Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Reflections on a Year of Sustainable Steps - The Struggles Edition

So, over the past couple years I have made a lot of notable lifestyle changes and, frankly, I'm pretty proud of them. I've worked really hard to dramatically reduce my environmental footprint, and it's made a huge difference. But, I still create trash. Even after almost 2 years on the path to zero waste, I'm not "perfect." And I'm not sure I ever will be, which, honestly, is not really what I expected when I started this whole process. 

I really thought that by  now I would be doing all the things, living this trash-free life. But the thing about zero waste is that (at least in the US) we live in a disposable culture. We've made it so easy to create trash that anything else is swimming against the tide. And for me personally, it's not the only challenge I'm up against when it comes to buying stuff. I would also like to make extremely healthy choices for my body, save money and be able to acquire things relatively conveniently. Rarely do all of these values align.

So how do I prioritize? Do I buy the "misfits produce" at the store in order to help reduce food waste even though all of it comes prepackaged? I love this concept and want to encourage the store to offer more things like it. But I don't want to buy things unnecessarily wrapped in plastic.

And how do I buy cheese? Even at the farmers market it comes wrapped in unrecyclable plastic. The same thing goes for bread (though at least there I can reuse the plastic bag). And meat (unless I buy it from the meat counter, maybe, and then it's coming from a feedlot, probably, and I'm just not ok with that). Do I just live a life without bread and cheese? The horror.

Don't even get me started on all the produce that you literally can't buy at a grocery store unpackaged. (Grapes, cauliflower, mushrooms, carrots...look around next time, it's surprising.) Or that sometimes it is significantly cheaper to buy the prepackaged option.

What about the inconvenience of items I literally can't buy locally? A list of items that I have been unable to find, even in hippie health nut stores: compostable toothbrushes (Fresh Thyme carries them now), a compostable dish brush, a safety razor, blades for said safety razor, cloth panty liners/pads, sustainably made new bras, reusable Ziplock bags, metal food storage containers, a completely wooden drying rack. I can order all of these things online, which is great, except that I am solving one problem of waste at the expense of creating a different problem in the form of shipping packaging. I'm also spending a lot of time driving around to different stores to find items or waiting for them to arrive in the mail.

Then, of course, is the extra cost of buying more sustainable options. They are almost always more expensive. And yes, over the life of the item, it often makes sense, but sometimes it's hard to make that initial jump when so many cheap and convenient options are available. For me personally, I also sometimes struggle to "invest" in certain items because I know I tend to move often. Is it really worth investing in the perfect, most sustainable toilet bowl brush if I'm going to move in a couple years? Is it going to be worth the cost of moving that across the country? (But then, of course, replacing a plastic one every time is just creating that much more waste. You see how this cycle works...)

On top of that, have you ever tried to buy a toothbrush on Amazon? You would not believe how many options there are. Researching and wading through the options for any particular item can sometimes be incredibly stressful, overwhelming and time-consuming.

And, occasionally, I find I'm looking for items that just don't exist. I have yet to find a bra in a style and fit I actually like that is also made in a sustainable way. Even after spending many hours trying.

Sometimes I just want to be able to run to Target and get everything I need. Trying to buy things secondhand is great - it saves a lot of money and keeps from adding more new items to the waste stream. Unfortunately, it's really hard to just go out and get the exact thing I need when I need it. I end up going to several thrift stores or making a bunch of craigslist trips for individual items and there is no guarantee I'll actually be able to find what I need when I need it. At what point do I choose to value my time and just buy it new? (But then if I'm going to buy it new, I should at least buy the most sustainable new option, which leads me back to the Amazon rabbithole...)

All of that is to say that it's really really hard sometimes. I feel like I could prioritize for any one of these options. I could always buy the cheapest thing, or the healthiest, or the most convenient, or the most sustainable. But I can't have them all. And I don't always know how to balance all of these competing values. Of course, I could also just not buy anything, and I do try to be fairly minimal, but I can't realistically live a life devoid of all possessions, which means these choices are going to come up from time to time. I'm not sure there is a best way that will work in every situation. Something will always have to give and it won't always be the same something.

I find this incredibly frustrating. I want to have it all. I want society to work in such a way that it's easy for me to have it all. I have learned to accept that we are not there yet, though I am seeing progress, even over just a couple years. I am happy to find that there are more and more zero waste products available with more and more people interested in them. I love that I have been able to contribute to the changing tide by inspiring the people around me to make even a few small changes.

I will probably never achieve a perfect zero waste lifestyle. I'm not sure that's a realistic goal for me, given the things I value. But I'm learning to be ok with that, even if I would prefer it to be otherwise. I'm learning to do the best I can to find a balance that is sustainable for me in the long term. I've found that the more I practice, the easier it gets, so I keep challenging myself with each choice to move closer to my ideal, and, for now, so long as there is growth, I can be ok with that. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Reflections on a Year of Sustainable Steps - The Successes Edition

[Note: I wrote this at the beginning of the year but didn't get it to a polished enough state to post. This post focuses on the main successes and changes I made but I have quite a few thoughts about my year that will hopefully get posted in several installments.]

