Minimalism – Living More Lightly on the Planet

What would a minimalist do?

Minimalism appeals to me because owning less stuff helps me live more lightly on Earth. I guess you could say I am a minimalist environmentalist.

Stuff is an umbrella term for everything we wear, use, and enjoy in our daily lives like clothes, kitchenware, jewelry, electronic devices, artwork, toys, furniture, books, appliances, gardening tools, and cars. Making all this stuff, transporting it (often by airplane), and then getting rid of it takes a heavy toll on our planet.

You, I, and everyone else can help keep Earth habitable by living happily with fewer belongings.

My minimalism journey began during the height of the Christmas season in 2016 and I convinced my spouse to join me. Over the past two years, we have cleared our home and much of our garage of unnecessary things. This is no small feat as my spouse is an I-might-need-that-someday kind of person and I am not.

During this time, I have ruthlessly divested myself of my own belongings that I no longer need, use, or want including clothes and gifts. I do not miss any of the things I no longer own. I am happily living with fewer belongings.

A few weeks ago, when I hung up my 2019 calendar on the tack board next to my desk, I realized that I was in the third year of what I intend to be a lifelong minimalism journey. January seemed like a good time to review my 2018 efforts and decide if I need to do anything differently this year.

I have made progress but I clearly underestimated the gravitational force of our consumerist society. Divesting yourself of excess stuff is just one part of the minimalist journey. Keeping additional stuff from creeping back into your minimalist home is a lifelong pursuit.

The good news is it gets easier after the first year.

Plugging the Stuff Acquisition Pipeline

During my pre-minimalism days, I was a discerning shopper (some would say picky).

A blue and purple reusable water bottle
The blue reusable water bottle is the one I bought that day.

An image comes to mind that illustrates this point perfectly.

Several years ago, I was standing in front of a wall of reusable water bottles at an REI store with my then 8th-grade niece (now a college freshman) and my sister. They were thinking that I would select a bottle and we would be on our way, and we were, twenty minutes later, after I had evaluated all the bottles and chosen one (which I still own).

Even though I was a discerning shopper, I sensed that in order to transform my relationship with possessions I would need to understand and change my shopping and buying habits.

At the beginning of 2017, using a simple spreadsheet, I embarked on a yearlong effort to track what I bought for myself, for my family, and why I bought it.

My danger areas turned out to be buying things for insurance (just in case) and shopping on vacation. In Living Happily with Less Stuff – To Buy or Not to Buy, I recounted my experience and provided assessment alternatives for spreadsheet averse readers.

For 2018 I committed myself to squeeze the acquisition pipeline tighter and succeeded in reducing the amount of stuff I bought for myself (down by 64%) and for my family (down by 40%). I did not buy one item for insurance.

During my Omaha, Nebraska trip in September 2018, I bought a refrigerator magnet shaped like Nebraska, a cross-stitch pattern with a John Muir saying on it, 3 books (2 used), and a laminated Nebraska native plant guide (that I did not need). This was a substantial improvement over 2017.

However, it was not all smooth sailing.

Impulse Buys

One day when I was shopping with my mother for some much needed short sleeved t-shirts, I bought myself a pair of earrings and a necklace (with a tree) on impulse.

I heard an announcement on the store loudspeaker that there was a 70% off sale going on in Fine Jewelry and convinced my mother to go over and “just look.” I confess I had already bought a pair of gold earrings at another store.

Purposeful Extra Shopping

Another time, I bought something I did not need on purpose. A grassroots group was attempting to pass an initiative called Measure G that would have banned future expansion of oil and gas exploration in our county. Oil companies were spending millions of dollars on ads, social media, and road signs trying to defeat the measure and the Measure G campaign was relying on donations.

View from the Summit by Karen Fedderson Print and Frame
I photographed the framed print lying on my wood floor to reduce glare.

A post appeared in my social media feed saying that several local artists had donated artwork to raise funds for Measure G. I talked my spouse into going to see what they had and fell in love with a print called View from the Summit by Karen Fedderson.

I bought it, had it framed, and it is now gracing a wall in our kitchen. Measure G received a lot of votes but not quite enough to pass (this time).

