“Everywhere, we run into marketing messages that we deserve it, we work hard, we had a bad day, a little indulgence is good for our wellbeing. Sometimes, that is true. More often, consumption at the American level feeds unhealthy issues such as overeating, depletion of resources, unethical work conditions, poverty, addiction, and waste.”

This post is #2 in a series of 5. Be sure to check out the first post, Refuse.

Last Saturday found me standing outside of Collage, a local art and craft store that specializes in paper type crafts. I am a sucker for paper crafts. I love origami, stamping, sketching, journaling, etc. I knew better than to go in, because I knew I could not leave without buying anything.

There were a few problems with going in. Firstly, we implemented a new budget that allotted me $40 spending money a week, and I had already spent most of my $40. The second issue was that we were planning a no-spend September, and it was just one day before it began. Lastly, and most relevantly, I am working hard on being better at today’s blog topic: Reduce. Did I N-E-E-D a new bullet journal along with markers and washi tape to match? Resoundingly, no. Did I want them? Heck yes. I knew that no-spend September would be a bit of a challenge since like many of us, I get a high off that endorphin hit that comes from clicking on buy now, or walking out of a store with my new whatchamacallit. Additionally, I thought that moving all of the content I had in a bunch of apps and lists to a single journal I could handwrite like the old days would be a step in the direction of minimalism. Also, it would be fun! Lots of wholesome, creative fun!

Reducing our consumption of goods is something we Americans aren’t very good at. Heck, some people accuse minimalists and zero wasters of trying to sabotage our economy — even being un-American. Everywhere, we run into marketing messages that we deserve it, we work hard, we had a bad day, a little indulgence is good for our wellbeing. Sometimes, that is true. More often, consumption at the American level feeds unhealthy issues such as overeating, depletion of resources, unethical work conditions, poverty, addiction, and waste.

I’ll be the first to admit that reducing consumption is tough. I like food, a lot. I’m a sucker for Pinterest and the many art and decoration projects there. I have a four person household and keeping us all clothed, fed, comfortably housed and with decent personal hygiene requires a lot of consumption and it’s easy to get carried away with the messages we see in ads that newer is better, more effective, more natural, more everything.

Then there’s the pesky little issue I have with anyone telling me what I can and cannot have or do. Let’s say that self-discipline remains an ongoing personal growth opportunity. I know I’m not alone, though. It’s an American epidemic. As the image above illustrates, few of us even take the time to ask ourselves if what we are getting ready to buy is a N-E-E-D or a want. Doing what we want instead of what is truly good for us plagues us.

This has to change. It’s a process we’ve been working on in my home for some time, and it’s something I help my clients achieve as well. Buying with intentionality is critical to reducing waste and harm on many levels. Let’s break down the how-tos of this with a few practical examples:

  • Learn the difference between want and need and get in the habit of asking yourself which of these your purchase is, before you commit.
  • What are your financial goals? Will this purchase support them?
  • What are your environmental goals? Does this purchase reduce waste or increase it?
  • What are your goals towards minimalism? Will this purchase require ongoing maintenance even when you no longer enjoy it as much? Will you have to keep spending money on it? Will it add to or decrease physical and mental clutter in your life?
  • Is this item manufactured in an ethical way?

In the end, I did buy the journal and accessories. I chose one that was locally made with recycled materials by folks with physical and mental challenges, so that was a win. On the other hand, the markers are plastic and have a limited lifespan, so that’s a loss. The money I spent wasn’t enough to wreck my entire month’s budget, and I redeemed about 350 bottles and cans for recycling so I absorbed that alright. I have already spent at least 15 hours drawing and organizing in my journal and thoroughly enjoyed each of them.

What lessons did I learn? Avoid temptation altogether. Don’t walk on the block you know you can’t pass by without going in if you know your purchase doesn’t support your goals. Also, I learned that my journal can be a powerful tool towards supporting my budget and minimalism goals. Lastly, I was again reminded that many of the choices we face on this path aren’t clear cut. Sometimes, the best we can do is break even. As long as we are actively engaged, that’s okay. Next time, we will rock it!

Refuse: Part 1 in a Series of 5

“Refuse” is the Alpha and the Omega of the Five Rs. How so, you ask? Well, if you do this first one right, you don’t even have to think about the two the kids on the bag are struggling with.

I had to giggle a bit when I noticed the above caption on this Trader Joe’s shopping bag. It illustrates the general public’s overall confusion with the Five Rs and the fact that the bag exists at all shows that the first of the Five Rs is the most commonly forgotten. Which is it? It’s “refuse” my friends, “refuse.” I promised a five part series on the Five Rs, so let it begin.