Well, friends, it's been an interesting year. I tried some new things, with varying degrees of success, and learned a great many things in the process. I just spent some time rereading my posts for the year and it's been interesting to see the progression. In some ways I feel as if I've come so far, and in others I feel like I still have so far to go.

I think the biggest change overall has been in my mindset. I am so much more mindful about the waste I produce than I was a year ago. I notice every time I create any trash and think about ways it could be avoided, this time or in the future. It feels like a really big change, though it has actually come about from a lot of small, pretty simple changes over time. Some of the main changes I've made include:
  • Avoiding plastic bags by carrying my own reusable bags for shopping, produce and bulk food - I keep a compact shopping bag in my purse and the rest in my car so that I always have something and often just ask for no bag at all
  • Avoiding plastic silverware by carrying my own utensil in my purse. This has expanded to include a collapsible cup with a lid, a reusable ziplock bag and a handkerchief/cloth napkin to avoid plastic cups, takeout containers and napkins/tissues, respectively. 
  • Composting has made me very aware of food waste and encouraged me to anticipate it by making sure I'll have an empty container when I know I will end up with something like an apple core or orange peel while I am out and about.
  • Avoiding fast fashion - looking for other options in this facet of my life has helped make me more aware of where other products I buy are coming from
  • Avoiding paper towels, napkins, plastic baggies and plastic wrap has forced me to find other solutions, mainly glass jars and cloth towels/napkins and rags.
  • Recycling everything possible, even tiny scraps of paper has made me more aware of all the things I can recycle.
  • Ordering drinks without a straw (I'm still getting used to this one)
I'm definitely still not perfect and I haven't gotten to a place where all of these things are automatic habits. Sometimes I still make more trash than I would like, but I think that just being aware of it is a big step and I know that I am doing better than I used to and way better than average, which makes me feel better. One area where I am slowly starting to improve is on considering the end of life of the objects I acquire. A downside of several of the changes mentioned above is that I've replaced disposable options with reusable plastic ones. This is definitely an improvement overall, but it still creates the problem of what I'll do with them when they no longer function in my life. I find this a bit harder to consider up front, but I'm hoping I'll get better about it over time as some of the other considerations become more natural and require less mental energy.

Reading over my posts, it amused me to see how nervous I was to commit to avoiding fast fashion for an entire year. This has become so natural to me that I don't really intend to ever go back. I may occasionally pop into Target for a specific item when all of my other options have been exhausted, but I don't really see myself going back to frequenting the clearance racks. On the other hand, I really thought that by now I would be almost, if not entirely, zero waste. While I am far closer, I still have a little ways to go and am not entirely sure that this will ever become my norm. 

While I am very pleased with how this year has gone and the changes I have been able to make, it has also been a bit challenging in ways I didn't really anticipate. I am starting to realize that most things in life involve some sort of trade-off and living sustainably is no different. I have not always found it easy to balance it with the other things I value, but that is a whole other conversation for another day. For now, I hope that my posts and journey have inspired you to make at least one change in your day to day. Even a small change is a step in the right direction.


Hello, friends, it's been awhile. Have you missed me? I'm sorry, I haven't had a lot to share. But I have excellent news for you. I just moved. Which means I'm learning and growing and exploring a new place. Which means I might have stories and ramblings to share. It's ok, you can get a little excited.

Roughly 3 weeks ago I packed up a car and a truck and amazing friends and set out for Washington, DC. Well, technically Arlington, but close enough. The whole process of this move has garnered a wide array of intense emotions for me. Much more so than in previous moves. My younger self was almost exclusively excited about a new city. The logistics were pretty straightforward and an adventure awaited at the other end. What else did I need to know?

Maybe I'm wiser now. Maybe I'm “more experienced.” Maybe I'm just getting old. Maybe my fractured ankle played a part. In any case, this move was very very stressful. I get enough comments from the people around me to make it clear to me that I am doing a great job of continuing to project the confidence and anticipation of my youth. They tell me how scary or stressful or hard it would be for them to pick up and move far away and they are amazed that I just do it. And the thing is, it's scary and stressful and hard for me, too.

The unknown is always scary and moving halfway across the country or the world is a huge leap of faith. You have to trust that you won't hate the city, or your job, and that you'll be able to make friends and get what you need and find a new house and a doctor and a gym and figure out ALL THE THINGS. You can't know how it will work out and for me that uncertainty has been TERRIFYING and very very stressful. I do think that recovering from a fractured ankle has added a huge layer of complexity and anxiety for me this time, but it's always a bit scary.

