Material Wellbeing Challenge, Round 2: Sustainability (Waste)

Of all the lessons I learned at Srisa Asoke, I’m most enthusiastic about reducing waste through the 3Rs. Who doesn’t like to save money and, at the same time, save the planet? That’s a win-win. Still, try as we might, our landfills are overflowing. In 2013, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash but recycled and composted only about a third of that material, according to the EPA. And we now know that what we put into the recycling bins often meets the same fate as the rest of our waste. While we can all certainly better manage our household waste in ways that are easier on our pocketbooks and the planet, the fact remains that we live in a disposable society. Overcoming this obstacle will require a more systematic, long-term strategy. Here are ten actions that will help us work in that direction.

1. Reuse like crazy

Remember the central tenet of thrift or frugality: How can I use the resources I have to reduce my need to spend money in the future? Most of us could save quite a chunk of change if we reused items we buy for as long as possible. Here are some things my family reuses that others might simply toss after one use: plastic bags (both Ziploc and grocery bags), tin foil, gift bags and other paper shopping bags, tissue paper, ribbon, take-out containers, glass jars, coffee canisters, disposable cutlery and cups, paper and receipts printed only on one side, shipping boxes, bubble wrap and other packaging material, twist ties, takeout chopsticks, small plastic ice-cream cups, newspaper, and many other random things. We use these things until they have no life left. No, we don’t live like hoarders with stuff piled up so high you have to cut a pathway through it. Everything is stored away in its place where we can find it when we need it.

This reuse ethic also applies to other people’s trash. On walks through our neighborhood, we occasionally come across larger perfectly good items that people have put out on the curb. Perhaps our neighbors are hoping someone will give them a new loving home. Which we do. We have scored some terrific household goods for free this way: three lamps, a bookcase, two TVs, a gorgeous leather recliner (valued at $250), a teak outdoor lounge chair, patio umbrellas, a luxurious dog bed, and smaller things like baskets and flower pots. Most need just a bit of cleaning and occasionally minor repair. While “dumpster diving” is often treated with distain, my family absolutely delights over our clever finds.

2. Repair durable goods

 We have two ongoing fix-it piles in our house: one that requires gluing and one that requires sewing. My husband does the gluing as he has expert knowledge of what kind of glue works best for different materials. It’s a chemistry thing. And since I’ve been sewing my own clothes since I was 12, I make quick work of the missing buttons and holes. We also divvy up bigger repair tasks—Jon puts his high school electronics class to use fixing coffee grinders and replacing broken wall sockets and light switches. I handle anything that involves liquid in a can (paint, stain, varnish). We share plumbing problems with the help of Youtube. 

We do this because were both taught by our Depression-era parents to take good care of our things—a little maintenance can really extend a thing’s lifespan. But we also take satisfaction in doing things ourselves, and yes, we like to save money. We’re not total DIYers. We still hire outside help when we lack the time or expertise to do it right, but we make a good effort.

If you’re really handy, you could organize a Repair Cafégroup. Repair Cafés first started popping up in Amsterdam about years ago to connect people who are skilled at fixing things with others who need things fixed. There are now over 1,000 Repair Café groups operating in 25 countries. According to Martine Postma, founder of the Repair Café Foundation, 

groups generally meet once a month and repair on average 25 items with a 70 percent success rate. In total, that’s over 200,000 items repaired per year. And that’s a good amount of waste to keep out of the landfill. Bonus: Repair Cafés provide opportunities for positive social interactions and strengthen community networks.

3. Turn trash into treasure

Now that I know what happens to stuff I put in the recycling bin, I make extra effort to upcycle what I can. With a child who likes art, every bit of trash holds creative potential. I save cardboard, toilet paper rolls, egg cartons, straws, popsicle sticks, and much more for craft projects. For project ideas, I Google “what to make with X,” or even better, I just hand the thing to my daughter and let her imagination go wild. It’s a joy to see her eyes light up in anticipation. I shudder to think about how much money we could have spent on craft materials over the years, and I smile knowing how creative my daughter has become by turning trash into treasure. And while most of this may end up in a landfill anyway, at least I’ve kept it in circulation a little while longer and squeezed out a whole lot of goodness in the process.

