29 Mar 2019

Sustainability in the US vs. New Zealand

Posted in: Inspiring Action

The Intern Perspective

The Intern Perspective is a series showcasing fresh views of interns who are studying sustainability. These interns hold a unique position as they look to build on their theoretical knowledge and step into the workforce. We value supporting new talent in our industry, and want to hear their voice as the future of our workforce.

By Jill Humecke, Commercial Team Intern, from Augustana College, US

Jill at her deskI’ve recently arrived from the US to gain international experience in sustainability and am looking forward to learning from New Zealand businesses. In a short space of time, I’ve already noticed how different the views on sustainability are here, compared with the United States. Both consumers and suppliers in New Zealand are taking action towards becoming more sustainable.

For instance, I have been pleasantly surprised with how conscious New Zealand accommodation providers are about their environmental impacts, particularly around providing reusable products, or eliminating single-use waste. All the hostels I stayed at provided reusable dishes, silverware, and linens that guests are able to use and clean themselves. This might not even seem like an accomplishment to some people in New Zealand, but the lack of single-use plastic and disposable items was one of the first significant differences I noticed. It made me wonder why more services in the United States don’t offer these options. Unfortunately, the ‘throwaway’ culture is strong in the US. People have been conditioned to think that time is money and value convenience over environmental impacts. I must go out of my way to avoid buying products with plastic in them. It is ironic how inconvenient it has become to buy environmentally-friendly products in the United States. I would love to see more businesses advocating for less wasteful lifestyles.

Food waste separation for composting (rather than going to landfill) is commonplace in New Zealand and not in the US. As food waste decomposes in landfills it contributes even more greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. The US should see composting as an advantage to reducing overall waste volumes, since a significant percentage of landfill is made up of food waste.

Another contrast between NZ and the US is that NZ’s electricity generation is mainly from renewable energy sources. In comparison, renewable energy only accounts for a small fraction of the energy being produced in the US since most of our country continues to be dependent on fossil fuels.

I have had opportunities through my studies to gain hands-on experience learning how to make changes within my own life to conserve resources and live more sustainably. Some of my favorite experiences have included touring renewable energy sights, volunteering on a farm, and harvesting honey. Through my studies in environmental sciences and geography, I have learned so much about the world around me and how to make changes within my own life to reduce my environmental impact. Although I have been introduced to living a green lifestyle, and a handful of people from my hometown are advocating for more sustainable lifestyles, the United States needs to be doing much more at the national scale to decrease consumption and start living more sustainably.

Jill touring renewable energy sights, volunteering on a farm, and harvesting honey

Many Americans are not as concerned about the environmental catastrophe that we are facing as they should be. Part of this is dependent on who surrounds them, and personal experiences. If the people around you are not concerned or taking action to reduce their environmental impact, you might be less motivated to change your own lifestyle. But when the people around you begin to change their lifestyle, this can inform and motivate you to live more sustainably. In some cases living a wasteful life happens through ignorance, and many people in the US have just not been made aware of the environmental consequences of their choices. Increasing awareness about climate change and environmental issues has the potential to make a difference. However, awareness can only do so much. What really needs to happen after that is for citizens to take action.

One of the biggest barriers to action is a lack of incentive. In the US, a wasteful lifestyle has become so convenient that changing habits and living any other way seems like a burden. However, climate change is a long term problem that will affect many generations to come, so we need to overcome short-term thinking to develop long-term solutions. Right now, changing individual consumption behaviour is not something most people in the United States are willing to do without some incentive.

With all the differences in sustainability between New Zealand and the United States, I have seen similarities in technology dependence and the amount of energy being consumed. Both countries could still significantly decrease the amount of resources being used (which could also be said for many developed countries around the world). But overall, New Zealand has made great strides towards becoming a more sustainable country, and the United States can look to New Zealand as an example of how to transform a nation to become more sustainable.