Do you ever think about where things go after you throw them away? Really think about it? Do you picture an overflowing landfill, imagine the accompanying nauseating stench, or think about how unnatural and scary the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is?
I have been thinking about these things since college when I first really learned about them. At the time, it scared the hell out of me and immediately started making personal changes to do my part to not contribute to more garbage in this world. Over time, however, I fell out of many of those practices, as I got caught up in the hullabaloo of work, starting a family, hobbies - life! - I convinced myself that I "deserved a break" and it was okay to take the easy route and use disposable things on a daily basis. Although it was shoved into a corner of my mind, the guilt of it all remained - looming. Finally, I read Bea Johnson's book, Zero Waste Home, and received the swift kick in the rear back to action that I have been needing.
I imagine I had the same thoughts most people would have if considering making some changes - even if they are for a healthier lifestyle. I worried it would be hard to give some conveniences up, hard to remember everything when headed to the grocery store, hard to explain to my young children why we are making some changes, hard to explain to my friends and family without feeling silly or perhaps judged, and, of course, I worried it would somehow end up being expensive.
Nearly two months into our efforts of reducing waste, however, I am pleasantly surprised at the outcome. It has been far easier than I imagined - and we have saved money. Here are 10 changes my family has made that were relatively simple and have been permanently adopted into our lifestyles:
1. Vinegar and baking soda - the cure-alls! How have we been duped by marketers into believing it is necessary to buy a separate bottle for each cleaning task in our home? A simple mixture of 2/3 white vinegar to 1/3 water in a spray bottle will clean anything from your kitchen, to the bathroom, to the windows. Vinegar includes no added chemicals and kills 99.9% of germs, so it is absolutely no health threat to your family. Less than $10 will buy a reusable spray bottle and gallon jug of vinegar.
2. Bring my own bags - everywhere! People seem to be catching onto the idea of bringing their own bags to the grocery store, but why stop there? Why not bring those same canvas bags to Target and the drug store?
My family also bought a pack of eco bags for our produce and reuse those each week, rather than taking five or so plastic bags each time to wrap our wet or loose produce in. Every family using "just a few" plastic bags each week very quickly adds up to a LOT of plastic - much of which ends up in a landfill.
3. Reusable cups - Each member of the family has his or her own reusable cup, so we all agreed to adopt the rule: If you forget your cup, you are out of luck. In other words, be responsible for a single cup; if you forget your cup, then you do not buy the desired drink. There have been a few days where I really felt I shot myself in the foot on this one. It is easy to forget things when you are bustling around in the morning trying to wrangle kids into the car, and I forgot my cup on a number of occasions. Still, I (begrudgingly) stuck to the rule and by the time I got home and made my own cup of coffee, I felt better for having made the right choice. Saving $4 per cup of joe helped ease the pain too.
4. Think Compost: I am embarrassed to say that it was not until making these conscious changes that I realized the futility of caring about what I bought and threw away - or even put into the recycling bin - when I use plastic bags to line the cans. I can fill garbage bags will all the compostable stuff I want, but it is not going to fully compost any time soon while tied tight in a plastic bag. We switched to compostable bags for about a dollar more per box.
I also learned that more than just food scraps can be composted. I now empty the dust pan, my stray hairs from my brush, and the dryer lint into the compost bin. The change has been as simple as remembering to put things in one bin instead of the other.
5. Jars for food storage. I love this change the most. Not only does it look nice in the pantry, but we are wasting less food. Instead of things falling behind packaging or getting lost in the dark corners of our pantry, our snack choices are always right there, fully visible through the glass, reminding us they are ready to be enjoyed.
An unexpected side-effect of this is also that we have been snacking healthier, as we now fill our jars (directly in the store) in the bulk section, and the choices there tend to be healthier with fewer, if any, preservatives. (Granted, we skip the bulk candy section.)
6. Metal razor. When I thought about why I buy disposable razors over and over, I could not come up with a good answer. What a waste of money, time, and resources! They work for a few months and then go to a landfill. Instead, I spent about $30 to get a stainless steel razor with replaceable blades. So long as I keep the blade clean and dry between uses, it will last 5-6 months, then I simply replace only the blade. That is a lot less going to a landfill than an entire razor.
7. Showering smarter. I put a simple 3-gallon bucket in our shower to catch the water that falls while we wait for it to warm up. Why send all that down the drain? Instead, I empty it every couple of days into our garden or other plants around the house. I also started turning the water off when shaving and soaping up. It just ran down the drain during that time anyway, so why waste it?
8. Thoughtful clothing. I went through my and my childrens' closet making a cutthroat clothing selection. We all had more clothes than we needed. If we did not wear it on a regular basis, it was removed and donated, so people who need those items and will put them to good use could access them. Each of our clothing selection ended up being halved. A great after-effect is that this also helped organize the closets and make it far easier to see our clothing, know what we have, and decide what to wear each morning. What parent does not love a good morning time saver?
9. Junk mail. You do not want it anyway, right? Think of how much mail goes directly from your mailbox to your recycle bin, not even opened. Multiple that by all the houses in your neighborhood, county, State, and you get my drift - it is an unsettling waste of paper and resources to deliver it just to turn around and pick it back up to recycle.
I went online to CatalogChoice.org and opted out of receiving any catalogs at all. For all the pre-sorted junk mail we get daily, I have started writing on it "Rejected. Return to sender. Take me off your mailing list" and just leaving it in the mailbox for the mailman to return to whomever sent it. Over time, this should at least reduce the amount of junk mail we receive. Every paper helps.
The remaining mail I receive now goes in a designated box in my kitchen. I save paper with blank sides and envelopes to write my grocery lists on or let my children draw and color on. Brightly colored ads are saved for my girls to practice their scissor skills with and do other arts and crafts with. Since we also got rid of our wrapping paper, they use some ads and old color book pages to wrap gifts well.
10. Gifts. I expected this to be the hardest part of our changes, particularly worrying about how my children (nearing 5 and 3) would take it. I did not want them to think they would not be receiving gifts for birthdays and holidays anymore, but I did want them to understand that gifts come in all forms - not just material things from stores - and these "other forms" are what we will be focusing on more. I suggested we have some gifts for the holidays this year be in the form of experiences. We came up with fun ideas and they are excited for those times to come.
We also got rid of all of our wrapping paper and have fun coming up with alternative ways to wrap gifts that used biodegradable, reusable, or perhaps no wrapping at all. Because I sew, our favorite solution is to dip into my fabric stash and use that as wrapping (held shut with cooking twine). After the gift is opened, the fabric can simply be returned to the stash to either be used to wrap the next gift or sewn into something else.
Finally, knowing we cannot completely control the incoming gifts from others, I started the conversation with them about picking a certainly number of agreed-upon gifts to keep, and donating the rest. Thus far, they are on board with this idea. My nearly-5-year-old is particularly excited to donate to another child in need.
Focusing on waste reduction in our household has been an adventure, but I have not felt for a single moment that it was not worth the effort and time. Like any change, it gets easier and more natural each day. I love teaching my children to be more responsible humans, doing whatever they can to show respect to themselves, others, and the planet. We only get one life, so why would we do anything other than try to live it out best each day?