musings on sustainability

A while back, I came across an article on Offbeat Home (one of my all-time favourite blogs) that really caught my eye, and has stayed with me. The article, entitled “Sustainability isn’t always sustainable,” highlighted the difficulties and anxieties that many of us face in our desire to live a greener, more environmentally sustainable lifestyle, and the shame that can ensue when we forget our reusable bags.

As someone who has been struggling to decrease her carbon footprint since she was in the fourth grade, this article really and truly resonated with me. The crippling anxiety and shame about producing waste, the difficulties in trying to do better, and the attempted self-compassion when we do slip up… living sustainably doesn’t always feel sustainable, no. It can often feel insurmountable and like we are struggling in vain, so I wanted to put together an introduction to the method I have been using to combat my own carbon footprint and the amount of waste I produce, in three approachable, process-based steps.

Of course, this method hasn’t been foolproof for me. And of course, there are still pieces I struggle with every time I leave the house to pick up supplies. But for me, this provides a pretty good outline on where and how to begin, and how to keep moving forward when I slip up.

Know thy waste
The first step in this more sustainable approach is to really take a hard look at the type of waste you are producing. Look in your bins – recycling and garbage, both at home and on the go or at work – and really see them for what they are. Are they full of food packaging, used up makeup and skin care products, and other single use items? Are they full of paper products, food scraps, and plastic grocery bags? Spend some time here. Really get intimate with what you’ve been tossing out, and make a habit of checking in every once in a while to see how your trash is evolving. After all, if you don’t know the types of waste you are producing, you can’t know what to target or even where to start.

When I began this journey, I realized just how many plastic bags I was consuming. Single use bags that will take hundreds of years to break down, or end up in the stomach lining of wildlife, completely overwhelmed my waste bins. So one of the first things I did was to begin to turn down bags every time I made a purchase. I invested in reusable cloth bags for shopping, as well as a sturdy backpack and a slightly larger purse for those impulse purchases I hadn’t planned on making while out.

Your waste will evolve as you move through this process and as you move through your life. This is okay; it’s a process of getting to know your waste and of noticing your own ebbs and flows. Treat each piece of waste as an opportunity, with curiosity instead of judgment, and continue to evolve with the process.

Know thy self
So you’ve bought your reusable grocery bags, but your bins are still full of plastic bags. What gives? How is this still happening?

If the first step is to really get to know your waste, the second is to really get to know yourself. This includes your habits and your routines. As I mentioned above, one of the first steps I undertook was to invest in cloth bags – but buying the cloth bags didn’t immediately solve the problem. I was still finding plastic bags littered all over my apartment and life. The problem for me, is that despite the best of intentions, I’m forgetful as hell. Which meant that the cloth bags often sat gathering dust in the trunk of my car or beside my front door.

To combat this, I realized I needed to look at my habits. What was going to help me get those bags out of the trunk and into the grocery store? The answer for me was to bundle the crap out of them, tie them together, and put a few into every backpack or purse I own – and then put them back every time I unload them. That way, I have no excuse, they’re always accessible.

Know thy alternatives
Once you’ve established a working knowledge of what kind of waste you produce and your personal routines and habits, it is easier to really know what you’re looking for when looking into alternatives.

Essentially, this step comes down to two things: research, and trail + error. Googling the heck out of what can and cannot be recycled in your area, what can be composted and how to get started, where your local consignment or bulk stores are, or where your closest farmer’s markets are. Once you’ve become aware of the types of waste you produce and the habits and routines you follow, you can really begin to narrow down what kinds of alternatives will be helpful to you, and not get lost in the fog and all of the options.

There are endless resources out there from blogs to youtubes and recipes even IRL local communities. Once you know your needs, these become a lot more accessible to you.

I started here slowly, beginning by eliminating as much plastic food packaging as possible. Bagged apples? Ehh, I’ll just buy them loose, thanks. Bagged pasta? I’ll pick it up from the bulk bin or in a cardboard box instead. Plastic-encased deodorant, giant jugs of fabric softener, liquid soap and shampoo? For me, the process of locating alternatives very seldom meant saying no to foods or items that I love or use on the regular, it just meant finding plastic-free or reusable options elsewhere. (I’ll include a list at the bottom of this page, by the by, including areas I’m still working on).

Bonus step: Know (and accept) thy limits
Living a more sustainable lifestyle is a process. Keep that in mind as you move through it.

(Maaaybe read that again, if you’re especially hard on yourself. I’m certainly going to).

In knowing and accepting your limits, it’s important to once again look at your routines and your lifestyle, and in particular your health. Exactly zero of the online or in person resources I have accessed over the years have given me any guidance on how to live a sustainable lifestyle while also working with nearsightedness, chronic pain or illness, mental health, sexuality, poverty or poorness, and the like.

I need glasses or contacts to see. I can’t afford – nor do I want – laser eye-surgery, and my glasses contain plastic. Aside from trying to find completely metal frames the next time my prescription changes, there isn’t much I can do there.

