Sunday, March 31, 2019

Trial and Error Toward a Plastic-Free Lent and a Zero-Waste Future

If you have ever thought about making changes toward a lifestyle with less impact, you will probably need to remind yourself regularly that baby steps are okay. We make progress little by little. The important thing is to not give up and continue with forward momentum. Don't remain satisfied or stagnant with the little victories; incorporate them, make them habitual, and then move on.

That said, remember that living more lightly takes intention, investigation, and experimentation. We no longer have home economic classes taught in schools in the States, though I would argue strongly that we should! I wouldn't argue that because I think we need to revert to a particular way of life of past generations, but because there are SO many skills that have been lost when it comes to managing our personal wellness, our nutrition, our finances: home economics! And there are so many new, important developments continually happening around the globe that trickle down and can - or should - affect our day to day lives, that we need to be diligent about educating ourselves in order to be a blessing and not a curse to the futures of our children's generations.

So yes, experimentation. That is the name of the game.

What are alternatives to the readily available items of our daily lives that are causing us to bury ourselves in our own waste? There are many things to do, many areas to address, but it's easiest to start with the things you know are creating the most waste in your own life (check your trash bin!), the things you use the most often, or something you are about to run out of.

One of the things for me was a vegan coffee creamer. There are many in the marketplace nowadays, but did you know that even those creamers and milks - dairy and non-dairy alike - that come in cartons are in cartons that are all lined with plastic? What used to be lined with wax and was biodegradable back in the day (little paper cups, for instance) are now all lined with plastic and are not recyclable. That's right, your "paper" coffee cup from your favorite coffee shop can't be recycled; it is garbage. Another reason to bring your own thermos or cup, but I digress...

So, I took to the internet to figure out a way to make myself a creamer with hopefully zero waste and I have found it! It was not without it's own trial, however, because that lovely little bottle pictured at the top of my post (in an old salsa jar!) is my first try in years at oatmilk and I wasn't impressed. Actually, it is pretty great for cereal, baking, etc, but I didn't really like it in my coffee.

I have made homemade almond milk in the past too. It's super easy, as all of these nondairy milks are, but almonds are VERY resource intensive and as the demand for it has increased, so have the environmental effects in the regions in which it is produced. Plus, I'm not a big fan of almond milk in my coffee either, as it has a slightly bitter taste and seems to react a bit with the tannin in coffee.

Cashews on the other hand...

Oh, cashews, you creamy, dreamy little things. They take hardly any time at all to soften up and are, for me, the perfect match with my French Roast in the morning. Cashews blended with water, a pinch of salt, as teaspoon of vanilla, and sweetener (I used some agave nectar I had on hand) and oh, my. It looks just like the milk at the top and, in fact, is living in that very jar in my refrigerator as I type this. I had too much for that jar alone and have frozen a second portion for later in the week. My understanding from my research is that fresh cashew milk freezes better than commercial brands anyway, as they have additives that tend to separate out when thawed (they can be reblended to fix this, but with homemade, you avoid that extra step).

All of the ingredients for this recipe were vegan and zero waste: cashews from bulk bins, vanilla, in bulk from the co-op, and salt from a paper container. The agave is not zero waste - at least mine wasn't; it was in a plastic container I purchased before Lent. I am hoping to find a bulk source (maybe when TARE opens in April in Minneapolis), or I will just use a bit of maple syrup which I purchase from my friend Katie's sister, Becky. (THANK YOU BECKY; I LOVE YOUR SYRUP!!!!!!!)

Three more experiments to report on - two passes and a fail.

The first is this hairspray I tried making this weekend. It's essentially lemons simmered in water with a tablespoon of vodka to aid in dispersion. It was incredibly cost effective, but unfortunately, did not hold my hair the way I wanted it to. Depending on your hair type, it may work perfectly for you. There are plenty of super easy recipes online that cost pennies on the dollar.

