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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Three Easy Ways to Cut Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste

One small step leads to the next one.

Drastically reducing your single-use plastic bag waste is easier than you may think.

Consider the purpose of single-use plastic items like bags, food wrappings, bottles, cups, plates, bowls, lids, straws, stirrers, cutlery, take-out containers (including foam), shipping envelopes, and all the things you, me, and everyone else buys either in a store or online that come in plastic packaging inside a cardboard box.

By design, a single-use plastic (or paper) item is intended to be used once and then disposed of often within minutes of opening it or using it for the first time.

Convenience items like single-use plastics have gotten way out of control and are trashing our planet, literally. Tossing things in the garbage does not make them magically disappear and putting them in a recycle bin does not wipe out the environmental footprint of making disposable products and recycling them.

If you agree, even a little bit, decreasing your own single-use plastic bag waste is a good place to start.

My spouse and I probably began our quest to reduce our contribution to single-use plastic bag waste in 2010. That is the year I joined the Sierra Club and received four roll-up reusable bags as a gift for becoming a member (I still use them).

We took the low hanging fruit approach meaning we tackled the easy actions first. This resulted in a significant reduction in our use of plastic bags over the years.

In this post, I hope to demonstrate that it is possible to make reducing single-use plastic bag waste part of your normal life.

Before we move on, let’s do a quick refresher on why you and I should care about single-use plastic in the first place.

Why is Single-Use Plastic a Problem?

I think the United Nations report entitled Single-use Plastics: A roadmap for Sustainability gives a good worldview of the issue and provides some thoughts on how to address it (the whole report is worth reading).

Global Primary Plastics Waste Generation, 1950-2015 Chart

A few of the environmental problems associated with single-use plastic include:

  • Most plastic is a made from petroleum and natural gas.
  • Plastic packaging makes up nearly 50% of all plastic waste in the world.
  • Of all the plastic produced in the world, only 9% of the 9 billion metric tons made so far has been recycled.
  • Plastic does not biodegrade but slowly breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments that find their way into the soil, water, land and aquatic animals, and humans.
  • When plastic waste is burned, it releases toxic gases like furan and dioxin.

Dealing with plastic waste is left up to individuals like you and me and cash-strapped municipalities. Economic damage to tourism, fishing, and marine ecosystems runs in the billions of dollars every year and will continue to grow as the problem of plastic waste grows.

If you are interested in learning more about plastic waste and its impacts on people and the environment, you will find links in the resources section at the end of this post.

Next, we will explore what you can do about single-use plastic waste specifically plastic bags.

Reducing Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste

Personally, I could never see the appeal of using plastic bags for groceries because they seem small, difficult to put things into, and constantly in danger of disgorging their contents into the trunk of your car. We were paper bag users. I know this is a post about plastic but single-use paper bags also have a significant environmental footprint.

Reusable Shopping Bags

We soon realized that our roll-up Sierra Club reusable shopping bags worked great for everything except buying groceries. I missed flat-bottom paper bags.

Flat-Bottom and Roll-Up Reusable Bags
We obtained these flat-bottom and roll-up reusable bags in 2010 and 2011 and we still use them.

Fortunately, during an out of town visit, I spotted a flat-bottom reusable bag at an REI store for $1.00 so I bought a couple of bags to try. These bags have both shoulder straps and handles, which I like, so I bought several more. When I joined the Audubon Society in 2011, they sent me four reusable shopping bags with flat bottoms and sturdy handles sporting pictures of pelicans and owls. We added a few more roll-up bags to complete our reusable shopping bag stock.

If necessary, I wash the grocery bags in the kitchen sick or toss the roll-up bags in with a load of laundry and then put them outside to dry.

If you can remember your keys and your wallet, you can learn to remember your reusable bags but we decided to make it easy for ourselves. When not in use, most of the grocery market bags hang out in the trunk of our car and we keep a couple stashed in the hall closet. Roll-up bags reside in a bowl near the front door and in the car door pocket.

On the rare occasion that I do not have a bag with me at the store, I carry the item out naked.

You do not need to make a large financial outlay to obtain reusable bags. Many stores offer low cost or free bags with their name and logo and nonprofit organizations sometimes give them out at events.

When the single-use plastic bag ban came to our town in San Luis Obispo County, CA in 2012, it was a non-event for us.

Reusing and Reusable Produce Bags

Not long after the shopping bag conversion, I purchased a dozen or so reusable and washable mesh bags in an effort to reduce our use of plastic produce bags. We are still using the same bags years later.

Reusable Mesh and Plastic Produce Bags
We supplement our washable mesh produce bags with rinsed out and dried single-use plastic bags.

The mesh bags are excellent for a wide variety of whole fruits and vegetables including, onions, apples, potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, and green beans. I do not like using the mesh bags for vegetables that tend to be wet from misting in the produce section like lettuce, green onions, and carrots because they get other things in my shopping cart and grocery bags damp.

That led me to begin rinsing out plastic produce bags or zip-top bags and hanging them to dry on various things around the kitchen like the utensils sticking out of the ceramic crock next to the range.

East DIY Plastic Bag Drying Rack

Once the bags dried, I stuck them in one of the grocery bags along with the mesh bags.

This method worked but it was not convenient so my handy spouse made a DIY plastic bag dryer that was so simple I could probably have made it.

Reusing plastic bags is not an ideal solution because they are still plastic bags; however, it is a step in the right direction.

Bring Your Own Containers

Several years ago, my spouse and I joined the SLO Natural Foods Co-op so we could buy organic food that is grown and made by local and regional farmers and food producers.

The Co-op’s bulk bins are a major attraction housing a wide array of food items including flour, granola, almonds, dried cranberries, rice, sugar, and Zen party mix (now a favorite snack).

Various Sizes of Reusable Plastic and Glass Containers
Brown rice, flour, raisins, smoked paprika, pink salt, sugar, and brown sugar in a variety of reusable plastic and glass containers.

Scooping rice into a plastic bag from the bulk bin seemed to defeat part of the purpose of buying in bulk so we began bringing our own containers. At the store, you weigh the container empty and put a label on it so the checkout clerk knows how much weight to subtract from your purchase of granola or kidney beans. Now, when we get home from the Co-op, we unload our bulk purchase containers from our reusable shopping bags and put them directly in our kitchen cupboards.

Not long ago, I decided to try a similar strategy at the farmers market.

I was tired of bringing home food like mushrooms and strawberries in plastic or cardboard containers, storing the empty containers on the kitchen counter, and then returning them to the farmers the next week.

One week I took my own containers with me and asked the farmers if they would mind if I emptied their containers into my containers. No one said no. A couple of farmers thanked me and said that packaging is expensive so reusing it saves them money and they could refill them on the spot for other customers.

Granted you do have to take containers with you to the grocery market and farmers market, but I think it is worth it.

I hope you can see how you can easily reduce your own single-use plastic bag waste with a little effort and that you decide to try one or two of the above ideas or come up with your own.

While I was writing this post, I thought it would be fun to assess our multi-year single-use plastic bag waste reduction effort. This led to an unexpected discovery that you can read about in the next post if you want to.

Featured Image at Top: Single-use Plastic Shopping Bag Flying through the Air with Trees and Sky in the Background – Photo Credit iStock/Spiderstock

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Resources