As for chronic pain and illness, there are some things I can do for my own personal health that are waste- or at least plastic-free. For instance, investing in essential oils (in glass containers) or growing my own herbs for stomach and headache pain.

Likewise, I know that if I don’t eat meat or fish often enough, I get really ill. I’ve substantially cut down on the packaged meats and fish I bring into my home (and supplemented other forms of protein in their place), but I still need a chicken breast here and there to get me through the week healthy and happy.

For sexual and reproductive health, as a cis-woman I can of course switch to a birth control method like an injection or an IUD, but that’s only helpful for pregnancy, not infections or other illnesses.

And what about sunscreen? (Seriously, zerowaste bloggers, what about sunscreen?!)

The bottom line for me is that I am not willing to play fast and loose with my health. I’m not naive enough to think that a little lavender and peppermint essential oil is going to cut it for every illness or pain I have throughout my lifetime, and it would be irresponsible both for my health and the health of my partner to forgo condoms or dental dams and other safer sex methods just because they’re packaged in plastic. I am not going to beat myself up over that empty prescription pill bottle at the bottom of my bag or the safer-sex methods in my cupboard in the name of living a one hundred percent plastic-free existence.

Double bonus: A look into my pantry
Disclaimer – some of this stuff is more expensive up front, like the Lush products for instance. That being said, I purchased my first deodorant bar in April and still haven’t needed to replace it, as opposed to replacing my plastic deodorant every month and a half. Also, I have made some things a lot more difficult on myself (like moisturizer or lipchap) through my hatred of coconut oil, which may prove useful to you.

Replaced item

Replaced with

Struggling with

Moisturizer

Solid bars, from Lush

Lipchap

Deodorant

Solid, from Lush

Nail polish remover

Shampoo and conditioner

Solid, from Lush (+ homemade hair masks from avocado, honey…)

Bandaids

Exfoliating face mask

Homemade (brown sugar + honey)

Toothpaste

Note: I have made toothpaste in the past, but I feel anxious about stripping the enamel of my teeth

Liquid soap

Solid bars with no packaging, from Lush, Whole Foods, Naples Soap Company, Steeped Tea…

Sunscreen

Menstrual products

Washable and reusable products, from Lunapads

Cat food

Note: They sell wet cat food in tins, but my cat won’t live off an entirely wet food diet. He stops eating after about four cans in a row

Concealer

Glass packaging, from Lush

Cat litter

Note: I often try to use ground corn cob-based litter, or recycled paper pellets, but even those come in plastic bags. Anyone have some sawdust I can borrow?

Mascara*

Reusable/bamboo packaging, from Lush, Elate Cosmetics…

Dumplings

Lipsticks*

Bamboo packaging, from Elate Cosmetics

Rice/won-ton paper, nori…

Tooth brush*

Bamboo, Amazon

Coffee**

Eyeshadow*

Reusable/bamboo packaging, from Lush, Etsy, Elate Cosmetics, Colourpop…

Almond milk

Note: Literally why is there a plastic spout on my almond milk?!

Shaving razor*

Stainless steel, Amazon

Vinegar

Spinach

Loose or bundled, from local grocery stores

Meat

Peanut butter, sauces, other condiments

In glass jars, from local grocery stores

Tip: I also reuse the glass jars for items I buy in bulk by weighing them for the tare, filling them, and weighing again. Also great for storing anything or for art projects

Fish

Bread

Homemade or whole loaf in paper bag, from local grocery stores/bakeries

Tip: Slice + freeze to maintain freshness

Charcoal

Plastic snack bags

Cloth bags, homemade

Pastels

Plastic grocery bags

Cloth totes

 Cereal

Plastic + paper coffee/smoothie cups, water bottles…

Hot and cold reusable cups (metal, glass, ceramic), from Starbucks, Costco, David’s Tea…

 Painkillers

Household cleaners

Homemade (vinegar + lemon juice + baking soda)

 Cold and flu medication

Laundry detergent

Baking soda

Anti-static dryer sheets

Dryer balls, from Modcloth

Disclaimer: Mine are technically plastic, but they make non-plastic ones as well

Flowers in plastic, potted plants

Wrapped in paper, wildflowers, or from seed

Tip: Grow your food from your food! Buy and plant some organic tomatoes, for isntance

Watercolour paints*

Reusable/recycled packaging, from various Etsy shops

(Colour) Pencils, erasers…

Paper-only packaging

Tea**

Loose-leaf in metal canisters, from David’s Tea

Clothing

Second-hand or pieces without plastic tags and the like, from local thrift stores

Housewares, furniture…

Second-hand where possible, or in cardboard only packaging

Tip: Some of my favourite furniture came from the side of the road for free (no joke)

* Indicates products I haven’t had to purchase yet, but intend on purchasing when I run out of my current supply

** Indicates products I get primarily through work, which while not eco-sustainable is economically sustainable, given my graduate student budget

Living a sustainable life is a conscious, on-going task of awareness and adaptation. But, well, I would be inclined to argue that sentence describes life itself in many ways. Practice a little awareness, a little self-compassion, and a lot of patience and I think we will all be well on our way to a greener life and greener planet.

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