I also do my fair share of upcycling, especially for teacher gifts. My daughter has 17 teachers (including all of her enrichment and specialty classes like PE, music, gardening, language, etc.), so even a $10 gift card for each is a stretch. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think teachers appreciate a handmade gift more than another coffee mug. This last year my daughter and I made votive candleholders out of jam jars. We painted glue on the inside, dusted them with iridescent glitter, and voila! We also stenciled some lunch bags we had left over from another craft to put them in. My only regret is that we didn’t save one for ourselves. 

So I would like to propose a modification to the Marie Kondo approach to decluttering. Kondo advises to pick up each thing you own, and if it doesn’t spark joy, respectfully toss it. Instead, I suggest considering each item destined for the recycling bin, and if it has potentialto spark joy (or at least be transformed into something beneficial), respectfully keep it.

4. Compost kitchen scraps

Our Depression-era parents also regularly made us clean our plates—it was unthinkable to waste food when it was so hard to come by. Now that I do the grocery shopping, I’m particularly watchful of our perishables—tossing fuzzy strawberries and slimy zucchini is like throwing money in the trash. So when it comes to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals target of food waste, our household is doing pretty well. The only thing we have to work on is kitchen scraps. 

For that we compost. I am so tickled with my nifty, cheap DIY system. It’s made up of 3 2-gallon buckets and a 5-gallon bucket, all with lids and holes drilled in the bottom, which I line up, the biggest at the end. I dump my raw organic fruit and veggie scraps in the first bucket and throw some soil on top. When it’s full, I move it to the #2 position, and when all 3 are full, I dump #3 into the big bucket and move it back to the #1 position. Fluid runs out the holes in the bottom so your compost is not mucky, and that brings worms! That’s the best part. Throw the worms in the buckets and you’ll have much richer compost in less time.  When the big bucket is full, spread it on your garden and start the process again. 

I can’t say that this is the best compost in the world because I’m not very scientific about it, but I’m happy to keep my food waste out of the landfill (where it produces methane gas—a big contributor to global warming) and turn it into something beneficial.

5. Become a modern homesteader

If you’ve made some progress on reusing, repairing, and re/upcycling, you might be ready to embrace the modern homesteader lifestyle. Being a modern homesteader is certainly a different experience from when my Great-Grandma Bonnet vanquished rattlesnakes with a broom on her Montana homestead. For one thing, you can no longer get your land for free (the government used to give up to 166 acres to individuals willing to settle out west and work the land for five years—that ended in 1976). Second, the homesteader’s self-sufficient lifestyle is no longer a necessity—it’s more often chosen by individuals who are tired of the harried and materialistic modern culture. And finally, modern homesteaders have the benefit of all our modern conveniences—washing machines, pressure cookers, and the like—that make self-sufficiency easier and more enjoyable. 

Other than that, the core philosophy is the same: Live well with the resources you have. In fact, modern homesteaders don’t even need what might be considered the foundational resource: land. To be an apartment homesteader, Jill Winger of the Prairie Homestead offers ten ideas to get started.  Most of these have to do with making or doing things yourself that you might otherwise pay for. I especially like her last two suggestions: “Become a DIY Genius” and “Repurpose Like Crazy.” Winger says that learning how to be a DIYer has been one of her favorite parts of the homesteading lifestyle, and she points to the brilliance of old-time homesteaders, who creatively repurposed everyday things that we now commonly cast off. It seems like our most valuable resource is our ability to think critically and creatively and to learn.

If you’re not convinced by the financial benefit of reusing, repairing, and recycling/upcycling things you might toss out or outsource, consider the satisfaction self-sufficiency brings. 