Desperation Purchases

Last year, I needed a new pair of boots for working in our wild yard and weed whacking the 4-foot tall grass before the fire season. My feet are narrow so finding any kind of shoes that fit is always a challenge.

My spouse accompanied me on several shopping forays with no luck. One day we found a store with a large selection of boots so I did what any discerning shopper would do and tried on every pair in my size. None of them seemed quite right, but I was desperate so I bought the best (least worst) pair.

The next day I put on my new boots and within minutes of walking around the hilly and uneven terrain in our yard, I knew they did not have adequate ankle support for me. I donated the new boots and I hope they found a good home with someone who has a flat yard.

I did eventually find a suitable pair of replacement boots.

Out of the three examples above the only purchase that I regret is buying the desperation boots. I enjoy wearing the impulse buy jewelry and the print makes me smile every time I walk in the kitchen.

Repairing and Holding on to Things

Another positive aspect of minimalism for my spouse and I is that it encourages us to try to repair things instead of replacing them.

My spouse excels at doing simple and complex repairs. For instance, the utensil cup holder that broke off our dish drainer in now wired on and works fine and so does my weed whacker now that it has a new motor. My spouse printed a replacement handle for our 9-year-old vacuum with the 3D printer in our garage prototype shop.

Striving to be a minimalist reinforces my tendency to hold onto things, especially electronic devices, instead of upgrading to newer models.

iPhone 4 Phone and Purple Bird CaseTake a smartphone for instance. Making one is not a benign environmental process and the rare earth materials used to make it are, well, rare. My 7-year-old smartphone is an iPhone model 4 but it still works so when the case cracked last year I bought a replacement because I intend to keep this phone indefinitely.

I hope the examples in this post adequately illustrate that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to minimalism.

Every time someone chooses to become a minimalist living happily with less stuff, Earth smiles.

“One day or day one. You decide.” —Joshua Fields Millburn

Featured Image at Top: Earth shaped like a heart – photo credit iStock/pearleye

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More Ways to Cut Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste

How many plastic bags are hiding in your home?

If you are truly committed to reducing your single-use plastic bag waste, getting a grip on your household’s out of sight out of mind plastic bags is essential.

What I mean by out of sight out of mind plastic bags are those bags that you store in various places around your home and garage that you have every intention of reusing but forget are there.

The reason I am bringing this up is that while I was writing the previous post entitled Three Easy Ways to Cut Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste, I decided to conduct an informal assessment of my own household’s multi-year single-use plastic bag waste reduction effort and discovered a lot more plastic bags than I expected.

At first, I was dismayed, but I quickly decided that my spouse and I had been presented with an excellent opportunity to ratchet up our reduction efforts a notch or two.

Perhaps you have plastic bags hiding in your home, too. Consider doing your own assessment and then decide what actions you can and want to take to reduce your own single-use plastic bag waste.

I began my evaluation by sifting through our household plastic bag and packaging collection so it might help to provide some background on that first.

Plastic Bag and Packaging Collection

Our plastic bag and packaging collection has its roots in our decision to switch to reusable shopping bags back in 2010.

To deal with our now bag-less kitchen garbage can and other household wastebaskets we decided to save and reuse all kinds of plastic bags that had previously held food items like bread, bagels, and tortillas, as well as cereal box liners and takeout bags. We also collected bags that had encased clothing, vinyl sheet bags, and any bag that came in a shipping box.

Single-Use Plastic Bag Collection
The box holds small bags and the crate holds larger bags for us reuse. The round tin stores packaging like toilet paper wrapping or torn plastic bags that we periodically drop off at our grocery market for recycling. Family members put bags in the canister with the “Put Bags Here” sign for later sorting.

When the single-use plastic bag ban came to our town in 2012, it did not affect us because we had already converted to reusable bags.

To help readers facing plastic bag bans in their own towns, I shared our experiences in You Can Live Without Single-Use Plastic Bags – Here’s How and I wrote Kitchen Trash Bags — Green Alternatives about dealing with yucky kitchen garbage.

We also began reusing plastic produce bags and zip-top bags and my spouse made a handy plastic bag drying rack.

Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste Reduction Assessment

For years, we did not bring home disposable grocery shopping bags, did not buy kitchen trash bags, and rarely purchased a box of zip-top bags or plastic cling wrap. Our system seemed to be working. Yet, I was wondering if we really were doing as well as we thought we were in reducing our single-use plastic bag waste and could we do better.

