Monday, July 30, 2012

Step Twelve: Learn to Love Embarrassment

Going zero waste can be embarrassing. I wish it wasn't so, but this is the truth. It takes courage to ask for your chow mein in a container you brought from home, to ask the clerk at the store to un-bag all your purchases because you brought your own, and to explain to your Aunt why you really don't want her plastic-wrapped make-up samples. Zero waste just isn't how our society operates. There are a lot of people working hard to change that, but for the time being we often find ourselves in potentially embarrassing situations.

One exercise therapists give their clients with anxiety is called Rational Emotive Imagery, or embarrassment-attacking exercises. These can be quite effective in eliminating shame as a knee-jerk reaction. Picture a time when you were embarrassed. Say the day you had to explain to the check-out girl what a tare is and why you don't use those little plastic produce bags when you buy from bulk bins. Really put yourself in the same mindset you were in at that moment in time. The lady is nice, but anxious for her shift to finish, the customers in line behind you are getting fidgety, and anyone you brought with you on this shopping trip is surely thinking about what a weirdo you are for refusing to make even the tiny amount of garbage a produce bag would have resulted in. Are your hands sweaty, your cheeks flushed, and can you feel a bout of stammering coming on? Good, because this is where your present self can step in and start to amend your view of the situation. Change your emotion from shame to something else, like anger that taring isn't a standard part of super-market training anymore, or frustration that we've built such a hugely unsustainable system, or annoyance that more people aren't waste-free already.

Do you feel better? Certainly no one likes to feel angry or frustrated, but it's a big improvement over feeling embarrassed or ashamed. This annoyance can be channeled into a more productive activity, like speaking with the store manager, writing a well-phrased letter, or finding a better solution to your problem.

When you're guilty and ashamed it's hard to think about anything other than what a bad person you are, and how you need to be better. Those feelings aren't helpful, even if they're what reminds you to bring in your reusable bags. Going waste-free should be a mostly positive experience; something you do out of love and desire to improve (be it yourself, your finances, or the world), not self-loathing and obligation. There will be problems and frustrations along the way, and that's okay. The point with this step is to deal with those bumps in the road, rather than cancel your journey altogether.

When you're frustrated or angry, you're turning your feelings out onto the world.  This does NOT mean you can yell at the cashier, lecture rude bystanders, or push your personal relationships to the brink with your insistence on zero waste. Instead, make a clear complaint to the store, offer the simple explanation of "I don't have a trash can", and surprise your loved ones with a zero waste meal. By being annoyed, we're trying to test the limits of the system so we know where to focus our action; by being ashamed, we're only testing our own limits of endurance and increasing the likelihood that we'll just give up.

So next time you feel yourself becoming sheepish over refusing that free bottle of water or asking the deli to fill a container brought from home, take a moment to focus on turning your feelings from shame to frustration, and then figure out the most positive thing you can do with that frustration. Often, being frustrated means you've found a real-life puzzle to solve. Those can be tricky, but not impossible. And by ditching embarrassment, you've left the problem of other people's judgments right where they belong, in their plastic shopping bags.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Step Eleven: Think Before You Take

A clerk at the bank offers a free pen, the giant sandwich on the street hands you a flier, the fry girl at McDonalds stuffs some extra napkins in the bag. We are swimming through a world of freebies and giveaways, and it's not even stuff we like or need. By taking a pause before you accept anything, you can stop clutter in its tracks, discourage gimmicky marketing practices, and do a little bit to save the planet. It might be hard at first (it's free, it could be useful, maybe I'll need the information), but with a little practice it will become second nature to smile and say, "no thank you".

If you're still having problems with the idea of not taking free things, think of all the time you'll save when you don't have to clean up stacks of paper or throw away broken bits of unidentifiable junk. Isn't it nicer to write with a well-made pen than have to sift through dozens of dried-out plastic ones? Honestly, the only free things I've ever consistently used were perfume samples, so I'll accept them on occasion, but everything else I don't even look at before holding up my hand and politely refusing. It is so nice to not carry around a stack of fliers and a bunch of cheap junk whenever I go to a fair or convention, and even nicer to not have to figure out what to do with it all when I get home.

Things can also sneak in your home as hand-me-downs, dumpster finds, and gifts. As good as the intentions associated with these acquisitions may be, take a moment to think if you will actually follow through with them. Do you really need another sweater, more hobby supplies, or an extra side table? If so, then by all means, take it; getting things secondhand is a great way to save money and benefit the environment, but if you think it might sit in a bag in a closet for a while, better to let it go on its way. Oftentimes gifts, no matter how lovingly given, don't quite fit your lifestyle. Write a gracious thank you note, and let the item go. Someone else will treasure it more, and in the future a few well-chosen words will guide the gift-giver towards something you can use.