6. Hack throw-away products 

Despite our efforts to use things forever, they still seem to wear out too quickly. Sadly, this is often by design. Countless goods we buy are produced with planned obsolescence, forcing us to replace them in short order. The fashion industry is one of the biggest perpetrators of planned obsolescence, with many clothing items worn only seven times before they fade and fray. So when our grandparents complain that “they don’t make things like they used to,” they are right. This is what keeps many companies in business. 

So let’s play to companies’ desire to stay in business: If we don’t buy throw-away items—items that perpetuate the linear Take-Make-Waste business model—companies will stop making them. My sister made a reusable pod for her coffee maker so she doesn’t have to buy the expensive single-use pods. I bought several sets of recycled plastic place settings and cloth napkins to use instead of disposable ones so our parties and picnics are zero-waste. Friends are joining a movement to ban birthday party gift bags with cheap plastic trinkets that end up in the trash a week later. As demand for these short-life products decline, so will profit, and it will no longer make good business sense to produce them. 

7. Pass plastic-free ordinances

While individuals can certainly affect change via purchasing power, it helps to have government support in limiting less-than-stellar choices. Clear examples of this are ordinances that prohibit single-use plastics. Such disposable goods are good for business because consumers buy them, toss them, and repeat indefinitely, making a steady profit stream for single-use plastic manufactures and retailers. But this practice is not so great for household budgets, and it’s definitely harmful to the environment. Public concern is on the rise for the amount of plastic trash that ends up in our oceans and waterways, and in particular for the microplastics that we now unwitting consume as it works its way up the food chain. The good news is that we can stem the flow if we just say, “No.”

Many cities are already taking action. Not too long ago, my town passed an ordinance to prohibit plastic grocery bags, so Laguna Beach shoppers must pay for a paper sack or bring their own reusable tote. One of my colleagues on the city’s Environmental Sustainability remarked that prior to this ban, plastic bags were all over the place—on the beach, in the gutters, hanging on trees—but now, this form of plastic litter is virtually gone. Taking a step further, our neighbor to the north, Malibu, was one of the first cities to ban plastic single-use drinking straws, and others will likely follow suit. But why stop there? The EU just approved a ban on 10 single-use plasticsby 2021 to reduce the amount of marine litter, 80% of which is from single-use plastics. While the EU may outpace the US in environmental regulations, they are also concerned with finances: marine litter costs the EU an estimated 259 to 695 million Euros per year. So if your city is not persuaded by the environmental argument, try the financial one!

8. Support the circular economy

The EU’s ban on single use plastics emerged from their 2015 circular economy action plan. In the previous section, I wrote about the need to shift from our linear production and consumption models to a circular one—what’s now known as the circular economy. One forerunner in the circular economy, Kingfisher (a British home improvement company like Home Depot) envisions a world in which “creating and using products wastes nothing.”  In working toward this goal, Kingfisher has committed to 1000 closed loop innovations by 2020. On the production side, these include designing for disassembly so that parts can be reused or recycled and sourcing recycled materials; for product use, building out renting and repair services; and at end-of-product-life repurposing, incentivizing product return and developing repurposing production lines (like kitchen countertops made from packaging and recycled product parts). Kingfisher is also helping to establish Circular Economy 100, an Ellen MacArthur Foundation platform for companies, emerging innovators, and regional leaders to share best practices, build networks, and collectively solve shared challenges in moving to a circular economy. These innovations are not about tacking on green business practices to improve a company’s marketability, but revolutionizing the way business is done. And thanks to the law of supply and demand, citizens like us can spur these innovations by trading our linear products for circular ones.

