Shampoo bars. Reusable straws. Bamboo toothbrushes. Check, check and check. You’ll also find eco laundry soap, cleaning vinegar, and organic produce in my home, and laundry flapping out on my clothesline. I must be one of the green cool kids.
If only the environment was a popularity contest. We’d be a lot better at fixing what’s wrong. While using eco-friendly cleaning and beauty products are a great start, they aren’t going to get the hard work of fixing our planet done. We have to tackle the heavy hitting categories of transportation, energy usage, waste, water usage, and food consumption. These things aren’t as Instagram-worthy, and involve a commitment to making changes in our lives, and sacrifice. That makes them a whole lot less popular.
Still, it’s do-able, with commitment and prioritization, as well as being immensely rewarding. I work with my clients to do an analysis of their households and lifestyles to find their biggest areas of opportunity, and we create a plan for change that is incremental and sustainable. This means you don’t have to go from a typical American lifestyle to living off grid overnight, or even at all. Extremism isn’t something most people are willing to commit to, and it’s not necessary to get us out of this mess.
To get an idea of changes that make a huge difference, ask your employer if you could work from home at least part time, to reduce your commute, or get a hybrid car. Fly less and try staycations or visit nearby attractions you may have overlooked. Reduce meat and dairy by half, and buy as much organic food from your local farmers market as possible. Eat the food you buy so it doesn’t waste, and purchase products in bulk or at least in packaging you can reuse and then compost or recycle. Contact your electricity company and ask about renewable energy options available in your area. Have an expert analyze your home for heating and cooling leaks, and convert all your old bulbs and faucets to ones that conserve. As your appliances age, be sure to replace them with Energy Star rated ones, or consider selling what you have and replacing them with warranted refurbished Energy Star models now. Buy less. Seriously, most of what you’re buying you don’t really capital N Need.
Bigger changes down the road might include selling one or all of your cars and getting around other ways, downsizing to a smaller, more efficient home, converting your yard from grass to garden space, and installing solar panels.
While it might not win the popularity contest, these changes will absolutely help us win back our planet. Start today, with making one change for the better. Then create attainable goals. If you need some help, contact me!
I am about to do something considered radical by most of the people I know. I am going to turn my back on the American concept of convenience, where nearly everything I want and need can be obtained within minutes; where I can, on impulse, take a road trip; where I can haul masses of consumer goods from bulk stores. I am getting rid of my car. Okay, so maybe that’s a little dramatic. Plenty of people use public transportation or bum rides from friends and family.
However, the average American household still owns about 2 cars. That’s 268 million vehicles guzzling gas and burping fumes, demanding land for highways, and taking masses of materials for manufacturing and maintenance.
I come from a long line of superfluous vehicle owners, though. Cars were just as much for collecting and weekend waxing as they were for getting from here to there. Growing up, I never saw a car paid off and kept. They were always traded up for another bigger, faster, shinier model. Gas mileage always lost to horse power. All the better to tow RVs and boats with.
Most of my adult life I’ve had older cars that were in meh condition. Once I finished college in my early 30s, I was able to get a better job and could finally afford a better car. It was totaled a couple of years ago by a jerk who was texting and driving at the same time. When I replaced it, I got a lightweight SUV with 7 seats to accommodate my kids and their friends/dates when we all went somewhere as a family, and to haul around extra things I needed for my side gig.
When I bought it, I spent a lot of time researching how to buy a good quality, lightly used car, without getting ripped off. I qualified for a low interest loan and headed off to do my shopping. No matter how hard I tried, though, I couldn’t find a hybrid or electric vehicle within my budget. I was really disappointed, but decided to minimize driving and that the next time I bought a car, it had to be better for the environment.
Flash forward 2.5 years, and it’s been amazing having a reliable car that I could jump in at the drop of a hat. However, my kids are mostly away from home and my side gig no longer requires me to haul stuff around. I also don’t commute to work. I have a bigger car than I need, and still owe about $10k on it. Plus, even though it has the best gas mileage of the vehicles in our home, it’s still not eco friendly.
