Don't be trashy this holiday with these tips for reducing your family's environmental impact.
Americans throw away 25 percent more trash during the holiday season. That’s equivalent to 25 million tons of garbage, or 1 million extra tons per week. Here’s 10 tips to reducing your environmental impact this holiday season:
“Dear X: As we head toward the holiday season, we would like to respectfully request no gifts this year. We would like to reduce our environmental impact and focus on experiences, not things. We would be so honored if you would like to divert any gift giving funds in our name to Save the Children. One of the world's top-rated charities, Save the Children is on the ground in global crisis situations making a tangible difference in the lives of children caught in those struggles. Please use this link to donate to their Global Action Fund. Thank you, and may your holidays be filled with peace and joy!”
Don’t be trashy: #creatememoriesnotgarbage
You’re a busy (working) parent, right? With family going a million different directions, shopping, cooking, cleaning, homework, sports, preteen or terrible-twos, trying to put even more pressure on yourself to meet some kind of low-waste living standard can feel like too much. Don’t be discouraged! You can still do what’s right for the environment in some small, easy and attainable ways – and every little bit counts. We’ve all got to lean-in on this one, because, well – it’s our only home. And, it’s a legacy we leave our children. Instead of going down the rabbit hole of a bunch of glamorous social media accounts that make it look like DIY-ing Every. Darn. Thing. Is actually attainable, I’ve put together this list of ways you can get started today. Some might stretch your habit-building muscles a bit, but you’ve got this.
Bar soaps instead of liquid soaps
One of the most straightforward and most satisfying changes you can make is to ditch plastic bottles of soap for bars. Everything from dish soap to hair conditioner comes in a bar soap these days. Beautiful, lovely-smelling and practical bars of soap. Like trying any new type of shampoo, it might take a few tries before you find the right fit for your dry/frizzy/thinning hairs, but there's one out there. Kids can totally handle a bar soap in the bathroom, too. It's just like old times. A big block of olive oil kitchen soap is a satisfying swap for the kitchen. Use it with a wooden and natural bristle scrub brush, and you can avoid disposable sponges full of plastic microfibers. Win-win.
Switch to plastic-free and tree-free toilet paper
The average four-person US household goes through 100 lbs of TP a year! Most of that is from virgin-forest in Canada, vital ecosystems we need to combat global warming. Swap to recycled bum-wipes or go the extra mile and find a bamboo kind you like. Bonus if you can get it without plastic packaging. We use Who Gives a Crap in our house.
Shop in bulk
From Winco to your local food co-op, bulk shopping is all around us, for all budgets. It just takes getting in the habit of seeking out what you might need here first, before hitting the aisles for a prepackaged version. Bring your own reusable bag or jar – that's the waste-reduction point. For shops that insist on plastic, just wash and re-use your existing plastic bags over (and over and over) again. Picking up new plastic bags every time defeats the purpose.
Make your own
If you have the time and inclination, making meals, cleaning supplies, and toiletries from scratch goes a long way to reducing unnecessary waste. At first, it might seem overwhelming, but it's interesting to discover what things actually aren't that hard, or don't take as much time as you would expect. Hummus, for example, is super quick and easy. So is pesto. Homemade waffles might take a bit more time but double your recipe on the weekend, so you have "freezer waffles" for the week. See “Green cleaning” and “Natural beauty swaps” below for other easy and fast DIY ideas.
Your great-grandma had it right when she wrapped her greens in a damp dishtowel in the fridge. Go ahead, throw that produce in your shopping basket naked. When you get home, keep it fresh by wrapping it in a damp cloth, treating it like a bouquet of flowers and putting it upright in water, or wrapping it in some beeswax wrap.
Plastic-free tea and coffee
It's easy-peasy to use your own container or re-use a coffee bag (they're not recyclable) for whole bean coffee at the grocery store, or any coffee shop. Switch to a French Press or re-usable filter for an even more low-waste caffeine experience. Tea drinkers have it a bit tougher. Most tea pages contain plastic, and if the teabag happens to be compostable, the sachet it's packaged in isn't. Switching to bulk tea is a pleasure, though. Luckily there are several tea shops in Portland supporting a bring-your-own approach, and finer grocers carry a bulk selection of teas. Like an herbal blend? Check the ingredients and then put it together yourself at any number of herb shops.
