So far this week:
- Sunday: Consumption
- Tuesday: Transportation
- Wednesday: Food
- Thursday: Energy
- Friday: Water
- Saturday: Giving Back
- Sunday: Eco-Sabbath
Bainbridge Island, Washington
This will be my family's second No Impact Week experience. Our first go was illuminating and we're looking forward to more clarity. For coming up on two years now, we've been obsessed with reducing our plastic footprint by reducing the amount of new plastic that we buy or use, and by raising community awareness about the impact of petroleum-based plastics on our bodies and our environment.
I liked the perspective No Impact Week gave me last time on where and how our carbon footprint and our plastic footprint intersect, and how to reduce both. I'm most interested in finding sustainable ways to reduce my family's negative impact on our planet while increasing our positive impact.
And by sustainable, I mean that our lifestyle needs to be one that I can manage on the shoestring budget of an underemployed single parent of two young children who have dietary restrictions and atypical neuro-developmental challenges while living in a semi-rural community without any effective mass transit. This all can feel a bit daunting, but I like daunting things, and I've learned that restrictions can lead to incredible expansion of the things that really matter.
- Food for 2 kids, 1 adult, and 2 small dogs. We're stocked up on chicken, cat, and parakeet food for now.
- Suet for our backyard birds.
- Jeans for me.
The food isn't the sort of consumption this day is about, but the suet and jeans are. Thanks to my local Freecycle network, the suet's all taken care of. Someone posted seven blocks of suet for birds to the group yesterday and I was the lucky first responder. Since Liesl, my friend and cohort in living a life less plastic, was the second to reply, I'll share the suet with her, and our collective population of chickadees, nuthatches, and flickers will be happy for weeks.
Liesl and her family have been our inspiration to reduce the amount of new plastic we buy or use, and for almost two years now we've been working on an educational project we call Plastic Is Forever. I've become so obsessed with our plastic footprint, it's invaded my dreams: Awhile back, I had a lovely dream in which I was traipsing along my favorite beach, hand in hand with a tall handsome man, bathed in the apricot sunset light. My dream man turned to hold me, leaning low to whisper in my ear "Rebecca, there is a general consensus amongst scientists that 60-80 percent of the plastics in the ocean come from land-based use ..."
Even my fantasy life involves plastic, in the geekiest way possible.
It's this obsession that motivated me to try No Impact Week last time. I wondered how much my work to reduce our plastic footprint had also reduced our carbon footprint, and I wondered how many things I'd lost sight of in my focus on plastics. "A good bit" was the answer to both of those questions, so we're back for another try, to look again into the blind spots of my plastic-framed view of life.
I have one pair of pants, jeans that I've been wearing almost daily for two years now. And either I've lost weight or the jeans have stretched beyond the point of no return, because along with the tissue-thin knees and mysterious stains, they just won't stay on—not even fresh from the dryer (yes, the energy-sucking dryer). Every morning when I put them on, a voice in my head sings out "saggy baggy elephant!" and that's not really the tackle-the-day self-image motivation I need. Since I don't have a full-time day job to report to, I can get away with one pair of pants and three shirts as my everyday wardrobe, although sometimes it's depressing.
Ever since my family's sudden plunge into involuntary simplicity, brought about by the loss of my now-ex-husband's job on election day 2008, we've been following the old "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" motto with new vigor. We dabbled in voluntary simplicity before, but there was money for back-to-school clothes and more than one pair of mom jeans.
Not so these days, and that's OK. We make it work. To combine our vow to eliminate new plastic from our lives with our financial reality, we made some of our school supplies this year: Recycled felted wool sweaters became pencil cases and alternatives to Ziploc bags for school books; we turned a recycled paper binder into the plastic view windo binder on Mira's supply list.
I like this living with less plastic and less in general. There are days when I envy other people their new things, but that generally fades away quickly enough.
But sometimes new clothes are a necessity, and this is one of those times. I need new jeans. In honor of No Impact Week, I've posted a "Wanted: jeans" request to Freecycle. Normally, I'd head to the thrift store to spend two hours torturing myself by trying on used jeans, but I thought I'd give this more local option a try. I've never asked our Freecycle group for clothing before, but if this works, I'll have a pair of jeans that I can wear in public without the 35-minute drive to our closest affordable thrift store. Jeans for free, with no plastic packaging, and with a much smaller carbon footprint than usual: This is my consumption dream for the week.
Ah, transportation! This was the most difficult part of our first No Impact Week, and so far, that's holding true for this round.
I had planned it all out. The girls and I would skip to the bus stop in the dawn's clear light, and I'd get a lovely photo of the happy group of the 10+ kids at our stop helping each other onto those tall bus steps. Then I'd head home for a cup of high-carbon-footprint coffee (I'm weak that way) before I walked a mile and a bit up a big old hill to a meeting. I'd hitch a ride home from the meeting, and my travel for the day would be all over, with the lowest carbon footprint I could manage. La, la, la!
