Saturday, January 26, 2013

Step Twenty-Four: Reduce Your Meat Consumption

Our modern meat industry is one of the biggest sources of waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and not just from all those animals farting. The majority of animals are raised in feed lots, where they are fed on grains which have been grown on other industrial farms using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, then harvested, processed, and transported on trucks and machinery run by fossil fuels. The livestock themselves are transported across the country for butchering, processing, and shipping to your town's supermarket. The packaging for meat often involves plastic wrap and Styrofoam, both of which are difficult to recycle and impossible to compost. All of this results in an industrial meat complex which is incredibly intensive in its resource use, just so we can have cheap hamburgers on demand and never go a day without some kind of chicken product. Livestock cast a long shadow across our health, our global community, and our environment, not to mention our wallets. So today's step is to reduce our meat consumption, if only by one serving a week. This will save you money, contribute to a healthier lifestyle, and let you do your part for a healthier planet.

I am not a vegetarian, and am unlikely to ever become one, but I have come to believe for health reasons that meat should be an occasional part of our diet, not a daily staple. Though some disagree sharply, I think Dr. Campbell's book The China Study clearly establishes that a diet low in meat and other animal products is much healthier than our standard american fare. Books like In Defense of Food and Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy support Dr. Campbell's work, though are not so adamant about eliminating animal products entirely from one's diet. Having less meat, animal products, and refined or processed foods in our diets will make more room for plant-based whole foods that are richer in nutrients, provide more filling carbohydrates, and work with our bodies' processes, rather than stressing or over-taxing them.

I initially lowered my meat consumption out of budgetary concerns. I could afford five pounds of potatoes, or two pounds of beef. The potatoes went farther, so they won out. I'm a little better off now, but still consider meat to be a treat, not daily fare. I have tried to increase my bean consumption, as new studies show that increases lifespan and overall health. Plus they  cost pennies from the bulk bin, and are actually quite easy to make a part of any meal. When I do buy meat I can afford to get responsibly produced varieties (like free-range and grass-fed), and the rest of the time I can afford more interesting dairy products like cheddar from a local cheese maker, or raw milk to make my Greek yogurt from. Now my money goes towards food I feel good about purchasing and enjoy eating, plus I have enough to treat myself to top-quality cuts when I do eat meat.

Lastly, I keep my meat consumption to a twice-weekly event because it's good for the community and the environment. Less land has to be deforested and stripped to raise beef cattle, less chicken farmers get trapped in vicious cycles of debt trying to keep their contracts with mega-corporations, and less resources have to be devoted to packing, shipping, and chilling the meat. I use my spending to vote for small, lovingly-managed farms, humane animal treatment, and more organic produce in my local market.

If I had made these changes quickly, they probably wouldn't have stuck, so if you feel better gradually reducing your meat consumption, take as much time as you need. Use this opportunity to be more creative in your cooking, find ways to say yes to adding more vegetables to a recipe, or even to make things more simple for yourself by cooking more one-dish meals like rice pilaf or chow mein. Try making eggs or beans the protein feature in your food, rather than pork or chicken. These all can be small, enjoyable changes that help make your new lifestyle stick.

I found I didn't even need to try new recipes to reduce the meat in my diet. For example, I always used to make spaghetti sauce by sauteing ground beef and onions, then stirring in olives, mushrooms, Italian seasoning, and tomato sauce. When money got tight, I could afford everything but the ground beef, yet the sauce was just as flavorful and filling. Rather than dice ham into my cheesy potato-broccoli soup, I made due with all the rich flavors of cheddar and broccoli  and allowed myself to be satisfied by the fullness of potatoes. Cooked lentils go over rice just as well as beef stew, beans are as satisfying on fajitas as chicken, and feta cheese makes to-die-for lasagna, sans meat.

One thing I don't recommend is trying to find meatless varieties of foods, or tofu replacements. The facade only highlights the absence. Instead, have a hamburger, meatballs, or even a steak once in a while. You'll savor it more, and appreciate it better. The point with this step is not to eliminate meat entirely, only to reduce your consumption of it. Even if you just commit to Meatless Mondays, you'll be making a difference. Personally, I eat meat around twice a week, and am perfectly happy with that amount; it's just enough for me to find pleasure in life and my favorite foods; any more than that and meat becomes something I eat to fill up, not to enjoy.