We have three other vehicles in the house: my mother-in-law has her 25 year old Jeep Grand Cherokee, which she uses daily to get back and forth to work; my husband has a 10 year old Ford Ranger he uses daily to get back and forth to work, and my son has a 10 year old Ford Focus he uses daily to get back and forth to work and school. For a 4 person household, it’s a lot of cars. We have a bus line that comes near our home only twice a day. To get to a more frequent line, we would need to walk or bike at least two miles along a very busy road with no sidewalks or shoulder, so that’s why everyone has a car.
As I seek to minimize my belongings, and expenses, allowing me more time to take care of my health and have energy for the things that are important to me, the car inevitably came up on the list. I won’t lie, I love the convenience and comfort of my car. It’s a smooth ride, I can fit everything in it I need, and it’s there anytime I need it. But I can absolutely sacrifice that to save an estimated $450 a month in payments and insurance, and that’s not even counting gas and maintenance. It also gives me satisfaction knowing that I will be contributing less to global warming.
I will still be borrowing my family members’ cars from time to time, or bumming a ride to the bus or train line. However, impulse trips will be mostly gone, and I will be consolidating trips out. This is good for our planet as well as my budget.
Have you reduced the number of cars you own, or taken steps to reduce the number of trips you make? How about carpooling? Can you replace a less efficient vehicle with a hybrid? Please share how you’re getting where you need to be, with less environmental impact.
As we seek to grow and make changes in our lives, we hit obstacles. A common obstacle can be lack of support from friends and family. They may not understand what we’re doing, or why. Our new ways of doing things can come off as judgmental to the way they choose to live, might seem frivolous, or are just plain foreign to how they see the world.
In my home, my husband has been great about adapting to organic eating, as well as reducing our waste. Minimalism, however, has been difficult for him as well as everyone else in the family. My husband, son and mother-in-law all love to collect CDs movies, video games, plushies, figurines, and more.
Additionally, my husband is frugal. He doesn’t buy new things often. Most of his collection items come to him as gifts. He rarely gets rid of household objects because he believes there is a time in the future they might come in handy. I appreciate his frugality and can see his perspective about needing something in the future. Yet, as a minimalist, I see other ways to be frugal and meet the concern of items being needed down the road.
This difference of opinion definitely causes friction. Since I am the one instigating change, I feel like the onus is on me to see things from his perspective and instead of seeing ourselves at odds, try to find a solution that meets both of our needs for frugality.
The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, discuss in their collection Essential Essays, something they call the 20/20 rule. This rule means that if something you “might” use in the future can be replaced for less than $20, within 20 minutes, you can go ahead and get rid of it. The logic of this rule is that storing items for possible future use is expensive. We are paying for the space to store them. We may spend time maintaining these items. (I say “may” because many people leave these “maybe” items to fall into disrepair or let them pile up with no further attention.) We spend frustrating time digging through the piles or cupboards or boxes searching for items we think we have saved for down the road. All of these expenditures usually add up to more than if we just followed the 20/20 rule.
Still, old habits can be difficult to break, and some people may not be interested in adopting Minimalism or the 20/20 rule. That’s okay. Minimalism isn’t a religion. I’m not a preacher, here to lord my dogma over family, friends, and the public at large. It is something that resonates with me and has become a way of life. I see it as a path to a simpler existence where I have more time for my passions.
In my home, this means compromise. I can certainly reduce or remove my own physical and intangible things that I see as obstacles to the lifestyle I want to have. Yet I share this home with three other people I care about, and that means we share items, finances and other things that I only have a 1/4 vote in. That also means that this morning I had to apologize to my husband for throwing out the Rustbuster oil that had been languishing in the laundry room cupboard for two years. He did indeed need it down the road, and that time was this morning when he needed to remove the rust covered lawn mower bolt so we could take the blade in for sharpening.
