Monday, March 2, 2009

Give up disposable containers for Lent!

my faithful waterbottle

This year, because I am following a food almanach inspired by popular traditions, I decided to do something for Lent. I have never, ever, done anything for Lent -and I come from a Catholic background. "Giving up something" sounds abominable and so dramatic: deprivation, self-inflicted pain... what's the point?

You may also look at it from another angle. Many cultures and traditions include a fast and a time of reflexion in their calendars. It's healthy. No need to be religious to celebrate Spring as a time of renewal. Cleansing, getting rid of the superfluous, the clutter, making space for the new: that's pretty positive -even necessary. It's not about depriving our bodies, inflicting pain to ourselves, but, rather, about re-centering our priorities, coming back to a more simple, sane life, even for a short while.
By giving up the old, the worn out, we make space for the new (ideas, habits, joys, excitements, etc.) to enter our lives.

I have a suggestion for y'all this Spring: something to give up that will both make sense and give you a lot of karma points. For Lent: give up disposable containers!

Here are a few ideas and suggestions. You might want to follow them all, for 6 weeks, until Easter or forever, or you might simply want to give up one item, for just a week. Whatever you do makes a difference and will probably inspire you to do more.

Please, also bear in mind that, although we do have a responsibility as individuals, big companies which give you no choice but to purchase items wrapped in thick plastic have a huge role to play in the gaïacide, and, to this day, are not held accountable for their part in the global mess we're in. Let's put the blame on them too. They should pay for their mess, that might make them reconsider their packaging addiction.
We also live in societies that impose a lifestyle which gives us no time to stop, think and be sensible. It seems that we are always in a rush in our busy lives: ready-made, packaged foods are thus very appealing. It's our whole system that we have to rethink. Perhaps you can ponder upon this during Spring.

- Plastic bags. Those awful suckers are everywhere! To avoid them, just... don't take them! Put small purchases in your bag, or carry them in your hand. That's one plastic bag saved! A good thing to do is to always carry your own grocery tote bags with you (in your day bag, your purse, in your car). At all times. They're so light you won't feel them. That's one effortless way to act responsibly!

You can also just say no to all the small bags, for fruits or veggies. Reuse the ones you brought back from your last grocery shopping trip. Stop discarding your bags after one single use: that's crazy! Instead, wash them if they seem dirty, and use them again... and again and again. I use and reuse the same bags about 30 times. Can you imagine how much plastic I save? Just carry a couple with you everyday, for spontaneous purchases, and grab a handful before going grocery shopping.

Souvenir from Brooklyn:
a hot-looking thermos cup (with a screw top!) from Gorilla Coffee

- Paper and plastic cups and dishware. Make sure you say "for here", or insist on a ceramic or glass cup, when ordering a beverage at the counter. If you want your drink to go, or if you patronize a coffeeshop which uses only disposable cups (those places still exist, even here in San Francisco!), just bring your own beverage container. It can be a thermos cup (please, for your own safety: no plastic on the inside! Always stainless steel!) or a regular ceramic cup, or even a cute glass jar with a lid. Use reusable silverware (ask for a metal spoon if they don't have any available).

- Bottled water. Not only do these inocent-looking little things pollute the environment when made and discarded, but haven't you heard it's unsafe to drink from plastic? That the chemicals in plastic end up in your water and then in your body? (read here -sorry about the disturbing animal testing part- or here) I am not a scientist and don't want to spread false rumors about plastic (some say it's not so toxic), but one thing is sure: disposable plastic containers are terrible for the environment. Get one of those sleek metal bottles right now, preferably stainless steel (i'm not a fan of aluminium), and fill it with the freshest filtered tap water.

Bamboo cutlery set, the holder is made of recycled plastic bags
by Conserve, an Indian NGO

- To-go boxes.
Seriously, people: styrofoam, plastic and even paper containers are not planet friendly. When you eat out, why don't you bring your own glass or metal container? For my doggie-bag needs, I bring a simple jar, or a cute/cheesy Japanese thermos container that I got for a couple of bucks at a thrift store. Afraid to look stupid? If you have image insecurities, let me tell you one thing: if the rest of you looks cool, I bet your glass jar will look cool too, so go work on your style... What looks really stupid is you killing wildlife in the ocean.
You can also get a really cool looking stainless steel container, like an Asian lunch box.

