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It’s Time to Get Uncomfortable for the Planet

3E29646D-92B0-4162-A0DA-DFCE6B2807AF.jpegIn a lot of the mainstream coverage of the climate crisis, you tend to see a lot of “one-to-one” solutions.  Car emissions? Electric cars.  Single use plastic? Biodegradable plastic.  Plastic silverware? Bamboo silverware.

The problem with these solutions is that they fail to subvert the system that created them.  Would every person need to own a car if our public transportation were better?

The solutions we need are huge in scope, systematic, inclusive, and maybe even unimaginable to us at this point in time.

But this presents a problem: no one is interested in solving a problem that exists in the future.  To be clear, the climate crisis is happening now—if you couldn’t tell from the wildfires and coral reef bleachings—but to the people who create most of the emissions (wealthy white folks in the Global North, especially giant multinationals like CocaCola), life has not changed much.  To this privileged group, climate change is an invisible problem with trendy marketing potential and “save the animals” slogans.  Buying into such greenwashing is easy, because it doesn’t require YOU to change.

But those baby steps just don’t cut it anymore.

It is clear that we need big systematic changes to get our planet back on course, and we can’t do it by only choosing paper over plastic.  We need to get uncomfortable for the planet.  And we need to do it right now.

Our endless taking of earth’s resources is creating an uncomfortable situation for earth’s systems.  They can’t function properly, what with the increasingly severe weather, habitat and wildlife loss, and rampant pollution.  Our current system obviously isn’t working, so now we need to step up and get uncomfortable for the earth.  But what does that mean?

It means getting involved in environmental activism in your community.  It means eating less meat.  It means talking to family members who don’t believe in climate change.  It means buying less stuff.  It means pressuring politicians to create climate policy.  It means seeing colonialist capitalism for what it is, and actively fighting against it.  It will look different for each person, and no effort will be perfect, but we simply CANNOT expect to carry on living the same way we do and see the world change.  WE MUST CHANGE.  It will be frustrating and uncomfortable at times, but in the end isn’t it worth it?  After all, the fate of the world (and all of us) hangs in the balance.

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The DIY Zero Waste Kit

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The DIY Zero Waste Kit

I recently visited Package Free in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  It’s essentially a low waste supply store, filled with reusable coffee cups, shopping bags, straws, natural soaps, and more.  It was a cool place to experience, but it got me thinking.

If you’re new to the whole zero waste/low impact thing, or you’re a casual observer, you’ve probably looked at low waste influencers’ beautiful plastic free items, and thought, “That’s so great, but I could never do that. It’s too expensive!”

On one hand, you’re right.  Certain things—I’m looking at you stainless steel food containers and fancy 100% organic cotton produce bags—are a bit of an investment.  On the other hand, you couldn’t be more wrong.  You CAN do that.  And you don’t have to buy all new stuff to do it.

In fact, one of the most important principles in the movement is to consume less.  That means you shouldn’t buy something new just because it’s trendy or fits a certain “eco-friendly” aesthetic.  In the end, the most environmentally responsible thing you can do is use what you already have for as long as you can.

I will be the first to admit that I got sucked into this way of thinking in the beginning.  I bought a lot of stuff when I started trying to reduce my waste, some of which, like my safety razor, I now deeply regret.  It took me a long time to realize I already had the tools I needed.

So, in light of that, I’ll let you in on a little secret: you have a zero waste kit in your home RIGHT NOW.  All you need is 5 minutes to put it together, and you’ll be ready to go out into the world and fight the waste pandemic!


How to assemble your zero waste kit:

Step 1: Utensils

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Take a look in your kitchen silverware drawer.  Pick out a fork, a knife, and a spoon.  Boom.  Low waste utensils you can take anywhere.  Also check to see if you have an specialty items kicking around.  Got a pair of chopsticks from an old takeout order?  Grab those too.