When what you have no longer works, opt for reusable, natural fiber dusters, brooms, scrubbies, and rags. Cleaning products are easy and fun to make yourself with low-impact, readily available ingredients like white vinegar (buy it in glass) and baking soda (in a box!)
Hit up your interwebs for some directions, or check some of the posts at @plasticfreemamma
Switch to washable instead of single-use
Paper napkins, paper towels, kitchen sponges, tissues, cotton balls – these are all things that can be replaced with a washable cloth version. Cloth napkins for kids?! You bet! They don’t have to be fancy. Just reusable.
Natural beauty swaps
Simplify your life, save money and be kind to your body and the planet with an all-natural beauty routine you can make yourself. Find easy toothpaste and mouthwash recipes that taste great over at @plasticfreemamma. Used coffee grounds make a great body scrub. There are tons of recipes out there that only require a few, easy to obtain ingredients. It will make getting ready in the morning so much easier.
Bring your own
Bring your own cup, and bags, and to-go containers. Unfortunately, swapping a paper bag for a plastic one comes with its own set of environmental impacts. Just like putting on your seat belt, you can create a habit around these waste-reducing steps. Many shops in PDX allow you to put bakery items, bulk food and produce in your own reusable bags and jars. Deli and meat counter items are trickier because of food safety rules, but to-go liquids like coffee are OK. Even if a container says, "recyclable" or "biodegradable" all to-go containers are headed to your trash can. Eat in, eat it all up, or bring your own container to throw uneaten food into instead of that doggie-bag. Portlanders throw out 50 million disposable coffee cups a year – that’s 3 million tons of waste just on to-go coffee!
Buy second hand first
The clothing industry, particularly fast-fashion and synthetic materials have a devastating effect on our environment. Since kids are growing through their clothes faster than the seasons, there isn't much reason to buy new and a million reasons not to buy cheap and disposable. Consignment and second-hand shops for children are everywhere and full of cute things. Plus, you can get some trade-in value while you're at it. Overall, STUFF is everywhere. Take a sec to see if what you need, anything you need, is available used first.
Buy this instead of that
Use what you have until it’s worn out. But when you do need to replace something, replace it with something that’s not plastic – if you can afford it. We love toothbrushes, wooden hairbrushes, plastic-free band-aids, plastic-free hair ties, natural bristle brooms and cleaning brushes, glass storage containers, and beeswax wraps.
Just say no to unnecessary plastic and packaging
Did you know, you don’t actually have to have the plastic covering your dry cleaning? Take a sec to discover where else in your life you can just say “no.”
Fashion brands have latched onto the word sustainability. How’s a savvy earth-saver supposed to tell the difference between an honest, eco-friendly product and a bunch of sustainabullshit?
You started buying organic produce years ago, and you cried over the recent UN report on climate change. You’ve watched the BBC Drowning in Plastic documentary, and you’re fuming over the WWF report on species decline. You’ve decided it’s time to live a completely sustainable lifestyle, and you want All. The. Sustainable. Things.
But that's the rub, isn't it? Sustainable has become another marketing buzzword like "eco-friendly," and "natural" and even "vegan." Remember when "gluten-free" started popping up on things like corn chips that were by nature gluten-free to begin with? It's kinda like that, and kinda not. Because “sustainable” can mean a whole lot of things and cover up a whole lot of not-really-sustainable practices leading you, the earnest, and earth-loving consumer just a wee bit misled.
