Saturday, October 17, 2015

Navigating the ethics of Stuff

Recently I read the book "The Zero Waste Home".  It's an author-signed copy which I got for free from my local Buy Nothing Group (which I contact through Facebook).  I will, of course, loan it to friends and eventually give it away (free) when I'm done with it, in accordance with both the book's and the Buy Nothing Group's ethics.  (And my own ethics, come to think of it.)  I've read the author's blog for several years now and really appreciate the idea but find putting it all into practice a bit trickier than she makes it seem.  Focusing on garbage is great!  It's wonderful to reduce our need for stuff and its packaging, both for our own pocketbooks (the packaging you buy is a built-in-cost to the product--it's not free) and for the environment.  But there are so many other issues, from cost to how far something is shipped to how it's produced, that focusing solely on the wasteful packaging can seem both too reductionist and missing the larger picture.  Ideally, we wouldn't have to choose between the factors of cost, waste, and pollution, but we do.
For instance, is it more environmentally friendly to focus on the packaging, or the chemicals used to make the product--should I buy a non-toxic face lotion in a plastic jar, or one with questionable chemicals in a glass jar?  Is it better to use toilet paper, for which millions of trees are harvested annually, or to use a bidet, which uses precious clean water in a time when much of the west coast is suffering from drought?  Do I choose the local organic product in a plastic bag, worrying about the effect of pesticides on the environment and the health of farming communities, not to mention the shipping pollution from out-of region, or do I reach for the non-organic in bulk, worrying about the garbage?
I really like the Buy Nothing Group because it's cost effective, someone else has discarded the packaging, and it's getting usable goods out of the waste stream so that others can use them.  Wins all around!  But not everything can be gotten through that group, and it doesn't solve the front-end problem of wasteful packaging.  Just because I'm not throwing it away doesn't mean someone else isn't.  Too, even though it's local, some of the pickup sites are too far away to reasonably bike to*, or the objects someone could potentially collect are too big to carry home on a bike, even with a trailer (which most people, even most cyclists, don't have).  So there is still some waste involved, from simply the driving.**
I have been trying, for a long time, to reduce our waste.  I don't think it's realistic to think that we'll ever completely rid ourselves of it, for a variety of reasons.  I actually wrote to the author of this blog/book years ago, saying that one of my biggest sources of garbage was actually from hunted moose meat in our freezer.  HusbandX's family hunts moose--it's an Alaskan thing; very tasty meat--and to best keep it, it gets wrapped in plastic cling wrap, then butcher paper, then frozen.  I asked the author how she would handle 2000 lbs of meat in a Zero Waste way and was surprised that she actually wrote back to me, although she said that she really didn't have any ideas for me.  It was so far outside her experience that she didn't have any ideas (besides going vegetarian--no!), which made me happy I hadn't mentioned all of the vacuum-sealed salmon I also had in the freezer.
I was not about to give up free, nutritious, environmentally sound*** meat just to meet some goal of not being wasteful.
This doesn't mean that we haven't tried to reduce our waste, though.  We have.  In our apartment in Fairbanks, even without a compost system of any kind and no curbside recycling****, we generally only filled one bag of trash about every week-and-a-half to two weeks.  Focusing on reducing our trash had a hugely beneficial impact on our finances, in many different ways.

1. We really identified our needs.  We reduced the number of products we brought into the house and searched for bulk items whenever possible, many of which are cheaper than their packaged counter-parts.  Does HusbandX need a bag of Jelly Bellies?  No.  On the rare occasions he really, really wanted them, we could buy some from the bulk bins.  After a while, he even stopped wanting them unless they were right in front of him at an event.
The other benefit of this is that I was able to take only what we would need and use, thus reducing our waste on the other end.  If we only need two carrots for the week, a whole bag of them might go bad and that would be wasteful in all ways.