Today I whipped up my second try with a sugar spray: 2 T sugar to 1.5 c water and 1 T vodka. I added a bit more sugar (but not too much, as I was warned it could get crunchy), since I need more hold. You can add essential oils too, for fragrance. I'll wait to see if it works and report back. And then if I find it effective, I may add some fragrance. In the meantime, I just put it in my old hairspray bottle and will try it from there.

The first win is the pair of pants that I have in the photo above that the vodka and lemons are sitting on. I love my tailor. Do you use one? I would say that 90% of my clothing comes from thrift stores. When I find something that is really nice quality that I want to have for a long time, but doesn't fit exactly as I want it, I have it tailored. I think I'll talk about clothing in another post, but suffice it to say that I love the ability to shop second hand as well as have my clothes made to fit me perfectly. Yes, that adds to their cost, but my reasons for shopping second-hand are not always about the bottom line. For me, it includes keeping tons upon tons of clothing out of the waste stream too.

My other win is a fun one. I picked up this gum at Mississippi Market. It is completely paperboard, the pieces of gum are not individually wrapped, and the gum itself doesn't have plastic in it. Did you know that conventional gum does? Bleh.

AAAND finally:

While I continue to share with you my own experiments here, I also plan to share with you in posts about easy ways you can get started right now. Even if you don't shop regularly at places designed for sustainable shopping, it doesn't mean that you can't make small changes that will have a big impact. Those will be coming up here on the blog and if you have specific questions you would like me to try to answer, please leave them in the comments or on my Facebook page comments. I would love to answer those there or use them to create future blog posts.

And if you can't wait, here are 3 small changes you can make the next time you go to the grocery store:

1) YES - bring cloth bags if you have them. Leave them in your car. Try to get in the habit. BUT, if you forget them, choose paper bags and refuse plastic.

2) Choose loose, not bagged produce. Produce is often bagged in plastic bags or plastic mesh. It may save you a little bit of money, but not so much. The bags are so the stores can sell at unit prices and for ease in shipping. You don't need them and will throw them away as soon as you get home. Even if you plan to recycle the plastic, remember that plastic never really recycles: it only downcycles to a lesser plastic that will then break down into particles too small to every be used but never actually go away.

3) Don't bag your own produce in the produce aisle. Yes, the cart may be dirty, but you are going to wash the produce anyway, because beyond the cart, the produce has come from the ground, has traveled in a dirty truck, and has been handled by many, many hands. You will wash it anyway, you don't need a bag. (Note: There are wonderful sellers of reusable produce bags on Etsy if you want to buy some for smaller produce such as grapes, green beans, snow peas, mushrooms, etc. Support a small business! Or you can make some of your own!) 

I have many more ideas to share, but these will just get you started and can make a difference even if you did not plan ahead to do more intentional shopping. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

You Don't Have to Eat Everything

The past week or so has not been the easiest in terms of my Lenten sacrifice. Of course, it's not meant to be easy. But some days I'm actually physically worn out from my efforts toward seeking out plastic-free alternatives. I don't believe it will always be so difficult to buy items without some plastic around it that is meant to be thrown away immediately upon purchase. But today it is and you have to be very intentional about your choices.

I'm learning a lot. If I had not committed to this offering, it would be so, so easy to make exceptions to my self-enforced restrictions. Mentally, I am forced to think outside the box to get what I need or want. You will be surprised at how much plastic there is out there when you start paying attention to it. And you become really shocked and frustrated once you decide to try to avoid it.

For example, here's how it went for me at the garden center I stopped in Sunday after church.

I went in with the following desires on my list:

  • to see if I could purchase birdseed not in a plastic bag (no)
  • to see if I could find fertilizer for my house plants not in plastic (no)
  • to see if I could purchase an orchid not in a thin, plastic planter pot (yes! - found one in a ceramic pot)
  • to see if I could find a little bonsai tree that I liked (no, but found some succulents instead)

I was quite focused on these tasks and it took me a while to find the few things that would work for me. As I was searching, I passed by the display for the summer-blooming bulbs, which informed me that if I plant these in the next few weeks, I could enjoy these blooms later this summer. I got pretty excited at the idea of these pretty, salmon-colored gladiolas - just the color of flower I had been looking for late last summer, but never quite found exactly what I was looking for. I grabbed two of the packages. Then I saw the deliciously fragrant Stargazer lilies and picked up a package of those too when, as I went to set them into my cart, I realized that ALL of these bulbs were in plastic packages.

