Most of us understand sustainability to run the gamut of environmental benefits. Saving the trees, the Earth, and the animals may be our primary goals when we decide to pursue green behavior, but we can achieve many different personal health benefits as well — making the point of sustainability hit a bit closer to home. The fact is that our planet is a living, breathing network of organisms, and even our small-scale actions may have a butterfly effect. Here, we’ll examine the ways in which we can improve our health, from the personal decisions we all make individually to the grander scheme of urban or regional planning.
Every day we are bombarded with suggestions of different ways in which we can make our lives greener. Recycling, using less, and purchasing products manufactured with recycled and sustainable materials can all make the Earth healthier. Here are a few ways you can go about improving your health and that of those around you.
Reusable Water Bottles. Very few of us are aware of the chemical additives used in the production of plastic bottles for water, soft drinks, and other beverages. These additives include many that are considered potential human carcinogens and that can cause a slew of other health problems. Purchasing a reusable metal water bottle instead of bottled water will not only keep more plastic out of landfills, it will also limit your exposure to these chemical additives and encourage you to drink more water. Bottled water more often than not comes straight from a tap, as well. Filtering tap water and carrying it in a reusable bottle will cover all of your bases and conserve resources.
Buying Organic. For very similar reasons, buying organic products can be a great choice to make on a personal level. Fewer artificial pesticides and toxins will enter your body because of the food you eat. Increased demand for organic products in a free market will also reduce the amounts of pesticides that make their way into water sources. This in turn will reduce the effect of pesticides on aquatic ecosystems, and it will improve the quality of our drinking water. Organic doesn’t only apply to food, however. Choosing organic clothing and products (such as beauty and cleaning products) will thus limit the amounts of harmful toxins and chemicals that get introduced into your body, some of which cause allergic reactions as well as serious health issues.
Using Less. In general, one of the most sustainable actions you can take is merely to consume less. Remember that behind every product you buy is a process used to create, package, and transport it. These processes involve the generation of chemical waste that will get dumped into water and ground systems and smoke and pollutants that will diminish air quality; whatever is unused (including packaging) will find its way into a landfill, a point source for pollution of water systems. Your body will absorb the chemical additives in plastic packaging, you will ultimately breathe those pollutants, and the water you drink is at risk of contamination. By consuming less, purchasing locally, and buying in bulk when you can, you decrease your exposure to harmful chemicals and the byproducts of mass production.
Although collectively we can make a difference by making greener decisions in our homes, we can take steps to increase the overall health of cities and regions. Educating yourself about some of these initiatives can help you to act effectively as an informed member of a community looking for ways to collectively improve our personal and environmental well-being.
Sustainable Urban Design. This term, of course, covers a broad range of measures that cities and regions can take to improve the green nature of their communities. The ways in which we structure our environments have a dramatic effect on both our ecosystems and the health of our residents. As an example, as we increase the amount of impervious surface (via roads, large parking lots, etc.) in an area, additional runoff causes major flooding, which often leads to an overflow of untreated liquid waste reaching the sources of our drinking water. During such events, additional resources are needed to clean polluted water sources, and residents become at risk. Reducing storm runoff through sustainable design is one way to improve water quality and community health.
Better Building Practices. Using recycled materials, as well as low-impact and renewable resources, to build homes and businesses does many of the things we've already discussed: it reduces the byproducts of manufacturing in a way that improves water and air quality. Interior design practices can follow the same lead; for example, using low- or zero-VOC paints and other sustainable materials will still create aesthetics for a space without exposing occupants to harmful chemicals. Practices such as installing green roofs can also increase the air quality of the community, reduce temperatures in the area, and provide a place for community gardens and green spaces.
Obviously, we can practice sustainable living and design in many ways that improve the quality of our air, water, and food sources, but these are a few small changes you can make in your daily life to promote a healthier community and way of life.