An introduction to understanding the lifecycles of products and our consumption habits, and how to live more sustainably.
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Sustainability

Zero Waste… Where?

June 12, 2021

Spending childhood summers at my grandma’s house, I learned leftovers would be stored in tubs from other products that were long gone. It was a constant surprise. Blue cookie tins rarely were filled with cookies but held sewing supplies and other notions. Her flour and sugar were stored in large clear plastic tubs with a screw-top red lid and handle holding lychee and other jelly snacks over a decade ago. Grandma grew up when there were no 24-hour grocery stores, where you had to plan ahead, and it was difficult to ask for help. These were the values and habits that translated into upcycling and reused in my daily life.

These large containers would be washed and re-used at Grandma's house before buying from bulk bins became popularized!

In high school, I was inspired to weave Mylar chip bag packaging into a backpack! I would collect wrappers from finished snack bags, wash, dry, cut, fold, and weave them into rings, then stacked and then sewn together. It took me three months to collect enough wrappers to create my bag. My larger goal was a waste diversion while serving a practical function. I ended up with lots more wrappers and scraps than I needed. Unfortunately, I still have some scrap wrappers saved, “just in case” I wanted to do a related project with those materials.

My goal was to divert packaging from the landfill with this project, not encourage friends and family to eat more chips. This picture was taken after the straps had been removed.
Materials: Mylar and fishing line- 2013
I'm learning that it can be hard to let things go, especially when it’s seen as disrespectful to not accept gifts and to get rid of food, even if there is an abundance.

(Shout out to all those spices, dried herbs, and beans sitting in clear plastic bags in our pantries tied with rubber bands from eaten asparagus). While the packaging waste from that project is currently being diverted from the landfill by taking up space in my childhood bookshelf, it ultimately does not address the packaging source.

The ubiquity of random arts and craft supplies is no stranger to the drawers and basements of families with children. We have boxes of pencils, pens, markers, crayons, and scrap paper, PILES OF PAPER sitting at home, stacked in corners, waiting to be used, never to be tossed. “Back to school” season compels us to purchase new items to start the year FRESH. Instead of digging through the stash, it is so much easier to buy a new box of pens. So the cycle of buying new to replace old continues; yet by holding onto the old, we acknowledge that those items still hold value. When is the right time to let go, and what is the best way to eliminate these things that no longer meet our needs besides sending it straight to the landfill?

The "crayon graveyard" where half-used supplies end up at the start of summer break and are only visited after you forget you have them sitting in a bin.
The Zero Waste Movement focuses on making individuals feel responsible for systemic environmental degradation by hyper-focusing on the footprint of landfill and/or carbon waste generated on the individual level.

How can we instead transition to “Low Waste” lifestyles, reducing the overwhelming guilt for not participating in the unattainable “Zero Waste” kind?

Building Sustainable Habits

Guidelines towards a “Lower Waste” Lifestyle:

- Pause before a purchase and consider how the item, including the packaging, might be disposed of.

- Use up what you already have! Take inventory of items, such as chemical cleaners or expired sunscreen, before purchasing again.

If you have chemical cleaners that you no longer use, check out local ways to safely dispose of the items. Batteries, lightbulbs, and chemical cleaners are often grouped under term “Household Hazardous Waste”, which are items that get used often in everyday life but should not be placed in the trash when disposing of them. Contacting a local hardware store or looking up what programs your county has available for dealing with Household Hazardous Waste is a good start!

- Tackle a drawer to declutter a day. A shelf in the kitchen, a drawer in the bathroom; clear a designated space by removing all items from within the area, sort these items into keep and do not keep piles. It’s a lot easier to put things away when you have space to store them.

- Understand what items you would like to keep and build around what you already have. Instead of buying something brand new, try to find if it exists used.

I really love my local “Buy Nothing” group, as many neighbors are exchanging or receiving items they explicitly ask for and it’s wonderful to have our needs met.

- Identify what you have and like; curate a space that fosters lower-waste habits and that feels like home to you.

It is so much easier for me to get inspired to create when I see what supplies I already have such as all my fabric sorted by color on hangers, I can easily make my next project!

By understanding that our behaviors around consumption and producing waste won’t change overnight, we can be kinder to ourselves as we learn to actively address the piles of things cluttering our lives,  eventually the kinds of waste we are actively producing. Living more sustainably starts with using from the abundance we collectively have.

Sources:
Household Hazardous Waste- Examples of and how to properly dispose

The Buy Nothing Project

Zero Waste Guilt- an Inaccessible Lifestyle