Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you’re here for a number of reasons. One, you know me personally, and want to see what I’m doing. Two, you like cooking and baking, or you at least like what I’m cooking and baking, and want to know how to make it yourself. Three, you have a desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle – this means you want to reduce and eliminate your waste and carbon footprint to preserve and restore our planet. (If you’re not in this third category, get in it. No more excuses, no matter what your political beliefs are.)
Living sustainably, however, is not just about making physical changes, like drinking out of paper straws instead of plastic – it’s about changing the way you live and think so that you won’t even consider something like drinking out of a disposable straw. It’s about making small changes that eventually lead to bigger ones, about changing your mindset and lifestyle to fit the needs of the planet. This, my friends, is often not easy, and is certainly not easy to do all at once, but it can and must be done. It should not be, and will not be in the future, a “choice” to live in such a manner – we’ve poisoned our planet and ourselves with waste and wasteful practices, and we all need to do what we can to fix it, now. In this series Changing Your Mindset, I will detail different topics relating to current practices, and how to change the way you think in order to live sustainably. Today’s topic:
Reducing and Eliminating Waste
Imagine that none of your waste goes to a landfill or recycling center. Imagine that all of the plastic, all of the paper, all of the metal and food waste you have, doesn’t go away. Imagine it stays in your home, that there is no such thing as garbage pickup. What would you do with it?
Now imagine your waste, and multiply it by millions, then billions.
Many of us have been raised to believe that all of our trash goes to “The Magical Land of Away” – away in the garbage can, away to the dump, away and out of sight. But where is Away? “Away” is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a literal vortex of mostly plastic manmade debris that spans over a million kilometers. Over a million kilometers of garbage. “Away” is under the sand in Pacific islands, split into tiny bits in our waterways and water supplies, washed up on shores of rivers and beaches everywhere. Your trash isn’t going away, especially your plastic – it’s clogging up waterways and landfills, and killing animals, plants, and people, both near and far from us. And let’s not forget food, paper, and other harmful waste (metals, electronics, batteries, etc) – it’s not faring much better. But it’s easy to forget or ignore this since, to many of our eyes in the U.S., it goes out of sight.
But not for everyone. And it shouldn’t be out of sight for you, either.
So, in order to change your mindset about waste and fix it, we need to imagine that every piece of “garbage,” every package, every bit of so-called waste we buy and produce, is not going anywhere – not to the oceans, not to space, but is piling up right next to us. With this in mind, would you bring that product into your home? What can you do with it, if it doesn’t go away?
Recycle, Yes, But More Importantly, Reuse
Ask yourself, can I reuse this packaging? If you watched the ridiculous amount of TV I did as a kid, at around the same time period, you probably remember the “Recycle, Reduce, Reuse” jingles during the commercial breaks. (If you didn’t hear these gems, I imagine you know what each of the terms entail. If not, watch the video and get an earworm. Forever.) We’ve internalized the recycling portion pretty well because it’s the easiest to do: buy recyclable products, throw them in a bin, and let someone else take care of it. However, the problem here, aside from the “away” mindset appearing again, is threefold.
Firstly, you and/or your neighbor may not be recycling correctly. When this happens, either nothing gets recycled, and all of that “recycling” goes to the landfill, or more energy is used to recycle the misplaced goods than is worth the effort. Yikes.
Secondly, some items, although labeled as “recyclable,” are more recyclable than others. This means a number of things for your health and for the environment, based on the type of plastic used, and how reusable the plastic is. (I focus on plastic here, but there are issues with recycling paper and metals, as well – see the links above.) One thing to do is to reduce or eliminate your use of the most toxic kinds of plastics, especially single-use plastics. An even better thing to do, however, is to reduce or eliminate your use of all plastics, regardless of “safety.” No matter the type, plastic takes carbon energy and resources to create and recycle – it’s just a matter of how much.