The secret to solving issues like these is to understand we both have similar goals, albeit different understandings of how to achieve them. By working together, we can come up with new solutions that meet both our concerns. I have a feeling it’s going to involve the mess of a shed in the back yard that we’ve both been avoiding dealing with. Eek!
For those of you following this series, we’ve already covered 4 of the 5Rs — refuse, reduce, reuse, and repurpose. You might be thinking that the last one of the 5 will be Recycling. However, so many of us are familiar with recycling that I’m only going to quickly go over this one at the bottom of the post, and instead we’re going to focus on a lesser known part of the cycle: rot.
“Rot?” you say?” “That sounds…unappetizing.” Stay with me here. Rot is the natural result of all of the delicious fruits, vegetables and related foods you’ve been growing, buying, and cooking. Waste of these items began when they were harvested, and leaves or stems — parts of the fruit and veggie plant that aren’t edible, are composted or left on the soil to breakdown and return the nutrients to where they came from.
More rot naturally happens as items intended for sale don’t survive the trip to market, or waste on the shelves before they sell. Grocers and markets may toss these in the trash, or, if they’re smart, they have a composter pick them up.
You usually join the cycle when you plunk down payment for your produce, and head home with it. You process the goodies, removing outer leaves, peeling, and trimming off stalks or less appealing/edible parts. Most people throw these in the trash. What’s the problem with that? They’re biodegradable, no harm no foul. Right?
Ahem. Not really. Most trash dumps don’t reach appropriate temperatures or have the right environment for effective breaking down of vegetable matter. There are much, much better ways to make use of them.
For example, some folks will keep all of these scraps in a container in their freezer and when they need a good vegetable stock, they boil them down. (You may also find your dog enjoys the woody ends of asparagus, broccoli, carrots, etc. you trim off.)
If you don’t have a dog or don’t make your own stock, it’s going to be you and that veggie, alone in the kitchen, looking at each other, and you control its fate. Give it a hero’s burial, by starting a backyard compost heap.
This can be as simple as a pile of vegetable matter rotting away under a tarp. You could get fancier and use a bit of wire fencing to create a circular container, or find a composting bin built for the purpose from your local Freecycle or Nextdoor group. The container matters little as long as it has lots of air holes to allow your compost to breathe and let off some steam. I prefer one that’s in full contact with the ground (vs. a tumbler style that stands above the ground level) to allow worms to get up inside and add those super beneficial castings (poop) that are amazing fertilizer. Every couple of weeks, stir that baby around. It’s going to be a bit stinky, but nothing crazy. You’re going to see bugs and worms and that’s okay. Give them a little blessing and appreciate the magic they’re doing. If you’re lucky, a neighborhood Garter Snake will take up residence on the warm heap and you’ll often get a glimpse of her yellow or red stripe before she quickly scoots off to hide. The compost is going to break down a lot faster in warmer weather and won’t do much in the winter. Just give it time.
You can put in pretty much any type of vegetable matter including small sticks, leaves, mowed grass, fruit and vegetable scraps from the house, coffee grounds, and crushed up eggshells. Don’t put any other type of animal products in there, including dairy products, meat, fish, bones, or fats. These will draw rodents and other pests and are a big no-no. Also avoid putting weed seeds in there. Home compost rarely gets hot enough to kill seeds and you’ll just be spreading weed seeds around your yard and garden next spring. You can also compost your recycled paper towels, cardboard, pet hair, and dryer lint (only from natural fibers such as cotton, linen or wool.)
You can find tons of composting container ideas and tips for success online. I like this page from EarthEasy.
Let’s get the recycling bit I mentioned earlier out of the way. It’s simple:
If you’re counting, this comes to 6, 6 Rs ah, ah ahhh! (Sorry, The Count from my childhood days of Sesame Street refuses to stop counting in my head.) You’re correct, you all received an extra “r” from me. That’s how much I love you. Refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle, rot. You’ve got this!
