Of all the lessons I learned at Srisa Asoke (the intentional Buddhist community in Thailand), I’m most enthusiastic about how to waste less through the 3Rs (reuse, repair, recycle). 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 the scale of the world’s waste problem seems overwhelming, there are some simple solutions we can try at home. Here are 8 actions to start with.
Tip #157: Reuse to the fullest
Remember the central tenet of thrift or frugality from last month: 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. In this case, we waste less by simply not throwing things away.
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 mow a pathway through it. Everything is stored away in its place where we can find it when we need it.
Tip #158: Save stuff without clutter
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 bin, and if it has potential to spark joy (or at least be transformed into something beneficial), respectfully keep it. But that means you have to have a place for all your supplies. “Waste less” does not have to equal “mess.”
In my house, we have two book cases and a secretary dedicated to neat supply storage. We also keep tubs downstairs in the storage room for the bigger or less frequently used stuff. While you’re at it, you can save glass jars, coffee cans, and plastic containers to store stuff in. Bonus: decorate them so they’ll look pretty, too!
Tip #159: Go dumpster diving
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. And it makes us happy to help our neighbors waste less too.
Tip #160: Refresh old furnishings
Resist the urge to buy new stuff when it looks dingy–refresh instead! This also goes for “dumpster” finds (like the trashed teak recliner we refinished). Have fun with it! Cover cushions with funky fabric or paint stencils on tables! There’s so much creativity in making old stuff look new and fresh. So when you waste less by refreshing old furnishings, you boost your wellbeing in more ways than one.
Tip #161: Repair durable goods
Another way to waste less is to 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.
Tip #162: Use up food first
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. I also like to waste less food by getting creative with left-overs. Soup is a no-brainer when it comes to cleaning out the fridge! So when it comes to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals target of food waste, our household is doing pretty well.
Tip #163: Compost kitchen scraps
You can also waste less food at home by composting kitchen scraps. 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. I don’t compost anything else — no meat, cooked food, etc, because it attracts critters. When the first bucket is full, I move it to the #2 position, put an empty one in the #1 position, and fill it up. When all 3 are full, I dump #3 into the big bucket and move it back to the #1 spot. When the big bucket is full, I spread it on my 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. However, I’m happy enough just 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 at the same time.
Tip #164: Make worm castings
Ok, “worm castings” is a weird euphemism for worm poop. And as you know (or maybe you don’t), poop is an excellent fertilizer. In my DIY compost set up described above, fluid runs out the holes in the bottom so the compost is not mucky. And lo and behold, that rich liquid brings worms! That’s the best part. They just come up from the earth, attracted to the nutrients. So I just pluck the worms out of the soil and throw them in the buckets. They eat the vegetable scraps and poop it all out, resulting in much richer compost in less time. This is great motivation to waste less!
There’s certainly a more scientific way to do “vermiculture” than my accidental approach. If you’re interested, just google the term and you’ll find kits to buy as well as DIY instructions. You can even keep your worm babies under your kitchen sink!
We’re going to dig deeper into using waste for our own wellbeing (and for others as well). We’ll get creative by turning our trash into treasure and think more deeply about what a circular lifestyle means.