"Greening" the Crisis: Turning Trouble into Opportunity

| 2nd October 2012
The winner of the 2012 ICUN /Thomson Reuters Environmental Media Award is Diogo Verissimo - a conservation biologist from Portugal. The award, now in its 10th year, was hosted for the first time this year on Facebook where Diogo's essay - one of 162 submitted - polled a staggering 5,352 of the 26,274 votes cast. Here is his winning essay.

An economic crisis is a hardship but also an opportunity. Whether you manage a household or a multinational corporation there are two ways to balance your account: increase revenue or decrease expenses. In this context, the economic downturn might just be the incentive we need to make us tackle the biggest challenge to environmental sustainability: waste.


The economic crisis afflicting most of Europe and North America has had some disastrous implications. Across various countries, people have seen their salaries slashed, retirement age raised, holidays cut and working hours increased, to try to tackle the unthinkable threat of national bankruptcy. Nevertheless, there is a silver lining to this dismal scenario. More than ever there is an incentive to be efficient and efficiency is a great friend of sustainability. In fact, efficiency can even help us tackle what is perhaps the single most pressing issue in sustainable development: waste.


If you feel waste is not such a big deal, then please continue reading. Let us take two of the most basic human needs: food and water.


Last year, 1.3 billion tons of food - the equivalent to 25,000 times the weight of the Titanic and about one third of the global food production - was wasted. That is just under 200kg per person per year.


Up to a third of our clean, drinkable water is wasted through leakage. A single leaky tap can waste more than 20 litres of water every day. In the United States, households waste an average of 1 trillion litres of water per year, enough to fill 40,000 Olympic-sized pools.


This colossal waste is, besides unethical, also highly costly. In the United States alone, where the most comprehensive data is available, $40 billion is spent every year on food that is not eaten. This is four times more than the profit made by Facebook last year. To this we must then add the $750 million per year that the government must spend to dispose of all this waste, usually through landfills.


Also in the United States, families spent $13 billion every year on water they never use. That is 26 times the profit of Nike.


The numbers might seem overwhelming, but they shouldn’t. The enormous amount of waste is matched by an equally huge potential and, given the economic context, a growing need for improvement. It is in the hands of each and every one of us to change towards a more environmental and economically sustainable lifestyle. All we need are small gestures such as using your creativity to make a meal out of leftovers or closing the tap when brushing your teeth.


We can, and should, turn this economic crisis into an opportunity for environmental sustainability.


Diogo Verissimo is currently undertaking a PhD at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent.


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