Free Ways to Start Low Waste Living
A few months ago I got chatting with Alyssa from Chicory Wild about starting out with sustainable living. She was working on a new project and wanted to have some conversations about how to get started with this whole lifestyle shift for the regular gal or guy. I remember we started from the conception that it is going to break the bank to do so, and what was the best way to start so that it was a little more accessible?
I hear this same conception so often when talking to people curious about it all. True sustainable living is *not* about the stuff. While it definitely delves into consumerism and I have yet to ever meet anyone that is so successful at this stuff that they don't ever need to spend any money, we have to back away from that idea entirely. Sustainable living is not filling a cart full of wooden stuff and then throwing out our plastic stuff. We need to chat about this!
Alyssa has a really awesome blog post that she wrote for Blog BOQ out there from our conversations, but I think it's so important that I get going on popping some of these thoughts onto Harlowe Green's pages as well, mostly because I made so many missteps that others can learn from. I meet so many people starting out and feeling overwhelmed that I really want to clarify - ya just have to take it easy, or it's never going to be one of those things that can stick. It's a journey... so, uh, pack your bags? Honestly, it's so hard to start these blog posts out, and now I sound like a teenager's dad.... so... buckle up, k?
1. Stop Buying Things
This is really hard for a lot of people. A large portion of the people alive right now have grown up in a bit of a blip in the history of the world - this short little chunk of time where we grew up so very disconnected from the consequences of convenience living and people consume at staggering rates. Not only is this consumption normal, it is celebrated and coveted. I'm part of a Facebook mom group (of course this is where this is going, right) and a mama posted about how people are dealing with stinky diapers. One person posted that they found they just had to change their routine and take the diapers out of the nursery (or wherever) every day because they hadn't found a solution. And then, someone posted that they keep a box of Ziplocks in the nursery and every time they change a diaper, place it in a Ziplock bag to seal the smell. Now that I'm on the other side of this, I feel like my head wanted to explode. This person somewhere (and I'm sure not just her) were literally making invincible diaper baggie bombs that will last for the rest of eternity - like at least 5 a day - because they can't manage to take the diapers out of the room or handle the stink for a couple minutes while they do so. We have really become so far disconnected from what's going on here. These mamas love their babies so much and can't see the problems they are creating for these little babies to grow up and deal with someday. But, less pee-ew for a minute, ok?
So, there's really no denying that we are pretty out of it. We have grown up in this almost alternate-universe where stuff like this is normal and while maybe you don't take the advice on the Facebook group (please don't), this stuff is happening, we are participating in it, and we aren't even aware of it. Our consumption levels are staggering. The richest on the planet - the top 20% - account for 86% of private consumption expenditures (Globalissues.org). And, the early 2000's saw the increase in our first-world consumption rocket to the point that according to National Geographic and Worldwatch Institute at that time, that our natural systems were becoming stressed to the point of not being able to handle it for much longer. In 2021, it's a crisis that isn't on the radar of a big bunch of us.
So, the fastest and free-ist, and biggest impact creating thing to do is, is to just stop it. Take a spending break. Step back. Or, try to stop buying new as often (hello, thrifting!) and as much. Don't let becoming an eco-friendly human be another consumer project. Green consumerism is a real thing. Don't buy something to throw something else out.
2. Use what already Exists (The First R)
So, this brings us to this tip. Don't throw it out so quickly; use it first, however you can. You're creating a second life for this thing rather than starting the waste cycle over for a new thing. For example, don't throw out your plastic spatula to replace it with a wooden spatula. The plastic spatula already exists, so don't throw it away just because it is plastic - that is the least earth-minded action here. Whatever you now have, use it until it truly is done. Throwing away a perfectly good plastic ice cube tray to replace it with a stainless steel tray is still the same amount of plastic waste. If you have a bunch of plastic baggies from shopping, reuse those rather than buying reusable bags until you really need them (throw them in a mason jar and pop it in your dash, if you have space, and you'll have them when you need them).
So, apply this to everything you can think of. We all have cupboards of bathroom supplies, cleaning supplies, candles, canned goods - make sure you use the things up. Before heading down the path of swapping out all your cleaning supplies, use up all the part bottles in your cupboard. This costs nothing. These things were already created, so throwing them away to buy more bottles of 'eco cleaners' is not the way to go. Their impact exists already, whether they get used up or are poured down the drain, so make it count if you can. Trying to invest in a bunch of fancy food storage options instead of reusing margarine containers and spaghetti jars that were headed for the recycling is free and is giving something a second life. Plus, making a goal to use up what you already have makes things easier on too many levels. You aren't going to have to buy new things all at once, and you'll get your money's worth out of what you've already spent. The lifestyle changes will happen one at a time, as you use each thing up, which is actually so much more manageable to deal with. Plus, you get to clean out your cupboards, and I don't know if there's anything that feels that good when you're an adult (just a big ol' lame dad over here, as this blog is really showing me, haha).