This didn't mesh well with Mira's plan for the day, which involved a sudden hatred of kindergarten, me, wearing shoes, me, catching the bus, and me (the world's meanest mother). Ava walked to the bus on her own while I did my best to help Mira transition out of the house. No luck. In desperation, with less than one minute until bus arrival, I wrestled Mira and her shoes into our car and drove the 3 blocks to our neighborhood bus stop. I mom-handled her out of the car onto the bus just in time, and waved as they drove off, Mira's tear-stained face glaring at me through the window. I did not get a photo. I was too busy thinking that Mira might be right, I might be a true contender for World's Meanest Mother.
Neither did I get my cup of coffee. By the time I had sent an email to Mira's teacher, filling her in about the rather rocky start to our day, I had just enough time to find my running shoes and hit the road.
If only it were simple to eat well. Because I can’t afford to buy all the organic produce I want for my family, and because it’s usually all wrapped up in plastic, we forage and grow and barter to fill our bellies with seasonal vegetables and fruit. By eating seasonally, we keep the costs low: It’s always less expensive to eat what’s abundant, and it tastes much better. We have six hens in our backyard who supplement their layer mash with the insects and plants they scratch up and our non-spoiled leftovers (although they despise carrots and celery, they’ll eat almost everything else).
We get our meat from a family that runs cattle on native forage along the Columbia River; we buy 1/4 steer from them, and they deliver to the entire island in one frozen truck load the night before our local Harvest Fair each year. For about the same price as the beef at our local grocery store (true, our local supermarket is more expensive than those off-island), we get grass-fed beef cut-to-order from cattle that have never spent a minute in a finishing lot or slaughterhouse. I save up each year to make this lump sum purchase, and store our beef in a chest freezer I got via Freecycle. I’ve read conflicting reports on the relative carbon footprints of conventional and grass-fed beef; some say grass-fed is worse, some say it isn’t. Without a doubt, a completely local vegetarian diet has the smallest footprint of all, but we are omnivores, heavy on the veg with a bit of meat.
We share a community garden plot with Liesl and family, our Pioneering the Simple Life friends, so we can grow things that just don’t do well in our own home garden plots. Right now we have 3 kinds of beans, 2 kinds of summer squash, chysanthemum greens, walking onions, and rapini ready to harvest, and beets, carrots, and more rapini coming along for later this fall/winter. Sharing a garden plot is wonderful – We share the watering on hot days, cover for each other when someone is out of town, and it’s just more fun.
This spring, inspired by people like Ava Chin, the Urban Forager of the New York Times and Landgon Cook of Fat of the Land, we set out to see how long we could go without buying produce. It worked! We were so busy foraging for greens in our local ditches, marshes, and yards, we forgot to plant our early summer garden. We ate nettles, various cresses, and dandelions for months. My girls loved it, and ate more greens than ever before—It’s much more fun to run the edges of a wetland picking cress than it is to follow a shopping cart around, and when you’ve found it on your own, it’s a treasure you can’t wait to taste.
But then the flush of early greens was over, and our shared garden plot was empty except for a bumper crop of beautiful purple top turnips with amazing greens. Liesl and I cooked up an idea and our friend Scott James helped make it happen. We started a local barter group, with a selfish motive: We wanted early summer produce—kale, spinach, lettuce, peas, strawberries—and all we had were turnips and eggs from our backyard hens. Scott started a blog for us. We wrote up a short description of what we had in mind, we shared it on Facebook and the hyper-local blogs and online groups that make up our local grapevine, and the Bainbridge Barter Garden Variety Potluck in the Park was born.
We meet every Saturday morning in a local park, telling anyone who’s interested to “bring a basketful and leave with a basketful.” It’s not really bartering, it’s a food gift economy. People bring whatever they have to give away—bounty from their gardens, fishing boats, and kitchens. We lay everything out on a public picnic table, take a few minutes to answer any questions about the offerings, then we announce the start of sharing and everyone digs in, filling their bags and baskets with whatever they’d like.
I’ve brought turnips, eggs, home-made kimchi, home-baked cookies, zero-waste toothpaste, rhubarb shrub, and borage. I’ve come home with kale, spinach, all sorts of other greens, potatoes, perennial herb starts for my garden, home-baked bread, cucumbers, summer squash, seeds for fall and spring vegetables, home-made yogurt, bouquets of flowers, and freshly caught crab. I missed the day when a famed local chef brought her home-made ravioli filled with goat cheese and beet greens, and there have been other amazing offerings.
Not only have the potlucks in the park fed my family this summer, participating has had a quietly profound impact on my brain’s default settings. I find myself looking for things to share, for ways to be generous. I’ve been able to break free from the scarcity model I’d been in when we were struggling a while back to pay for even basic food.
We are hard-wired, I think, to share food with each other, and I feel truly blessed to have found a way to do that, to nourish and be nourished by friends and by people who were strangers until we met over a picnic table in the park.
Let me say this: It was a whole lot easier to reduce our energy use in September than it was during our first No Impact Week in January. Dawn came and brought us light in time for breakfast and our walk to the school bus stop. If we’d eaten dinner on time, there would have been enough dusky light for that meal, too. But we spent so long picking strawberries in my parents’ garden, we ate late by the light of our vegetable wax tea light candles.
