Shopping, Planning Ahead, and Hope

Creating less waste is all about having a plan. I’m not lucky enough to have a co-op nearby that has all my plastic-free and bulk needs, but I can get just about everything I need within a five mile radius, so I’ll count myself as not as well off as the people in San Francisco, but pretty lucky amongst those of us in L.A. County.

My shopping plan mentioned in my last post mostly worked; I got my office supplies (although I got printer paper wrapped in paper, I couldn’t find notebook paper wrapped in anything but plastic), I got my jeans, and I got my shoes. I almost got really comfortable shoes made of natural materials, but they didn’t have my size. As the funeral I’m going to is tomorrow (today when this posts), I couldn’t wait to order the shoes, so I ended up with a crappy pair made of synthetic materials that isn’t even comfortable. Since I was somewhat forced into synthetics (I suppose I could have decided to just wear shoes that don’t match or fit), I chose to get the pair with the least material overall, for whatever good that does.

Grocery shopping was more successful. I used the plastic bags I’d washed out for the bulk items I didn’t have enough cloth bags for, and I remembered my washed-out plastic tub for bulk peanut butter (unfortunately, while my local Winco is happy to let us use our own containers, they are not willing to deduct the tare weight at checkout, so if I were to use glass, I’d easily pay three times as much for my bulk liquids and butters). I only messed up twice: my meat came wrapped in plastic (I forgot to bring a container to see if the butcher would be willing to use mine), and I got a small plastic-lined carton of cream.

Those two failures could have been easily avoided if I’d planned ahead. I know my library books are due tomorrow, and the store with cream in glass containers is right next to my library. I could have gone without cream for two days and saved on waste. I also could have added the containers I needed to bring to my grocery list so I could check that I have them all before walking out the door. Instead, I relied on memory, which is rarely perfect.

On the plus side, that huge block of cheese I bought a few trips back is still fresh inside my waxed fabric wrap, so I didn’t need new cheese. I couldn’t avoid the plastic around the cheese without avoiding the cheese altogether, but I have reduced my waste by buying a large block instead of shredded, sliced, or, worse, individually wrapped string cheese. It’s a step in the right direction.

What made me happiest this week, though, was how little food got wasted. Before this project, my husband and I would clean out the refrigerator before we went grocery shopping, and there’d be an embarrassing amount of waste (most of it in plastic pouches). This time, the only things I threw away were tossed into the compost bin: a bunch of wilted cilantro, a bit of uneaten leftover rice, and half a baked sweet potato I’d forgotten about. Things that were still safe to eat (like my homemade refried beans) but that were clearly not going to be eaten right away, I froze. Everything else I made a plan for so we’d eat it in the next few days. A lot of our leftovers made their way to my homemade chili, and the rest were made into a delicious stir fry.

What’s amazing to me is just how small the changes I’ve had to make have been. Anyone could go as far as I’ve gone to reduce waste with very little effort. Buying in bulk is simple and cost-effective. Buying less and only what you need is most definitely cost-effective. Composting requires hardly any more work than throwing something away. You don’t even need a fancy composter like I got; a simple wood box and a handful of worms will do.

My husband, who is free to do whatever he likes, has also made changes. He’s an active composter now, he has no problem with us no longer using plastic liners in our trash, he loves the bulk bins, and he apologizes when he gets something with excessive packaging. He said during one shopping trip that he never thought about the packaging before, but now he sees things that are potentially reusable like jars. He loved the cast iron skillet long before I did, so he supports our getting rid of the teflon-coated pans. He’s still using conventional shower products, but I made the switch right after we’d bought them, so maybe he’ll switch to bar shampoo and soap with me when he starts running low. Yesterday he was saying he wants to make and freeze more of his own food. That was mostly health-prompted – if he knows he has a good quick meal on hand, he won’t be tempted by fast food — but it will also create less waste. Most important, he says he supports what I’m doing and backs that up by his actions. He’s not nearly so obsessed (I would say he barely gives it much thought when we aren’t shopping), but he understands what I’m doing and why, and that’s amazing.

I am also encouraged by my students who tell me my anti-spork project has inspired them to change their own shopping patterns. Since they aren’t in charge of the purchases in their households, they told me how they’re trying to educate their parents. One student in particular described how she kept comparing the packaging of similar products and persuading her mom to buy the product with the least packaging.

Every year I model the research process with a different topic. My students have never been so interested in my topic before, even when my topics have been things that directly affect them like abolishing the CAHSEE or ending standardized tests. They have certainly never changed their actions in their daily lives before. To me, this suggests that people have an innate desire to protect and preserve our environment, but that that desire gets squashed as we get older, busier, and more susceptible to that siren song of convenience.

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