3. Start the work around your Consumption
In slowing down your consumption and trying to use up what you already have, there's time and space to start some good personal improvement work, and it's all free. This is something that is a shift in mindset and takes time. If you tell yourself that you're just going to "take a month" to jump into an area - like say, your closet - and not spend any money in that area, you can ease up on the online shopping and browsing around that you might normally do. You can look at your closet - declutter it, donate or sell some pieces, and think about what you might need. Then, you can take the time to ask yourself questions about how it all arrived in the first place, or what emotional energy is sitting in those decisions, and learn about how you can spend your money differently next time. This isn't the time to discover Poshmark and start spending because you feel better buying secondhand - it is time to look at your "why" in spending.
If clothing isn't an issue for you, and maybe you're jumping in to another area of your home, you can do the same thing. Maybe there is less going on emotionally with your consumption in that area, and so you'll use that time to figure out how to make a different choice or set-up next time. Cleaners were never something that was an emotional "journey" to figure out for myself, for example. I honestly moved into my own home ten years ago and bought all of the same stuff my mom had. When I wanted to choose better, I went and filled my cart with "eco" crap at Canadian Tire and crammed all the stuff in to the same closet when I got home, and then ended up using the old cleaners because the greenwashed, mostly water filled plastic jugs of eco crap cleaners from CT were not effective at all. Money spent, discouragement increased.
What would have made more sense? Well, what I ended up trying later in a whole bunch of areas of my life worked way better and was far easier. I learned from minimalism decluttering processes, which is a whole thing, but makes a lot of sense. I can't take credit for it, but you can maybe learn something from my overspending and fails, haha!
The lower-cost + higher-success route to changes:
1. I took stock of what I had already.
2. I gave away (some to a shelter, some to family or friends that used these items, especially my mom) things first that I knew I wasn't going to use or need. Donate or deal with unnecessary things first.
3. As I used up what I had, I started research into finding things that would work in place of my previous choice, and then I only had to make each choice to buy one at a time when something ran out. I spent money over time, not all at once. Ten years ago the research phase was pretty tough, and I did a lot of trial and error before I wound up with what worked. Youtube was an awesome resource (albeit, mostly European and city-based at that time), but reels, Instagram, and blogs can show you different ways of setting up these systems in your home, all for free (rather than buying a bunch of books). Ya gotta be careful when consulting all these would-be experts online when it comes to health stuff like you would with a guy offering tattoos out of the back of his van, but almost anybody can show you how they set up a rag bin or stop using so much plastic, so you're probably pretty safe there. It's always good to follow it up with a quick check on the Environmental Working Group, too.
4. As I learned more, I was able to upgrade the system slowly and over time. I have a few basic ingredients that I could refill and slowly invested in glass spray bottles and bulk sizes for my cleaners, for example. I had started with cleaning cloths, and later switched to just using rags of tea towels and old hand towels. It was a process, and I should have just slowed down and did the work of figuring out what I wanted to do and the why rather than charging it all to my card and finding out it was all a big waste afterward.
4. Make a Plan First
Making a plan of how you want to do something before spending and "entering the consumption cycle" again is a good part of the process to tackle as you're using things up. If you use a lot of plastic jug Lysol cleaners and paper towel around your home and want to switch this over, figure out how to be successful with this. Don't invest in a glass spray bottle and your vinegar, throw the Lysol out, and then decide you want to infuse this vinegar with citrus for a few weeks before you use it because you can't handle the scent of vinegar like the diaper bomb lady (and need to buy another bottle of Lysol). Don't head down the path of buying the initial container and the plan that you'll refill it once it empties. That's basically a Murphy's law thing I think, being unprepared or some such thing. You'll definitely empty it out during a busy time in your life and not be able to refill it, and so then you'll buy another bottle of Lysol when you're out grocery shopping until you can, and don't ask me how I know that's what's going to happen, hah!
If you want to do the refill situation, it is best to have a mason jar of your refill item in the cupboard rather than hoping to refill your home dispenser as it runs out, because that leaves yourself short. I have done all of these things, and been grumpy, really. Figure out what route you want to take, and set yourself up properly to succeed. In creating lifestyle changes, don't make it tough or expensive on yourself when it doesn't need to be, kid!
5. Choose the Easiest Things First
So, with trying to set yourself up for success, don't do the hardest thing first. That gets expensive fast and doesn't pay off. Some sustainable living things require really no lifestyle changes other than choosing differently right at the time of spending money - like, for example, a toothbrush. You don't need to use that toothbrush differently or figure out a new habit, you just have to find a different choice and compost the thing instead of throwing it out when you're done. But, some of the other things, like changing how you store food or decrease your waste while out and about (like bringing your own coffee instead of buying it everyday) are full habit changes. Don't do the hardest things first, or you'll loose your steam.
