Just one thing: the inconvenience of saying no

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Last year, I started writing intermittent blog posts about how I was trying to do “just one thing” to live in a more sustainable way, and take better care of our planet.

The idea of “just one thing” came about because the whole problem just seemed too big, and overwhelming, to navigate as a whole. Especially once I started to learn that recycling wasn’t the magic cure-all we had once believed it would be, and that the resources required to recycle our waste were enormous and (ironically) mostly-unsustainable.

So, rather than trying to fix everything at once, I tried doing one small thing at a time and, once that thing became habit, I started doing something else.

As time went by, I was proud to find that our previously-overflowing bin would go out each week with a lid that could actually close. I realise that’s not a big step for some people (in fact a full bin is worst-case, not best-case, for a lot of families), but it was a big achievement for us.

But one thing I’ve come to realise is just how much of what we buy comes in packaging that I then need to toss or recycle, so that bin does keep on filling up despite everything I’ve been doing. Right now, I’m just not in a place to be able to make all our own cosmetics and toiletries, for example, and store them in pretty glass jars, or repurpose our old tuna tins into bookends. But every time I buy these things, the packaging ends up in recycling or landfill.

You know the stuff I’m talking about: in the bathroom, we have toothpaste, deodorant, moisturisers, cleansers, shampoo, conditioner, body-wash, hand-soap, hand-cream, sunscreen, lip-salve, and all kinds of other rubs and scrubs. If you come with me into the office, there are glue-sticks and plastic pens and boxes of staples and bulldog-clips, all my paint tubes, plastic document-sleeves, printer ink cartridges, and on it goes. Under the kitchen sink, I do use bicarbonate of soda and vinegar for a lot of my cleaning, but you’ll still find washing up detergent, washing up gloves, and an enormous array of chemicals in liquid form that do all kinds of damaging things to our planet, stored in plastic containers.

It’s heartbreaking!

I think that our extended stay in France has really hammered home to me the extent of our household waste. First of all, because when we first arrived here, I had to buy just about everything from scratch. Cleaning supplies, hygiene supplies, and all those pantry-staples like oil and flour and rice… I had to buy all of them, and they all came in packaging. Secondly, we don’t have any compost in this apartment, and the only recycling is glass. So every day I can actually see all that cardboard and plastic I’m using. I still separate it out - old habits die hard - but then it all goes into the one big bin outside.

But by separating out the cardboard and plastic, and then throwing it all into landfill, I have been inadvertently sending myself a powerful message. I can actually see all of these things I am bringing into my home. Back in Australia, I toss them straight into the recycling, and they are much more easily forgotten.

And this brings me to my “just one thing” for today: saying no, even when it is inconvenient.

I don't really have the answer, just yet, and if you have any experience of this, I’d love your help! But I guess what I want to talk about today is being mindful not only of what we do with our waste once it becomes waste, but of what we bring into the house in the first place.

For example:

  • Could I buy less food, so we don’t throw out as much? (Could we get better, as a family, at eating leftovers even if we don’t feel like eating that again today?)

  • Could I buy more in bulk so that even if the container is plastic, it’s only one instead of five?

  • Could I do without some things from the supermarket, and wait until market day so that I can pick them up without packaging?

  • Earlier this year our family supported this successful crowd-funding initiative for reusable, glass bottles for our milk so, when we return to Australia, I’ll need to get good at picking up and returning our bottles from specific places

  • Could I get better and bringing my own containers to the butcher and tell them not to put my meat in any plastic or wax paper?

  • Could I bring my containers to the green-grocer and give them back the plastic containers for cherry-tomatoes and berries? Or if they can’t take back the containers, could I suck it up and just not buy cherry tomatoes or berries until I can get them from the market?

  • Could I bring my empty egg-containers back to the green-grocers, just as I do at the markets?

Confession: when I started writing this blog post this morning, I was thinking, “this one thing is too hard. I don’t have any good answers.” But as I’ve listed the ideas and questions above, I realise I was simply feeling overwhelmed. I know my ideas won’t solve everything, but surely they are better than doing nothing! All I need to do is be willing to accept a tiny bit of inconvenience in order to keep making the changes I so badly want.

I’d really love to hear what you do - I’m sure there are loads of things I haven’t considered!

Some other ideas

In the meantime, following are some of the other actions I have gradually been taking during the past few years to help reduce my footprint on this planet.

