Early last year (2011) my friend Natasha Juliana passed me an article from the Sunset magazine. The article, titled "Zero-waste family in Marin", described how this family managed to live a pretty normal life with no waste.
The article immediately made a deep impression on me. It reminded me of my childhood in South India. Growing up in the 1980s in the small city of Trichy, I never saw my family throw anything away. Our neighbors were no different -- there simply was no garbage service! "Zero-waste" was just a part of the lifestyle there, at that time. Of course things have changed there now. Back then, we always carried our own bags and baskets to the grocer. We even bought cooking oil in our own steel containers. Milk was measured in liters and delivered at our doorstep, as was butter. We bought grains (paddy and wheat) in huge jute sacks, took them to the mill and brought home the flour. Meals were always made at home. So were snacks, yogurt and sun-dried goods.
Inspired by the zero-waste family in Marin, I started looking closely at my own everyday life, putting garbage that I produce into perspective. It helped a great deal to watch the documentary “No Impact Man” that was suggested by my friend Suzette Stephens. What ensued was a series of small changes towards reducing garbage that have added up over time, with the result that we have put out our municipal trash can only twice in the last twelve months, and the recycling can only a few more times. I will now take you on a short tour around our household, and talk about the changes we have integrated into our everyday lives.
To begin with a little background is in order. We are a family of four: my husband, a boy (8), a girl (5 ½) and me. We live in a duplex condo in Rohnert Park, California, in a pretty typical American suburb built in the early 1990s.
Let's begin with the bags. We have a few bags of bags in our car trunk that we carry for grocery shopping. This includes the transparent plastic bags too. Since we always reuse our bags, we hardly have the need to use new ones provided at the store. Some stores even offer a small discount for bringing one’s own bags! It was such a pleasure to discover the bulk bins at our local stores. We buy most of the organic staples that we need -- including yeast, fig bars, vanilla extract, soba noodles and pasta -- from the bulk bins now. We found that a lot of times it is cheaper to buy organic items from the bulk section. My kids were of course delighted to see ginger cookies, sesame sticks and raspberry bars there. “Mom! Organic snacks in the bulk bins! No chemicals and no plastic! Can we buy these?” A few months into this mode of shopping, we realized that all that we needed was located in the periphery of the stores. By avoiding the center aisles we were reducing the plastic we were throwing away and also probably buying healthier at the same time.
The bulk bins brought to our notice other grains that we have now introduced into our diet. Our breakfasts now include millet, corn meal and steel-cut oats. And I shouldn’t forget to mention the fresh ground peanut butter that my kids simply love. We take our own (empty) glass jar, get it weighed initially (tare weight) and refill our jar. Some of the local stores that have a wide range of items in their bulk bins are Oliver’s in Cotati, Community Market in Santa Rosa and Whole Foods in Petaluma.
We buy our eggs directly from local farms or friends that have chicken coops or the farmers' markets. We return our empty egg cartons to the farmers. We learned about the energy-intensive recycling process involved with the plastic milk containers; we were not entirely happy about the details of it. So we switched to Strauss milk which comes in glass containers; we pay a deposit of $1.50 at the time of purchase and that is credited when we return the container. We buy cheese only if we can find a vendor (at the Farmers' market) who is willing to sell a small unwrapped wedge. This necessarily means going without cheese most of the time. Considering the energy involved in the production and sales of cheese, we have decided to include it only occasionally in our meals as a special treat. The ideal situation would be to become vegan (we have always been vegetarians), then we won’t have to worry about these details.
We have a green waste receptacle, next to the sink, where all our vegetable and fruit scraps go. There is no trash can under the sink now. Instead I have reclaimed this space for much needed storage for small appliances like the blender and the jars, the sandwich/waffle maker etc. I noticed that even after making changes to the way we grocery-shopped, our main source of plastic was the bread that came in plastic bags. One option was to switch to breads available in paper bags. Instead, I decided to take up the daunting task of baking, something I had never really done before. I decided to get help and enlisted a dear Petaluma friend, Sarah Hamner, to be my baking teacher. She walked me through a great recipe for a delicious whole wheat loaf. Every week or so, I faithfully follow her recipe make three loaves at a time. The kids love to get involved and the whole process has evolved into a greatly enjoyable culinary ritual. To maximize the use of the oven, I also make granola or baked pasta on the same day. We also make our own yogurt (just add live culture into warm milk), jams during summer and various kinds of simple dips and sauces like hummus and apple sauce.
We have a relatively small energy-efficient refrigerator/freezer where we store dairy, veggies, fruit and leftovers. Having just enough space to store meant that we could never over-stock and also ensured that leftovers waiting to be eaten caught our eyes and are not wasted.
Pantry. We have a bag of bags where we put back the grocery bags after transferring everything from the store into their respective containers. This bag is moved to the car once it has enough bags.
Kids' Corner. We use only one-sided paper from the mail and from my husband’s office for arts. The kids have a small basket under their table to discard used paper; when it overflows they take it to the recycling bin in the garage. They have similar baskets in their rooms for recycling paper. The kids mostly use pencils, color pencils, crayons, chalk pastels and water color for their art work. We don’t buy markers, sharpies etc.
