Friday, January 15, 2016

Lessons from Choosing Less: Practicing Using Zero-Waste Alternatives

Good, better, best,
never let it rest,
until your good is better,
and your better best!

Package free, plastic free lunch!
I learned this little sing-song rhyme about a decade ago when I was reading  a book by Elizabeth George. She didn't claim to have made it up, but was told it herself as a child when she was growing up. Have you ever heard it?

My girls used to groan when I would say it to them, usually with a chuckle. While not wanting to inspire perfectionism in anyone, I do believe in always giving best effort, so this is one little ditty that I have always remembered.

It has been running around in my head the last couple of weeks as I have been making greater strides in reducing unwanted stuff from my home, making do with and mending the things I already have and want to keep, thinking about ways to greatly reduce - if not eliminate - plastic, thinking about ways of getting needed items second-hand, and just rearranging my thinking overall about the ways to live as a citizen rather than a consumer.

Of course, it's a process.

I want to be careful, because in addition to these goals, I have to work with the budget we have set for ourselves for the year. Other than our mortgage, we have managed to remain debt-free since the late 90's. On one income, that always means being on a budget.

Our food has always made up one of the largest portions of our spending and over the years I have done various things to keep our food budget in check. I have never been much of a coupon clipper because most of the coupons are for packaged foods and I cook mostly from scratch. Other than that, I have tried things like memberships to wholesale clubs, shopping at various stores, buying in bulk, working from a menu plan etc. My efforts have proven relatively fruitful and I still do nearly all those things except for the wholesale club.

What I haven't done, though, is what I am trying now. Given the strict grocery budget that I want to maintain (the least amount of money I have spent on food in years) plus the zero-waste alternatives I want to aim for, I am only buying what we need for the week. It's only mid-January, so I'm only mid-way through my first month, but I think (I hope) I am seeing a way to make this really possible.

I am doing about half of my shopping at the co-op and the other half in other stores right now. That is quite a bit more at the co-op than I have ever done. But I am just getting a little of what we need.

Take popcorn, for example.

When I purchase popcorn prepackaged, I have way more than we will eat in a week or even a couple of months. I am not talking about microwave popcorn here, either; I pop popcorn on the stove. Despite claims that buying in bulk is always cheaper, I have not really found that to be true at our co-op. Yes, buying in bulk may be cheaper in their store than a packaged jar in their store, but oz for oz, their things are often more expensive than when I buy a large quantity at a grocery store. Certainly, they could not compete price-wise with a warehouse store, even for conventional (not organic) products. This has always driven me crazy, because I want to purchase things in bulk and I like all the things that our co-ops stand for, such as living wages, fair trade, supporting local farmers, etc.

With bulk products, though, I can control the amount that I take home with me and I can actually see a way that I can continue to save money. Yes, I will potentially have to go to the co-op more, but I don't mind. It is actually the one grocery shopping experience that I enjoy. It is lovely inside, small, and smells wonderful. And I am slowly beginning to know some of the staff. Not only am I in there more often, but I also call ahead to speak to the lead in the deli and have her cut pieces of cheese for my girls and wrap them in brown butcher paper for me rather than plastic wrap. I know that Bea Johnson would take her jar, but the co-op doesn't do cheese slicing all day; they only do it once a day and so I have to have them set some aside for me when they are doing the cutting they would do for the day. So far it is working really well and they seem so pleased to be able to help me out in this way!

Speaking of Bea Johnson, one point that she made in a panel presentation that she participated in at Google really resonated with me and made me think of the hidden costs of our "cheap" packaged food. She said:

If you don't buy packaging, if you buy only what you need, you can invest your money into things that matter. Every time you buy packaging or a disposable product, it's literally investing your money into the landfill...basically throwing your money out the window.

When you purchase packaged goods, very little of the product you actually use or have is what you have paid for. Instead, you pay for the advertising and the design of and materials made up in the packaging. Purchasing items from bulk bins means that you only pay for the product itself, because the weight of the bag or jar is subtracted.

So the new approach for me is that instead of bulk buying meaning convenience (having a large amount on hand at home that ultimately cost me a few cents less per ounce, but includes packaging and sits in my home for months), I now have a smaller amount of fresher ingredients to use and I am only paying for the product itself.

Johnson insists that her lifestyle has saved her money. I don't believe I will ever be as minimalist as she and her family are; I don't think I want to be and of course, that is okay. But I am hopeful that I will be able to achieve my goals within my family's budget. So far, so good!

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