Lessons In Zero Waste Living Part 1: Questioning Consumption
I recently read Bea Johnson's book Zero Waste Home. I was initially reluctant to promote a Zero Waste lifestyle. It feels overwhelming to take on. If you’re one of the many who just finished KonMari-ing your life, you may not be ready for another big change. But given that we have 10 years to avoid a planetary catastrophe, I have decided to start doing what I can to reduce waste in our house. I am embracing imperfection and examining how Zero Waste principles can work for a family with young kids.
In this 5-part series, I examine some of the issues I have run into, and how I fixed or accepted them. I'll discuss some of the ways Johnson recommends setting up your home, shortcomings of the method, a case study in imperfect products, and tips on how to involve kids. Today, I'll be talking about the bedrock of Zero Waste: questioning consumption.
Who is Bea Johnson?
Bea Johnson calls herself the mother of the Zero Waste lifestyle movement. She is a blogger, speaker, and mother to two boys. Johnson's book, Zero Waste Home, is a simple primer on the zero waste lifestyle. She is totally the Marie Kondo of Zero-Waste. She does not expect perfection; she emphasizes simplification and slowing down. She acknowledges that she has gone too extreme before (moss for toilet paper?!). Her book is a quick read and includes some great basic recipes and tips (I really want to try her recipe for eyeliner/mascara!).
Johnson's method is founded on the principle of the 5 R's - Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. Refuse and reduce are the first because they are the most powerful. Going through the 5 steps requires questioning your consumption habits. What do you bring into your home/life/body, and why do you need it?
In the bustle and chaos of life with kids, it is easy to throw disposable products at a problem to try and fix it immediately. Packaged snacks, plastic toys, workbooks, the newest clothes even though they grow out of them so fast. Anxiety amplifies the need to solve the problem fast, and depression makes it hard to take the path with more effort. Impulse control is not something humans are naturally good at.
Questioning my consumption really helps me reduce intake and thus waste. I have a handful of questions I ask myself.
Will this product really solve this problem long term?
Chances are, a new workbook or writing tool will not help your kids read and write better. The only thing that will improve that is time. A new toy may keep them occupied that afternoon (and there are afternoons that are worth it!), but it won’t teach them to entertain themselves in the long term.
What insecurity am I covering up with this product/purchase?
Am I covering up insecurity about my body by buying a new dress? Do I feel guilty that I haven’t been keeping a clean house so I buy a new cleaning tool? Am I stressed out so I buy that prepackaged candy?
Do I need this now, or can it wait?
I am so guilty of stopping by the drive thru to grab food for my kids because I forgot to pack enough. I can’t let them go hungry, right? In reality, they can wait the 20-30 minutes until we get home. It may not be pleasant, but I feed them regular enough meals that they will not starve!
Is this purchase worth delaying my travel/home improvement/financial goals?
I love Ikea, but 90% of the purchases I make there are unnecessary. Last year, I spent over $1000 at Ikea. That’s half the cost of redoing our floors, or half the cost of a trip to Bali (depending on where and how you go, that could be the whole trip!). You know what they say about a million tiny cuts? That’s it, right there. I would definitely rather go to Bali or have nicer floors than just about anything I could get from Ikea (and I love Ikea!).
Is this product harmful (to our health, to the earth, to the workers producing it)?
This question will weed out a lot of sugary snacks and sodas.David Suzuki’s list of the Dirty Dozen chemicals to avoid is a good place to start when evaluating cosmetic products. Last year, I made a commitment to try and purchase products, and clothing specifically, with ethical manufacturing practices. The biggest change I've noticed is that I am less affected by product marketing. It is a lot easier to make prudent decisions when you tame the “want monster” in your brain.
I am a big believer in mantras. Having quick, go-to encouraging phrases really combat those wanty instincts. I remember these rules of thumb:
Don't make a decision in the “Red Zone”.
We talk about zones of self-regulation with the kids. One of the things I tell them is “We don’t make decisions when we’re in the Red Zone”. Whether you call it Red Zone, Emotion Mind, Crisis Mode, or something else, don’t make purchasing decisions there. Get calm, wait, and then evaluate if it really is a need.
When you purchase something you don't need, you steal from yourself.
This is a beautiful Swedish proverb I recently read. I absolutely love it. Wouldn’t it be nice if they posted it at a certain Swedish homegoods store? It helps remind me to keep my true wants and goals in mind. For me, my priorities are travel, a few home maintenance goals, and, eventually, being able to take more classes. My goals are not to have a perfectly organized and Ikea-branded home.
Everything you own you have to clean.
I loathe cleaning. One of the things I like about our home is that even when it is covered in clutter, we can clean up the main rooms in 2 hours. I would actually like to reduce this even more. I would love it if my house didn’t need “tidying” because we had little enough that it was simple and logical to put away. I would love if we didn’t have to take garbage out all the time. I would love it if toys took 2 minutes to put away, and dishes took a few swipes with a rag. I would love to not be overrun with laundry.
So where to start with implementing Zero-Waste? You don’t have to start by buying new products or making drastic changes to your routine. You simply have to start asking why - why do you need this purchase, and why do you need it right now? Chances are you don’t. By refusing and reducing wants, you eliminate the majority of waste that comes into your home.
Next time, we will tackle kitchen, which is where much of the plastic waste comes into our lifes.