I had a quick heart-to-heart with God just then. It went something like this:

Lord, this is such a small purchase and it seems I won't be able to get these in any other way! The window of time is so short and it probably won't make any difference, because I can just come back here after Easter and get these anyway, so I might as well get them now.

All of this wheedling over something I didn't even go into the store with the intention of getting in the first place! Can you believe it?! I was tempted to break my fast over a spur-of-the-moment purchase on a whim!


Slowly taking the lovely bulbs out of my cart to put them back, I wondered to myself how people used to get flowers like these without having to purchase them in little, individual plastic bags? Well, said I, they probably just got them from friends, family, neighbors. I thought then that I could post a request on Facebook with my friends. And if I really wanted to, I could post a want add on Freecycle and see if anyone had bulbs they wanted to divide or if they would want to do a perennial swap. I also considered that perhaps these same kinds of bulbs could be purchased without plastic packaging at another garden center around the Twin Cities, it would just take me more work to find them by calling around and asking and then, perhaps, driving somewhere out of my way.

OR, I could just go without.

Do people still drive Hummers?

Back when I lived in Florida, they were a pretty big status symbol and such an odd one. I mean, I still find it odd but, well, did you know that Florida is the flattest state in the nation? And I think we can agree that despite a hurricane that rolls around now and then, that the weather is pretty great. So, it always seemed to me such an irony that this vehicle, patterned after one used in active military engagements, would be such a thing in a state like Florida. Ironic and a little obscene.

What it boiled down to, of course, is not that this vehicle was necessary in Florida at all, but that the person driving it could afford it. They could afford it and the fuel that it cost to drive such a beast around all of the shopping centers and condominiums and keys. My righteous indignation simmered every time I saw one. I was offended at the cavalier handling of limited energy resources on such a flamboyant display of wealth.

The principle was this: Just because you can afford something, doesn't mean you should get it.

It was easy to see when I was thinking about it in terms of someone else. But Lent has been teaching me otherwise and has directed the lens of scrutiny more toward myself.

Just because I want and can afford to purchase some flowers for my yard, doesn't mean I should do so. The company selling this item - which is ironically something for beautifying our outdoor surroundings- has chosen the least expensive and most convenient packaging option for themselves in order to sell these items in units they have predetermined, no matter the cost to the environment.

I'm not suggesting that this company is doing this maliciously or even on purpose. It's just that they are not thinking about or concerning themselves with the trash they are producing in the selling of this product.

And when we buy it just because we can - because we can afford it, because we have earned our money and can do with it what we want, because it's a free country after all - we do the same thing that the Hummer driver driving around Sarasota does.

This seems to be one of the hardest lessons in our culture to learn. We are a very independent, reward-driven, market economy. But the planet doesn't actually have political boundaries. It doesn't know where people are free to choose what to do with their money or not. It just suffers everywhere with the consequences of our unbridled consumerism.

I still don't have birdseed, though I do know where to go now to get it in bulk when I get a chance.

I decided not to post my bulb request on Facebook because I realized how I was being swayed in the moment of wanting something, not because I had truly wanted it with intention, but just because it was there, it was pretty, and I could.

I'm living without plant fertilizer for now until I can find a recipe to DIY some food for my houseplants.

I still don't have tahini for making new hummus from scratch, since I can't find a source yet for it that doesn't have plastic wrapped around the jar lid. I''d almost given in to that purchase too, because I use tahini for a number of things and I couldn't think, in the moment, of where an alternative could be found. I hadn't considered that another viable alternative was to simply go without.