Hopefully you're convinced that reducing your meat consumption is something you can do, and have fun with. If you need a little idea of where to start, I recommend trying some of the recipes or looking for inspiration on the Zero Waste Kitchen blog, The Whole Food Diary, the In.gredients Store blog, and, my favorite, Eggton.

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

Zero Waste Product Shout-Out: Bus Tokens

I live in Utah, where we deal with inversions, a natural bubble effect intensified by our mountains, which keep air trapped in the valleys without circulation. Because of this Utah has the strictest car emissions standards in the nation, and requires yearly tests with registration. Also because of this, when an inversion is present, it makes nighttime driving look like this:

I'm not fond of the inversion effect. It makes every day a hazy smog, and has terrible consequences for our health. I remember in physiology class in high school a guest lecturer brought in a lung from a native Utahan marathoner, and a person who had smoked for two years. Just by living in Utah and being outside frequently, the marathoner had the same amount of damage as the smoker. The one good thing about the inversion is the constant, physical reminder of our emissions. It led to the aforementioned strict vehicle standards, and played an effect in expanding the public transit system.

Because of this, today's zero waste product shout-out goes to the bus token. A humble, reusable thing, it is easy to carry extras, makes exact change unnecessary, and allows me to commute to work in an environmentally responsible way. It also saves me a ton of money by allowing my husband and I to share a car. $2.35 a ride seems expensive, until I realized that it costs around fifty to seventy-five cents a mile to purchase, register, insure, maintain, and fuel a car. (It costs much more if you consider parking, road maintenance  pollution costs, and  land value)

The Utah public transit system is much better than some areas, and a lot worse than others. It certainly doesn't have the ubiquity of the New York subway system, but it does give central and northern Utah residents a clean, reliable, and reasonably convenient way to travel. At this point, for Utah and many states, the best way to improve public transit is to get more people to use it more often. This causes more frequent stops, more and better routes to open up, and more efficient buses and trains to be used.  You may not be trapped in a valley full of air dangerous to breathe, but that doesn't mean air pollution isn't a serious problem. Take some time today to look up your local transit system, its routes, and how to ride it. Whenever possible, leave your car at home and walk or bike to the nearest bus or train station. Your health, wallet, and the planet will thank you.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Step Twenty-Three: Find a Local Farmer's Market, CSA, or Friendly Gardener

Buying locally helps keep money in your community's economy, encourage responsible business practices, and  often means less waste and chemicals put into production and shipping. Nowhere is this more true than with local food. When you can talk to the person who grew what your family eats, you'll get a level of assurance that beats any organic logo or freshness guarantee. Local farmers markets and CSAs  (Community Supported Agriculture) provide so many blessings to so many different groups that it doesn't make sense not to patronize them. Of course, that's if you can find one in your area.

Since local farmers markets tend towards the grassroots in their organization, it can be tricky to find one in your town or county if you don't know where to look. There are several directories and resources at the end of this post to start off with, but you can also check bulletin boards at health food stores, city hall, and locally-owned establishments. Additionally, look around your neighborhood to see who has fruit trees, a garden, chickens, or a beehive. It's likely that these people are willing to share their bounty, either to keep the food from rotting off the tree, for a little help with the work, or for a small fee. Often hobbyists with enough to share are enthusiastic in their passions, and would be glad to help you turn a corner of your yard into a food-producing Eden. If your neighborhood is devoid of food gardens and small farm animals, check your local library, Craigslist, and national directories to find seed exchanges, gardening groups, chicken clubs, and more. Give shyness the night off and make some friends who are as passionate about what they do as you are.

One of the greatest things about local food is the community that grows alongside it. And just like with the soil, the more love you put into community, the richer it grows.

Local Harvest
A national directory of farmers markets, CSAs, local food restaurants. Also has forums and photos. One of my favorite go-to sites.

Kind of like shopping online, but for fresh produce, and instead of delivering to your door, they assemble your order and bring it to a food community site. An interesting concept, but not available nationwide.

Pick Your Own
An international directory of Pick Your Own farms. These are places where farmers have raised vegetable, fruit, and herb crops, but leave them on the plant until customers show up and pick everything themselves. Quite a fun outing for a date or family night.

Neighborhood Fruit
It's the Craigslist of fruit trees. People who have too much fruit (and anyone who's not a farmer but has a fruit tree does) list their trees and let neighbors come pick for free. There are even trees listed on public land, and the site lists herbs, vegetables, and nuts as well.