Could I do it? Not buy anything I didn’t “need” for an entire month? I wasn’t sure I could. However, a No Spend month seemed like a fantastic way to kickoff our new budget, designed to help us pay off our remaining debt significantly faster. Also, it’s easy to talk the Minimalism talk, but it’s important to me that I also continue to walk the walk.
The rules were fairly simple: we would keep our weekly budgeted fun money, but it wasn’t to be spent on things. Instead, we could use it towards a fun experience, or for a shared meal at a locally owned restaurant. We wouldn’t be placing any online orders, allowing impulse buys, or purchasing anything that isn’t considered food, or necessary for health, work or basic hygiene.
How did it go? Well there are a couple of days left, but so far, I’d say it’s been fantastic! I avoided going into any stores besides the grocery store and pharmacy, to make sure I didn’t get tempted with impulse buys. We went for walks and bike rides, went to a lecture at the community college planetarium, met a friend for pinball, had a fantastic meal at a new local brew pub, and otherwise focused on reading, crafting, and making meals to use up food we had in the garden, deep freeze and pantry. I also planned Christmas decor and gifts based around homespun delights, and got a start on some of those.
I kept up my new bullet journaling habit, set a daily intention, and satisfied myself with recording things I wanted to buy in my “Anti-Impulse 30 Day Waiting List” page. Surprisingly, after an entire month, there were only three entries on my list: new leather boots for fall/winter (the ones I bought at an outlet 4 years ago have worn out), essential oils for health and cleaning products I make for use around the home, and VOC-free red paint for my front door. (I’ve always dreamed of a red front door, cheery and welcoming, and believed to usher in good luck.)
My husband’s work truck was running roughly, so he went to the local auto parts store and had them run a free diagnostic. A spark plug was bad. We borrowed tools to remove the plug and discovered it was actually a frayed cable leading to the plug. He was able to purchase and replace the cable for $38. Since we get a lot of rain here in Oregon in the fall and winter, we needed to make sure our gutters were free of debris, but we don’t own a ladder tall enough to check. Luckily, our next door neighbor was happy to let us borrow theirs, and we were able to not only clean our gutters ourselves, but also prune some trees and bushes growing against the house to help prevent wind damage, more debris falling into the gutters and to keep airflow moving around the home to prevent water damage and decay.
A key part of minimalism isn’t just in owning less, but also in having the few items you do own be of high quality and something that can be repaired/maintained rather than tossed at the first sign of use or malfunction. Fostering goodwill with the neighbors by plying them with copious amounts of garden delights and canned goodies goes a long way in reducing the number of tools you need to own. If your neighbors don’t have what you need or you don’t have that type of relationship, you can always check to see if there is a tool lending library in your neighborhood or post to your local Nextdoor, Trash Nothing, or Freecycle groups.
As much as I want to celebrate what we got done this month while living frugally, I’m especially excited about what we didn’t do. I didn’t worry about finances and was more comfortable taking days off when my fibromyalgia and Sjogrens symptoms were on high. I didn’t spend my precious Saturday afternoon shopping. Instead, I napped in the waning sunshine, meditated, and read. On Sunday afternoons, instead of schlepping around the home improvement store or running other mundane errands, we sat on the deck, listened to music, and worked on a latch hook craft project reminiscent of a hobby we both shared as kids. We didn’t add a bunch of waste into the system, and we didn’t encourage corporate greed and irresponsibility.
I really enjoyed No-Spend September and plan to do it again early next year. It was a fantastic way to prioritize what’s really important to us and make sure we were spending our resources doing what we love with the people we love. If you’ve done something similar, be sure to share in the comments!
Oh, and totally unrelated, here are a couple of photos of happy, healthy frogs, snakes and other flora and fauna we’ve spotted in the yard this month. (The hubby requested a blog post on frogs, and compromise is one way to foster marital bliss.)
