Modern Homesteading on a Smaller Scale.

Zero Waste (tiny) Home

Zero Waste (tiny) Home
SHHH! It’s mid-morning here in the mini house and Stella’s snoozing away, allowing me maybe a minute or ten to get an entry in for you. I managed to cook myself breakfast and wash the spit-up out of my hair (will she get to brush her teeth today? Crap shoot!). During our 5am breakfast sesh (hers, not mine) I realized I wanted to write about James’ and my Zero Waste goals that we’ve been trying to implement since pre-babe. In fact, I schemed up what would probably be four or five different blog entries– our motivations to go zero waste, my low waste shopping habits, our baby’s impact on our goals, what a zero waste baby registry looks like, the impact on environmental toxins on my life, adopting a Euro attitude and efforts towards the environment and the babe, etc. etc.– but let’s be real, finishing this one in a single go is laughable so they’re all going to get squashed together.
I have been an environmentalist for as long as I remember. But until the last few years most of my efforts were directly related to how easy they were to accomplish. Bring bags to the store but don’t think twice to get plastic when it was a spur of the moment trip. Schlep around the Nalgene bottle but accept a bottle of water from someone’s fridge to be polite. Recycle when someone is willing to come pick it up from the curb. Etc. Etc.
It was only in the last few years that I started to realize how much waste I was creating (and finally began to consider my plastic-laden “recyclables” as waste) and here I was going over and above what the majority of my peers were doing to lessen their impact on the planet. Living on the farm and getting in the habit of reusing everything possible and my time in Germany, seriously one of the world’s foremost enviro-meccas, pushed me to put the effort in to go further.
Have you read the book Zero Waste Home? Turns out a lot of Bea Johnson’s methods had become my new M.O. The basic philosophy is you can manage to live (in America) and make hardly any trash and this not only affects your impact on the planet but also your own well-being. With less need for consumption, you have less need for bucks and thus less need to work as much as we Americans do. Your space is tidier when you have less stuff and more aesthetic without the plastic crap cluttering every corner and that leads to a more sublime attitude towards home. And naturally you develop a pride (smugness? sometimes) at being able to live a life with less of a footprint. For Johnson, she has a waste hierarchy that I can get behind: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.
Now, with the babe here I have somewhat stumbled out of my laudable habits in order to ease my transition to motherhood/ I forgot the canvas bags while carrying the carseat full of crying baby, the diaper bag and my water bottle to the car, damnit! But now that I’m a month in to this new gig and obviously a pro (ha!), it’s time to get back on my trash-reducing track. So here are some of the ways in which we aim to live as close to zero waste as possible pre-baby:
Refuse: Sometimes this one is easy, other times you have to really train yourself to say no, and still others refusal of stuff leads to awkward encounters, maybe even hurt feelings. What I’ve done in the “refuse” arena is saying no to vendor schwag that often comes my way at work, turning down papers I don’t need, like cancelling my address on junk mail lists and writing down doctors’ appointments rather than having the receptionist write it out on a business card. Good to ask yourself questions: How many water bottles do I actually need? What on earth will I do with this sticker? Attempts have been made to limit the amount of stuff coming into our house from beloved others (definitely hard with a new baby, but also difficult around holidays) and for the most part this has been alright. If not, we just accept and then covertly take stuff to the thrift store! Of course, it’s way easier to just refuse it outright and saves your friends and family bucks. Reassessing my own wants vs. needs means I have refused all sorts of stuff that would have just been bought because it was a good deal, or I felt like it at the spur of the moment. This saves money, space, and means the stuff I DO buy is well thought out and truly worthwhile to me.
Reduce: Well. We live in a 400 square foot house, so we’ve reduced quite a bit on that score! A tiny space means that if we don’t want to live in a horders-esque world of piles, we better get rid of stuff. This is easier for me than my sentimental husband, but oh well 🙂 I usually have an ongoing pile lying in wait to get dropped at the thrift store and feel no shame in tossing well-meaning gifts or old sentimental items. Last year I felt pretty heartened with the Konmari notion of surrounding yourself only with things that bring you joy and my life is much better for it. True, sometimes I wish that an item I unceremoniously sent to the thrifty was still in my life, but that feeling might hit once, maybe twice a year. For how much I get rid of, that’s not too shabby! What’s the other maxim? “If it’s not Beautiful or Useful (to you, I would say!) then TOSS IT!
Reuse: Replacing all the single use items like plastic silverware, to-go cups, etc. is one of the easiest ways to start a move towards zero waste. A challenge for you: spend one week hyper aware of how many items you use that are single use and I’ll bet you’ll be shocked. To help us move away from that, we have a box in the car with two complete place settings (complete with cloth napkins from our wedding) to-go mugs, cups for soda, stainless steel straws, a half growler for beer, and to-go containers so we don’t have to get any from restaurants.  Simply having everything at the ready makes it so much easier to kick the plastic habit. At home we have a Soda Stream so my soda-addicted husband can get his fix and I use loose leaf tea to eliminate the (albeit compostable) tea bags. Shopping is a major exercise in “reuse” in this fam; in addition to the ubiquitous tote bags, I bring in my own jars and containers and hit up the bulk section at the grocery store. I rewrite the bin numbers on there over and over and can see how many plastic bags I’ve saved. So what if now I’m (affectionately, I assume) known as the “Jar Lady” at Central Market? Point of pride, peeps! Also, I’m a super bag washer when I do need plastic bags, such as when I freeze food. The mail that does make its way to our house then becomes scratch paper and old t-shirts that do have a super sweet memory attached to them (NFTY convention shirts, some college shirts, that great ‘I <3 Horticulture tee’) turn into cleaning rags rather than get sent away completely. There are all sorts of ways to repurpose stuff you have rather than toss it outright. See Pinterest and enjoy your trip down that crafty rabbit hole. Also, acquiring stuff from the thrift store or from a “Buy Nothing” online community is a great way to reuse while still feeling like you are getting something new.