A national directory of local egg producers and stands. With this kind of local food, you can ensure the chickens are truly free-range and well-loved, as many people consider their laying hens to be pets who just happen to pay a nutritious rent.

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

P.S. If you are very interested in local food, I highly recommend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. She and her family eat only local food (within a five hundred mile radius, if memory serves, but most of the food is homegrown or bought from neighboring farms) for one year; it is a fascinating look at regaining a sense of the seasons, how delicious whole foods can be, and learning respect for the bounty the earth provides.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Step Twenty-Two: Organize Your Living Room

I love browsing through better living-type magazines and Pinterest in part because of the beautiful homes they showcase. Looking at an organized, color-coordinated, and cozy living room makes me want to jump into the picture so that I too can curl up with a book or host game night on a whim. Of course, it only took a few moments of introspection to realize that I don't want a cottage-style home or the latest side table from Pottery Barn, what I want is a clean, comfortable space of my own, where gathering friends and family is convenient and fun, and which only contains things I love, use, and am willing to dust.

Part of the appeal of a zero waste lifestyle is the clearing of things you don't need to make room for the experiences you want. Humans are social creatures, and so in one form or another we crave contact and positive interaction. That's why today's baby step is to clean, clear, and organize your living room. Having a comfortable common space will give you the opportunity to gather your loved ones together, enjoy your hobbies, and provide you with a concrete reminder of why you're working towards zero waste.

Many wonderful people advocate clearing out a space entirely when  reorganizing, then returning only the functional or beautiful things. I'm kind of lazy, so instead I like to take a pen and paper into a space completely separate from the one I plan to declutter. Sometimes that has meant leaving the house entirely, in which cases I've been very grateful for my local library. Being someplace out of sight of the space in question helps me to clear my mind of distractions so that I can freely visualize what I truly want the room to look and feel like.

When you think of your home's living room, what do you want from it? A place to watch TV, play games, have friends over, engage in hobbies, read, visit with loved ones, exercise, or nap? What furniture and items make you comfortable? Do you like walls lined with bookcases, family photographs, framed art, your children's drawings? How do you want to lay out the room so that you and your guests can comfortably move and interact? Would you rather usually be facing the TV, the window, or have options for both? Now is the time to daydream until you have a clear and happy idea of your ideal living room.

Once you have this picture in your head, write down what physical things are there. Furniture, electronics, decorations, and functional objects like scissors or clocks all should be written down. Don't be intimidated or feel pressured if your list is long; it often takes many things to make a home. The most important part of the exercise is that you write down only what you truly want in your ideal space. Any heirloom, just-in-case, or there-out-of-habit things that you don't freely imagine as part of your dream room don't get written down. I recommend writing a list because I tend to think in lists and charts, if you're more visual, draw a picture of your ideal space instead, or you could even assemble an inspirational collage.

It might take several tries before your list is refined and you feel confident that it's what you want. That's okay, take your time. Once you have your list, use it as a guide to clean, clear, and reorganize your living room. Don't be afraid to modify your list, even after you've started working from it. Being flexible is an important part of being happy.

When you're ready to tackle the physical work, start by clearing the room of things that don't belong. Donate things that you don't want or no longer use. Return out-of-place items and family member's belongings to the correct room. Compost, recycle, and even trash things that won't be useful to you or others. I find it helpful to have a dedicated tote bag for returnable things like movie rentals and library books so that they have a place when they're in your home, and you don't have to scramble when it comes time to return them.

Give everything that remains in the living room a designated home so that you and those you live with always know where to put it away. Now is the time to rearrange furniture if you like, or even to go shopping for any missing items that would enhance your quality of life (check the thrift store first!). Don't wait to paint the walls, hang art you've always loved, organize your personal library by color, or set out knick-knacks that make you smile. The more welcoming your living room is, the more time you'll spend in it, and the more likely you'll want to keep it neat  and usable.

If you have financial constraints and can't afford the extra bookcase you need, chair you'd love, or paint you adore, make space in your budget now to start saving for these items, even if you can only put away a little at a time. Freecycle and Craigslist are great resources for affordable things, or even just make-do items. In the meantime, use what you have until you can afford what you want. Books can be stacked on the floor and space left empty, it's likely no one will notice. While waiting you might even decide you don't need that thing after all, you may come up with a solution you love more, or, at the very least, you'll become more assured that you've made the right decision to buy the item you've waited so patiently for.