“These days, social platforms celebrate repurposing as a novel and trendy idea. That’s fine, in my mind, as long as the concept is getting good press. However, let’s remember that while repurposing isn’t always Instagram-worthy, it’s still worth doing.”
Part 4 in a 5 part series. Start the series with Part I, Refuse.
My Aunt Dode has been a green hero to me since I was a child. Her home was magical. There was the chicken coop, where I could tiptoe in and gently slide my hand under a warm, softly clucking chicken and withdraw a warm, beautifully brown or greenish blue egg. I wandered up and down long rows of her immense garden, marveling at vegetables I’d never seen, dahlias bigger than my head, or pausing to pluck an impossibly large and sweet marionberry off a vine. One of my favorite things were surprise objects all over her property — old leather work boots with succulents playfully spilling out; tires splayed open and brightly painted as pots for massive tomatoes; and colorful kitchen rugs that looked suspiciously like braided and crocheted plastic shopping bags from the local grocer. There were wind chimes made from antique blue glass bottles, cast iron feet from an old chair now holding up an ottoman, and my Uncle Elliott would be in the backyard taking worn out metal lawn chairs and weaving new bright nylon seats and backs on them and giving them a fresh coat of matching paint.
While all of this was new to me, it was old hat to Aunt Dode and Uncle Elliott. They’d been children during the Great Depression, and resourcefulness and the ability to find two, three, even four uses for a single object increased not only their survival, but also their ability to enjoy life. As a child, Dode had lived for a while in an abandoned train car. Grandma had papered the inside with cheerful newspaper pasted on with flour-and-water glue, so it was brighter inside.
These days, this type of resourcefulness is a trend. I hate to tell you, Pinterest, but people have been planting hen and chicks (succulents) in all sorts of unusual objects for decades. Our generation might call what Uncle Elliott was doing with the chairs “upcycling,” but people have been taking worn out objects and giving them creative new lives for centuries. At least, until the last generation or two.
The second half of the 20th century brought an unprecedented prosperity to America. People started tossing objects aside the moment they showed wear. Why take an hour to sew on a patch or lower the hem on a pair of jeans when you could buy a new pair while you were in town getting a burger? Manufacturers stopped designing objects to be easily repairable, and they used less durable materials. Increasingly, products became designed for niche uses. We had gadgets for every task, beauty serums for every part of our body. It became less expensive to buy a new item than to pay the local repair shop to fix the broken one. Some old timers abandoned their resourcefulness for convenience. Most people born during these decades didn’t realize there were alternatives.
These days, social platforms celebrate repurposing as a novel and trendy idea. That’s fine, in my mind, as long as the concept is getting good press. However, let’s remember that while repurposing isn’t always Instagram-worthy, it’s still worth doing.
As I’ve done in the other posts in this series, let’s take a look at some practical ways you can implement repurposing in your home:
At this point, you might be saying, sure, but what if I have zero creative ability and crafting is NOT going to happen? No worries, I’ve got you, my friend:
None of these things require a lot of thought or time to make happen, and are frequently fun! Also, you’ll find that as you find new purposes for things you already have, you don’t have to buy new items to do the same job. That extra money can help you with paying off debt, or taking a vacation. Best of all, every time you repurpose something, you prevent another new object from being produced and eventually tossed aside. The planet thanks you.
A few weeks ago, in Repurposing Containers, I confessed that in the past I’ve had a bit of an addiction to resealable plastic baggies for organization and food storage. Today, I have widely replaced them with better alternatives in my home. For example, I’ve made beeswax food wraps in various sizes for wrapping up a sandwich for lunch, or covering bowls in the refrigerator. Still, these baggies remain in use from time to time. In keeping with the 5 Rs, we do our best to wash and reuse them when we have to use them at all.
