What’s On celebrates Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week with this handy guide to going green in the UAE, courtesy of eco-warrior Helena Carless.

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UAE eco-warrior Helena Carless, who works environmental outreach in Abu Dhabi, thinks it’s time to go back to basics to save energy, money and the planet.

With Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week starting (January 17 to 24), the hot topics of the moment centre around how to be green and live sustainably in the UAE. The attention that this and similar events bring to the issues is well needed, but it does pose the question: when did good old-fashioned common sense get coated in Fairtrade sugar, wrapped in FSC paper and presented as the latest lifestyle du jour?

Previous generations had a very different culture of consumption compared to where we find ourselves today; they were resource wise (only using what was needed, buying products that were made to last), resource efficient (“make do and mend”, recycling and upcycling, sharing with and borrowing from friends), locally loyal (supporting local business, the community and economy) and quality conscious (choosing goods for their real superiority or value such as craftsmanship). Back in their day this wasn’t called being sustainable, it wasn’t called being green, and it certainly wasn’t called eco living; it was just good old-fashioned common sense.

We live in a society driven by consumer culture where ‘stuff’ is bought to fuel contentment. But how much of what we buy do we really need (and if we’re brutally honest, really even want)? Impulse purchases, keeping up with the Joneses, shopping as leisure, shopping on the go – we’re working hard for our money and throwing it away. How much ends up unopened, unused and just taking up space? Even worse, how much ends up in the dustbin? One of the easiest ways to live more sustainably is simply to consume less; one way to consume less is to buy less. Buying less means more money in our pockets, less clutter in our lives and more time to focus on good relationships and life’s experiences, the root of real contentment. It’s an all round win, win.

Try it Set a 3-month challenge to cut out unnecessary purchases and keep a record of how much money you save. Downloading an app like Wally can help chart your progress. 

There are certain things we all need to buy, but one easy way to be more sustainable is to make better purchase decisions. The old proverb “you get what you pay for” often rings true, although the UAE certainly has its exceptions. Cheap “this season” clothes are cheap for a reason (the low wages paid to the workers who make them), cheap meat is cheap for a reason (factory farmed animals), cheap, disposable furniture is cheap for a reason (poor quality, unsustainably sourced materials). By buying – within our means – good quality products, from reputable suppliers and taking an interest in understanding how they are made, we can use our purchasing power for good.

One of the easiest ways to be more environmentally friendly is to be conscious of what you are consuming. Concerned about the amount of money you spend on groceries each week and how much gets thrown away? Then plan what you’re going to eat through the week and buy accordingly; you can save thousands each year. Bothered by your increasing utility bills? Understand your water and electricity usage and make a plan for how you’re going to use less (eg irrigation schedules for the garden, using air conditioning only when really necessary). It’s amazing how much can be saved – in resources, waste and finances – when a family of four just becomes aware of their consumption habits.

Try it Plan your meals for the month, shop with a list to match and watch the grocery bills plummet.

It’s all too easy to ‘nip to the mall’ and buy new whatever we want – from clothes to cookers, it can be selected, scanned and purchased in a matter of minutes. Encouragingly, whether it’s due to the repercussions of the financial crisis, the rise of social media or a mixture of both, the UAE has seen a resurgence of the make do and mend philosophy of yesteryear with people buying and selling all sorts of second-hand products in the markets and online, and learning or improving skills such as cooking, sewing and dressmaking. This is great on so many levels, but especially for our children who, bombarded with consumer culture from such an early age, benefit from seeing a healthy balance.

Try it Arrange a swap day with friends, or let other parents know that you’re happy for your child to receive “pre-loved” gifts at their next birthday. Save wrapping and use again, or even wrap in cloth with ribbons, which can be used time and time again.

Waste and, more specifically, the amount of water going into landfill is a huge problem in the UAE. In fact the UAE is one of the world’s largest per capita producers of waste with an estimated 2kg of waste per person per day in Abu Dhabi alone (the OECD average is 1.5kg). Much of this waste, estimates are around three quarters, ends up in dumpsites – we are literally drowning in our own waste. By buying and consuming less we can already reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill. Getting savvy with waste – recycling, upcyling and composting – can help relieve the problem even more. Also, don’t forget one man’s junk is another man’s treasure and you’d be surprised what other people can find a home for.

Try it Bokashi bins are great for home composting and are small enough to sit on a balcony. Take My Junk will collect most unwanted household and office items – these guys take literally everything.

Similarly to water, in the UAE we’re using far more energy than we can sustainably source. But with a more efficient approach to energy usage in the home, we can save a lot, both in terms of energy and money, quite easily. ‘Turn it off’ – be it lighting, cooling or appliances, is a simple yet effective action. Another way is to ensure our appliances and lighting are energy efficient and to ensure our air conditioning units are properly maintained.

Try it Turn the thermostat of the air conditioning up by 2 to 3 degrees. The difference in temperature probably won’t be felt, but could save hundreds of dirhams per year.

Day to day, the easiest way to be more sustainable is to think about two main principles: be conscious of what we take out of the world and be mindful of what we put back in. Starting with these, the rest will fall into place. After all, it’s just common sense…

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