Our “wedding china” has been transformed into part of our zero waste tool box.
Recycle: It costs us money, takes time to drive it to the dump (we don’t pay for pickup), uses a lot of energy, and isn’t guaranteed. Recycling is pretty low on Johnson’s list of “R’s” and I can see why. Plastic packaging is still plastic that is going to be around for the next 500+ years, even if it can go through the motions of getting carted off, cleaned, melted down, blasted with chemicals, and reformed into something else. So as much as possible, we try to reuse stuff before it winds up in the blue bin or refuse packaging all together.
Rot: Anything that can be is composted at chez lil’ house. We have a nice heap that the chickens happily peck through next to the garden (disturbing when I know I put leftover chicken bits in there…) and we have a composting toilet. And you can compost SO MUCH: meat, dairy, eggshells but also non-foodstuffs like wooden popsicle sticks, cotton clothing shredded up, paper napkins… In fact, I would actually place “Rot” above “Recycle” if this was a Val-Made List, but I live on a farm where composting is easy rather than Johnson’s San Francisco.
There are other basic lifestyle things that make this stuff easier, too– growing a lot of our own food, cooking rather than buying pre-packaged meals, having one car, having documents, books, movies, and music in a digital format, and, as mentioned, living in our small space. There are also TONS of stuff we do that can’t be mentioned in one post– but it is truly the accumulation of a lot of little efforts that make it so our trashcan barely fills up.
So Val pats herself on the back and dumps her recycling bin full of packaging for the hopefully the last time this month. The jars are in the car, even if they are buried under a BOB Stroller and the babe is dressed in the finest consignment onesie. Library book is at the ready and coffee that was happily brewed in the french press has long gone cold. True, pregnancy and parenthood lend themselves to both the need for new stuff and the convenience of plastic and packaging but OH WELL! Now that my new idea of normalcy is starting to set in, I’m determined to keep up my pre-baby zero waste habits. What do you do to limit waste in your life?