All of it is a pain in the butt and takes more time than I would need to spend if I could shop all in one place. Sometimes I just don't have the energy to go out searching for a potential source for how I want to receive my plants, my birdseed, my food. Sometimes I just decide to go without. Because the truth is, you really don't have to be able to eat everything.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Zero Waste Pet Care Ideas

My good friend, Katie, and I were discussing our dogs' poop. As you do.

Well, yeah, that is a big part of a doggie's life. But how do you handle things in a zero waste way with your furbies? That's a good question because trying to address the world's garbage crisis affects ALL areas of our lives. I am so glad that I chose to give up single-use plastic for Lent because I have taken more seriously my commitment to simply TRY; to really make the effort and not cut corners. It has caused me to give more than just a passing glance at alternatives.

Also, there was THIS story that showed up in my Facebook feed and that I just can't get out of my mind. The idea that this beautiful, majestic whale had a stomach full of plastic and that its belly was hard as a rock with it and that it likely suffered a long time before it eventually began bleeding to death has shaken me to the core.

It is stories like these (and believe me, there are so many others) along with my desire to be a good steward with what God has so graciously given me that I am trying to give not just AN effort, but my BEST effort. And that includes the kinds of things I purchase for my pets.

Here are some of the things I am trying and what I am thinking about:

Pet waste: Yep, back to the poop. My practice with my dog's waste has been to use old plastic bags from bread, stores, etc. But while it does give ONE more use to the plastic bag that has made its way into my home, it is a pretty terrible option, really. As Katie mentioned, the waste is biodegradable but only if it is not tied up in plastic. So, what are the alternatives?

Well, some companies would like to sell you something for your pet's waste and so they market "biodegradable" plastic. These often seem to be made from some sort of plant cellulose that will break down over time. But the truth is that these bags, just like biodegradable utensils, only begin to break down under pretty perfect circumstances: hot compost, requiring lots of oxygen. If pet waste in bags - or degradable utensils for that matter - get buried in a landfill, they are going to sit there just as long as the other kinds of garbage around them.

The better choice, I believe, is paper. Here's what I'm planning to do. I am going to carry a small paper bag with me instead of a plastic one on my walks. Inside of it I will have some sheet of paper - like newsprint - that I can pick up the waste and then put it into the bag. This seems SO easy and I am excited to put that into practice. Honestly, if you have a big enough sheet of paper, you probably wouldn't even need the bag. I mean, I don't think I would for my shorter evening walks with Seiji.

For picking up waste in your yard, you could do what I did tonight and just put it into a grocery bag. Handles, in this case, are most convenient and it made for a very easy job! Likewise, try dumping cat litter into a grocery bag too. We use pine pellet cat litter that, when cleaned of solid waste, is compostable. That said, when we had multiple cats,  the sawdust that the litter dissolves into ended up being just too much "brown" material in our personal compost bin. You need to have a good mix of brown and green material and the wood bits just overwhelmed that balance eventually and since then we've just had to throw it away.

Pet Food: I can't afford to feed my dog a completely canned diet; I mostly rely on dry food with wet food for treats, which I'll get to in a minute. It occurred to me, as I neared the end of Seiji's dry food yesterday, that I would be needing to get him a new bag. And then I was reminded at how many pet foods are now sold in, you guessed it, plastic bags! *sigh*

So, I called ahead to our specialty pet food store, Chuck and Don's, and asked if they sold any dry dog food in paper bags. The woman on the phone said they had one brand in "paper-ish" bags, so I headed over to see what they had to offer.

Two brands had plastic bags that sported a TerraCycle logo. This means that they have a partnership with TerraCycle to recycle their packaging with them. I think TerraCycle is a pretty good alternative if you live in a rural area or town that doesn't offer a municipal recycling service. Some TerraCycle programs are free and others require you to pay to purchase a special TerraCycle bin for the items. There are programs ranging from the recycling of contact lenses to, well, dog food bags! Essentially, it makes for a sort of loyalty program for the item, the idea being that you will continue to purchase their brand in order to have it recycled. Of course, this also means that the consumer continues to agree to buy the plastic bag without asking them to stop using plastic packaging instead.

