Earth Day diaries: Futile venture or step in right direction?

The world comes together to observe Earth Day today (22 April). What started as a national initiative in the United States to call for legislation to protect the Earth has now expanded into a global movement for transformational change, involving every echelon of society from the individual to non-governmental organisations. 

This Earth Day, TheHomeGround Asia writers Maisie Leong and Liew Ming En took up the mantle and embarked on a week-long challenge to uncover their most environmentally-damaging behaviours, and attempted to change them over the course of seven days. Did they succeed? 

The theme for 2021 is Restore Our Earth, focusing on how natural processes, emerging green technology, and innovative thinking can restore the world’s ecosystems. As consumers, Earth Day calls upon each of us to use our voices for the collective good of our planet, to make a change, and to call for action.

Our chosen action leading up to 22 April was to tackle our consumption habits and as with any experiment, a baseline was first established. To do so, we used the Ecological Footprint Calculator, which assesses individuals’ carbon footprint by calculating their personal Earth Overshoot Day – the date at which humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.

Over the years, the global Earth Overshoot Day has gotten earlier and earlier. In 2020, it fell on 22 August, which means that past that date, resources used are on borrowed time. 

Earth Day
Earth Overshoot Day is the date at which humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. (Source: Canva)

With that in mind, we calculated our personal Earth Overshoot Days to get an idea of how environmentally friendly (or not) our daily living habits were. 

It should be noted that the Ecological Footprint Calculator is not necessarily designed for a local (Singapore) context. Additionally, it is not all-encompassing, although it does take into account a range of factors, including mode of transportation, eating habits, energy usage, consumption habits, type of housing, etc. Thus, all calculations done are an approximation of our actual carbon footprint. 

Baseline ecological footprint

Liew Ming En: I consider myself to be fairly environmentally conscious; I shop minimally, purchase second-hand items whenever possible, eat a relatively meat-lite diet, and opt for packaging-free and/or low waste items in my daily lifestyle products. But I do have some environmental vices, with some of the most prominent ones being driving, takeaway meals, and food delivery. 

Unfortunately, my own calculations proved to be astoundingly atrocious, and far exceeded my own expectations of how ecologically damaging my behaviours are. 

My personal Earth Overshoot Day is 19 April, meaning that as you are reading this, I am already using up resources exceeding my supposed personal quota for the year. If everyone on the planet lived like me, a whopping 3.4 Earths will be needed to support humanity. 

While I had always known that I could do more for the Earth, it has never crossed my mind prior to this exercise just how much more needs to be done. With this newfound revelation in mind, I set myself three personal goals for the week (13-20 April): 

  1. Go meat-free but still eating seafood and dairy; a pescatarian diet, basically.
  2. Reduce my reliance on cars and opt for public transport, whenever possible.
  3. Reduce the amount of packaging waste I generate by dining in when possible, bring my own takeout containers, and avoid ordering beverages when out if it comes in disposable cups.

Maisie Leong: Unlike Ming En, I don’t have the best track record when it comes to my carbon footprint. While I don’t drive, I’m guilty of taking the (more than occasional) Grab, and do takeaway quite a few of my meals, as well. I avoid straws when I can, and have a reusable cup holder sleeve for drinks. I don’t have the habit of sleeping in an air-conditioned room, but I have been turning to air-conditioning more frequently of late, due to the heat and humidity. I’m generally careful with my device-usage, taking care to turn off lights and fans when they’re not in use. My biggest vice is probably takeout. 

A quick calculation reveals that my personal Earth Overshoot Day is a dismaying 22 April, and a startling 3.3 Earths would be required to sustain the rest of the Earth’s population if they share similar consumption habits. It’s a sobering thought. 

My goals this week? I’m not gunning for radical change, because I believe it’s more sustainable to work on smaller changes that I can incorporate into my everyday routine. I resolve to dine in as much as possible, reduce the number of cabs I take, refuse plastic cutlery, and bring my own box for food if I have to get takeaways. I’m also determined to avoid buying drinks that don’t come in a reusable cup (goodbye bubble tea!). 