Step 2: Food Container

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A food container is a great addition to your kit, but can take up more space if you’re only carrying a purse.  Any old tupperware will do.  Those black takeout containers work great for this because they hold a lot of food.  Bring these to potlucks and family gatherings to avoid using paper plates.

Step 3: Reusable Water Bottle

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A reusable water bottle is not exclusively a super fancy double insulated keeps-drinks-cold-for-24-hours bottle.  My mom brought the same Orangina bottle to work for over four years with great success.  You can use anything available. If the only thing you have on hand is a water bottle you just bought, then refill it!  Every time you reuse a “single-use” item, you thwart the system because it stops you from immediately buying more.

Step 4: Takeaway Drink Container

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You don’t need a brand new Keep Cup to prevent waste.  If a coffee is a mandatory part of your day, grab a jar or a mug on your way out the door.  Coffee shops are a great training ground for asking to get your order in your own container because doing so has become fairly common.  Some places will even offer you a discount for bringing your own.  Win!

Step 5: Cloth Napkin or Bandana

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The cloth napkin is the Swiss army knife of the zero waste kit.  You can use it as a napkin, a paper towel in a public restroom, to hold your utensils, to wrap fruit, and as a tissue in an emergency.  It’s also a cute way to hold your hair back in a pinch.  A bandana works great if you can’t find a cloth napkin.

Step 6: Reusable Bag

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Again, this could be anything.  A plastic bag from the grocery store, one of those drawstring backpacks, or any kind of tote.  Use it to carry the items listed above, or stash it in your backpack for when you inevitably run to the store after work.  (Is that just me?)


There you have it, you’ve created a fully functional zero waste kit without spending a dime!  It’s a great first step on your way to reducing your waste.  Subsequent steps include remembering to take it with you when you go places, and working up the nerve to ask people to put food in your containers.  (I am still working on the latter.)

Ultimately though, the materials at hand do not matter that much.  Reducing waste requires a shift in perspective, and a lot of creativity.  You will fail many times before you remember to say “no straw please” or finally find unpackaged spinach.  But when you do succeed, it will feel so good that you’ll never want to go back to the way you lived before.

Do you have a zero waste kit?  Did you create one with the instructions here?  Share your experiences in the comments!

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Waste Wars: France vs. USA

img_2281Welcome to a new series!!! Waste Wars is all about sustainable practices in places I’ve visited–and how they compare to what I know in the US!  Travel is a great way to open your mind and learn about your OWN culture, as well as other cultures.  This series will explore sustainability in daily life around the world, and what we can learn from the juxtaposition of our “normal” with another.  Let’s go!


I recently returned from my semester abroad in Montpellier, in the south of France.  I got to travel, learn a new language, make new friends, and eat large quantities of cheese–it was awesome.  The whole trip, I was constantly comparing American and French culture in my head:  how things were said, how food was served, how people viewed other countries, how the government works, and (still confused about this one) why everyone in France has a wall around their property.  These are just a few of the thoughts that swirled around in my head as I learned to live in a foreign country.

And because I’m me, I was also thinking about sustainability.  How does recycling work in France?  Which country wastes more food?  Which country uses more public transportation?  After a while I thought, ya know, this would make a great blog post.  So here we are.

And while I know the French have been champions du monde lately, let’s see how their lifestyle stacks up against the American one in terms of environmental impact!  For each of the following categories, one point will be awarded to the greener country.  Each category was chosen based on the things I came into contact with on a daily basis during my stay.  All evidence for gaining points is anecdotal and based on my experiences.  The one with the most points at the end wins.  C’est parti!

1. Plastic Water Bottles – US: +1 point

The US wins for this one because most Americans can at least say they own a reusable water bottle, even if they don’t use it every day.  It is normal to see Americans carrying around their own water bottles, especially students.  For the normalization of a sustainable behavior, they get the point.

The French frequently buy those huge 1.5 litre water bottles instead of bringing their own (which is not very common), or to avoid drinking from the tap.  Though France has excellent quality tap water, in the area I was staying the water tended to have a lot of calcium, so some people I knew avoided drinking it for health reasons.

