Sweating the Small Stuff: Do Little Eco-Habits Add Up?

Image credit: Lifehacker

Recently my wife threw out a tube of toothpaste that she thought was empty. I disagreed, retrieved it from the trash can, and continued to squeeze out paste for another week-and-a-half. Obsessive? Perhaps. But unused tothpaste has always bugged me. And it made me think about other habits. From reusing plastic bags to easing off the gas at the stop sign near your house—most TreeHuggers probably have little eco-habits that, individually, make just a tiny impact on your overall environmental footprint. But do these little eco-habits add up, or are they a distraction from the bigger picture? Certainly the green media, TreeHugger and Planet Green included, loves to give out tips on not running the tap when you brush your teeth, or how to compost your condoms. And it's hard to argue with these things as individual habits. I mean, if someone has the choice between fully using the toothpaste, or throwing it out; between running the faucet or not running the faucet; or between using a plastic bag or not using a plastic bag, of course it is going to be better for the planet if they take the more responsible option.

These eco-habits only become a problem when they distract or confuse us about what our priorities should be. As George Monbiot has argued, the environmental movement's apparent obsession with plastic bags has turned the reusable tote into an icon of green living, even though its impact on our environmental footprint is negligible compared to cutting energy use, driving less, eating less meat, or any number of other actions. Monbiot was not, I think, saying that we should go back to using plastic bags. He was just saying that we should use reusable totes and then stop talking about them. There are bigger fish to fry. (And we should avoid at all costs the dangers of passive aggressive eco-preaching!)

Nevertheless, I would like to make one more argument for the little things. It is true that if everyone in the world started using reusable bags, and squeezing the toothpaste tube till there was nothing left (yes, I am obsessed with toothpaste), we would still be up a certain muddy-looking creek without a paddle. But those actions would not be happening in a vacuum—they would mark a fundamental shift in how we think about resources. You see a reusable tote isn't just about plastic bags—it's about rethinking our attitude to waste. Each time we consciously choose to use something as efficiently and responsibly as possible, we reflect a little on what it means to use up material goods. And it's here that I think the value in little habits lies—they act as a daily reminder that it is possible to do things differently.

So yes, I am going to keep rescuing unused toothpaste from the trash. I'm just not going to write about it on TreeHugger...

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