Tuesday, 13 Apr 2021

ME: With my mind fresh from the shocking knowledge of my personal Earth Overshoot Day, motivation was high for the start of my one-week challenge. 

It is a work-from-home day today, so I dodge the dilemma of public transport versus driving in the morning. Brunch comprised leftovers from the day before, packed in reusable tupperware, no less! Dinner was equally successful, I whipped up a quick vegetarian meal with ingredients I already had in the fridge – organic tempeh, mushrooms and asparagus.

Earth Day Diaries: frying tempeh
Frying up some organic tempeh for a vegetarian meal.

Unfortunately, post-dinner saw me sending my partner, who had stayed over the night before, back to his current abode at Nanyang Technological University, a whopping 26.9km away from my house. That makes for a 53.8km-round-trip in the car. 

Could it be avoided? Perhaps, but at the cost of copious amounts of time spent on public transport (approximately two hours one-way), or the loss of quality time with a loved one if we opted to not meet that week. 

The day ends with me pondering the conundrum: Is a sacrifice of (quality) time the least I can do for the planet? 

ML: I’m working from home today, which means that I don’t have to spend time travelling, and I’m starting the day on an energy-efficient note! 

Lunch features a strange assortment of foods designed to make me feel fake healthy: Pre-packaged Korean seafood pancakes paired with fresh kale pepper salad and a few slices of sausage. 

I’m probably classified as a digital native, which means I’m pretty much on my phone when I’m not working, whether it’s scrolling mindlessly through videos on Facebook Watch or stealing a quick 20-minute episode of my favourite show on Netflix during dinner. I’ve been telling myself to pick up less device-heavy habits, such as reading more paperbacks or crafting, but I haven’t gotten round to that just yet. 

Dinner features home-cooked food, courtesy of my family. That means reusable cutlery and plates, thankfully. As I eat, I reflect on how hard it is for a person to go meat-free, especially if the people they live with don’t wish to embark on that lifestyle. 

I decide to rely on the fan instead – the afternoon showers render air-conditioning redundant, and I relish the chance to escape the arctic temperatures of the office any time anyway. However, I succumb at night, and tell myself that the air-conditioning is really to pamper my dog. I think. 

Wednesday, 14 Apr 2021

ME: The day does not start out well as I succumb to the conveniences of a private vehicle. My dad sends me to work, as he usually does. Again, time proves to be the real challenge here, an hour less on transportation means an extra hour of sleep for me, a much-needed commodity as an adult. 

Lunch goes a little better; having a companion around in the same boat definitely helps. Since we were both in the office, Maisie and I decided on Greendot, a vegetarian joint for lunch. Thankfully, the eatery does their part to be eco-friendly, and beverages come in reusable cups and without straws, which means I get to enjoy my beverage guilt-free! 

Determined not to fail on the transport front yet again, I opt to take the bus home after having grilled fish for dinner with some friends. 

ML: The bubble tea deprivation is real. I have vegetarian food for lunch with Ming En – a rather delicious choice of Greendot’s laksa. Sometime during our conversation I think of the many, many drink options we have (our office is at Paya Lebar) and brighten up… Till I remember that I didn’t bring my own bottle. Treating yourself is a much-needed form of self-care, but saving the environment is more important. 

One thing that strikes me is also how changing one’s habits – even when it comes to simple things like bringing your own reusable box for lunch – takes conscious effort. 

Earth Day Diaries: vegetarian laksa from Greendot
Our bowls of vegetarian laksa from Greendot, in our attempt to eat less meat.

Thursday, 15 Apr 2021

ME: Little victories all-around today, since it’s yet another work-from-home day. Nothing much to report, besides hearty, home-cooked vegetarian meals. 

