Sustaining The Earth: Are We Committed to Solve the Problem?

by | Jun 3, 2024 | Blog

South Island, New Zealand

         South Island, New Zealand

Flying to New Zealand gives one plenty of time to read, watch movies, reflect and even sleep. With my recent work and speaking engagements centered around sustainability, the “Below Net Zero”  documentary1 sparked my interest. The documentary is about how a carpet tile company found sustainable solutions to solve routine problems by changing its mindset.

Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface, became committed in the mid 1990s to view the sustainability of his company through a different lens; a lens that encompassed the “triple bottom line” of planet, people and profits to solve problems. It was an endeavor that resulted in the company achieving its climate carbon impact of “below net zero” by 2020. As one employee states in the documentary’s final minutes, “The question is not can we do it? But are you willing to do it?”

Respect Where We Live

We often focus on what we eat and grow as our main environmental issue and point of contention. But sustaining the earth goes beyond corporate sustainability platforms and regenerative agriculture practices. It starts with us. How we respect the environment, and its resources drives change … or not.

While one cannot directly compare the actions of New Zealand, a country of 5.3 million people (like South Carolina or Alabama) with the United States, there are practices we can consider, noting how New Zealand’s citizens respect their environment.

Waste Not Mindset

Looking at the statistics, waste is an issue in both countries. While the U.S. produces 268 million tons of waste annually or 1,642 pounds per person, New Zealand is not far behind with slightly less than 1,600 pounds per person. However, widespread recycling programs have been initiated across New Zealand with 97% of the population having recycling options.

Likewise, routine practices seem to be in place to reduce waste in creative ways. Being one who likes having a napkin, the habit of napkins not being offered with beverages on New Zealand Air did not go unnoticed. In casual fare restaurants, a single napkin usually came wrapped around the flatware, rather than made available through an on-table napkin container. Small but noticeable changes that can have lasting impact.

Pause on Plastic?

Paper bags made available to pack fruit and vegetablesThe use of plastic bags is routine for most of us. In fact, 500 billion plastic bags — one million bags per minute — were produced worldwide last year.2 This year, the worldwide use/abuse of plastic was a focal point for Earth Day. So, the first time I walked into the produce section of a New Zealand grocery store and saw small paper bags stationed among the bulk fruit section, it caught my attention.

Cauliflower in a New Zealand grocery storeWith further research, I discovered New Zealand became the first country to ban the use of individual plastic produce bags in supermarkets as of 2023. The only plastic use observed in grocery stores there was the five-pound bag of items like apples. But most produce was on shelves as is.

While some states and cities in the U.S. have taken a stand on plastic bag use, it’s unlikely we will ever see a countrywide restriction. But that should not stop us from evaluating our own use and reduce when we can. In Washington, D.C., and Colorado (two places I frequent) the use of plastic bags will cost you. Even though it’s a dime or less, it does promote the habit of using cloth bags. In New Zealand, most consumer goods stores don’t even bag your purchases. If you ask, it will be paper.

In addition to plastic bags, it’s estimated that 100 billion plastic beverage containers were sold last year in the U.S., equaling about 300 bottles per person.3 Despite recycling efforts, it’s reported that 95% of all plastics in the U.S. won’t be recycled. That’s a reality “check” for all of us.

Small Steps-Big Change?

Whether there’s legal restrictions or not on plastic use, our individual actions can lead to big change. Here are some of my goals and I hope you will join me:

  • Limit the use of in store plastic produce bags. It’s OK to have a loose lemon or two.
  • Be mindful of plastic bag use. While my husband and I keep bags in our vehicles and make a conscious effort to use them at supermarkets, a pharmacy or box store seems to not be on our list! (Note to self)
  • Refuse a bag if it’s a one or two item purchase. It helps the store and you. It speeds up check out and it’s one less item to discard!
  • Take count of individual plastic bottle use. If bottled or sparkling water is a top priority, look for reusable bottles or make your own sparkling water — a step that I’ve taken over the past three years. Not only do I drink more water, but my plastic bottle trash has reduced significantly.
  • Trade plastic for recycled aluminum cans for individual beverages when available.

Don’t Forget the Food!

It’s not just plastic. We love to throw away food. Over 40% of what’s in our landfills is plastic and food.4 With the continued rise in food costs, our goal to reduce our waste should be a top priority regardless of location.5 Bottom line, it takes a plan! Here’s some thoughts:

  • Check your refrigerator, freezer and pantry before heading to the store. You may discover a meal without a trip! My husband and I have been working on “eating from the freezer” before buying more.
  • Have a weekly plan in mind before you shop online or in the store. How many meals will be eaten at home … and for how many people?
  • Home composting canPrepare meals with leftovers in mind. Think of new creations or freeze extra portions for future meals. If you need inspiration, check out my RDN colleague Rosanne Rust’s Zero Waste Cooking for Dummies.6
  • Transform vegetable scraps into compost for a backyard garden or participate in a community composting project. Over the past two years, we have finally achieved this goal!

Are We Committed to Play?

Sustaining the Earth is complex, challenging and often contentious, but it is a reality! Whether we view our environment through the lens of a farmer, consumer or business owner, how we treat it affects all of us.

Perhaps, the biggest question when it comes to seeking sustainable solutions in whatever we do is “are we committed to solving the problem and not being the problem?” The final line in the Below Net Zero documentary challenges us …“Why not you? Why not us? You and us … (It’s the) greatest ‘play to win’ game of all time.” Are we committed to play?


1. Below Net Zero Documentary
2. Earth Day 2024,
3. Id.
4. “Curbing America’s Trash Production: Statistics and Solutions,” by Juliana McDonald, Feb. 17, 2023,
5. “Sustainability Starts At Home! It’s Time to Get Serious About Food Waste,” by Marianne Smith Edge, March 30, 2021.
6. “Zero Waste Cooking For Dummies,” by Rosanne Rust.