I give a F#g

figs on toast

Or, how I brought three little figs, all the way home, unpackaged.

It’s fig season here in Australia. A juicy, ripe fig is the stuff of dreams.

I eat them in salads, with spinach and goat cheese. Or for breakfast, as the showstopper finale in the ensemble hit that is the breakfast smoothie bowl. One of my favourites is figs on toast with a spread of labne.

I was shopping for figs today and, to my utter dismay, could only find them sold as a trio, wrapped up in plastic and seated on a polystyrene tray.

Now, I know where to recycle soft plastics and polystyrene, the efficacy of which we can talk about some other time, but that’s for emergencies, a last resort.

I had been daydreaming about figs all day and wasn’t about to leave the green grocer empty-handed. But there was no way I would buy them in all that unnecessary packaging.

Then I had an idea. I found a fellow who was restocking the produce.

Could I buy three figs without the packaging? I asked.

He didn’t understand at first (and this is normal, and where a smile and some patience will serve you well). I clarified – I’ll buy the same amount in the package, for the same price – I simply want three unpackaged figs. Oh! His face brightened as he registered understanding. We went to the back of the shop together, and three unpackaged figs were proffered. Smiles.

Upon checkout,  I nestled the little fellas in with my bulk spinach, itself collected in a reused paper bag. Safe and sound.

No unnecessary packaging, no hard feelings, no sweat. All I had to do was ask. Maybe if all of us pointed out that no, we don’t need any excess packaging thanks, grocers will start offering them this way by default.

This story has an even happier ending. Those three figs were f#%king delicious.

The case of the disappearing trash can

overflowing city trash cans

What would happen if your household garbage bin disappeared for a day? And how about the council supplied bins too?

When would you reach for the bin? I’m betting that for most people, it’s early and often throughout the day, and frequently after mealtimes.

If you couldn’t find it, would a bit of panic set in? Maybe frustration, or anger perhaps, if there was nowhere to toss your trash?

Canadians lead the world in niceness and mounties, but we’re also right up there in per capita garbage generation. Canadians produced an average of 777 kilograms of landfill each in 2008. That’s about 15 kilos per week, per person. A little over 2 kilos each day.

I feel sick.

Garbage is a systemic problem.

To toss something into the bin is second nature. It’s ingrained in our culture. We have vast systems of transportation, processing, and landfilling that are all there so we can easily, handily, and cheaply toss things away whenever and wherever the feeling strikes us.

Yes, sure, collecting our waste in one big pile is marginally better than throwing things directly into the ocean. But there are other issues.

Garbage is a waste our of money.

We pay many times over for our folly. We first pay when we buy things designed to be thrown out, and again through taxes to fund the removal, and then again when the garbage wreaks havoc on the environment (in or out of landfill).

Consider that we actually extract, refine and import petroleum resources to power vehicles so we can transport tonnes of materials that we don’t even believe ourselves to have any value to landfill. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, this is absurd.

Garbage is a not an investment

A rule of thumb for managing your finances is to never invest in a depreciating asset. Most cars, for example, are depreciating assets, and therefore not a place you’d put your money in the hopes of getting more or even the same amount back later. You buy a car, but you do not invest in a car.

Let’s think about this in the context of landfilling – we are never going to get anything good in return for the money we’re putting into the landfilling system. We are buying garbage collection infrastructure, but it’ll never pay off as an investment. In business parlance, the ROI is sh#t.

What else could we be doing with the money?

Here’s a thought experiment: what if we took the same resources we’re using now for trash collection and used them instead to collect organic materials? The organics we’d collect would have value as soil inputs. This means we’d be investing in a system that pays dividends rather than one that’s effectively a money pit. We would be creating something of value. Waste would become food.

And now back to your bin.

A by-product of the current vast system of garbage collection is that we have given ourselves permission to throw away whatever we want, and we’ve also given businesses the social licence to sell products that are designed to be sent to landfill, often after a single use.

But enough is enough, and these days more and more of us are choosing to live a Zero Waste lifestyle. Don’t be afraid of this terminology. This most often isn’t producing no waste at all, but just dramatically less in the household. Near-o Waste.

When we reduce our reliance on the bin, we’re creating an alternative system design. We’re taking a step towards not taking more than is our privilege or our need, and toward putting all that energy and funding for waste collection into something more worthwhile.

Where to start? Maybe you don’t feel ready to go cold turkey on trash by literally giving up your bin. But you could start with composting or quitting single use plastics.

Free yourself from the bin!

Before and after Bokashi

The results of Bokashi composting are a thing of beauty. Dirty, microbial beauty. 

Learning about Bokashi composting was one of the turning points in my life. Overstatement? I don’t think so.

Bokashi composting has enabled me, apartment renter that I am, to easily reduce my waste by 80%, without having a garden or yard of my own.

Nothing else will have as large an impact on my efforts to live low waste as this. It’s also freed me from the idea that I urgently need my own yard to be able to compost.

Like most young people living in pricey cities (oh heeyy there Vancouver and Sydney), owning a detached home within, say, a two hour commute of my work in the city remains a dream unrealized. It’s not that I need a detached home per se. It’s that they usually come with the space to be able to compost and grow food.

When I lived in rentals with yards I would buy those big black composters – the kind subsidized by the city – and use them. I’d always associated composting with yards and big black containers.