Read my guilt. That Trader Joe’s bag is on my kitchen counter which means that one time very recently, someone in my household dashed in TJs for some quick goodies and either forgot to bring in their reusable bags, or –gasp! — didn’t care! This scenario happens way too easily in our society. Let’s go over the concept of Refuse, and then we’ll take a look at some of the most common scenarios in which we screw this up, and how to avoid it.

Refuse is the Alpha and Omega of the Five Rs. How so, you ask? Well, if you do this first one right, you don’t even have to think about the two the kids on the bag are struggling with. The term Refuse refers to refusing to buy/be handed or otherwise come in possession of single use waste items; most commonly plastic but also glass, aluminum, tin, paper, etc. We so often come in contact with single use “disposable” items that it’s super easy not to realize at all how often we use and toss these things. On an average weekend day of running errands and grabbing some food on the way, I could easily add a couple of dozen to my unfortunate collection.

Is it realistic that we might refuse all of these items and be 100% perfect Zero Wasters? Meh. Some Pinterest Pins and Instagrammers might tell you yes, but for most of us, we’ve got other things to do with our lives. Sheer perfection isn’t likely. Regardless, it is a goal we are working towards and since doing it reasonably well means we don’t have to monkey around with the other 4 Rs, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

How do we obtain these single use items? Let me count some of the common ways:

  • Packaging in the grocery store: cardboard boxes, plastic bags/pouches, aluminum cans, glass bottles and jars, and frequently, plastic bags within cardboard boxes.
  • Plastic and paper shopping bags. (Even if you own and remember reusable bags most of the time, your mother in law likely still brings plastic home with her (not my mother in law, surely), or you forget your bags in the car and are too lazy to go out and get them once you’re in the store.
  • Boxes, bags, and bags within bags within bags within bags within boxes for your online shopping habit.
  • Dining out, especially if you are getting takeout or drive thru, but even at sit down places, you are likely to encounter plastic sauce/dressing cups, straws, and styrofoam doggie takeout containers.
  • Gifts from well meaning loved ones and friends.
  • Plastic windows on otherwise recyclable envelopes.
  • Plastic and paper tags on clothing.
  • Heck, a lot of your clothing is actually made from plastic; and while it may not technically count as “single use,” today’s fast fashion means that a shirt you’d like to own for years likely won’t even make it through a single season without shrinking, bunching, balling, tearing, misshaping or other sad and premature death outcomes.

So what’s someone seeking to live a sustainable lifestyle to do? Let’s revisit the above scenarios with some alternatives. Some of these are going to be easier than others. Remember, we’re not seeking perfection, so start with the ones that are easiest and then work your way down the list of difficulty as your green muscles strengthen.

  • Packaging in the grocery store: the easiest thing to do here is to locate a store in your area that offers at least some bulk items on your list and fill up reusable containers you already have in your possession. Let the store manager know you love the bulk options and would love to see them expanded. If you’re super lucky, you live in one of the areas that has an all-bulk grocer. Also keep in mind that not everything needs to be in a container. No, you don’t really need a flimsy plastic bag around every single item of produce you buy. If you must choose containers, look for those from post consumer recycled content that also will be handy for the “Repurposing” we’ll be visiting in a few weeks.
  • Plastic and paper shopping bags: bring your own reusables each and every time. If you forget, walk your heinie back to the car. You need the exercise anyway. Yes you do. Most stores offer you a bag credit for each disposable bag you don’t use, so be sure to ask.
  • Boxes and bags from online shopping: do you really need to buy this thing? No really, do you? In a this-item-will-likely-save-me-from-death kind of way? That might sound drastic, but our society really confuses the word “need” with what they really mean, “want,” a lot. The things we want far outweigh things we really need to get by. Most of the time, these things come from a shopping-as-recreation habit, from keeping up with trends, competing with friends and neighbors, or simply shopping mindlessly because the money in your pocket is just too heavy to keep carrying around. If you find you really do capital N-E-E-D this item, check to see if your online retailer offers a less packaging or plastic free option. Amazon does, as an example, with varying levels of success.
  • Dining out: do it less. Restaurant food likely isn’t organic, grown locally and it’s definitely a lot more expensive than preparing food at home. Research ways to bring food from home to make on-the-go eating better on the planet and your debit card. If you want to treat yourself sometimes, do it. However, refuse the plastic altogether. Bring a few extra pieces of silverware from home, along with a glass jar, cloth napkins, and reusable straws in your to-go kit, and you’ve got everything you need with you already.
  • Gifts: spread the word ahead of time, in casual conversation, about how you’re shifting from owning a lot of things to enjoying more experiences. Hold gift-free celebrations, and encourage others to do the same. If you do end up doing a gift exchange, consider a “secret santa” style charitable donation, or give and request handmade gifts. I’ll do an in-depth blog about this topic as we get a bit closer to the holidays.
  • Clothing: the best choice is to shop resale. Before you get scuzzed out imagining digging through bins of lice-and-bedbug-ridden discount clothes, realize that second hand clothing has gotten a lot more mainstream and it’s easy to find higher quality resale shops, charity resale, vintage boutiques, and even local exchanges in your neighborhood to make getting your hands on a barely worn, well made item of natural fibers a heck of a lot classier. Avoid synthetic fibers that shed micro plastics (another upcoming blog post). If you do insist on buying new, look for eco-minded clothing manufacturers that focus on natural fibers, and fair wages for workers. You are going to pay more, but these items are of much better quality and can last you a lifetime with proper care. As with the slow food movement, there is also a slow fashion movement.
  • Mail: switch as many bills as possible to online bill pay. Cancel your newspaper and magazine subscriptions. Opt-out of prescreened credit offers. Wait at your mailbox and snarl at your mail carrier when they try to deposit the weekly ads. Okay, maybe don’t do that last one. But do ask if there’s any way around getting those delivered. If not, remember you’ve got the remaining four Rs to get by on.

