Subtraction Is Action!

On February 3, 2022, as part of its climate series, Cathance River Education Alliance and Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust hosted a program on action by ‘subtraction.’ We often think of solving problems by adding something – technology, infrastructure, and so on. This session’s speakers explore how to live more sustainably through subtraction. Below, you can watch the session (at the bottom of this post – note: the recording starts late, several minutes into the program), read summary highlights, find resources to learn more, and consider suggestions on how to take action.

Our guests were:

Highlights of the session include:

  • Leidy Klotz has conducted research confirming that most people’s natural tendency is to solve problems by adding rather than taking away. Yet subtraction is often a very effective approach to making things better. ‘Subtracting’ can be applied to our personal lives, our institutions, even ideas.
  • How to ‘subtract’
    • Remove barriers first, then incentivize the desired behavior.
      • Example: To reduce waste created by disposable food takeout containers…first, make sure health regulations don’t prevent use of reusable takeout food containers (remove the barrier). Then, incentivize reusable containers by making them free, while charging for disposable containers.
      • Make things easy (e.g. make compost bucket easy to access, keep refillable containers in your car)
    • Create new habits
      • Remind yourself to think about options for subtracting FIRST when confronted with a problem.
      • Make a ‘stop doing’ list instead of a ‘to do’ list (e.g. if you want to reduce household waste, stop buying single use containers such as bottled water)
      • Try to remove, rather than add, physical things. (Example: If you’re buying storage containers for stuff, instead, consider giving away things that aren’t being used).
    • Opportunities for ‘subtraction’ at the national level
      • Remove subsidies/incentives for fossil fuel companies
      • Divest from fossil fuel companies
      • Instead of trying to remove CO2 from the atmosphere using technology, restore deforested areas that do this naturally (i.e. subtract adverse human impacts on vital planetary systems)
  • Share the impact of subtraction – others can’t always ‘see’ that you’re reducing your food waste or not putting fertilizers and pesticides on your lawn. So, how do we make subtraction visible, to influence others? Talking it up is one good option!
  • Chrissy Adamowicz of the Natural Resources Council of Maine explained Maine’s new EPR law (Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging and Reducing Packaging Waste) which requires large companies to pay towns to manage their packaging waste. Goal is to save municipal recycling programs which are threatened by disruptions to the global recycling economy.
    • Packaging represents 40% of the waste stream. Lots of plastic.
    • Maine’s EPR law is the first in the U.S. Similar laws in place around the world. In Canada, 500 companies pay for Canada’s recycling programs.
  • Support the re-use and re-fill economy
  • Support the circular economy
  • Change your habits and remove barriers to your new habits
    • Buy local instead of ordering online – keep your money in the local economy.
      • EPA’s WARM model to figure out that eliminating packaging same as removing 166K cars from the road
      • See Upstream report for research on the impact of reusables vs disposables
    • EPA’s Waste Reduction model (WARM) – tool that calculates benefits of alternative waste management practices (emissions reductions, energy savings, etc).
      • NRCM used this tool to learn that if Maine recycled its packaging by 50% or more, this would be the equivalent of taking 166,000 cars off the road.

Suggested homework

  • Can you reduce the number of miles you drive this week (subtract trips/miles)?
  • Consider the Buyerarchy of Needs – can you apply it to something you need?
  • Watch the David Attenborough film – A Life on Earth
Take Action!
Additional Resources – EPA tool for calculating benefits of alternative waste management – NRCM webpage on Maine’s EPR law and recycling options
Grain Bowls, by Anna Shillinglaw Hampton – Tim Glidden’s recommended cookbook for preparing small portion meals
David Attenborough: A Life on Earth – documentary about changes David Attenborough has experienced in his lifetime. Also available on Netflix.