Bea is a French woman living in the US, married to an American guy with 2 children. Essentially, she describes how she lived a fairly “traditional” French childhood in suburban Provence (it never occurred to me that they had suburbs in Provence as I’ve always assumed it was all quaint medieval villages and lavender fields but evidently there are suburbs too!) then when she moved to the US she found herself embroiled in the “American Dream”- big house, big garden, 2 gas guzzling vehicles and a disposable lifestyle.
Motivated by wanting to live in a slightly more atmospheric, inner suburb of whichever US city she’s in, but unable to afford the same scale of house, they embraced minimalism to allow them to downsize and move closer into town.
Eventually she transitioned to and embraced not just having less stuff but creating less waste.
I found the book really quite interesting as it generally seemed to support the feelings I already had about being green and recycling (ie that recycling surely can’t be the “chuck stuff out totally guilt-free” card everyone seems to regard it as). She doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail about the process of recycling, its byproducts and the like, but she does touch on a few processes and suggests that the real problem is plastic. According to Bea, plastics are rarely recycled into equally sustainable products, they are often “downcycled” into products that can’t then be recycled a second time and go to land/ocean fill.
Her philosophy, as I had kind of already embraced myself, is to minimise the amount of stuff that comes into your house, that’s the only way to really minimise the stuff that goes out again. Her 5 Rs are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot. Fairly self- explanatory, but to spell it out,
- Refuse as much stuff as possible
- Reduce the amount of stuff you do let into your house
- Reuse it (as opposed to recycling it)
- Recycle and Rot (composting) are then last resorts before throwing it in the bin
Some of her tips go a bit far for my liking (each to their own, but she advocates dusting cocoa powder on your cheeks instead of foundation and I don’t fancy a load of flies swarming around me or smelling like a hot chocolate) but she has motivated me to try and reduce as much as possible the amount of stuff we chuck out and to focus, first and foremost, on cutting down our plastic waste.
Some things I’d already been doing for a while, like:
- Avoiding cling wrap as much as possible- for about a year I’ve been using reusable sandwich wraps. There are several available on the market and many of them are quite expensive, cashing in on a combination of the food-safety paranoia and the environmental concerns surrounding plastics. I must say I found some very reasonably priced ones at Howards Storage World in Australia and I have no idea what their environmental or food safety profile is, but having bought only two and used them all year, surely that’s better than the roll of cling wrap I would otherwise have gone through?
- Re-using paper in the printer. I used to get a lot of it from work- for some reason my old workplace in Sydney was so wasteful with paper and you’d find reams (literally) of paper printed on one side only that people had left in the printer, I’m not sure why- printed in error I guess, so I’d swipe it and take it home to use. The main problems were I’d actually acquire more than I could use (I don’t print much stuff out at home) and a couple of times I had to be careful about ending up with printouts which had sensitive information on the reverse side.
- Composting- in Sydney this was a no-brainer as we had a garden we could use the compost in and also chickens, whose poo really needs mixing with compost as it’s too harsh to put straight on the soil (apparently). This had fallen by the wayside since moving to Auckland, mainly because we didn’t have any sort of garden beds (or chickens) to benefit from compost, also because we had nowhere convenient to put a compost bin and finally because every house in NZ (our new one included) seems to have a waste disposal system, which I have always considered an American thing. Anyway we have resurrected our composting habit- it’s amazing how much goes into it and how satisfying it is!
- Reducing electricity & gas consumption- this was always easy to comply with as it reduces your bills. Happily our new house has instant gas hot water with a thermostat, meaning I have been able to turn down the temperature our hot water is heated to. I could never see the logic of paying to heat water to hotter than your skin can stand, only to cool it down by mixing it with cold water for a shower. It’s not quite as hot as it could be for washing dishes, but it’s fine.
- Resuable water bottle- I HATE paying to buy water when I’m out, so this is easy.
- Resuable coffee cup- Mr L and I both have these, however our main motivation was again financial, we’d use them to take coffee from home rather than taking them to cafes to get them filled. But I’ve done it a couple of times now and they haven’t thought I’m a complete weirdo! It’s not that hard. I had also been taking mine to work, to make cups of tea in rather than using the Styrofoam rubbish they have there.
Since reading Zero Waste Home, some of the new things I’ve looked into have included:
- Buying bread in paper bags as much as possible. I always reused the plastic bags our bread came in, usually for cleaning up after the dog (see below) but felt bad. It’s been pretty easy and hasn’t confined us to expensive Bakers Delight bread (although we do go there quite a bit anyway), turns out our local budget supermarket has very nice loaves of bread which you self-serve in paper bags. Of course, Bea would suggest getting your own cloth bread bag (she uses a pillow case) and doing without the bag altogether, but then what do you store it in when you get home?