 And this is why I didn't choose those brands.

Again, for years we have had dog food sold to us in paper bags, but now they are all smooth plastic. It looks shiny or matte, feels smooth to the touch, probably improves the shelf-life of the food, and is probably cheaper to produce. It is the rare customer who challenges the pretty packaging. And add to it a partnership to "recycle" the bag (the plastic that never will be able to completely decompose, instead just turning into microplastic in the environment), and you've got a recipe for pet food success.

I ended up buying a bag of dog food that is paper on the outside and plastic-lined paper on the inside. I bought a larger bag because the smaller bags were plastic. And the sales woman told me that the company is planning to transition to all plastic bags soon. So, yes, I bought that bag and now I am going to send an email to the company requesting that they not make that shift. My hope is that with sincere, respectful letters, the people in the company who produces the food, will dare to be leaders in their communities by changing back to all paper.

Pet treats:

I know that Pet Smart and Petco sell treat in bulk bins usually near the front of the store near the checkouts. I got a couple of these for Seiji tonight at Chuck and Don's who have their own selection of bulk treat items: some harder dental chews, about .80 each. The only other treats I've been giving Seiji lately are his Kongs filled with a couple of tablespoons of his wet dog food, frozen in the freezer. The Kongs are made of incredibly tough rubber and I expect that if we don't lose one, we'll have two for a very long time.

Occasionally, I will make a little frozen container of purchased chicken broth with a few frozen veggies thrown in.

Using frozen food, whether it be prepared dog food, vegetables, or broth, is something Seiji loves and is economical too.

So, these are the things I am trying right now. I am willing to flex and bend, however, if need be. It will feel good to find sustainable alternatives for my pets year round! I continue to hold the memory of that whale in my heart as I continue question producers and seek out alternatives to what has been contrived to become "the norm."

Have you made any changes or thought about the ways you provide for your pets?

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Lenten Lessons in Single-Use Plastic and Low-Waste Living

Let's pick up where we left off, shall we? It's only been two years. 😄 Ah, well. Seasons.

Anyway, in looking at my last posts, it really has been almost exactly two years, and yet I am still wanting to talk about the same stuff, so on we roll!

I've been posting on my personal Facebook page recently about my Lenten journey this year: giving up single-use plastic. I thought about updating there, but decided that some of this information and discussion might be valuable to someone beyond the boundaries of my Facebook page, so I have resurrected my blog. I have been thinking about it for some time now and it seems a good time because I'd like to make some notes even to only myself about what I am learning as I more purposefully make a stronger effort toward zero-waste and a more minimalist lifestyle. I have been reading a lot and thinking a lot and find myself needing to process the things I am thinking about. I expect I will be doing a lot of it here.

But I want to keep things simple for now and just do a review of the things I have tried and learned over this past week of Lent.

I received my conditioner bar in the mail this week from the Olive Blossom Soap Co. on Etsy. I had tried the LUSH "Jungle" conditioner bar a couple of years ago and didn't like it. It has a waxy texture and weighed my hair down. I still have the bar and use it to shave my legs and it does a great job at that. Yes, two years: I am one of those who has very little and very light hair on my legs and I hardly ever shave them anymore.

Anyway, this Coco Pineapple conditioner from Olive Blossom is wonderful! I don't actually find it to smell too much like pineapple, which is a disappointment to me, because I love that fragrance, but it doesn't smell unpleasant; it just doesn't smell like pineapple! But it WORKS brilliantly. It gives a nice slip through my hair like any other conditioner would do and rinses clean.

Olive Blossom also sent me a sample of their shampoo which I tried. It is nice too, but we already use and enjoy the Sun Leaf brand of shampoo bars. Reasons to love these:

1) They are local - made in WACONIA, MN - where my family and I lived for 4 years before we moved to Florida.

