 2012

    I’m just finishing up a job in the cafeteria at my university and I cornered my coworkers into a conversation earlier. We were talking about how their behavior might have changed since they started working in the cafeteria and not just eating. We definitely had altered some things after seeing the incredible amount of waste (food and paper/plastic/water wise) that goes into the dish room. I am all about personal responsibility like this monthly challenge.

    I think there’s still a lot of simple changes society as a whole can (and should) make though. All it takes is to look at a company like REI or Patagonia who are not only making substantial changes, but disclosing it all. Hopefully that pressures the larger impacters. There’s a lot of fat that can still be trimmed while maintaining our current standard of living in both the personal and organizational sectors.

    Those are good examples of purchasing conciously. When a company, REI, goes out of it’s way to disclose the expected product lifecycle, that helps you to be a smarter shopper.

    fixed links. ~ed.

  2. MrsGreen · May 4, 2012

    Wonderful challenge; I wish you well! We did a similar thing as a family back in 2008. Our goal for 2009 was to accumulate just one rubbish bin of landfill waste for the entire year and we managed it. It took a big lifestyle change, but like you are planning we changed one small thing every month to avoid overwhelm. Best of luck and I’ll keep following your progress 🙂

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