Our plastic not-fantastic
My own personal soapbox for environmental conservation is plastic. I like to share what I hope are reasonably attainable ways busy people can cut unnecessary plastic waste IRL over on IG at @plasticfreemamma. Plastic permeates our lives, and most of us live in denial about where plastic actually goes once we stick it in the ubiquitous recycling bin. But we're waking up to the myth of recycling. And we're waking up to how insidious plastic has become in almost everything we touch. It's encircling of the food we eat, the homes we live in, the furniture we sit on, the technology we use, the make-up we wear and the clothes we buy. The clothes we buy not only contain plastic but come down a supply chain loaded with plastic waste we can’t even begin to fathom. Even if we’re purchasing a natural fiber fabric newly minted “sustainable” by (insert big brand name here)’s marketing company, what do we really know about the overall resource-depleting or resource-conserving process for producing that single item of clothing?
But my new yoga pants say “sustainably made?”
Even the hottest new indie “sustainable” sportswear brand who just made it onto the shelves of Nordstrom is beholden to that big retailer’s vendor rules. Did you know that Nordstrom and their ilk require that every item of clothing (every, single, individual item of clothing) arrives wrapped in single-use plastic which is promptly thrown away? Most of those items are also hung on disposable plastic hangers. So, the clothing may have been “sustainably made,” but it sure wasn’t “sustainably delivered.”
Retailers aside, big brands themselves are always looking for ways to jump on the latest marketing buzz-word zeitgeist. Just this past October, a bunch of global fashion brands like Burberry, H&M, and Stella McCartney, plus the Chilean and British governments jumped on the anti-plastic bandwagon signing the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to eradicate plastic waste and pollution at the source. Pretty ambitious. To be fair, it’s got some lofty goals I can really get behind:
The trouble is, we already know that number two and number three aren’t really working for us so well. All those recycled plastic fleece Patagonia jackets turned out to be an environmental hazard in their own right. Only about nine percent of all the plastic produced since the 1950s has actually been recycled. Despite attention from massive brands like adidas and their “Parley for the Ocean” recycled ocean plastic line, this type of environmentally-motivated marketing accounts for very little of big brands’ sales. According to Racked, adidas expected five million pairs of recycled shoes to be sold in 2018 – only a tiny fraction of the 450 million they sell on an annual basis.
Yes, we can recycle it, but most recycled polyester has a serviceable life of just a few cycles of continually lower-quality polymer products before the polymer breaks down entirely and is suitable only for the landfill anyway.
Sustainability and your next pair of kicks
I think what these big brands miss entirely about sustainability and plastic reduction is slowing our roll on consumerism in the first place – being more mindful in what we invest in, where we buy it, and how we take care of it for the long term. Let’s look at shoes.
I found a study with these figures: The average American woman will own 268 pairs of shoes during her adult life and blow $4,364 on shoes which either don't fit properly, or have been worn once, or not at all. That’s a lot of shoes headed to the landfill – 300 million pairs annually, in fact. Ethylene Vinyl Acetate, the type of plastic substance which usually makes up the midsole of most running shoes, can last for as long as 1,000 years in a landfill.
The average pair of shoes takes more than 50 years to decompose – that includes the “natural” leathers and rubbers which are usually treated with a slew of nasty chemicals and glues during the manufacturing process.
At any one time, the average woman owns 20 pairs of shoes, and only actively wears five of them. We can bet that little or no thought has been given to the “sustainability” of these shoes. But since you’re here, and you, dear reader, care about real, legit sustainability, how do you decide on your next pair of shoes?
First, fix what you have. This digs deeper into sustainability as part of a circular economy where we own quality over quantity (slow fashion), repair what we own, and conserve an ecological balance by avoiding the depletion of natural resources. I’m not saying go all capsule wardrobe here. I love fashion and believe it is a beautiful, creative and artistic expression for the people who wear it and the people who design it. Just in invest in your personal style, not a fad, and take care of your things.
Second, dig deeper on the lifecycle of the materials used in the production of your shoe. Many materials labeled as “sustainable” are of dubious origin.
Intentional living in Portland, OR
I take sustainability personally. Really personally. I use my voice to advocate for plastic-free and low-waste living by offering tips, tricks and hacks to busy families through my Instagram account @eco.emily.pdx. When I have something really long to say about something, I'll stick it here.