- Packaging- with other products, too, I’ve been much more aware of packaging and trying to stick to a hierarchy of none-paper-glass-plastic. I realised (with horror) that the bars of soap I’ve been buying to use in the shower come in non-recyclable plasticky paper wrapping. I bought some in simple cardboard boxes and have now found some without wrappers at all. They are a little more expensive, but are still less than $3 per bar. I also agonized over my choice of honey in the supermarket, feeling ashamed of my convenient plastic flip-top squeezey bottle- I mean how hard is it to take the top off and use a knife??* But there was no honey in a glass jar, I couldn’t believe it!! So I got a screw top plastic jar which looked like it could be used again, instead of the flimsy, throwaway soft plastic things that most of the honey seems to come in here. [*I might add that I have previously been down the “which honey container to buy” decision tree, and what led me to the squeezy bottle (when the jars are way cheaper and would ordinarily have won) is the fact that I HATE it when people leave crumbs in the honey/marmalade/jam/butter and even more when there are traces of butter in the non-butter spreads, it grosses me out. I even go so far as to use a clean knife (not the buttery one) after buttering the toast to apply the spread, in order to avoid contaminating it. I realise not everyone shares my OCD tendencies and so to avoid irritation I resorted to buying the squeezer. Anyway, I digress.]
- And on the subject of soap, for years I have been a liquid soap user, again, not being able to stand the soggy mess on the sink that collects with bars. But I figured it’s a lot of plastic, so when we finish the liquid stuff we’ve got, I’m going to try bars for handwashing once again. (I never got into shower gel for the simple reason it’s so expensive compared to bars of soap, so I’m sure I can cope with bars at the sinks).
- New shops- I ventured to Ecostore, which I had always dismissed as a complete rip-off in the past, but actually some of their stuff is ok. I came away with a toilet brush (our cheap metal and –gasp- plastic one had fallen apart after about 5 uses, so I bought a wooden handled, natural bristled one, with a wooden & ceramic stand. The brush is compostable so when it gets grotty you chuck in on the compost heap. Then you just buy a replacement brush to put in the old stand. I also bought some organic cotton string bags, which I put fruit and veg in at the supermarket (the things that are too much hassle to have loose) and some all-natural, compostable sanitary pads which were also cheaper than I expected. NB I will NOT be composting these as I think it’s kind of gross for the other household members, but I figured they’ll decompose quicker in the rubbish tip than the normal sort. Some shampoo & conditioner in refillable bottles completed my purchase, and I was rewarded with a free bar of (package free) soap and a lip balm! I was prepared to buy a large tub of laundry detergent, as I quite like the Ecostore stuff, but was disappointed to find they only have a very limited range of products that they’ll refill and their powder detergent isn’t one of them. You can take your containers back but I was told by the woman serving me they recycle them, they don’t refill them. Not like at…..
- Bin Inn– a chain of sort of health-food shops I suppose is how they describe themselves, but most of their products are in bins sold by weight- you take your own containers which they weigh empty, then weigh again when you’ve put your loot into them! What a fabulous idea. So far I’ve bought rolled oats, sultanas, sunflower seeds, buckwheat, laundry detergent, dry dog food and dog treats. The stuff is reasonably priced- some of it’s more expensive than in the supermarket but some of it is a lot cheaper so I think it breaks even. There’s one about 20 mins drive from us, so it’s probably an awful waste of petrol to go there all the time, but once I get my system going it might work quite well!
- Dog- I always put her mess into plastic bags then in the bin, but our new house backs onto a big overgrown field whose only users are cows, so I have started chucking her poo over the fence into the long grass. I’m sure the cows won’t mind, given how much mess they themselves make. And when it’s exposed to sun, rain and flies, dog poo doesn’t hang around that long anyway, certainly not compared to sitting in a plastic bag being preserved on a rubbish heap.
- And finally, I have also tried making my own deodorant!! Using 1/4 cup bicarb soda, 1/4 cup cornflour and 4 tsp coconut oil. It’s ok, it’s like a stick deodorant only not in a very convenient dispenser (you rub it on with your fingers). I’m not a super sweaty, smelly person, luckily, or I don’t think I’d get away with it. I have been a bit sweatier than usual, but I have about 4 bottles of perfume that take me aaages to get through so I figured I’d start using them daily and they can supplement the deodorant. I generally buy fragrance-free deodorant anyway, and have always balked at the cost of the aerosol stuff. As luck would have it, I didn’t make it to Aldi during our recent trip to Sydney to buy any more of their cheap, perfectly acceptable, mildly-fragranced stuff anyway, and I was already resenting paying $7 a can for branded stuff here.
It’d be nice to get to the point where we don’t have to put up with meat, cheese, fish & deli products in their inevitable plastic wrapping but to do this I think I’m going to have to start shopping at small local shops who’ll take a BYO container and put the stuff into it. An idea I like in theory, but the convenience of a supermarket instead of 5 different outlets, particularly with 2 kids in tow, just wins out most of the time.
Will we ever do away with plastic altogether? No. And I don’t think we’ll achieve completely zero plastic waste either. Plastic has its uses. I have a lot of plastic tubs already and I can’t see the point of chucking them out to buy other substitutes- I’ll use them until they fall apart (ideally forever)- surely that’s better than them going to landfill now? Plus, plastic is really useful for keeping things fresh! I keep my vegetables in plastic bags in the fridge so they don’t go soft. And plastic is better than paper for keeping bread from going stale. What I am trying to do is have designated sturdy plastic bags which I can reuse many times over before they need to be thrown out.
Anyway, we’ll see, It’s a start, at least!