ML: I have a morning meeting at Buona Vista, and rush on the train to make it there on time. Breakfast is a hearty Chicken McMuffin. After an invigorating meetup, I’m about to head home, but decide to work at a café nearby as it begins to rain. I take home a slice of cake for my family. Unfortunately, as this work situation was unplanned, I neglected to bring a box for my takeout – strike one! To console myself, I dine in and have kway chap, a comforting bowl of soup noodles, for lunch. 

Friday, 16 Apr 2021

ME: Henceforth marks the beginning of my abject failures. Today is a busy one, with two events to attend and a deadline to meet. Feeling the pressure of time, I take a grab to NEX in the morning to meet my interviewee. My small (and only) effort for the day involves ordering a hot coffee instead of iced – a feeble attempt to avoid the plastic cup the latter would have come in, otherwise. 

Later, I take a Grab back home for lunch and work on my article a little. Deciding that I have no time to cook, I instead resort to the quickest meal I can think of making –  chicken pies that I had frozen a few days prior. There and then, I take my first bite of meat in four days, but there is no joy in that moment, merely a gnawing sense of guilt in the pit of my stomach, even as I justify to myself that it is an unavoidable necessity given my packed schedule for the day. 

The sins continue to pile up, as I have all but given up by this point. This could be my cheat day, I tell myself. I drive to and from my second event, and to my dinner plans later at night, as well.

Earth Day Diaries: Xiao Long Bao from Ding Tai Fund=g
I succumbed to the temptations of Din Tai Fung’s xiao long bao (soup dumplings) for dinner.

And since I have already broken all but one of my goals for the day, I justify to myself that this could be my cheat day for the week. Dinner was at Din Tai Fung, and what’s a meal there without their famous soup dumplings?

Alas, it has been a grand failure of a day, but I’ll do better tomorrow, I tell myself. That’s what matters, right? 

ML: A busy day. I’m determined to avoid takeaways today, so I dine in for lunch and have a quick burger… Which comes in disposable packaging. There’s no winning, is there?

I’d originally planned on taking public transport for an afternoon meeting at Orchard, but time’s a little tight, so I end up Grabbing there.

Earth Day Diaries: Mom's Touch meal
My chicken burger meal from Mom’s Touch, which comes in disposable packaging. How much waste can we reduce when it comes to dining habits?

My interviewee and I have a good chat, and she shows me her reusable metal bubble tea cup, complete with a straw. I briefly contemplate getting one but decide that I don’t drink enough bubble tea to utilise it fully. Perhaps I can use a flask instead?

Spent the afternoon’s meetings at the same café (which thankfully has good coffee) and wondered about the carbon footprint of the daily cup of joe that many of us indulge in.

Earth Day Diaries: glass bottle
A glass bottle I bring with me, on the chance that I can’t finish my drink.

Weekend, 17 and 18 April 2021

ME: As a homebody, the weekends pass by uneventfully, and I cook most of my meals as well (seafood and vegetables only!). It was, however, my brother’s birthday, and I had dinner out together with my family on Saturday. We drove, but I figured it was okay since there were five people in the car, so the carbon cost spreads out a little across us. 

Dinner was at a Middle-Eastern restaurant, and I stayed well away from red meats and poultry, a feat made easy by the vast array of vegetarian-friendly dishes available. Apart from a few other short trips out with the car, the weekends went by smoothly. I even brought my own Tupperware for takeout on Sunday, something I had never found the courage to do before for fear of judgement. This, I think, is something I will strive to continue doing even after the challenge is over. 

ML: This weekend’s a busy one. Running late for a lunch meetup, I hop into a Grab. After much discussion we decide on MOS Burger. My meal is served using disposable packaging (a paper-wrapped burger, and a paper cup for my drink), but at least we’re dining in, so we save a plastic bag. That helps, right? 

Given the heavy downpour that awaits us when we exit, I decide to take a Grab to another friend’s place. I spend the time working, and (guiltily, might I add) we end up ordering in for dinner. I do opt for fish, though. Thankfully, I fare better on Sunday, staying in for the whole day. 