2. Restaurant Waste – France: +1

France has their own distinct food culture on their side here.  The custom is to sit down to eat, even if you’re just getting a coffee, and to stay for a long time.  Eating in France is a social event–in the US, it’s often just to refuel and go.  This means that it’s much much easier to avoid to go containers of any kind while in France.  If you go to a coffee shop in Montpellier, your coffee will come in a reusable cup with a metal spoon, and any treat you order with it comes on a real plate.  In the US, you have to specify that the coffee is “for here” in order to get a reusable cup (this rarely works outside of independent coffee shops) or bring your own to-go mug, and most pastries come in a paper bag.  Sorry fellow Americans, but the French win this one hands down.  Next time you go out, sit down to eat if you can, and act a little more French–the planet will thank you.

3. Food Packaging Waste – France: +1

France just barely wins this one.  While both countries have plenty of chain grocery stores with lots of packaged food, in France there is generally less packaging on produce.  Grapes for example, do not come in plastic bags in France.  Shocking!  Lettuce is also easy to obtain without plastic.  Most towns have Saturday markets as well (similar to a farmer’s market in the US) where it’s easy to get fresh produce without packaging.

There is also a strong presence of bulk goods in France.  Even at the tiny convenience store around the corner from where I lived there was a small bulk section with nuts, granola, and dried fruits.  In most large cities, there were more than a few bulk stores as well.  In Montpellier, there were FOUR.  In the whole of the Capital Region, where I grew up, I know of about two.

Another cultural factor works in favor of the French here: they tend not to snack much between meals, so as a result of this lower demand they create less waste from snack packaging.  Just sayin’.

4. Plastic Bags – France +1

In France, you have to pay for bags at all grocery stores.  As a result, just about everyone brings reusables.  Clothing stores and small businesses still tended to give out their own bags, but there was less pressure to take them than there is in the US.  Sometimes when I ask for no bag at the store I still end up with a bag in my hand.  No means no people!

I think this shows what an impact a plastic bag ban can have.  This policy has really shaped the shopping culture in France, and it could do the same in America.  I hope to see something similar happen in the US.  One thing I will say: during my semester abroad, I never saw plastic bags floating around in the streets or stuck in trees.

5. Recycling – US +1

Finally a point for my home country!  Depending on where you live in the US, recycling facilities can process plastics up to #6, and curb side pick up is pretty good.  The adoption of single stream recycling has meant that it is even simpler for the American consumer to participate in recycling, though many still don’t.  Many states in the US also have bottle return schemes to get people to bring in glass and aluminum.

In France, plastic, cardboard, and aluminum are picked up at the side of the road, and designated boxes in each neighborhood are reserved for glass recycling.  Coming from the former system, I found the latter a bit cumbersome.  I was always happy to walk my glass down the block to the deposit box, but I knew that would be a deal breaker for some who weren’t interested in recycling, and could keep some folks with reduced mobility from participating.  Also, only plastics #1 and #2 are recycled in the entire country.  And you know people are throwing all #1-#6 in the bin…  As far as I can tell, France has no bottle deposit scheme at this time.  (@Les français, vous êtes libres de me corriger si je fais des fautes!)

The US wins this one only because there tend to be more options and more widespread accessibility for recycling.  As you may already know however, much consumer recycling is too contaminated to be recycled and goes to landfill anyway, and the number of companies buying plastics down the waste stream has dwindled since China stopped taking our crap.

6. Public Transportation – France +1

Public transportation in France is awesome.  If you live in a decent sized city, you can easily get where you need to go on trams, buses, and on foot.  Buses and local trains can take you to the smaller towns in the area, and even to the beach!  The main train lines going between major cities have comparable prices to those in the US (read: expensive!) but they are generally well run and well kept, and the TGV (high speed train) puts Amtrak to shame.  All trams and most metros were also handicapped accessible, quite the contrast to New York, where only a fraction of the city’s subway stations have elevators.