Read Part 2 in this 5 part series, Reduce.

Eyes on Digital Overload?

Image illustrating Digital Minimalism Concept.

This flyer highlights a key problem in our overworked culture.

I spotted this flyer while I was at Natural Grocers the other day and it was just perfect timing as I’d recently spent a few hours listening to a podcast about, ironically, digital minimalism. At first glance, it seems perfectly innocent. We can all relate to weary, dry eyes that just don’t want to focus after all day on our computer and phones. A natural supplement that can help? Sign me up!

We’re so conditioned to think this way that we don’t really see the insidious concept it illustrates. This flyer is telling us not to listen to the warning signs that our body is giving us: that we are spending too much time online. Instead, it’s promising us a miracle cure for the symptoms we are having. Even better, this cure is natural, so it has to be good for us.

Our society does this all of the time. It teaches us not to listen to our bodies and minds. The body is awesome at giving us warning signals. Eating too much rich food? That’s what this awful indigestion is telling you. Been hunched over your computer too long? Your aching shoulders and neck are complaining. When you listen to the warning signals from your body, and change positions, or take a break, or choose the marinara instead of the alfredo, you don’t suffer. It’s basic cause and effect.

However, in a consumerist culture, instead of listening to the warning signals and making changes that truly benefit us, we are encouraged to buy something we don’t really need, and that may not actually help. The great majority of illnesses facing us today are preventable by making healthy lifestyle choices. That takes time, work and dedication, though. The tempting marketing messages of products that mask our bodies’ natural warning systems (symptoms) offer us a shortcut to disregarding messages we really should be paying attention to, and implementing changes to prevent. Other people are getting rich from selling us ways to enable our unhealthy behaviors.

Cutting back on digital time is a real challenge and takes prioritization, planning, and dedication. It’s all too easy to allow ourselves to be overworked and addicted to the endorphin reward system of social networks. We feel terrified we are missing out on something important (FOMO) or just don’t know what to do with ourselves if we were to unplug.

One thing I’ve done recently to reduce my digital time is to read in the evening before bed, rather than watching TV. I thought it would be tough to do, but it’s been great! I’ve had more time to get to those books that I’ve been wanting to read, and outside of a few really outstanding shows, most of what I was watching was utterly forgettable and a waste of time.

Another thing I’ve been trying to do, sometimes more successfully than others, is to leave my phone in another room. When I am up taking a break from what I’m working on, I’ll go check it, and reply to messages. I uninstalled apps that aren’t of a purely functional nature, so I’m less tempted to start scrolling through things and lose track of time.

Here are some resources I’ve come across lately that support what I’m talking about here. Let me know what you think and I’ve love to hear ways that you are paying attention to your body’s signals and minimizing your digital time!