Now the best part, go live in your living room. Use it to scrapbook, talk, host cookie exchanges, tickle your children, watch Frontline, knit, sew, play games, send e-mail, pet your dog, assemble puzzles, gather your family around pizza and movies, take a well-deserved nap, write letters, and, most importantly, keep dreaming of what you want in life.

Feel like you need more intensive help in cleaning and organizing your living room? I highly recommend The Joy of Less by Francine Jay, and Unclutter Your Life in One Week by Erin Doland. These two books cover everything you need to know to simplify and streamline your home, and were my two favorites in helping me transition from pack-rat to minimalist.

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

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Step Twenty-One: Write a Letter

I make about a half gallon of garbage a month, more if you count the things I recycle. If I wanted to I could probably make less trash and recycling, but to do that I'd have to cut enjoyable and stress-reducing things out of my life. Reducing waste is important to me, but being happy comes first. However, if I could find these happy/necessary-conveniences in bulk or without waste, I'd get them that way in a heartbeat. To that end, I usually write about a letter a week to various companies asking them to find a better method.

I choose to send physical letters containing examples of the waste a company's product makes because I feel that these have more impact, and are less likely to end up in a junk folder on a computer somewhere. Even if they do get misdirected, I send letters every time I have waste from a specific company, so I know my voice is likely to be heard at least once, if not multiple times. The garbage made from the product still counts in my personal tally, but I think it becomes a little more useful if it can make a point about waste before going to a landfill. It's also pretty standard practice in offices now to recycle paper, so I don't worry about the physical letter becoming trash.

I typically start the letter by explaining that despite my zero waste efforts, I love the company's product(s), and have made an exception to my zero waste policy in order to continue using this thing that enhances my life. I then say that despite its quality and excellence, I wish the product came in a zero waste way (and often I can even volunteer that I'd be willing to buy it in bulk if that meant no garbage), and I go on to describe the various waste-free and low-waste options available for packaging products (usually packaging is the waste problem), things like cardboard boxes, plant-based compostable plastic, paper tape, shredded paper or cornstarch-based packing peanuts for shipment padding, and even mushroom-based packing forms in place of Styrofoam. If the product itself is an issue, I express the desire that the product be more easily recyclable or repairable. Lastly, I tell the company I've included the resultant trash from their product, and ask them to imagine that trash multiplied thousands, or hundreds of thousands of times to represent all of the waste their product is responsible for. I finish the letter by thanking them for their time and consideration, telling them they are welcome to contact me at any time, and referring them to my blog if they have further questions about zero waste.

I put the letter and the garbage (clean trash only, no food-soiled or greasy things) in a standard envelope, use a regular stamp (unless it will make the envelope too heavy, then I add a 20 cent stamp for the extra weight), write 'hand cancel' on the front if the trash is too stiff to go easily through the post office machines, and send it off. There's usually some sort of mailing address on a company's webpage, so finding where to send the letter to is easy, and I often address the letter to "[Company's Name] Customer Service Team" if I can't find a specific person in the company to send it to.  Sure, there's a little work involved in the process, but it's really quite easy once you've done it a couple of times. I find it about as bothersome as mailing in a check to pay a bill (can you believe some businesses still don't take online payments?), but reap considerable satisfaction once the letter is in the mail.

The hard truth of the world is that not all companies care about the environment. Some do, and some only care for money. However, if enough customers demand it, a company will bend over backwards to please them, so I make it my business to ask companies, politely and consistently, to change for the better. I believe we'll eventually have to move as a country, culture, and world to more conservative, waste-free practices, but I hope we can work together to make it happen sooner rather than later. Take some time to write a letter or e-mail to a company whose products you still use, or would like to be able to use, and let's move forward together.