My goal to cut back on taking cabs is not going as planned.

Monday, 19 Apr 2021

ME: It’s hard to muster the motivation to wake up early on a Monday, and I find myself in the car once again as my dad sends me to work. That extra hour of sleep is proving to be my kryptonite. Lunch didn’t go much better, but I’ll leave Maisie to speak more about that. I do take the train home and cook my own dinner though, so there’s that. 

ML: At this point, we’ve changed our article to ‘Ways we failed our environmental challenge this week’. Boxes have been discarded. Tears shed. Burgers and shrimp consumed, amid the tell-tale crinkles of paper and a lot of guilt. Our lunch for the day? MOS Burger. 

Earth Day Diaries: MOS Burger meal
Our MOS Burger meal, featuring burgers, sides and a drink. We tried. We really did.

We opted to dine in, only to realise that all our food was served in disposables. A boo-boo on our part, for not realising this earlier. 

The biggest (pun intended) takeaway? Convenience is a huge factor that limits our efforts to go green. Adopting a truly sustainable lifestyle is a challenge, and it’s one that takes conscious, deliberate change.

Tuesday, 20 Apr 2021

ME: The long-awaited last day, and a last ditch effort to salvage the challenge. Tuesdays mean that we’re working from home, and thus, I save myself the guilt of taking a private vehicle to work. 

Earth Day Diaries: pescatarian-friendly pasta
A quick and easy pescatarian-friendly pasta, with mushrooms, spinach, scallops, squid, and egg.

I whipped up some simple vegetarian meals once again for brunch and dinner, and go to sleep that night with my guilt very slightly assuaged. 

ML: One last chance to save this article. Working from home means a quick homemade brunch: Avocado slices, ham and salad on a halved croissant. I do have to rush for an interview in the afternoon though, and so I take… a Grab. Feeling guilty, I opt for a 10-minute trek to the nearest train station to get home after the interview.  

Grabbing a walk instead of a Grab.
Earth Day Diaries homemade brunch
Ending on a (relatively) good note with homemade food.

Final Results

At the end of the challenge, both of us retook the ecological footprint calculator, factoring in the changes that we made, to determine if such small behavioural changes can actually make a difference. 

ME: Frankly, with the amount of mishaps and blunders across the week, I wasn’t expecting to see a huge difference at all. Much to my surprise, however, my Earth Overshoot Day was extended by nearly a full month, until 18 May! 

And while this is still not ideal, it just goes to show that small, imperfect changes can add up to make a larger difference. If nothing else, the week has forced me to take a long, hard look at actions I have long since taken for granted. Driving, in particular, is a difficult vice to give up.

When I first learned about sustainability, I made a few radical changes to my lifestyle, such as switching over to using bar soaps, and reusable menstrual products. I figured that with these actions, I was already doing my part for the environment, and didn’t think twice about how much more still needs to be done, until this week. 

Ultimately, I believe it is the little things that matter. The decisions we make at different points throughout the day, while seemingly inconsequential, does culminate into significant change. And when you take into account all seven billion individuals taking the step to make just one better decision a day, watershed occurrences can very well happen. 

ML: Being confronted with the reality of your actions is scary but necessary. 

While I didn’t bring my own reusable boxes out, I did compel myself to dine in wherever possible, instead of opting for takeout. I also succeeded in avoiding drinks that come in disposable packaging, except for dine-in occasions. My Achilles heel? Reducing my habit of taking cabs, which I see as a long-term challenge for myself.  

A recalculation of my Earth Day activities suggests that my Earth Overshoot Day under new consumption habits is 7 June. I thought that I had a relatively environmentally friendly routine but this week has been an awakening. Up to this point, for instance, I’d never considered how energy-efficient my transport choices were. Aside from obvious changes such as avoiding plastic waste, a lot of the deeper changes that make a difference involve modifications to one’s lifestyle and habits, that really add up in the long run. 

For more information about Earth Day and how you can make a difference, visit Earth Day’s website here.

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