Once I had emptied our plastic bag and packaging collection onto the dining room table, things quickly got out of hand. I found myself scouring the house and garage looking for plastic bags that might not have made it to the laundry room and asking family members if they had any plastic bags tucked away anywhere.

After piling all the plastic bags that I could find on the dining room table, I sorted them into categories and counted them.

Pile of Single-Use Plastic Bags and Packaging on Dining Room Table
I found more single-use plastic bags in our house and garage than I expected.

Of course, the list below is only a snapshot of the plastic bags we had on hand when I did the assessment.

1 – Trash bag (not used)
1 – Seed bag (at 2″ x 4″ this was the smallest bag)
1 – Full-size mattress moving bag (at 54″ x 48″ this was the largest bag)
1 – Extra large bag that had contained a 3D printer
2 – Large rectangular sheets of plastic
5 – 5-pound coffee bean bags
6 – Shipping items (envelope, bubble wrap bag, air packs)
8 – Large bags (big enough for a comforter)
10 – Warranty manual bags (with manuals still in them)
10 – Hotel laundry bags
11 – Food bags that had held things like hamburger buns and spinach
15 – Sheet bags (we reuse to organize clothes and shoes in our luggage)
18 – Produce bags (including zip-top, we reuse these at the market)
19 – Wrappings from things like toilet paper and paper towels
20 – Bags from items bought online like clothes and kayak gear
22 – Shopping bags (mostly for takeout food)
106 – Various size bags that previously held stuff for my spouse’s job
256 – Grand Total

Wow, that is a lot of plastic bags and packaging. Imagine how many plastic bags would have been passing through our house on the way to the dump if we had not been actively trying to reduce plastic bag waste.

Conclusions

First, I had to acknowledge that I had been naive to think we could ever reuse all the single-use plastic bags and packaging coming into our home, even after a massive reduction.

Second, our society definitely has a single-use plastic bag problem. Why does a t-shirt need to be put in a plastic bag before putting it in a plastic shipping envelope or a cardboard box? Who invented freezer burn and do we really need special plastic freezer bags? Why is the default position at most stores to put your purchase in a disposable plastic or paper bag regardless of if it is only one greeting card or a prescription bottle?

Third, I pondered why we were still holding onto the larger bags after more than a decade. Surely, we could have found a use for them or cut them up for other purposes. It was almost as if we were afraid we would never get a large bag again so we needed to hold onto them (for what?).

Lastly, I realized that our highest volume of bags relates to my spouse’s job as a lighting designer who builds prototypes in our garage workshop.  The hardware store in our small town is well stocked but it does not carry all the supplies, materials, and equipment my spouse needs for work. It would be difficult if not impossible to stop the flow of these bags into our garage.

Next, my spouse and I discussed what we could and should do to decrease our single-use plastic bag waste further.

Plastic Bag Reduction Challenge Round Two

Reusing a bag more than once does not wipe out its environmental footprint but it does decrease it and reduces the need for new bags.

To solve the out of sight out of mind problem, we decided to store all plastic bags and packaging in easy to access places in our kitchen and adjoining laundry room. I think any centralized place would work as long as your family members know where it is.

My spouse and I divided the hotel laundry bags and put them in our suitcases so that we will stop collecting new bags. When these bags wear out, we can switch to pillowcases or bags we already have on hand.

I put one of the big plastic sheets in each of our cars so it would already be there when we need to transport something dirty or wet.

To force us to reuse bags I cleared out our small supply of new plastic bags and packaging from a kitchen drawer and put them in the back of a cupboard in the laundry room. This included a box of sandwich bags, a box of freezer bags, and a roll of cling wrap. I filled the drawer with clean bags that had already held food or with other bags that I had washed out with soapy water and dried on my plastic bag dryer.

These are small incremental steps but imagine the positive impact you, me, and everyone else could have if we all cut our single-use plastic bag waste.

Now it is your turn to do your own single-use plastic bag waste reduction challenge.

Featured Image at Top: Earth Globe Inside a Single-Use Plastic Bag – Photo Credit iStock/Irina Krolevetc.

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