Years later and back to apartment living, but still in my pre-Bokashi days, I had a small container and would frequently and furtively drop the scraps into my neighbours’ green bins. Vancouver had started food scraps pickup, but only for detached homes. A great initiative but it still left a gap for people like me. I could sneak around, but it was high maintenance to have to empty it all the time. If I didn’t take it out often enough, it would lead to smells, bugs and rightly so, accusatory glances from roommates.

Enter the Bokashi method.

Bokashi: the ideal compost for an apartment?

Bokashi gave me a level of control over my compost that nothing else can match. I could collect and hang on to scraps indefinitely if necessary, indoors, and in a way that didn’t smell or attract flies, and drop it off when convenient for me. I haven’t looked back.

Bokashi compost before and after:

Bokash compost before
Before: the scraps still look recognizable.
Bokash compost after
After: 2-3 weeks later, the worms are diggin’ it.

 

Bokashi helps me reduce my waste, obviously, but it also empowers me to be okay with where I am in life right now, which is in a small apartment with a small balcony. I can decide when to empty it, and that makes it a whole lot more doable.

Read my post all about Bokashi composting in an apartment to get started. See a roundup of my compost posts here.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

fail to prepare

Living low waste might seem to be, from the outside, all about going without, exercising iron clad willpower, and generally living a spartan lifestyle.

Willpower is contextual, and changing a habit with brute force just doesn’t work for me. Which is a fancy way of saying, I don’t have a special amount of willpower. I just try to structure my day to day decisions to reinforce my overarching intentions for life.

Restructure your decisions ahead of time

One of my favourite ways to teach myself a habit is to look at ways I am repeatedly making the same decision (and struggling every time) to see if I can restructure and automate it with a healthy default.

We only have so many decisions in us in a day before we get decision fatigue.

This is the insight behind a work uniform. But here’s another example:

I sometimes go for a run in the morning before work. I want the endorphins and I love the energy it gives me through the day. But left to my own devices, I will often vacillate between getting up and going, and just lazing in bed until I don’t have enough time.

My simple automation is to set out my running clothes the night before – right down to my socks and undies. In doing so, I am committing, even in a small way, to following through with my run. This also makes the morning an overall smooth operation. No rummaging through my drawers to track down my sports bra or a pair of socks. There is nothing to derail me.

Rather than deciding whether or not to run, I’m deciding how far and in which direction.

A simple change to my surroundings helps me make the decision my higher self actually wants.

It’s the same thing with Zero Waste living. In the preparation, I am setting an intention and a commitment to a future behaviour. It’s a Zero Waste asana. It’s also creating an environment that supports my intention and sets me up for success.

Normalize low waste living.

Since the trash we produce has so much to do with our eating habits here are a few examples of how I set myself up for Zero Waste in the kitchen:

I make real food, at home // Making my own food is empowering and my absolute favourite way to practice creativity. Michael Pollan tells us to eat whatever we want, as long as we make it ourselves, which I take as permission to make and eat pie. He says this in the context of nutrition and eating habits (I can only make so much pie), but it’s also relevant to reducing household waste. In my own kitchen, I reduce, reuse, compost, recycle, etc. This means that if I made it, I know how it was made, and what was wasted (or not) in the process.

blackberry pie

I shop in bulk // To automate cooking at home as my normal, I shop in bulk at any of the bulk whole food stores where I live. I stock up on seeds, nuts, beans, grains and other ingredients that can be made into a wide variety of dishes. I don’t have to channel my energy into avoiding processed foods or not eating out. Instead I cultivate joy in cooking and eating food that I make myself.

I hide my trash bin // A typical kitchen has a large garbage bin front and centre. Sometimes these are even battery operated, freeing us from the burden of lifting the lid ourselves. This teaches us to use it as the first choice. What if it was the last choice? What would happen if you gave more physical space and prominence to your compost and recycling bins? You’d remember to use them first, I guarantee it. By creating an environment where it is physically more difficult to throw things away, I throw less away.

I surround myself with fresh, local, organic fruit and veg // I order a weekly box from a fellow who is running a small business delivering farm-direct local organic produce, or I hit the farmers markets. This means I’m choosing from seasonal bounty by default. Bonus – no fruit stickers to deal with. Second bonus, I don’t waste time at the supermarket looking for organic or Australian grown produce from amongst it all. The less I shop at supermarkets, the less I expose myself to packaged foods. Since produce comes in its own biodegradable and usually edible packaging, the more of it I keep on hand the less often I turn to packaged foods and the less packaging waste I make.
trio-of-veg I follow plant-based foodies online // Say what you will about the authenticity of social media, I still find that visual inspiration keeps me hungry for healthy, fresh food. I purposely seek out veggie Instagrammers to inspire me in exploring meat-free meals and thinking about new flavour combos.

I keep a ‘to eat’ list // I’m prone to overbuying, which can lead to food waste. So I write down a list of things I have on hand as a reminder of what I should plan my meals around.

Willpower is overrated.

If you want to reshape your life, reimagine your environment.

Living low waste can be so much more about abundance of the good than deprivation or extreme willpower. The good crowds out the bad, and becomes normal. What you’ll end up giving up will ultimately become irrelevant to your lifestyle anyway. Living without making so much trash will start to feel effortless.

If you are looking to start living low waste, start by creating environments that inspire instead of restrict. You’ll be more likely to succeed and more likely to enjoy the process.