Some time ago we used to buy dairy free milk in those shelf-stable cartons, also called aseptic cartons. We bought many of these cartons every week and we consumed them quite quickly, especially considering that most of the time it was only for the two of us.

I knew those cartons were not the best option because they are made of layers of different materials: paper, plastic, and aluminium and they are hard to recycle. I wasn’t happy with my choice and I knew I had to stop that habit but I was in the process of implementing other changes around the house and I had to set some priorities.

In the meantime, before I threw them into the recycling bin, I used to remove the plastic lid (which I put in a separate bigger plastic container) and flatten them to save some space, however every time I emptied my bin into the big council bin I noticed majority of the items in the recycling bin were those milk cartons. Then I realised that by changing this one habit, we would massively reduce the amount of waste we were sending to the recycling bin.

In this journey trying to live a more sustainable life, we sometimes arbitrarily decide what changes to implement based on information and ideas we collect from different sources, however not all the changes are the same, some will have a more positive impact than others and that’s what I want to write about this week.

Pareto principle

Pareto principle or the 80-20 rule states that 80% of the results come from only 20% of the actions. For example, his creator Vilfredo Damaso Pareto observed that 80% of land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, he also noticed 20% of the pea plants in his garden generated 80% of the healthy pea pods. Eventually he found that he could apply this “universal” rule in many other instances and the principle was born.

Today the Pareto Principle is well known and its uses are endless because it can be applied to so many aspects of life. One of the common applications of this rule is to improve productivity.

Back to the example at the beginning of the post, I could say 80% of my waste in the recycling bin came from only 20% of the products I was buying, including the milk cartons.

This of course doesn’t apply to everything in life and the percentages are not always exact 80% and 20%, but it is an excellent guide to focus on what brings you better results in whatever goal you are trying to achieve.

How to use it

I love the fact that we can use this principle to help us decide where to start or how continue our green journey getting the most out of our decisions. Let’s look at some simple steps:

1. Find what you want to focus on

Trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle means you can change things in so many areas of your life, so the first step is to decide which area you want to improve. For example, you can focus on reducing waste, plastic, electricity, water, petrol, paper etc.

Depending on the area you could also simplify the process by splitting it into the places and activities you usually perform. For instance you could concentrate on reducing waste at work first. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about your waste at home, it just means that you go one step at a time.

When we try to change many things at the same time, especially if it involves forming new habits, things can get more difficult and lengthy. Remember it is not a competition, this is your journey and you define what’s the best way to organise your strategy so that it gives you more chances to succeed.

2. Make a list

Create a list of the things you are currently doing in that particular area and that you’d love to improve. Following the example about plastic waste at work, your list might look something like this:

  • Stop using straws
  • Stop buying bottled water/drinks.
  • Avoid prepackaged snacks
  • Reduce take away food and drinks that come in plastic.
  • Stop using disposable cutlery
  • Stop using plastic bags

3. Find the pattern

Using the 80-20 rule focus on observation. Based on your daily habits and routines try to identify which changes will give you the majority of the positive results.

Following the same example, I could put it this way: identify which of your daily activities generate the majority of your plastic waste at work.

You may already have a good idea about the numbers, but if you are not too sure one easy way to do this is to observe your usual behaviour for one week (without changing anything) and write down how many times you’ve used any of these items, you could even collect them if practical. You may find out something like this:

  • Straws: 1
  • Bottled water/drinks:2
  • Snacks:1
  • Take away lunch: 5
  • Take away coffee: 10
  • Plastic cutlery from take away:5
  • Plastic bags:2

So based on these numbers you might say that the majority of your plastic waste at work (80%) comes from take away products (20%).

Then you can easily focused on forming new habits about these take away items because it will have the biggest impact for the goal you are trying to achieve: reduce plastic waste at work.

This of course doesn’t mean that you forget about the other items, for instance you can still try to refuse straws in the meantime, but your efforts go towards reducing something that you already know is causing the majority of the issues.

4. Change it

Now that your priorities are crystal clear, you can create some strategies to change those habits. For the same example, some strategies might look like this:

Take away lunch

  • Bring lunch from home 3 times per week (Mon, Wed and Thu).
  • Eat out Tuesdays and Fridays in the restaurant instead of ordering take away.
  • Identify places nearby that offer plastic-free take away options for days where I am really busy at work.
  • Say no to plastic cutlery and use my own.

Take away coffee:

  • Buy a reusable coffee cup and keep it at work.
  • Have some meetings in the cafe downstairs while I drink my coffee there.

“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.”-George Lichtenberg

I really enjoyed writing this blog post, I love this topic about habits/changes and I find them so interesting. I wish you have enjoyed the content too and especially I hope you have found some useful tips to implement soon. Let me know in the comments below: Did you know about the pareto principle? Do you apply it in other areas of you life? If not, are you ready to start using it?

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Thanks for reading,