2. We reduced our need for the products we were still buying.  I started first by reducing the amount of laundry detergent we used for a load.  After all, who puts the lines on the scooper but the company trying to sell it to you?  Do you really need that much detergent, or is that what they're telling you to use because you'll end up needing to buy more of their product?  After experimenting, I settled on using a bit less than half of the recommended detergent and have never had an issue with our clothes smelling bad.  Even our cloth diapers, which reek when they go into the wash, smell pretty fresh when they come out.
I've since done this with pretty much everything I use regularly, from hand soap to toilet paper to dishwasher detergent to toothpaste.  There has been no reduction in my cleanliness and I don't need to buy these products (and their associated packaging) nearly as often.  Reducing my toothpaste merely reduced how much was spit out, not how well it scrubbed my teeth.  Reducing my toilet paper use, being conscious about how much I was pulling off the roll rather than thoughtlessly pulling off a bunch, takes basically zero time to implement and has significantly reduced how much toilet paper we use up.
This idea even extended to other areas.  I used to put sugar in my tea.  Not much, maybe half a teaspoon per mug, but it seemed so necessary.  Then one day I was at the store buying sugar and thinking, "We sure do go through a lot of sugar, and it's expensive.  Where does it all go?"  I love sweets but HusbandX doesn't so I rarely bake them.  (I don't want to eat an entire batch of cookies by myself!)  So why did it seem like I was buying tons of sugar?  I thought about my tea, and how much I drink, and how much cumulative sugar that was over a week and had my "Ah-ha...uh-oh..." moment.  I decided to cut sugar out of my tea for one week and see how I felt.  By the following Saturday, my "cheat day" on this plan, any amount of sugar in my tea was just too much.  I haven't put sugar in my tea since, nor have I missed it as I thought I would.

3. We got rid of most paper products.  This was a huge one.  I never saw a need to buy paper napkins, as my parents do, so that wasn't a concern, and we never bought disposable cutlery or plates and bowls.  But it was surprisingly easy to do away with paper towels, even with pets.  We simply kept a bin for rags handy.  The only reason we've had paper towels in our house for the last five years or so is because our parents would come to visit and buy some, because "we were out".  *Sigh*  No matter how many times we pointed them to the rag bin, they never quite got that not having paper towels was a choice.  Even the dirtiest messes can be cleaned up with rags because they can either be laundered or thrown away.  I don't feel bad about tossing a rag that used to be a shirt or a sock because it's had two useful incarnations.
I also stopped using paper sheets to create lists.  I'd been using scraps of paper, mostly from work which were in the discard/recycle bin.  But I was also using notecards that I had leftover from college.  A smart phone or an iPod was an easy replacement for that system, however.  No need to buy and keep track of pens and pencils, either.

4. We stopped buying cleaners.  Other than dish soap and laundry detergent, castile soap, vinegar, baking soda, and water became the cleaners I used.  They're fantastic, and dirt cheap.

5. I stopped wearing makeup almost entirely.  This was partly for the cost savings, partly out of laziness (not wanting to research brands that were both cheap and non-toxic; plus, I'm not a morning person and didn't like the time it took), and in part because HusbandX actually prefers me this way.  I've quietly asked quite a few other guys about it and most say that they definitely prefer their wives and girlfriends sans makeup.  So ladies, do you actually like wearing makeup, or do you feel that it's something you have to do?
I respect your choice if you like wearing makeup for yourself.  I get that--it's fun to dress up and make yourself look different!  One of the chapters I appreciated best in this book had ideas for Zero Waste makeup, and I'll probably implement some of them on special occasions.  But again, this is an area in which you can reduce your dependence on an outside product without losing the value of it.  Anyone who wears makeup has favorite items and brands.  Why buy 19 shades of eye shadow if you really only use three?  New products can seem fun and exciting, but they can be bad for your skin and hair, so sticking with what works well for you can often be the best route to take.  Buying a new face lotion is way less exciting if it makes your skin break out, and new makeup is less fun if it gives you a rash.