However, I've done this enough times now to also know that it'll probably be fine. Things will work out, I'll get what I need, I'll figure it out. It takes time, and it never happens the way I expect it to, but it happens. And then I get to explore this new place and learn new things and grow a bit and it's worth it. And I think that's worth saying. I'm not immune to the hard parts. I recognize that there's a possibility that I'll hate it. That maybe it will be terrible and I'll want to leave in a year. But, that's ok. Even if that happens, I'll have grown as a person. I'll have experienced something new and learned something about myself and this place and the people that live here. And that, to me, is worth the risk. That's how I want to spend my life - growing and learning and exploring. Everything else is just details.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Lifestyle Reboot - December: Gifting Responsibly

All right, friends, this is it. The last challenge of my year. I had kind of hoped to be ready for a completely zero waste month by this point but I'm honestly just not there yet. The thought of trying to do the holidays waste free was a bit too overwhelming. My family is very supportive but old habits die hard and this is not the time to make a thing of it. So, at some point in 2017, I expect to get there, but for now I am continuing to focus on making better choices from where I'm at.

For December I decided to do my very best to gift responsibly, trying to find something for each person that still fits within my personal ethos. My goals were to shop locally and sustainably as much as possible, buying secondhand or making things where possible.

Overall, I was pretty happy with how everything came out. I was able to find local sources for almost everything and half of my gifts were food that I know will be enjoyed, rather than items that will simply be tossed out in a couple years. Honestly, I am actually kind of proud of myself. I put a lot of thought and effort into each gift in order to find something that would be appreciated by each person on my list while sticking to my values.

The downside of all of that thought and planning was that it made the whole process kind of stressful and rather time-consuming. Homemade gifts are awesome and I really enjoyed making them, but it takes a bit of time to gather all the materials and then actually make the gifts. I also ran into a little bit of trouble shopping at local small businesses because they didn't always have the things that I wanted when I needed them, which meant trying several stores around town and rethinking some of my gifts.

While I feel really good about my choices and I think they were very much appreciated, it was kind of a big hassle. I'm not sure how I would have made it work if I had a family to take care of and without the added benefit of winter break (perks of being a teacher). The whole thing sounds great in practice and I'd really like to continue to gift in this way, but the experience really made me appreciate the convenience of stores like Target, where everything is in one place and you can know, with reasonable certainty, before you even walk in the door if they are going to have the things you need. That seems like an incredible luxury.

All in all, I think it's worth it. I think that the extra thought that went into each gift was appreciated by the receiver and I think it's important to vote with my dollars, so to speak, and spend them supporting the businesses that I want to thrive, no matter what I'm shopping for. However, I appreciate the need for balance. It's going to take some time to find the places in town that do consistently carry the things I need, so that it isn't a hassle every time. And there are some things that I'm just not going to be able to get locally. Which means that, if it's really something I can't live without, it's ok, every now and then, to just run to Target. 

Lifestyle Reboot - November: Sourcing Responsibly

There are a lot of things about living in the Midwest that I really appreciate. Low cost of living, not a lot of traffic, generally helpful, friendly people - these are all things I love. It is not, however, the most progressive part of the country, which means that, as I've mentioned before, I sometimes struggle to find sustainable options for things locally.

After spending almost the whole year avoiding fast fashion, I have had to accept that shopping exclusively secondhand in my city is probably not a sustainable long-term option. There aren't very many options outside of traditional thrift stores like Goodwill, which means that I often end up spending many hours searching at several different stores for the things I want and sometimes I can't even find them at all. At a certain point, it's just not really a feasible option, so I decided to devote this month to finding some acceptable alternatives.

Since I've already committed to avoiding fast fashion for the year (and, really, the foreseeable future), there wasn't a clear daily goal or restriction for the month. Instead I made a point to spend time throughout the month researching brands and companies that have solid policies for sustainable, low impact sourcing and manufacturing.

My main focus right now is replacing bras and undies. A very cursory search for sustainable intimates reveals a wealth of options, including several round-ups of ethical brands. Here are a couple that I found helpful in my search:

There are a lot more and each company has its own focus and sustainability practices, so do take the time to read about a company before ordering to make sure it meets your own criteria. I wasn't able to find what I was looking for in the bra department, but I did order some new undies from PACT Organic that I am pretty happy with. They focus on organic cotton, so they also sell socks, hoodies, leggings and tops for both men and women. It's a great option for sustainable basics. I found that a lot of the brands on these lists sell more than just underwear, which is awesome if you find a brand you really like.

Other clothing brands I discovered this month that I'm interested in:
Icebreaker - merino wool outdoor and activewear
Satva - organic, sustainable yoga clothes and basics
Tonle - uses remnant material from fast fashion to create limited edition lines of adorable clothing

I am also in the market for some new shoes. My current fast fashion options are wearing out and I'd like to replace them with more high quality basics that will stand up to changing fashion trends and can be repaired as needed. I haven't ordered any yet, as I think I can make it through the season with what I've got, but I did find several companies that have some great options when I am ready to pull the trigger.
15 Ethical Shoe Brands for Every Occasion

Overall I was glad to find that there are so many options out there. Not every company meets all of my criteria, but I'm glad to see how many organizations are trying to do better. I was disappointed to find that there are still some things I just can't find. In those cases I plan to do the best I can and then try to take care of what I buy so that it doesn't have to be replaced very often. I think that the main take aways are just to take the time to actually read about what practices are being used by a company before supporting them.