Digital Minimalism Resources:
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newton.
The Minimalists Podcast: Episode 173 Digital Clutter

Listening to your body’s warning signals:
Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn

General good advice about slowing down and living a meaningful life:
Making the Good Life Last: Four Keys to Sustainable Living by Michael A. Schuler

A Minimalist Pantry

The other day, I was rifling through jar after jar of miscellaneous dried contents in my under-lit pantry, looking for pumpkin seeds. “Is it this jar? Nope, that’s flax seed. This jar? Nope, freekah. Well it has to be this jar. Dang, still nope. That’s wakame.” Then it hit me. My Pinterest worthy, satisfying rows of healthy dry goods in Mason jars aren’t minimalist. At all.

The philosophy behind minimalism is that we want to simplify our lives to clear out the literal and mental clutter that detracts from our time doing what we love, with those we love. It’s a concept I have readily adopted throughout my home, in my calendar, and even in my kitchen. I’ve donated endless numbers of travel mugs, single purpose appliances, a giant tiered cupcake stand, redundant baking pans, and much more.

Somehow, I had missed the actual food. My refrigerator was in no better shape than my pantry. The door shelves were a mess of carefully balanced condiment bottles that had been used once for a recipe and then never again. The freezer was a labyrinth of half used, poorly closed bags of veggies, wheat alternative breads, and unidentifiable freezer burned items threatening to leap off the shelf and crash into the dog’s water bowl, beneath.

Adventurous eating, especially of healthy, organic foods, is nothing to feel bad about. The trouble comes when novel ingredients have to be imported only to largely waste away in my refrigerator. Food waste is bad. The waste of expensive foods that were imported from around the world is even worse.

I looked through my list of recipes of meals we have tried over the last 6 months or so. It’s an extremely long list. Every week, I scroll through websites, Pinterest, newsletters, and more, looking for the most exciting recipes and new ingredients touting some health benefit or another. It usually takes me an hour to an hour and a half, just to plan the weekly menu. I won’t say how long my poor husband spends at two, three, or more stores every week hunting down the ingredients. Then, we furiously wash, mince, sauté, roast, plate and garnish before sitting down, exhausted, for dinner.

No part of this is minimalist. Minutes spent digging through cluttered shelves, wasted imported ingredients, or masses of time invested in planning, shopping for, cooking, and storing these meals — all for what? A meal I chew, swallow and then think to myself, “That was good. What’s for dinner tomorrow night?”

I did some digging around the web and plenty of other people have run into this issue as well and have done some writing about it. I went through a number of blogs to get ideas and came across all sorts of plans to minimize the complexity of food as well as it’s transportation, storage, purchase and preparation.

Few of them met our dietary needs. So I came up with a new checklist for my family to ensure the meals I plan and ingredients I buy meet our requirements for simplicity, time saved, and avoidance of waste.

  1. Is this meal comprised of staple ingredients that I have room to store and will be sure to use entirely before they waste? If not, could I substitute a staple ingredient with success? (For example, will white rice work instead of basmati rice? Could I use walnuts or almonds instead of pistachios?)
  2. Is this meal largely comprised of local, organic ingredients?
  3. Does this meal require foods that are packaged in plastic/items I can’t recycle, or do they have preservatives in their packaging? (BPA, BHT, BHA, etc.)
  4. Is the meal easy to make, without stressing us out on a work night?
  5. Is this meal something we would enjoy eating as leftovers? We always double meals to eat them for dinner again the next day, saving us cooking as often.
  6. Is this meal something that could go into a regular rotation?

If these answers are satisfactory, then it’s a meal I’ll be making in the near future. Everyone is different, so this may not work exactly as is for you. I encourage you to make your own checklist of what’s important and then simplify your kitchen as well.

Another way to go about this would be to greatly reduce the number of similar ingredients you buy. Examples:

Pasta: do you really need macaroni, spaghetti, fettuccini, couscous, rotini and orzo? We’ll be cutting back to gluten free macaroni and spaghetti.

Nuts: my shelf had walnuts, coconut flakes, pecans, raw almonds, slivered almonds, pistachios, and there were pine nuts in the refrigerator. I will cut back to walnuts, raw almonds, and coconut flakes.

Cheese: cottage cheese, ricotta, imported feta, smoked provolone, light string cheese, cheddar, parmesan and Monterrey jack are all fighting for space in the cheese drawer. We will eat these up and from now only keep only cheddar, parmesan and provolone since those are what we eat most.

Sauces and condiments: well I won’t waste your time with the number of these. Suffice to say, we will be pairing back to the likes of ketchup, mayonnaise, hot sauce, Bragg’s aminos, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, yellow mustard, sweet chili sauce, and spaghetti sauce.

This should be enough to get you going. Remember to eat through what you have as long as it’s still good, instead of throwing food away. Be sure and share what you did and how it worked below.