2) They come in gorgeous essential oil fragrances.

3) They work brilliantly for both hair and body.

4) Sun Leaf has a wonderful line of products beyond shampoo bars including amazing essential oil blends that I use in my diffuser at work, beautiful reed diffusers that are as pretty to look at as they are to inhale, shaving soap, and more.

On Tuesday I went to the co-op with Eve. I brought along my new bulk bags from this Etsy seller and also brought my new, refillable coffee bags that I bought from another Etsy seller, HoldenHearstShop.  The co-op actually provides paper bags for their grind-your-own coffee, but the cloth bags go one step further and are really lovely.

If you're wondering what the Tare weight printed on the bags means, it is there to let the cashier know to deduct the weight of the bag itself from the bulk food you have inside the bag. It's a great feeling knowing you are only paying for your food and not for the marketing and the packaging that often comes with branded, shelf-stable products.

So, I have these 4 bags that I got in the set I ordered and I have a few more that I made myself about 4 years ago. I embroidered the tare weight on a couple of the bags I made, but others don't have it on there; I just use the stickers the market provides. I write the tare weight on the sticker and then the PLU number of the food item on the sticker as well, and then it's good to go.

I don't actually use these bulk food bags for all of my produce. I don't need to. I only use them for bulk dry goods: grains or nuts or beans. Or I use them for small produce items: grapes, mushrooms, peas. You really don't need to bag all of your produce. I know that some people get uncomfortable thinking about the produce being in a dirty cart (this idea was a new one to me until someone questioned me about it). But produce comes from the earth, rides on conveyor belts, is shipped to its destination, is handled by many people all along the way and even by customers in the store itself. You will be washing your produce anyway; your cart is probably the least of your worries!

Let's see, I also brought a jar for my peanut butter, which I freshly ground at the store. And I filled a couple more jars: one with canola oil and one with maple syrup.

More zero-waste shopping alternatives from the week were:

- receiving a new-to-me, second-hand purse from ThredUp. I am minimizing what I carry with me and hope that this new bag will allow me to carry only my essentials

- finding the majority of my spring wardrobe needs/wants at Goodwill - The few gaps I have left in what I am looking for I will also purchase second-hand from Savers or ThredUp or another thrift store.

On Saturday my good friend, Liz, and I went to a Meetup group in Minneapolis called Minnesota Minimalists: A Group for Aspiring Minimalists. The topic of this month's group was "Thought for Food," and it made for good conversation.  We met at the Wedge Table on Nicollet Ave. in Minneapolis. I have been familiar with the Wedge (another food co-op) for over 20 years, but the Wedge Table is a newer entity about .5 miles away from the main store. The Table is a cross between a coffee shop/cafe - with both coffee and beer on tap! - , a convenience store (except with healthy, whole food!) - and a community center with meeting rooms and a full kitchen for community use. It was quite impressive!

I remembered to bring my stainless steel to-go containers twice to places from where I took home food, so that was a win. And finally, today I made my own tofu from scratch! It turned out perfectly and now I will be making more for sure!

This coming week, at Liz's suggestions, I am going to try purchasing some tahini from House of Halva at the amazing Keg and Case food hall on West 7th in St. Paul. House of Halva grinds their own tahini on site and I'm going to see if they will fill a jar for me since I can't seem to find a jar of prepared tahini without a plastic "safety" ring around the top. Keg and Case is a great place to just sit and people watch as well, so maybe I'll get some urban sketching in too!

Liz also mentioned I try Brake Bread, since they make and sell their own, local, fresh bread that I can buy without a bag.

I'll just bring my own on Tuesday.  Brake Bread delivers the bread by bicycle in St. Paul and name all of their breads after something to do with biking. ❤🚲

While trying anything new, like going without purchasing single-use plastic, it can feel challenging for sure. But it also provides a sense of discovery in my own back yard. Living low-waste has me seeking out alternative options. The cool thing is that alternatives are usually out there and they introduce me to new services, new experiences, new people.
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