I share this list here in case it inspires you, or gives you ideas, but I do want to add in the caveat that I am doing these things one thing at a time, not always successfully and often with stops, starts and backslides. If you are new to the journey of sustainable living and this all seems overwhelming, I hear you! I encourage you to be kind to yourself, and to consider trying just one thing, either from this list or something else. (I’ve included a “how it helps” hint at each of the steps I’m sharing below, so you can see how even one little change in our lifestyles can make a big difference.)

On the other hand, maybe you are way ahead and have loads of other great ideas for how we can do “just one thing” to care for this planet a more mindful way. I’d really love to hear what you are doing, in the comments so everyone reading can benefit from what you’ve learned.

We each have to walk our own paths according to our own beliefs, budgets, family circumstances, family pushback to making changes (!), available time… so I guess I just want to say that there is zero judgement here (and honestly, very limited success on my part), and all I hope is that this list will kick-start ideas or conversations. OK, here’s where I’m at so far:

  • Taking my own carry-bags shopping, instead of accepting plastic bags. At first I forgot a lot, but now it’s habit. (How it makes a difference: if everyone in Australia refused just ONE plastic bag at the supermarket, there would be 24.6 million less plastic bags that go into landfill)

  • Seeking composting solutions that work even though we only have a tiny garden. So far I’ve really liked this composting cannon, but I’m considering upgrading to something that will accept more of our organic household waste. (How it helps: I am guilty of previously thinking, “Oh, but food waste breaks down, so it’s fine.” Turns out, food waste creates methane gas, which is 25 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide. If everyone in Australia composted only 10 percent of their uneaten food, we’d be keeping 330,000 tonnes of rotting, gas-producing waste out of landfill)

  • Using reusable cups for my take-away coffee (or in France, only drinking coffee at cafes). I have an assortment of reusable cups at home: the classic reinforced glass cup, one that’s a thermos inside so my coffee stays hot for longer, and a beautiful stoneware mug with a removable lid. (How it makes a difference: reduces landfill and resource-waste. Despite ‘feeling’ like cardboard, more than 99 percent of disposable coffee cups are not recycled because of the plastic lining that makes them heat- and moisture-proof)

  • Replacing my use of soft plastic, like cling-wrap, with reusable beeswax wraps. I use them to cover bowls in the ‘fridge, keep cheese fresh, wrap up sandwiches for picnics and lunch boxes… they are great for practically anything, as long as you don’t use them with meat (because they can only be wiped down to clean) or anything hot (because beeswax melts!). (How it makes a difference: cling-film goes into landfill and recently I read that more than 1.2 billion metres of cling film was being used by households in Britain alone, every year, enough to circumnavigate the entire planet 30 times over)

  • Stop buying bottles of sparkling water. We did buy a soda-stream instead, but basically we have taught ourselves to drink still tap-water at home. (Groundbreaking, I know. What ridiculously privileged lives we lead!) I also carry a lovely, reusable drink bottle with me when I’m out and about, so I never have to buy bottled water for myself or the kids. (How it helps: every minute, one million single-use plastic bottles are purchased around the world. There are more than five billion adults on our planet - if only 1 percent of us said no to one plastic bottle each, there would be 50 million less of them polluting our planet)

  • Using stainless-steel, reusable straws at home, and refusing straws when out and about in pubs or cafes. (How it makes a difference: every year in Australia, we use and throw away 540 million straws in our pubs, more than 310 million straws in McDonald’s restaurants, and countless more in other cafes, restaurants, food courts, cinemas, sporting grounds, schools, hospitals, parties and homes. Straws are so small they slip through recycling, and end up in landfill or polluting our waterways, causing the kind of suffering to wildlife that made this heartbreaking video go viral)

  • Reducing the amount of plastic containers I use in the home. Bit by bit (because replacing plastic is expensive!) I have been swapping our plastic kids’ plates, party plates and picnic-ware for enamelware, and collecting food containers made from reinforced glass. As a more affordable solution, I’m also very partial to storing up old biscuit tins to hold everything from home-made cakes to pasta and first aid supplies. (How it makes a difference: businesses buy what we demand. If we stop buying plastic, companies will stop making it)

  • Replacing our laundry detergent with soap nuts (I wrote about that change here). (How it helps: most conventional laundry detergents contain chemicals like sulphites, phenols and fragrances, which all end up in our waterways and next to our bodies. They also come in plastic or cardboard containers, which either go into landfill or have to be recycled,further taxing resources)

UPDATE: If you are seeking extra inspiration, just after posting this I discovered that my lovely online friend and a food writer I deeply admire, Sally Prosser, had also written this useful post on 10 ways to use less plastic.

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