I’ve got two words for Water Day: Baking Soda.
We’ve refined our water consumption over the past year, thanks in largest part to our first No Impact Week experience. We take shorter showers and less frequent baths; we reuse water for plants when we can capture it; and I almost never turn the kitchen faucet to full blast because I’ve discovered a gentle trickle usually does the job in the same amount of time. We were already running only full dishwasher loads and washing our clothes in the least amount of (cold) water that will get them clean. I practice a sort of benign neglect gardening that drives my landlords (who are also my parents) crazy: If a plant can’t survive on the rain that falls upon it, it dies and its neighbors cover its grave with their healthier foliage.
But recently, thanks to one of our regular Month Less Plastic experiments, I discovered a new way to save on water: baking soda. I wash my dishes in baking soda. I’ve read that efficient modern dishwashers use much less water than hand washing, but I think my baking soda system could beat the best dishwasher.
Take the dirtiest dish you’ve got. In our house, that’s usually our cast iron skillet after it has cooked up some of Mira’s beloved Jo-Jo’s Nettle Special, a scramble a lot like New Joe’s Special. The combination of eggs and ground beef does a good job of coating the bottom of the skillet.
If necessary, put a bit of water in the bottom of the pan or dish to soak any stubborn cooked-on food.
When the dish is ready to wash, pour any soaking water out. If the dish is dry, sprinkle it with just enough water to dampen its surface.
Sprinkle on a bit of baking soda. For a large and very dirty skillet, I use about two tablespoons; a dirty coffee cup takes about a teaspoon.
Get your hands in and use the baking soda and a bit of elbow grease to scour the dish clean. You’ll be able to feel the bits of food or grease or what-have-you giving way under your fingertips. When everything feels clean, rinse it under a gentle flow of water—it won’t take much water to remove the baking soda and the things it has cleaned away. Since there are no bubbles or sticky slick soap to remove, you won’t need to rinse for very long.
That’s all there is to it. I can wash an entire sink load of dirty dishes, pots, pans, and glasses with very little water thanks to baking soda.
I store my dish-washing baking soda in a jar with holes hammered in its lid (a bug jar, basically). If you like, you can add drops of your favorite essential oil(s) to the baking soda. I started out with lavender and tea tree oils, but now I’m liking plain baking soda. It has a very mild fragrance that reminds me of the grapefruit soda my grandparents used to drink.
As an added bonus, you can use the dirty baking soda from your dishes to scrub your sink clean before you start rinsing everything. If you buy the largest paper box of baking soda in your local store, you’ll have everything you need to clean your dishes, glasses, sink, bathtub, shower, toilet, and more—all with no plastic packaging and less wash water used.
We mixed things up a bit, so that Saturday was our Eco-Sabbath, Sunday was our Giving Back day. Our regular sabbath, aka Shabbat, is from sundown Friday through to Saturday night when we can see three stars shining in the sky (airplanes and satellites don’t count).
We do our best to reduce our use of money, electricity, and our car, but our primary observance is focused on being present for each other, building sacred space in time where we can be with family and friends. My ex-husband, father of our daughters, comes to visit almost every weekend, and we like to start Saturday with something tasty to eat and a trip to the Bainbridge Barter Potluck in the Park.
That’s what we did this past Saturday. We shared some grass-fed beef from our freezer and came home with kale, zucchini, daikon radishes, and a freshly baked spiral challah.
We signed up two volunteer shifts: 2 1/2 hours in the pie sales booth followed by 2 hours helping fair-goers sort through their trash, separating items into worm compost, hot pile compost, recycling, and landfill buckets.
We started the day trying to keep the slices of blackberry, cherry berry, and apple walnut pie from Blackbird Bakery from blowing off the table in the gusts of wind, or from being drenched by the first heavy rain of the season.
The downpour cleared around noon, pie sales picked up, and then the sun came out and warmed everyone up. My friend Beth brought her young goats by the booth, and they tried to eat the yellow flowers off the tablecloth. Our human visitors were happy to stick with pie and more pie, all proceeds going to Friends of the Farms.
Ava counted back customers’ change and Mira ran our zero-waste booth trash system. We set up boxes for compost (mostly errant pie crust bits and a few paper napkins), recycling (the paper pie boxes and the polyethylene plastic wrap the Health Department mandates when pie slices are sitting out), and trash (the plastic wrapper from the compostable forks). In return for their labors, they earned official volunteer shirts and, even better by my reckoning, a sense of belonging to the Harvest Fair and the local farming community.
When our pie booth shift was over, the girls enjoyed the fair with their dad and some good friends while I had a great time digging through garbage and helping people think about waste in new ways. I really do love diverting waste from landfills. It’s immediate gratification and a better future for my kids and everyone else, all at the same time.
As much as I love diverting waste, I love volunteering at events like the Harvest Fair. It may not be paid work, but the Harvest Fair gives real world support to our local farms and farmers, and we all reap the benefits. Being a tiny part of that feels so good and it’s just plain fun.