The words that we use to express an action or emotion say a lot about how we, as a society, view a particular subject. When we talk about what we do with our garbage, we use the phrase “throw away.” By using the word “away,” we’ve acknowledged where the garbage goes in relation to ourselves, but we’ve failed to define where it goes in relation to others and in relation to the world we’ve been given to take care of.
There is no such thing as “away.” When we throw something away it must go somewhere.
– Annie Leonard, Story of Stuff
The problem with this, as you may have guessed, is that we actually don’t have an infinite amount of space within which to put this garbage. And so, while we feel we are throwing our garbage “away,” we often don’t realize the ways in which that very garbage comes back to us, especially in the form of harmful gasses from landfills, which, in time, will have nowhere to go but near our houses, alongside our favorite vacation spots, and in the backyards of our kids’ schools.
So, what exactly is this gas? According to the SaveOnEnergy article:
Landfill gas is a dangerous, virtually invisible concoction generated in the most natural way possible: the bacterial decomposition of organic material. The result is half methane and half carbon dioxide and water vapor, with trace amounts of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and nonmethane organic compounds, or NMOCs, which can cause smog if uncontrolled.
I don’t think any of us want to be breathing this stuff in. And yet, we often fail to realize the connection between our garbage and the quality of the air or the health of our environment.
Last weekend, I had the chance to gather with some fantastic people over tea and toast at Five Points Bakery in Buffalo to discuss how we might reduce the number of items that we throw “away.” Our food and drinks were served using ceramic dishes and real utensils. I could tell that the couple that owns the bakery has put a lot of thought into running their business sustainably, with minimal waste.
Today I’d like to share with you some of the things we talked about, some of my own thoughts, and some product recommendations. Ever since the talk, I have noticed SOOO many areas of my life where I produce waste, more areas than I ever thought existed, which goes to show the power of a simple hour of chatting with a few people who care. I always want to be open and honest with you guys. I am VERY far from where I want to be in terms of living a low-waste lifestyle. So while I may appear to be giving YOU all advice as if I’ve got it all together, I am still very much in the process of making these changes myself.
So how can you reduce your own role in the garbage problem?
Consider why you produce waste and what you can do to change that. Think about the times that you use disposable items and the activities you participate in that that produce the most waste. They likely fall into one of the following categories:
1. “I never realized there was another option.”
This is an easy fix: just read the rest of my post! If you haven’t familiarized yourself with the zero-waste world yet, you are going to be blown away by the number of disposable products you can actually replace with durable, reusable products.
2. “I do not have the spare time or energy to pack and wash reusables, to do extra laundry, etc.”
You don’t have to always use reusables to limit your waste production. You can choose paper over plastic — it’s not ideal, but it’s a start. You can choose the recycled and recyclable materials over others. You can choose compostable disposables. And you can slowly start incorporating reusables into your life. You might be surprised at how easy it is, and actually, you might end up saving time and money.
3. “I always forget to bring my reusables with me.”
This one is my Achilles Heal. I can hardly keep track of my keys, phone, or wallet, much less remember to throw my reusable shopping bags in the car when I go to the store. Here are a few tips for overcoming this:
- Get reusables that you really, really like. Spend the extra few bucks to get the best quality, and make sure that it’s pretty! I know it sounds superficial, but instead of rejecting those parts of us that tend towards “materialism,” let’s just acknowledge that those parts of us exist and use them for the greater good! I never forget my water bottle/thermos, simply because I really like the experience of drinking tea or water out of it. It’s the perfect size for my purse and keeps my drink hot or cold. It’s easy to travel with, and…drum roll… it’s cute! Get durable, good quality reusables that you LOVE and you won’t forget them.
- Make reusables part of your routine. You don’t forget to brush your teeth in the morning. You don’t forget to make your coffee in the morning. That’s because these are things that are very important to you. Dedicate a bag or place for your reusables, leave certain ones in the car, or try to set them by your stuff, wherever you put your purse, glasses, wallet, etc.
- Educate yourself about the zero-waste lifestyle, and you will start remembering you reusables. Once a sense of urgency is in place, you remember them in the same way you remember to put on your seat belt: because it is necessary.
4. “The situation is out of my control.”
Church coffee hour, birthday parties, working or eating at restaurants or stores with wasteful policies — these are situations we find ourselves in all the time. Here is how I suggest dealing with these things:
- Don’t be a purist; don’t put ideas over relationships. Don’t be that annoying person, guilt-tripping everyone holding a styrofoam coffee cup at church.
- Live the example; take action in ways that you can. If the styrofoam cups really bother you, consider asking your church if you can gather a committee of people to wash dishes after coffee hour. Or offer to provide plates for a party and then show up with compostable plates and ask everyone to give them back for your compost! Just expect to be crowned “Granola of the Year” if you do this!
- Choose your words carefully. If you work at a retail store, consider asking, “Do you NEED a bag?” as opposed to “Do you want a bag?” Using the word “need” may cause people to rethink whether or not they should actually take a bag.
