As a university student, the prospect of being eco-friendly can often feel overwhelming as well as expensive. It is, understandably, difficult to try, and be both sustainable and stick to a budget. However, it is important to note that every small change a person makes can benefit the environment, and it is not necessary to change one’s whole lifestyle overnight. The journey to living plastic-free and eco-friendly is taken in small steps. Professor Peter le Roux, an Ecology and Biodiversity Professor at the Department of Plant and Soil Science, who focuses on community ecology, with particular attention to interspecific interactions and the impacts of global environmental change, offered suggestions to students and suggests focusing on the four Rs. By trying the following tips, even if only incrementally, any student can start living an eco-friendly lifestyle.
Reduce: Plastic, Food, and Water.
Reducing plastic waste can seem challenging, especially when it comes to shopping. However, every supermarket has a way to lessen plastic consumption. Fresh produce sections contain weighable fruit and veg options that are not covered in plastic. When going to weigh the produce, simply ask for no plastic bag. This not only lessens plastic used but also reduces food waste, as a person can pick how many pieces of fruit or veg that they want – instead of buying a whole box and letting some of it perish.
“Lynnwood Housewife Market”, for example, has a wide variety of fruit and veg, with most having no plastic packaging. There is also the option to weigh-in without a plastic bag.
The most important aspect of reducing plastic consumption and food waste is taking responsibility and putting in a bit more effort. Instead of purchasing pre-cut and peeled vegetables, pick out a few from the fresh produce section – which will also help products stay fresher for longer as they are not cut. Another way to reduce waste, if space is available, is to compost garden and food waste, as Prof. le Roux states that composting “reduces the amount of waste entering our landfills (and reduces methane emissions from landfills) and the resulting compost is a useful product (and an excellent alternative to artificial fertilizers)”. This is important as nitrogen and phosphate-based synthetic fertilizers leach into groundwater and increase its toxicity, causing water pollution.
Another way to eliminate the amount of plastic-covered products bought is to grow the produce yourself. Herbs are the easiest, with mint, rocket, parsley, and oregano being the easiest to plant indoors – and are relatively low maintenance. Herbs are ideal for university students as they can be placed in a windowsill that gets full sun, and the soil kept moist (dependent on the needs of different plants). Prof. le Roux suggests that, if there is a garden that a person can plant in, the best way to help the environment and maintain the local ecosystem is by “growing non-invasive plants, for example instead of lawn, that will support pollinator species” and reduce air pollution. A list of the best indigenous, water-friendly plants to plant in South Africa can be found here: https://www. groundedlandscaping.co.za/top-14-water-wise-plants-garden/
In South Africa, the majority of litter on beaches is plastic (94%) with 77% of that being single-use plastic, that cannot be recycled. This creates the problem of plastic filling up in dumping sites, either being burned or buried. Single-use plastic stays on our planet forever and eliminating the use thereof can greatly benefit the environment. As students, the first step that can be taken is to use Tupperware for home-made food, instead of buying something on campus that comes wrapped in plastic. Metal straws are also the best alternative for plastic straws, as they can be washed and stored in a bag.
As some students’ parents buy their food in bulk at the start of the month, the question of freezing food arises. Instead of using single-use freezer bags, buy reusable food wraps that will last far longer. Greenlight, a South African online store that promotes sustainable products, sells unbleached, chemical-free bee’s wax wraps that can be used not only in the kitchen but also as firelighters or placemats.
For students, recycling at a large scale can be difficult – especially when kitchens are small and having different bins is not viable. The easiest place to start is by separating paper from other waste – having a paper bin near a person’s workspace will be ideal. Mpact Recycling has paper drop-off zones all over Pretoria, the closest to the university being by Laerskool Pretoria Oos – just across the main gate. If further recycling can be done, such as separating glass and tin, Sasol Hatfield has recycling bins that the public can go drop their recycling off at.
However, if travelling is not a possibility, glass and tin can be recycled and reused at home. Glass jars can be repurposed in many ways, including used as a vase, organizer or to store certain food items. Tins can make for good planters, just as long as a few holes are poked in the bottom for drainage.
Refuse: The New R
In today’s climate, refusing to use plastic is one of the first steps a person can take to change the use of single-use plastic. Prof. le Roux states that refusing is an important and much-needed addition to the list of Rs. Refusing a plastic bag at checkers, a plastic straw at McDonald’s, or extra packaging are some of the ways Prof. le Roux suggests minimizing our general waste. While most popular restaurants and fast-food chains in South Africa have begun offering paper straws and sustainable packagings, such as Wimpy and KFC, McDonald’s has not. By refusing to use single-use plastics, companies may come to the realization that alternatives are needed. Uber Eats South Africa has implemented a default “no utensils and single-use items”, with the option to request them if they are needed. Unfortunately, some companies still include plastic utensils and sauce wrappers, however, a delivery note can be added to make sure they are not included. Another simple way to refuse plastic is to order a takeaway cappuccino without the plastic lid or simply ask for it to be put in a reusable travel mug.
Prof. le Roux further suggests that “any measures that lower our electricity consumption, for example, opening and closing windows and curtains at the right time of the day to reduce our reliance on heating and cooling, or make our transportation more efficient, like carpooling, make both environmental and financial sense”. As students, every small step towards being sustainable and environmentally friendly counts in the battle against pollution and climate change. These tips are only a starting point into a wholly plastic- and waste-free lifestyle. On a corporate level, however, raising awareness and signing petitions are the best ways to get companies to offer sustainable alternatives.