The first month: How I did and what’s next

Based on the goals I set out for myself at the start, this project was not as successful as I would have liked.

A quick summary:

  • Reduced household trash by about 2/3. We filled about 3/4 of one standard kitchen trash bag over the course of the month with the contents of the vacuum cleaner (a few times); twist ties, labels, and stickers from produce; cooked food that can’t go in the home compost; non-recyclable packaging; a few Keurig pods; and, ironically, a reusable produce bag that my dog stole and chewed a hole in. (I am pretty sure our production of dog poop has remained consistent.)
  • Reduced recycling by about half. What was still in there? Beer and wine bottles (and accompanying cardboard), cans from canned tomatoes, non-dairy milk cartons, empty jars from things I had purchased before the challenge month (peanut butter and mayonnaise), and boxes from things that came in the mail. I have a separate bag for recyclable plastic bags to take to a local store that recycles them.

I did not eliminate plastics entirely, as I had wanted to, which I find very frustrating. But pretty early on in the month I decided to prioritize sustainability – i.e. can I keep this up long-term – over not buying something just so I could say I bought no plastic for a month.

Because of things I already had on hand, I didn’t really make many changes outside of the kitchen and grocery shopping. These were the primary challenges I ran into:

Availability of ingredients

The zero waste gurus I have come across online all seem to eat meat and dairy, which means they can easily buy milk in reusable containers, and meat from the deli counter in containers from home. As a vegan, my options are not to use meat and dairy substitutes, make my own from scratch, or to buy pre-packaged goods. I can buy dry beans from the dry goods bulk bins and loose tofu from a bulk bin in at least one local store.

I opted for a mix of A and B – limiting meat substitutes to about 2 times per week, and making them from scratch. However, I kept running into snags when some staple I needed to make things from scratch, like chickpea flour or wheat gluten, wasn’t available in the bulk bins at the store I was shopping at that week.

I’m fortunate to have four different stores within reasonable driving distance that have nice bulk sections, but they each stock different things and it’s hard to remember what is available where. One store has specialty flours in bulk, but not all-purpose flour. Another has no flour at all. No store sells bulk peanuts (I wanted to make peanut butter) – I suspect because of people with allergies.

The same challenges exist with produce, especially since most local produce isn’t available now. I have yet to see a head of cauliflower not wrapped in plastic, for example. And stores don’t always have things like carrots, celery or baby spinach available without packaging.

Time

I did find I was spending a little less on groceries this month, but there is definitely a time cost. I have to drive a little farther to go to the stores with bulk bins. I have to spend at least a few hours on the weekend prepping food for the week. There were times that I wound up purchasing something packaged in plastic (like tortillas) simply because I knew I wouldn’t have time to make it from scratch.

Willingness to compromise

This is maybe where I need the most work. After I planned my menu and made my shopping list for each week, for the most part I wasn’t willing to compromise or come up with a different solution if the ingredient I was looking for wasn’t available without plastic packaging. I had a really busy month and I really didn’t have time to deviate from my plans.

What’s next?

I knew from the start that I would keep going, of course – because otherwise what’s the point? I’m certainly not about to celebrate Earth Month by going on a trash spree.

I am also planning to read Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home. (I requested in from the library – so no waste!) Reading the tips on her website and others, I am still left with a lot of questions about how these families produce almost no trash. I’m hoping her book gives me more insight.

As for the blog – I am planning to keep it up for now. There are a few topics I had planned but didn’t get to, and things I haven’t needed to test out yet, like making homemade tooth powder and cleaners.

Stay tuned!

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