For your Chinese take out: lunch box, 19th century (found here)

LinkMore modern: stainless steel containers (found here)

If you want your food to go, that's harder. When ordering at the counter, hand them your own container. Don't be shy! Just smile and think of all the dolphins and albatrosses you are not killing! If you didn't bring a container: why don't you take a seat and eat there? You needed a break anyways...
You want food delivered? Just go and get it yourself already! A little walk will do you good! What do you mean: "It's too far to walk/bike"? You mean you are actually ordering from places that are going to use gas to bring food to you? That leaves me speechless.

a few containers

- Don't buy packaged food. That's the hardest one, I know, because you feel you don't have a choice... However, you do. Some stores are really packageholics (Yes, you, Trader Joe's... Are you insane?), and you don't have to support that. Shop at places where you can buy in bulk (and reuse your own bags). Shop at the farmers' market. Get an organic box. Buy unwrapped soap bars, not liquid soap in plastic bottles. When you consider buying an item, along with price and efficiency, take packaging as a criteria.
The best thing to do is to cook as much as possible from scratch. It's simpler than you think, even for the kitchen-challenged! The perks: you avoid all the bad ingredients in processed food. It's good for you and the environment. With a little common sense and practice, you can prepare things that are simple, fast, healthy and delicious. Just go one step at a time.

My tips:
The best way to green your lifestyle is to take on new habits. Make conscious living a second nature, a reflex, something you don't have to think about, something that's not a drag. Make it easy on yourself!

There are lots of things that could be a drag if you had to think about doing them (drying yourself after showering, grabbing your keys when you leave, zipping up your pants, tying up your shoe laces, closing the door after yourself...) however, your mind has accepted them as part of your routine, your mind doesn't rebel and just does it out of habit. Train yourself to do the same for containers.

What worked for me:
I really trained myself, like a dog, or a kid! I don't have to remember to bring containers to the store: it's a reflex now. I store plastic bags at the same spot, and just grab a handful of them when I go grocery shopping, just like I grab my keys before leaving the house. I do the same for other containers. When a container is empty (let's say a bottle of tamari, a coffee tin) I put it in a special place, by the plastic bags. That way, when I go and get my plastic bags, I automatically think of taking those containers with me. (It's like a shopping list, with containers to fill up instead of written items to cross out.) I am very lucky: I shop at a place that allows me to buy almost everything in bulk, unpackaged (and that includes beauty and household products). I'm sure you have a co-op somewhere near your house: check it out.

Even better... for the hardcore
I thought I had to buy certain foods packaged, like plant-based milk. Guess what: I don't! I now make my own organic almond milk! And it's simple and cheap!
I don't buy canned tomatoes. Nope. I had frozen some farmers' market bought crushed tomatoes last summer, and I have some sundried tomato flakes. I also don't find it necessary to use tomatoes off season. There's plenty of seasonal foods to chose from. If you really want tomatoes all year long, why don't you can or freeze some yourself next summer?

Room for improvement
I don't think anyone can be "perfect". I do love the taste of Earth Balance on my toast (or melted on my popcorn...) It does come in a nasty plastic container, though. I just don't eat it everyday, and cover my toast with homemade hummus or nutbutter spreads (that I can buy in bulk at my coop!) instead.

Just so you know, I bike and walk everywhere, and I do carry containers with me. It does require a little more planning, but I believe it's worth it. An unexpected bonus came out of this: I am today much more organized, in my life in general, than I was when I was less conscious.

One last word about "recycling".
When I moved to the US a few years ago, I realized that people weren't throwing things away anymore, they were "recycling" them. I love how the English language has a creative capacity to make a verb out of a noun (to "google" something instead of "looking up on Google", for instance) however, this "recycling" thing was a totally different matter to me and really rubbed me the wrong way. I do come from a first world, loves-to-waste-ressources country, however, it could never match the wastefulness of the US. Wasting is like a religion here. So when I see people drinking out of a plastic bottle and then discarding it and calling it "recycling", I can't help but think it's a tad hypocritical. The only way someone can "recycle" an item is by giving it a second chance, by making something else out of it. Otherwise, it's called "throwing away in the recycling bin". Then, the item might or might not be taken to a recycling facility that can make something new out of it. I'm sorry to break it out to you, but this process is wasteful too: it uses energy (to transport and transform). It's very simple-minded to think we're good to nature because we throw our containers in the "green bin". The only way we can be good to nature is to lower our impact, and the only way to lower your impact is to consume less, and that has nothing to do with discarding things in the right trash can.
More to read:
Ocean + plastic =
sad, very sad...