Thinking before you accept anything doesn't just apply to free stuff, though it is the stuff that we tend to accept most quickly. Carefully considering purchases can go a long ways towards ensuring that you'll have only things you love and need. I don't even look at clothing sales any more, unless I'm already out shopping for a specific item. I avidly thrift, but only for a short list of things I already know I want (why are immersion blenders so hard to find secondhand?).  More often than not, waiting before I buy something shows me that I don't really want or need it. For the few times I do miss the item, I appreciate it that much more (and care for it that much better) when I've had to wait to get it.

Once I got used to thinking before I accepted or acquired any items, I started thinking about the food I eat, the water and electricity I use, and the methods I use to get around town. While I still have a huge weakness for long showers, I have much healthier eating habits, take the bus and walk more often, and am much more aware of my energy usage. I have to be careful not to overwhelm myself, after all, everyone needs to take something to live, but it is nice to see how much less I have to take to survive and be happy than I previously thought.

Thinking before I take has saved me money, time, and space. Honestly, creating less waste is just an extra bonus for me. I still choose to take things and resources, but I do it much more thoughtfully, conservatively, and thankfully.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Step Ten: Get to Know Your Local Library

There are thousands of things we use only once or twice a year, so why use money and resources to keep them around all the time? Most obviously I'm referring to books (specific books, not books as a category), but this also extends to tools, sports and camping equipment, specialized cooking utensils, crafting supplies, and more.

What you use often or not that often depends entirely on you and your preferences. I use a salad spinner and my knitting needles every day, where-as I only use a casserole dish and a sewing machine a few times a year. I'm happy to re-watch movies over and over again through Netflix, but I find I do better with owning books on my Kindle rather than borrowing them from the library. Knowing these things about myself was part of finding my style, but know that I know it, I'm finding resources to support it. Not buying things has saved me hundreds of dollars, lots of space, and countless hours that would have been spent finding and caring for the objects themselves. However, just because I choose not to own something, doesn't mean I can't ever use one.

This concept is familiar to most of us, though perhaps not in ways we recognize. Of course library books (and magazines, and movies, and cds) come to mind, but if you think about it, sharing is everywhere. Every time we fly on a plane, we're really just renting part of something we couldn't afford on our own. We rent moving trucks, share green-space in our city parks, and share information with each other constantly over the internet. While we certainly wouldn't want to share everything (my underwear are mine and mine alone), I think we can vastly expand our idea of what is share-able.

Sites like Swap Baby Goods, Zipcar, and Rentalic are helping people to share valuable commodities like cars, cribs, and iPads, while sites like U-Exchange and Air BnB even let people share their homes. These services aren't free, but they're a whole lot cheaper than the actual item. Sometimes I like to borrow things to see if it would work for me and my lifestyle; I'm currently renting a camera, and I'm glad I did, because I found out a DSLR is just too big and clunky for me. Other times I just rent something knowing that I don't need it most of the time, just once in a while; every year I rent a truck to haul mulch for my and my loved ones' gardens.

Getting to know your borrowing options will make you more confident when it comes to using somebody else's stuff, as well as help change your outlook on life. Wouldn't it be nice to just borrow something, rather than worry about caring for it indefinitely? Helping the planet by consuming less will leave you with less stress and more money and space. Besides, if you find you need something after borrowing it, well, you'll already know what kind you want, and how to use it, which will save you time when you do get it.

The following is a list of the sharing directories and resources I've compiled thus far. If you know of one I missed, by all means, share it with us in the comments.

Zipcar: the company owns cars which are rented to the public. Cost includes gas and insurance. Located in select cities in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom.

RelayRides: Located in the U.S., RelayRides is a platform for car owners to rent out their cars to candidates screened and insured by the site.

SwapMarket: An all-purpose trading site that lets you "turn what you have into what you want". Users are allowed to list and trade whatever items they want, and may exchange items in person or through the mail. The site has a leg-up over Craigslist and Freecycle (which I still use constantly) as the users are monitored and receive feedback from other members.

NeighborGoods: Users create groups within which they can share goods. The service will close down at the end of July, but will still operate under the new name Favortree.

Rentalic: This site lets you loan or borrow things within your community. Listings are free, though you do pay a fee to rent things. The site monitors transactions, but does not provide insurance.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.