Repurposing Containers

I admit it. I have a bit of an addiction to single use zip baggies. I am naturally someone that loves to keep things contained and organized. If you were to take a look at my board games, you’d find the pieces of each game carefully stored in baggies within a bigger bag, within the large storage container. When I travel, each travel bottle of shampoo or conditioner gets its own little baggie to prevent spills. My refrigerator and pantry have been the biggest areas that this addiction has been evident. Every partially used fruit or veggie would be bagged. Stray baked goods, partial boxes of crackers, all bagged for organization and freshness. That is, until I became what my son likes to call, “a granola.” (It doesn’t hurt my feelings. Granola is delicious.)

In my kitchen, I have (mostly) switched from baggies to other containers — usually empty food jars that have been washed and repurposed. Not only does this greatly reduce my usage of single use plastics, it has increased overall visibility and I’m able to spot items in the fridge before they spoil so I waste less.

When we talk about the life cycle of objects in our possession, we granolas like to use the 5 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle. I’m planning a series of blog posts about the 5 Rs, but for this post, we’re talking about repurposing items.

Single use prescription bottle repurposed into a portable doggie bag container

The other day, I was walking a friend’s dog, and I noticed they had cleverly repurposed an empty prescription bottle into the perfect container for keeping a roll of biodegradable doggie bags on the leash. It was a great reminder that when we have a need, we can survey the items already in our possession, and ask ourselves, “Could this item meet this need?” Contrary to what our consumer society says, we don’t have to have an individually tailored item that can only be used for one purpose. My friend realized that they didn’t need to go out and buy a poorly made plastic bone-shaped doggie bag dispenser when they possessed innovation, and an empty prescription bottle that isn’t recyclable in our area.

Please reply to this post with photos and/or examples of things you’ve repurposed. We all would love some additional inspiration!

Mountain or Molehill?

Mole hills illustrate that living a sustainable lifestyle includes some pros and cons.

It’s easy to idealize the green life as a series of romantic images such as clean and lavender-scented linens floating on a clothesline as one sits sipping freshly squeezed organic lemonade, or maybe a pantry of perfectly organized mason jars filled with locally sourced dry goods. Maybe your green dream involves cycling to work on a gorgeous summer morning. It can be these things and much more. However, sometimes it involves identifying our trigger points and carefully weighing them against our sustainability goals. It can mean more work and it absolutely involves some sacrifice.

We have a family of very persistent moles in our yard. They get under my skin because when I look across my yard towards my garden or pond, they stick up out of the ground like a middle finger. They leave pock marks and interfere with mowing, as well as encouraging the dogs to dig. We’ve tried various natural methods, such as sticking Juicy Fruit Gum in their holes (the dogs dug it up and pooped it out), flooding them out with water (just caused them to refresh their tunnel network and pop up more holes), and The Trap. The Trap is really just a larger type of mouse trap, and over three years, we’ve managed to trap and kill just 2-3 moles per summer — enough to make it feel like a maddening game of Whack-A-Mole in which the moles always win and we get no tickets for our spent tokens.

The presence of moles is actually a good thing. It means that we haven’t spread pesticides and herbicides on our yard and killed all of the insects they like to eat. They help control grubs that turn into damaging beetles, and till and aerate our yard. Even with this knowledge, these mole hills stand up like defiant mountains when I survey my yard. Each time, I remind myself of their value, and eventually I may even make peace with them.

Rhubarb Schnapps

The organic rhubarb I planted two years ago is still getting established. My plants aren’t making enough at once to harvest for a cobbler, but I haven’t wanted to waste the few stalks here and there that were ready to be enjoyed. Plus, picking regularly encourages new growth.

Last Christmas, I successfully made some limoncello from lemon peel, vodka, sugar and time, and it occurred to me I may be able to do something similar with rhubarb. A quick web search for “rhubarb vodka” led me to a recipe for rhubarb schnapps. That was six weeks ago, and after near daily shaking of the jar, today I received the calendar reminder that my schnapps were done. I strained out the pieces of rhubarb and behold: rhubarb schnapps. I haven’t found a cocktail recipe for the schnapps yet, but if all else fails, I’m quite happy to shake some over ice and pour into a shot glass.

Since I’m living the green life, I’m always on the lookout for ways to reduce food waste and when you have a backyard garden, you sometimes have to get creative. Nature gives at her own pace, and the organic gardener frequently has batches of vegetables or fruits that don’t fit nicely into any given recipe. Sometimes, the creative attempts don’t turn out as delicious as hoped, but I am always happy to be eating something I grew and prepared myself over frankenfood on the grocery store shelves.