My mother in law washes most of the dishes in our home, as well as baggies and jars, and I see her exasperation with my “hippie” ways. She grew up, poor, in remote Alaska, and reusing items was essential to surviving. It was a real celebration when she reached a point in her life where she had the luxury of single use items and the reduced work that comes from a modern lifestyle, and she’s not keen to return to the old ways.
I understand her perspective. It is a bother to take something we’re used to chucking in the trash without a second thought, and, instead, set it aside to later wash, dry, fold, and replace in the drawer it came from in the first place. Hanging laundry outside to dry, item by item, then fetching it later is also a bother. Heck, we’re American, and Americans don’t need to be bothered with something so trivial. Funny, how these messages are absorbed over decades.
When I weigh her perspective against messages of conservation, I realize the key to moving forward together is understanding that while it seems that we have a choice as to whether we participate in the 5Rs, the truth is that we do not. Her generation celebrates a move from poverty to prosperity. I want to acknowledge and celebrate our prosperity as well. However, for the last century, that prosperity has been celebrated with a pillaging of resources and peoples at such a pace that we will soon reach a point of no return. We will once again have to conserve in order to survive. Many argue that it’s already too late.
In another example, I recently read that many cities and HOAs have laws against hanging laundry outside to dry. Why? Because it looks “trashy” and people believe it brings down property values. Okay, sure, I don’t want to see other people’s undies flapping in the breeze when I look out my window. However, there are other things I want to see even less: dead landscaping from global-warming-triggered drought. A lack of happy birds, frogs and other native wildlife. Smog. So yeah, I can deal with the undies in the name of taking care of the planet .
And as far as the bother goes, if I’m not washing out a plastic baggie, or fetching dried laundry from the line, what other more noble task would be occupying my time? Fail videos on You-Tube? Shopping for things I don’t need? Truth is, many of us who feel that we’re unbearably busy are simply wasting gobs of time on digital media, living further than we should from work and getting stuck in commutes, and other things that reflect more of a lack of priorities than tasks we simply cannot avoid doing. Besides, if I’m standing at my sink washing something, I’m also looking out my window at my yard and enjoying the abundance of native wildlife that finds sanctuary here. Or if I’m bringing in the laundry, I’m doing so only after burying my face in a bath towel and deeply inhaling the beautifully fresh and natural scent that a dryer sheet cannot emulate. This appreciation of the “small things” is what minimalism is all about, and illustrates how paths of minimalism and conservation frequently wind together. What is it all for if not for these moments, these treasures?
What other “single use” items get reused in my home? Once you learn the best way to get all of the remains of peanut butter out of an Adams peanut butter jar, they’re easy to wash and take to the grocery store to be refilled with freshly ground peanut butter. (I’m anxiously waiting for my local store to offer freshly ground organic peanut butter!) The plastic produce baggies that invariably find their way into my home get stuffed back into our reusable shopping bags for the next trip to the store. Spice bottles are a cinch to remove the label*, wash out, and take back to the store for a refill in the bulk section. Mrs. Myer’s Clean Day dish soap bottles are fantastically squirty and durable, and I like to keep one in the shower with my diluted Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap for easy dispensing onto my loofah.
There’s not a whole lot else to write about this, as it’s one of the easiest of the 5Rs if we can get over the messages of prosperity we’re conditioned to believe. Look at that disposable thing in your hand that you weren’t able to refuse or reduce. Ask yourself if you can wash it and use it again for the same purpose. Chances are, you can! Easy peasy.
Next week we’ll take a look at repurposing — how it differs from reusing, how it flexes our creativity muscles, and how it’s key to being good stewards of our earth.
Read the next post in this series, Repurpose.
*Pro tip: if jar labels won’t come off cleanly, don’t lose your sanity or resort to toxic store-bought goo removers. Instead, soak the jar in some hot soapy water, peel or scrape as much of the paper off as you can with a butter knife, and then mix up 2 teaspoons baking soda with 1 tsp cooking oil. This paste easily scrubs off the remaining gunk.