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

P.S. In case you're wondering, the products I use regularly and the waste they create are as follows:

  • Fischer space pen cartridges. They come displayed in plastic with a cardboard backing, and have a plastic extender so the refill can fit a standard sized pen if the customer wishes. I send both of these back to the company and recycle the cardboard backing.
  • Moleskine shrink-wrapping. These notebooks make writing a joy, so I use them despite the shrink-wrapping, though I do send it back to the company.
  • Plastic clothing tags. Some of the thrift stores in my  area use those little plastic things to affix price tags to their clothing. Since this is a store issue, I simply write my letter, enclose the tags, and hand deliver it to the manager on my next trip.
  • Ghirardelli chocolate wrappers. I love Ghirardelli's chocolate squares, and still find myself buying them on occasion. The squares come individually wrapped though, so it's a habit I'm trying to break. In the mean time, I write my letters.
  • Res-Q Ointment shrink-wrap. This salve comes in a recyclable tin, but is sealed shut with a ring of shrink-wrap. 
  • Altoids shrink-wrap. My husband would be very unhappy without these mints, so I send the shrink-wrap back to the company, compost the paper wrapper inside the tin, and reuse or recycle the tin itself.
  • Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Peanut-butter Cups packaging. These delicious little candies are helping me break my Ghirardelli habit, but they come in a plastic tub (plastic #1, so I recycle it) which is sealed with a shrink-wrap band.  I send the band back, as it's not recyclable, and ask Trader Joe's to consider a wax-paper or cellophane bag for packaging, with a cardboard box if the candy needs more protection during shipping.
  • Shipment packaging. I order things from people on e-bay and various companies from time to time. Though I request they use plastic-free shipping products, my requests are not always honored. Amazon uses plastic air-pack bags, which are a better choice than Styrofoam packing peanuts, but still are not ideal. Almost everyone uses plastic tape on their boxes, but I usually let this slide.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Zero Waste Product Shout-Out: Res-Q Ointment

Burt's Bees makes a Res-Q Ointment that I could not live without, zero waste lifestyle or not. I originally got it in one of those little travel kits they sell, and I remember thinking that I would probably never use it.  But then I realized it's great on scrapes, makes cuts heal faster, magics away pimples, soothes my dry nose in the winter, heals bruises, cures bug bites, works as an intensive lip balm, stands in for lotion in a pinch, helps stave off bloody noses, smooths cuticles, and I've heard it's great as a post-tattoo balm.

I use Res-Q ointment for a multitude of problems on a daily basis. I have a tin in constant use, one in my emergency kit, and one in my supply of extras. I never want to be without this stuff, and I love that the packaging is so minimal. It depends on where you buy it from, but there is never more than the tin of product itself, and perhaps a box so the store can hang it on their display racks. The tin does come with a ring of shrink-wrapped plastic to keep it sealed, but I mail this back to Burt's Bees with a letter asking them to find a more waste-free way. I don't like the little bit of plastic, but it's much better than a plastic tube or bottle each for Neosporin, calamine lotion, zit cream, Vaseline, cuticle cream, and the other products I'd have to buy to do everything this ointment can do.

Burt's Bees as a company has zero-waste offices, and is working to make their manufacturing process waste-free in the next few years. They have a great reputation as a company, and are sure to back it up with transparent business practices, community involvement, and hardworking products. One of the few garbage-producing things I allow myself is their lip balm, as I've never found anything better. Though many of their products do come in plastic packaging, Burt's Bees has worked hard to minimize this, as well as use as much post-consumer recycled content as  possible. They're not perfect, but they are about as close to it as a international company with large-scale production and no bulk distribution can get.

To use the Res-Q ointment, simply rub onto the affected area using your finger. If you want to make sure you're not spreading germs around, put a few drops of tea tree oil (a natural disinfectant) onto the remaining ointment and rub around to make sure all surfaces within the tin are covered. I usually do this after rubbing the ointment onto the edges and a little ways inside my chapped nose when I have a cold, or when I'm worried I double-dipped while treating something that could spread, like pimples. I must admit, I have forgotten to disinfect my ointment sometimes, and I share the tin with my husband, but neither one of us has ever had a problem with cross-contamination or the problem area spreading, probably due to all the good and naturally bacteria-fighting ingredients already in the ointment.

And for those specifically looking for help with their pimples, I find that Res-Q ointment makes my pimples go away if I apply it a couple of times a day while they're still less than a bump. After that, I wait until I can extract them, then wash and dry the area and apply the ointment afterwards. This makes the scab and redness go away within two or three days, rather than the week or more it usually takes. In my experience it also helps prevent pigmentation, or those little dark spots that sometimes arise after a zit has gone.

I'm lucky to have a local store that stocks Res-Q ointment regularly, but I've heard most people have to order it from Amazon or off the Burt's Bees website. No matter how you have to get it, I highly recommend you find yourself a tin and start keeping yourself beautiful and healthy right away.