If you know leaving paper towels behind is too hard because of x, y and z in your home, don't do that one first. Do the easiest swaps and then you can feel some success in your journey - and who knows, maybe it will help you get to that paper towel swap someday, after all. If you're able to see this as an ongoing journey, rather than something you can just get into, spend the money and check off your list, you're going to be able to get through the inevitable road blocks that can get ya down along the way.
6. Figure out how to deal with your Waste Better
In another blog post (about getting started with conscious consumerism), I chat about how to do a waste audit to figure out good spots to make some changes, because everyone is different, and arrives along this journey at different times. But, an easy thing you can do to reduce your waste without spending any money is to just look at how you can manage the waste you do create in a better way.
So, for example, if you have a ton of plastic bags, you can think about how to make that habit change in your own life, or set those aside to replace some other baggies that you might be buying (or that someone else is, like a little shop that needs them near you). You may notice a lot of food waste, and then you can spend a little time either thinking of how you could work a compost into your set up (and just reuse a container at first until you know what you'd like for a composter), or maybe even meal planning so that you're throwing less away.
This better waste consideration also applies to anything that you no longer need - clothing can be sold online very easily, given away on a Buy Nothing group, donated to a women's shelter (call first), given to family and/or friends, or to specific charities or non-profits (such as formal dresses for teens that may not have access to them for their formal/proms, wedding dresses for charitable profit, or winter clothing for schools or homeless shelters). Spending the extra time in donating properly, or washing your recycling out to give it the best possible shot at being recycled (rather than contaminating recycling loads), or taking the extra step to drop off hazardous waste instead of pushing it further into your garbage bag, are all free ways to make a difference.
7. Figure out your Why
Finally, some work and thinking around the 'why' of your sustainable journey can make it far easier to end up where you want to go. I had the hardest period about a week and a half ago, where all I could fixate on was how slowly the world is getting on board. I live in the country, and if I felt the "just get back in yer Prius" type of attitude once more I was just going to shut down. I find the country living is the toughest; it's socially unacceptable to eat less meat or use anything eco (not for all, I don't want to generalize), but the people living in the country generally live there because they love nature and depend on it for some degree, or enjoy fishing or camping or hunting, but rely on the protection and care of resources (more than anybody living in a city) to maintain their lifestyle. The hypocrisy of these opinions was making me feel embarrassed of what I care about so much, like I should go move to a city because I don't want my dish soap to cause a ton of weeds in our lake's ecosystem... where this same person is fishing.
And all this being said, if anyone should be able to see the impact of trying to make changes, I really shouldn't be struggling to be motivated (I really get to read so many great messages and see so many successes, honestly). But I couldn't stop thinking that no matter what I do, it is just getting erased ten fold every day. It's not true, because I am still erasing the impact of my own family, and teaching my kids how to do this stuff better. But I simply read too many things online that were just too counter-productive and saw too many virtually "unchangeable" opinions in making any kind of progress. I got bogged down. For something I usual feel really passionate about, my motivation dried right up. I posted on my timeline only twice, and both were mild rants (which people seemed to really like to my surprise, but not really my normal approach to this whole thing). I had to get back to my why. I also probably needed a break and to have a nap, but the "why" of all this needed a re-focus. I used to be fine with posting my swaps on my personal own social media before my business started even though people could just be laughing at me (I'm really fine with this, actually), because I was cool with those people doing that even if it meant only one person said "oh hey! I'm going to try that!" - but I lost it. And, based on the poll I put up - asking whether the feeling of not really having a true impact stopped people from trying - it was clear I'm not the only one. At least 40% of people agreed to this sometimes, and this is in a community of people that want to make changes.
My why is my kids. I was interested in all of this before, having really gotten a great introduction and the background information in a minor in this stuff when I was in school. But it became loud and clear, as things tend to do, when I thought about how unfair it is to hand over increasingly worse (and eventually life threatening) problems to these little guys who just want to decorate cupcakes and lay down in puddles outside right now. There are tons of unfair things happening to little kids everywhere, but this was something I could actively change. I often think about the future and what kind of answer I would be able to give my kids if I didn't do anything to change my habits for whatever reason (like, I couldn't handle a stinky diaper for a few minutes) and leave them with massive environmental issues. My generation is famous for being grumpy that we can't afford our parent's lifestyles and how sad that makes us (because we can't consume at the same intensity or speed), and can you imagine not having clean water or air to breathe on top of that? Just a little bit of resentment, maybe?
Anyway, whatever you need to do to figure out how to make it through the discouraging moments, find it. You are going to need it at some point on this rocky road, so buckle up and put on a helmet.
Couldn't resist that one, haha!
Leave me a comment - any other free ideas to get started on this journey that Im missing? Share it for our community of readers and change-makers, and have a lovely Sunday!