Office/Mail. We mostly receive electronic statements and pay our bills online. We signed up at various places to stop junk mail from flooding our mailbox. There is a recycling bin under the table in our home office. We decided not to own a printer just to avoid the unnecessary printing that the convenience offered. We use scrap paper to write down driving directions off the Internet.
At the table, we have a small pile of cloth napkins, for use during meals and also to wipe off spills that are frequent with kids around.
Thanks to a friend in my town, we almost never buy new clothes or shoes for our kids. We have established a nice network to circulate these hand-me-downs and everybody that participates benefits from it. We buy under garments new and the rest is all from local thrift stores. This includes my clothes too. It took me a while to get comfortable with shopping at the thrift stores; it is looked down upon in India. Now I enjoy the benefits it offers – less expenses, supporting our local economy, reducing garbage, etc.
I have some stick-on bindis (decorative jewels for the forehead) from India and one lipstick (which I have hardly used). I use a rechargeable electric razor. It has lasted many years. Some local stores sell shampoo, soap, detergent etc. in bulk. We take our own containers and get them refilled. I read about people using baking soda as a deodorant and liked that option.
We buy laundry detergent powder that comes in cardboard boxes; recycling plastic detergent containers needs more energy. We don't use the dryer most of the year; we either sun-dry or air-dry (drying the clothes in the garage out of the sun, especially during the rains) our laundry. We plan our laundry days based on the weather forecast, during the rainy season. This keeps our gas and electricity bill in the $20's during summer and around $50 during winter.
My good friend and piano teacher Jane Fosgreen surprised me when she said that she could count the number of instances she had used a commercial feminine sanitary product. She said that she had always used good quality cloth. I was guilty of the fact that after moving to the U.S., I had conveniently forgotten the norms in India and had transitioned seamlessly to the disposable-ways of living that is prevalent here. I switched back to cloth and found it to be very easy and natural. Recently I heard from a friend about the Diva cup. It certainly is an equally good, sustainable and comfortable alternative.
Parties and Gifts.
I have a set of about 2 dozen plastic plates and silverware just for party needs. We share this party set with local friends. We invite a small group of friends and families to the birthdays of our children. We serve homemade food and snacks or local fruit and veggies. We have inconvenienced some of our friends by asking them not to bring any gift; so we now request them to bring in any used book, toy or game that their child has outgrown. That works very well. The best birthday gift so far has been the farm-fresh eggs from my friend's backyard!! Our birthday gifts to my kids' friends have been books, homemade desserts, homemade jam, handmade crafts and gift cards to local stores.
We choose places that have reusable china and silverware. Also we have one or two of our small containers handy (in the car) just in case we have leftovers.
We have a steel water bottle and a coffee mug in the car along with the bags of bags in the trunk. We have a couple of spoons and forks that have come in handy many times.
My kids asked me if I could carry two little spoons for tasting the samples at the grocery stores. It was quite rewarding to observe that they have taken the zero-waste lifestyle seriously.
We use a rag or sponge to clean the kitchen counter thereby easily eliminating our need for paper towels. We have laminated floor downstairs which are swept with a broom and the dirt is put back into the garden or compost. We mop the floor with a mop that uses a cloth pad. Our bedrooms are carpeted which are vacuumed once in a while. We do throw away the bags. We have separate rags to clean the bathroom floors.
We do have a trash can in the garage and toilet for emergency reasons and also for the convenience of our guests. We discard our old toothbrushes, empty toothpaste tubes (only some brands have recyclable tubes) and vacuum cleaner bags.
It was a shock for us to realize that recycling was only marginally better than dumping something into the landfill. The Internet has all the details, if you are interested. Basically, we realized that recycling is a good beginning but clearly not sustainable and does not come close to reducing waste.
Now, you may think this is a lot of hard work. Well, it actually isn't. It is a different way of perceiving and planning so we can simply reduce our impact on this beautiful Earth. I shop once a week at Oliver's. During the summer, we buy our produce from the Farmers' market, so we go to Oliver's once every 10 days to 2 weeks. I cook once a day for a maximum of 30 minutes; there are days when we eat out too.
Our family life is fun-filled. We enjoy a wide variety of activities with the children – including gardening, cooking, vocal music, instrumental music, arts & crafts, board games. Our almost-waste-free philosophy doesn’t stop us from having fun, not one bit.
By treading gently and serving as the role models, we hope our children may take it up too. By involving the next generation we hope to preserve the nature of this only Planet we have. Also, every once in a while some of the following thoughts and questions arise in my mind and they help me stay on track:
- My mom and grandma certainly raised their kids in a more eco-friendly way than me. When I have conflicts in my mind - whether to do something in a certain way - I look up to their ways and that helps me choose the right course, which always takes the environment into consideration.
- If I spend a little bit of extra time shopping, planning and organizing, I can save Mother Earth thousands of years that she will need to decompose the waste I would have produced otherwise.
- When something seems very convenient or very cheap for an unknown reason, I stop to think “Who is actually paying the price here?” That helps me not fall into the trap.
- Years ago, I was disturbed to read a news article that said the U.S. shipped garbage to poor, developing countries. Since I am from one, it bothered me deeply. I have seen both the worlds - America that ships garbage and Indian slums that sit on mounds of garbage. America certainly "looks" clean. The garbage does go away from our houses. But where is “away”?