6. I garden as much as possible, because it's cheap, tastes amazing, is environmentally sound, and doesn't have any packaging.  And it's fun!  One of the things I'm most excited about for our move to Seattle is that it's opened up so many new things for me to grow.  Fruit trees!  Nuts!  Different varieties of vegetables and fruits!  I am so, so excited for this.  Can you tell?
If gardening isn't your thing, that's fine too.  The farmer's market is fantastic for things which you can't or won't grow yourself, and despite their reputation for being expensive I've found them to be quite reasonable.  I've even gotten some really amazing deals at the farmer's market.  40 lbs of peaches for $35?  YES PLEASE.

7. We embraced small space living.  This isn't a reduction in waste in terms of tangible garbage so much as it is in resources.  We didn't have to heat our home as much, or light and decorate a lot of space which no one uses.
I used to be impressed with large homes until I actually saw how people lived in them and realized that there were rooms which were basically never used.  Why have a formal dining room if you're only ever going to use it for Christmas dinner?  In the same vein, I've decided that I don't want "formal" dishes because it would be silly to store them for the few times each year when we'd take them out.  (We might end up with actual silver flatware, however--through inheritances, my parents have three sets.)
A small home can feel quite spacious if it's laid out well.  More than anything else, that's what HusbandX and I will be looking for when we eventually house hunt.  We lived quite well in a 20x25 foot cabin (plus half loft) with no running water for six months.  By comparison, the size of even a smaller home in the Seattle area (which will have indoor plumbing!) will seem positively cavernous.

8. Finally, I came to terms with the waste I do create.  I'm not perfect, no one is.  There are trade-offs.  I realized that the organic flour from the bulk bin which I'd been buying was actually way more expensive than pretty much any other option.  When I thought about the fact that flour comes in paper bags, which are recyclable or compostable, I decided that buying it in bags wasn't a terrible choice.  I did still look around for the cheapest option and found that the local feed store had organic flour in 50 lb bags for far cheaper than the smaller grocery store bags, and realized that it would be less wasteful in the end to have one large bag than 20 small ones.
The garbage I most want to reduce or, ideally, eliminate is plastic waste, for so many reasons which you've probably already heard a million times.  (Bad for the environment, both in creating them and in their disposal.  The chemicals can leach into the product I'm actually buying and is harmful to humans.  Most of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made of bits of plastic, which kills and maims animals.  And on....)  And I am still trying to reduce my dependence on glass, metal, and paper products.  But using those can sometimes be the better choice, and I'm fine with that.

We have some hobbies and aspects to our life which are going to create waste.  Among other things, we have a cat, and I still can't figure out what's truly the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of his waste.  And I'm not in this alone.  HusbandX clearly has a say in how our family operates, and I'm not going to freak out about it if he does or buys something which creates a bit of garbage.  He thinks about garbage and waste more too now, but he's not going to become uber-strict about it either.
And then there's the Munchkin.  We do so much that reduces the waste inherent in having created a new person.  Should we also deny her a balloon once in a while, which makes her so happy, just because it will end up in a landfill?
I think the most important part of this is learning the lesson of intentional living.  So many people do things just because everyone around them does the same things.  I don't want to.  It's not that I want to rebel against what everyone else does for the sake of rebelling (I got over that in my teenage years, thankfully) but I do want to live the life I want.  I don't want to live someone else's ideal life.  That's no way to be happy.  If I can save money and be a bit more environmentally responsible while increasing my happiness, that's a great perk.

*If it was just me, with no toddler to worry about, I could happily spend a couple of hours biking.  Much harder with the little one around, though.  And naps are less of a certainty now, making planning our days a little bit trickier.

**We did drive to pick up the Zero Waste book, but we tied it into a trip in which we were headed that direction anyway, to visit with HusbandX's aunt.

***Hunted meat is, I think, probably the most ethical meat there is.  No antibiotics or strange feeds, the animal lived the life it was meant to, and if everything goes properly its death was quick.  Plus, I think that most people are less likely to take their meat for granted when they had a part in killing or processing it.
Feel free to disagree with me on any of these points.

****I saved most of our recycling in the garage and carted it off to the recycling center about once every two months.  Even so, there really wasn't any plastic recycling to speak of, so we heavily focused on reducing our plastic products.

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