How to make Earth Day every day–in other words, how to live sustainably on earth–is, I believe, one of the most important questions facing modern society. And it’s something I’ve been dedicated extra thought energy to in the past few months.
At the start of this year, I resolved to ramp up my efforts to go green around the house. At the time, I had a few specific ungreen practices in mind: the cat litter, cleaning products, and food waste. I think we were doing an okay job before. The garden has always been organic and chemical free, but other household products and processes weren’t so clean. We have always used cloth napkins and reusable plates and tableware even for kid parties. However, until I switched to cloth a few months ago, we used disposable diapers on all three kids. We compost vegetable scraps and yard waste, but we were still throwing away lots of leftovers and food that, until now, I didn’t know could be composted.
Around this time, I discovered the book Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, which taught me quite a few things. The Johnson family started as a typical American family with a big house filled with stuff, but over the years they have reduced consumption with the goal of creating, like the book states, zero waste. They now produce about a quart of garbage a year, which is amazing, considering the prevalence of packaging in our lives. Needless to say, she’s taken it a little further than bringing your own bags to the grocery store.
I’m pretty sure my family won’t ever achieve that level of green living, but what I liked best about the book was the way she makes zero waste an ideal that anyone can aspire to in any endeavor. And she’s very practical about it. She even tells you how to insist the grocery store employees allow you to use your own containers. The book has raised my consciousness and given me many ideas for making my home less wasteful.
It’s been a bit of a slippery slope. Once I started looking at our lifestyle, I found wasteful habits and room for improvement everywhere. And so in honor of Earth Day earlier this month, and because Earth Day should be every day, I thought I would share some of the work I’ve been doing around the house.
Reduce Food Waste
Food waste is a big problem for us. With small children, some waste is unavoidable because you almost never know what they’re going to eat. But we were also throwing away leftovers every week. Perhaps because I buy and cook and clean up 95 percent of the food eaten in our house, food waste makes me crazy. Throwing away food is like throwing my time and money in a landfill, and I don’t have enough of either to do that.
Since deciding to tackle this problem, I’ve stopped cooking so frequently. And starting this week–although I haven’t made the official household announcement yet–we’re adding a new arm to our compost system that will allow us to compost all food scraps, even meat, oil, and dairy, which I never knew could be composted until I learned about Bokashi composting in Johnson’s book.
I should back up for a minute and explain that I love my existing compost system. Love it. After trying a few different containers, I devised an amazing system that makes me happy every time I think about it. I will have to tell you about it another time, because right now I’m even more excited about the potential of the Bokashi method. If it works the way they say it will, this is going to solve the food waste problem that has plagued me for years. It’s just that powerful, folks. I am even going to make my own containers using stuff I’ve had lying around, which makes this whole project even more exciting. Don’t worry, I’ll post pictures.
Stop Buying Garbage
I had a moment of clarity one day late last year when Matt and I stopped at Target for diapers. We chose two big boxes, about a six week supply, because they were on sale, and we carted them to the checkout line. When the total came to almost sixty dollars, it dawned on me that we were spending a lot of money on stuff that was going to end up in a landfill. I have since tried to stop purchasing this sort of thing altogether. It started with cloth diapers and wipes, and it has since cascaded onto other disposable products. Let me tell you, there’s a whole world of reusable products out there that I never knew existed.
I’ve always considered myself pretty crunchy. I’ve been known to make my own deodorant out of corn starch and baking soda, and, to the shock of my friends and family, I don’t shower daily or shave regularly. But now that I’ve vowed to stop buying garbage, I’m faced with questions like: Am I crunchy enough to use a sea sponge as a tampon? Am I the kind of person who makes her own shampoo, body wash . . . everything? And could I really forego impulse purchases and shopping trips forever? Questions like these, ladies, really show us what we’re made of.
I’ve also become more conscious about packaging. As Johnson describes in her book, even recyclable isn’t always good enough, and many companies that care about organic and chemical-free ingredients, don’t always care so much about their packaging. She doesn’t buy any packaging at all, which I’ve come to realize is quite impressive. Everything, everywhere I look, is packaged or stickered or tagged. Because I live in a small town, we don’t have any bulk shopping options close by, but we are getting a Whole Foods later this year, so I’m looking forward to that. In the meantime, I have added recycling and compost bins to the bathrooms upstairs and put a reusable bag for recyclables in the van.
Voting with Your Dollars
Last night I was soaking in the bathtub, enjoying the paraben, phthalate, and sulfate free bubble bath I recently procured, and reading an old issue of OnEarth (I seem to be perpetually behind on my reading). The article was about how chemical exposure affects brain function and it was written by Florence Williams, who also wrote a book I want to read. Anyways, the article was about lead and other common chemicals that could be making us sick.
One reason the article caught my eye was Florence Williams’s byline. When her book came out, I heard her talking on the radio about harmful chemicals in everyday items. One example she gave was upholstered furniture–couch cushions and the like are all treated with flame retardant chemicals that still linger and absorb into our bodies when we bring the items home. (You know that new car smell? It’s apparently chemicals.) And I remember Williams saying these chemicals are found in breast milk. This example stuck with me because I thought about our furniture, which is now old, but when my son was a baby we bought it new, unknowingly exposing ourselves to dangerous chemicals. Big problems like these affect everyone, and yet they are so large, with government regulations and manufacturing companies and lobbying groups involved, solving the problem won’t be easy or fast.
Reading about issues like these always frustrates me because, as a citizen breathing the air, I feel like I have so little control over what’s in it. Thinking about all the changes I’d made around the house, I felt like a fool for worrying so much about what was in our soap when the air we breathe is filled with god knows what. From there my mind went straight to the world is going to hell in a hand basket and there’s nothing I can do. I never fail to feel small and insignificant against such large and complicated issues.
Now that we’re a family of five, we have been looking for another couch so everyone has a place to sit. I’m sure chemical-free furniture is made somewhere, but I’m also sure it’s not available in Bluffton, South Carolina. So what can I do? Write to congress? Tell the furniture salesperson I am looking for chemical-free furniture? As a person who believes change starts at the bottom, I know small actions add up and if enough people complain someone will do something about the problem, which is in this case changing manufacturing industry standards for what chemicals are allowed in household products. But those actions alone won’t get me a safe couch, and they won’t solve the problem unless a lot of other people do that too. Before I knew it, my relaxing bath had become quite stressful.
Then I took a whiff of my bubble bath and remembered something Johnson wrote about voting with our dollars. I may not be able to directly solve the big environmental problems, but I can choose not to partake by not spending my money in ways that support the problem. My best option for getting a new couch–the one Bea Johnson recommends in her book–is buy secondhand so the chemicals are already gone before they enter the house. Who cares if it’s a little dirty if it’s chemical free, right? And it keeps one more couch from being built out of precious natural resources. Although my couch purchase, in the grand scheme, feels insignificant, it stands for something.
I may not be able to clean the air, but I can clean out the house. I can change my behavior. I can question my long-held beliefs about what objects and purchases are necessary. I can write a blog post that you, and hopefully others, will read and maybe think about. And I can seek to answer the question–how to live sustainably on earth–with every decision I make. That will have to do for now.
Happy belated Earth Day, dearest reader! Did you do anything to celebrate?