Companies who are adopting circular business models are still few and far between. But if we support them, they will set a good example for others. The Circular Economy 100 directory lists members of the platform, including Apple and Google in the U.S. and many other companies globally. Other new companies can be found by googling “circular economy,” such as Tom Cridland’s 30-year Sweatshirt (and now T-shirts, jackets, and trousers). Cridland’s clothing is “built to last a lifetime and backed with our signature 30 Year Guarantee.” The company will repair or replace any item for free if its durability does not live up to expectations. Of course, this stuff is not cheap—the sweatshirt is close to $100. While the amount spent on cheaper sweatshirts over the same time period may be about the same or even more, it is difficult for some folks to come up with so much cash up front. That is the reality of buying more durable goods, but there’s a fix for that, too…

9. Donate gently used stuff

Donating our gently used durable goods is a way to help others participate more fully in a circular economy. When I was young, my mom would lead us a yearly purge of outgrown-yet-still-decent things to contribute to our church’s rummage sale. I’m not sure that our church ever made much money from these sales, but since our church was in Detroit, where over 42% of the residents live below the poverty line, those who came to shop from the neighborhood definitely benefited. 

As an adult, I follow my mom’s example and donate stuff we no longer need. Goodwill takes clothing and household goods, as does Veterans of America or Salvation Army (both of which will pick up your donations). Habitat for Humanity’s Restore shop accepts donations of furniture, appliances, building materials and other home goods. If you’d like to pass on an old bike, local cycling groups and shops often run bike refurbishing and redistribution programs or can connect you with one. Kids On Bikes, for example, isdedicated to providing bikes to under-served children in Colorado. By taking the time to find new homes for our well-loved things, we can close the loop, if only a little bit.

10. Appreciate waste pickers

Did you know that there is a Global Alliance for Waste Pickers? A waste picker, as you might have guessed, is an individual who salvages reusable or recyclable materials (typically from a dump) for sale or personal consumption. Waste pickers are more commonly found in lesser developed countries, but their presence is growing in industrialized nations as well. The global alliance is made up of thousands grassroots waste picker organizations from 28 countries who have organized to prevent persecution, raise recognition for their work, improve working conditions, and share knowledge that will help achieve their shared goals. For waste pickers, who often suffer from economic and social exclusion as well as poor health, this collective action is vital for their long-term wellbeing.

Compassion is perhaps the most obvious feeling that arises when we think of waste pickers—after all, they scavenge in the garbage to survive, and this livelihood brings its own forms of suffering. But we might also feel gratitude. Waste pickers provide a service for the entire planet by bringing underutilized assets back into circulation (i.e., reducing the world’s total waste). In fact, this is now a recognized part of the Global Alliance for Waste Pickers’ mission. At the First World Conference of Waste Pickers (held in 2008 in Bogotá, Columbia), those present composed a 4-point public declaration, which included this point:

We declare our rejection of incineration and landfill-based technologies and agree to demand and create processes that promote “zero waste,” or the maximum utilization of waste (such reuse, recycling, and composting). These alternatives represent viable socioeconomic alternatives for informal and marginalized sectors of the global population.

The question now is: what can we do to make waste picking a more desirable career path?

Wrap up…

The lessons I learned about material wellbeing at Srisa Asoke are pretty straightforward: Cut back on consumption to just what you need, and ensure that your resources last as long as possible by reusing, repairing, and re/upcycling. This approach is not a likely path to early retirement, but it will help us feel more financially secure, with the added benefit of helping other people and the planet. The underlying message is that material wellbeing comes not from efforts to gain stuff but to sustain life.

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6 thoughts on “Material Wellbeing Challenge, Round 2: Sustainability (Waste)

  1. Hello, Juliana!

    Thank you for the reminder on how we can be better stewards of our environment, and in turn, improve our bottom line. Your article has inspired me to take a hard look at what areas need the most improvement in our family.

    Sawadee ka, my dear friend.

    I enjoy reading your posts. Congratulations on GWI!

    1. Sawasdee ka, Bridgid! Thank you for your kind comment! It’s a fun challenge to reduce waste, and given your creative talents, I’m sure you can do some fabulous upcycling 🙂 Let me know how it goes! Yours in trees 🙂 Juli

  2. Great article on reducing waste. It is clear you are doing your part – hopefully more people will be inspired. You will need to send via email to mom.

  3. Juli…very inspiring…thanks for sending it to me…best article you’ve written yet (in my opinion)…I didn’t want it to end!

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