Thirdly, we’re ignoring the other two thirds of the equation: reducing and reusing, which go a longer way towards eliminating waste and bringing the planet to a stable state. Recycling, like creating the products in the first place, takes energy (carbon energy), machinery, time, and humanpower to achieve. Reducing and reusing items take less of all of these. In other words, you’re not being eco-friendly by using and recycling a hundred plastic bottles when you could be reusing one heavy-duty bottle. Reducing and reusing, however, tend to be the more difficult pieces of the loop to internalize because they require us to do the work: we have to consider if and how we can reuse an item (such as a sandwich bag, a tube of lotion, or a water bottle), and if we can reduce our waste in general (such as using a Tupperware container instead of plastic bags, or using cloth napkins instead of paper towels). But reusing and reducing can be as internalized as recycling with practice, and just as easy to accomplish.
Despite the issues with recycling and the possibility of items not being recycled, I am not advocating that you should give up on recycling altogether. While we should focus more on reducing our waste and consumption and reusing what we do have, you should still recycle as much as possible when you do have waste, and choose products that have recyclable packaging if they must come in a package.
Do your research and figure out where and how to recycle items locally, and reduce your consumption in general so you don’t need to recycle. You can start here and here for the basics of what and how to recycle.
Reduce and Eliminate
Ask yourself, do I need this product? Do I need this in a package? We like things. We like new things. We like shiny, colorful packages surrounding our new things, because they make us feel successful and accomplished for affording and amassing them. (Also, they’re pretty!) But every one of those packages takes energy and resources to make, ship, and store, never mind making the product itself. And as you’ve read above, even “recyclable” packaging may not get recycled or be recycled efficiently, and will, regardless, take more energy to recycle than to simply not have the packaging in the first place. So, whenever you buy or consider buying something, consider its packaging first, and where it might go.
Ah, you say, but there are companies that promise to reduce packaging, or to refill your products if you send the packaging back! (Cosmetics, toiletries, smell-goods, and cleaning products come to mind.) While this is better than continuously buying new packages, it does not solve the problem of the packages, or the industrial-scale production of the products themselves, or our insatiable “need” for these products. Someone (and something) still has to create, transport, clean, refill, and transport the packages back to you and everyone else using the service. The company is still manufacturing on an industrial scale and polluting the planet. The market will continue to produce on this scale as long as we fund it, and as long as we convince ourselves that we “need” these products. Mass production is rarely if ever eco-friendly, no matter how eco-friendly a company touts its products or practices to be.
With this in mind, what do you do to reduce your waste? Start by avoiding products that come in non-recyclable packaging – think clamshell packages (the kind that you hate anyway that you have to open with scissors) and items shrink-wrapped unnecessarily in plastic. If you must buy something in a package, check and see if it can be recycled first by looking for a recycling symbol, and match it up to your local recycling guidelines. No recycling symbol? No checkout.
Avoid packaging altogether, if you can. Many products are available without, or with very minimal, packaging – think soaps, bulk goods, foods, and cleaning products – and you can fill and refill your own reusable jars and bags to get these items. You may need to do some hunting for stores that offer bulk goods, but many major supermarkets do have bulk aisles, as well as smaller shops. If your favorite store doesn’t offer bulk goods, bother them until they do, or shop somewhere else – money talks! Still more products, especially foods, can be made at home, using the same bottles and packaging over and over. (I am, after all, writing a blog where you can learn to make many of these things instead of buying them. End shameless plug.)
Most importantly, stop buying stuff you don’t need, and stop buying new stuff if you can get it used. Many products that we buy are simply unnecessary – we want them, instead of needing them. Every single time you see something, you need to ask yourself: do I really, truly need this to survive? To live well? If I need it, can I get it gently used instead of new? Living sustainably (and, really, living better, happier lives) is about figuring out where the want vs. need line is, and proceeding accordingly and with as little footprint as possible.
I recognize I’m writing from a particular perspective – a White/Latinx, female, middle-class, United States perspective – and that I am afforded many privileges as such, especially when it comes to using money and power to effect environmental change. Some of you are not in all or any of these demographics – you may not have as many resources or time to do everything listed above and in this blog. For example, you may live in a food desert, or have limited transportation to find particular stores for goods. Do what you can. But many of you do have the resources, and are in an even better position than me to act and change your lifestyle to enact positive change. If you can, you must, and you must do all that you can. The time for excuses is over.
Now, go forth, and waste not.
Want more details on how you can live sustainably, little by little? Stay tuned for my post on doing just that, coming soon!