- Make some noise. When appropriate, respectfully make suggestions to people and companies to adopt policies that are more eco-friendly. Give your business to companies that listen and stop shopping at companies that don’t. Find a local butcher or farmer who will let you take the meat home in your own container and talk about it with your friends. You might be surprised at how receptive people can be!
When you start, start slow.
Pick one item to replace, one room to convert, or one area of your life to improve, and just go with it. Don’t overwhelm yourself. It is a process. You will stick with it if you pace yourself. I’m going to be providing a list of products you can use to replace your disposables. Consider replacing one item a week for a few months, as your budget allows. Remember: ZERO waste is an awesome goal, but don’t let it become an obsession. Instead, try to focus on living in an intentional, mindful way, and the rest will follow. LESS waste is a much more attainable goal, and this should be your focus.
Don’t be afraid to show off your weirdness.
When you bust out your U Konserve containers at a restaurant, you are educating the waitress that is serving your table as well as everyone else that can see you. By bringing your own mug into a coffee shop, you are reminding those around you that’d rather be drinking their coffee out of their favorite mug, rather than a flimsy paper cup. By using your own produce bags, you’ll educate other shoppers, who had never thought of buying produce without using the little plastic bags that the store provides. And ladies, consider talking to other women in your life about what they use when they have their period. Most women have NO IDEA that they don’t have to spend money on pads and tampons ever again.
And now for the fun part!
Here is a list of ways you can start creating less waste TODAY. Most of the products that I am going to feature are from Thrive Market, an affiliate of mine. Shopping online is not always the most sustainable choice, but if you can’t hop on a bike and get these items at your local co-op, then Thrive is a really good alternative. Thrive makes a concerted effort to merge convenience with sustainability by using all recycled materials for their shipping.
I’m also featuring some items from LifeWithoutPlastic, another affiliate of the blog. Before last week, I had NO idea a web store like this existed. They have anything you could possibly imagine, in a (mostly) plastic-free or reusable form.
Note: if you purchase anything through these links, you will not only be giving your business to an amazing and ethical company, but you will also help support the blog here, with no extra charge to yourself.
- Containers – for lunches, kids’ snacks, leftovers at restaurants. My favorites are the metal U Konserve containers! The little ones are perfect for my toddler’s snacks. They’re easy for her to hold, lightweight, and very durable.
- For your coffee: French press (my favorite method!), compostable or reusable coffee filters
- Tea strainers for loose leaf tea
- Razors made from recycled material or safety razors (I use a safety razor, myself, and I love it!)
- Compost bins
- Cloth diapers + biodegradable liners and wipes (for less mess)
- Produce bags
- Sandwich bags
- Menstrual cups + pads
- Metal straws (and don’t forget the straw brush!)
- Bee’s wrap (a Saran Wrap alternative) — I use this stuff ALL THE TIME!
- Reusable water bottles: Klean Kanteen is hands down my absolute favorite water bottle brand. Our whole family uses them. I have an insulated one that I can use for my hot tea or my cold water, and I love it! I’ve tried the glass ones (several times) and broken all of them. I’ve tried other metal ones, but couldn’t get past the odd taste of my water. This one does not have the metal taste. Klean Kanteen also has a ton of other products, like cups and food containers, which I hope to try out soon!
- Reusable napkin/pouch
- Shopping bags
- Glass jars
- Bamboo utensils
- Bamboo toothbrushes
- Plastic-free toilet bowl cleaners
Above you’ll find some of my favorite reusables/plastic-free goodies, but now that I know about bamboo toothbrushes and toilet bowl brushes, I’m so excited to expand this collection! (After all, isn’t this the only time a minimalist is allowed to get excited to go shopping!?)
As far as my own low-waste journey goes, my first goal is to make the things I am already doing a habit. I want to make an honest effort to always bring my reusable shopping bags with me, keep up with cloth diaper laundry (so I don’t need to use disposables), and pack cloth napkins/towels in my bag when we’re going out. I also want to be mindful of the materials used in my products and packaging, and let this direct the kind of consumer I am. After I get these things down, I’m planning to finally get a compost bin and start composting.
Most importantly, I need to make sure that I have my priorities straight. If this blog post was one big eye roll for you, well, first of all, thanks for getting this far. But secondly, take a minute to consider something with me. If you are too busy for this stuff, if you have ZERO room in your schedule or your brain to think about even the day-to-day practicals, much less the quality of your air or the future of the Earth, would you be willing to force a few minutes into your day today to think about why that is? Do you control your own schedule and your own “stuff,” or do your schedule and material possessions control YOU?
Living intentionally is a very difficult thing to do when you are spending each day trying to keep your head above water. None of this is going to make sense without first taking an effort to minimize your mental and physical clutter. (Just please, when you minimize, make sure you recycle and donate — don’t throw it all “away”!!!) If you decide to embark on a journey of living more intentionally, or if you are already on that journey and you’d like to be in community with like-minded individuals, please join the Facebook Community today!