It must be noted that the age of the country works in France’s favor.  Montpellier for example, was a big city in medieval times, so the entire old town, with its tiny streets and alleyways, has been blocked off as a pedestrian zone.  America was built up at a time when the car was king, so as we move toward a more fuel conscious lifestyle, we must learn how to work with our existing infrastructure.

7. Smoking – US +1

Every French person who reads this is about to get mad at me, but it must be said.  France has a smoking problem.  I know, I know, it’s engrained in the culture, but that doesn’t make it less bad for the planet or your own health.  And while the anti-smoking campaigns in the US have been controversial, they have been generally successful in keeping cigarettes away from children, and denormalizing the habit.  Cigarette butts don’t break down easily, and contain nicotine, plastic and other toxins that pollute soil and waterways.  At every beach I went to in France, I always found an unbelievable amount of them in the sand.  Who wants to take their children to a beach full of cigarette butts?

It will be interesting to see what the impact of Juul and other e-cigarettes will have on smoking culture and the environment in both countries, but for the time being, the US pulls ahead in this category.

Final Results:

France: 4 US: 3

Well, France won this face-off, champions du monde confirmed.  But who knows?  Things could change in the future.  I’ll just have to go back and eat more cheese to find out.  Do you agree with how I awarded points?  What other categories should I have included?  What country should I compare next?  Leave me a comment!  Thanks for reading y’all.

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The Big Picture: Reflections On This Week’s Climate News

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Photo by me. Taken at the aquarium Planet Ocean Montpellier.

Scared by the latest climate news? Me too. It was enough to shock me out of my study abroad coma and start writing again, that’s for sure. I think about the impact of our actions on the earth every day, but the news that we essentially have 12 years to stem catastrophic climate change was a harsh reminder why it’s important to me to write about these issues and start conversations.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, these past few months when I have not been writing, about the best way to attack environmental problems. I started my sustainability journey through trying to reduce my waste, but lately my horizons have expanded: I’ve been trying to educate myself on conservation efforts, the fight on the government level over regulations, being a conscious and compassionate consumer, and environmental justice. I have been reading, listening, absorbing. Now it’s time to report back.

What seems to me to be the root of all of this are two of the darker aspects of human nature. The first is greed. Greed for power, resources, the illusion of control, etc. This tendency to go after more, more, more causes endless problems in our world. That, coupled with the Western ideas of ownership and property are among the roots of colonialism, racism, industrialization. This continues to manifest today in the exploitation of people and resources just to turn a profit.

Our earth is not an endless well from which we can draw as much water as we want. There has been a lot of discussion recently about how at our current rate of consumption, the fact that we are using more resources than our planet can replenish. From Earth Overshoot Day, an organization that brings attention to this issue:Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when we (all of humanity) have used more from nature than our planet can renew in the entire year. In 2018, it fell on August 1.”  And to be clear: our consumption is not the same across the board.  The people in wealthy, industrialized nations are the ones consuming the most, and continue to be the ones least affected by climate change.

The second root is apathy. We have known about climate change for decades, but nothing has really changed. And we keep barreling toward our own worst nightmares: monstrous hurricanes, droughts, food shortages, etc., all in the name of “progress”. These crises are literally upon us right now, but we (the privileged few from the aforementioned super consumer countries) still close our eyes and say “But it’s cold out today, global warming isn’t real.” and “We don’t have to worry about that yet.” What is it going to take to wake us up?

This is a very depressing post, but I want to be clear: I am very optimistic. I believe that if we can get ourselves into this mess, we can get ourselves out. I believe the fight for the survival of our planet (and us) should be a positive and inclusive one, and I do not take kindly to fear mongering. However, I also believe that acknowledging our current reality is essential to moving forward, because it calls us to action.

Anne-Marie Bonneau, of the blog Zero Waste Chef, once wrote the following: “We need a World War II type of citizen response to climate change if we hope to mitigate its worst effects.” This has stuck with me since I first read it because it has many nuanced and practical implications. First, that we are collectively focused on the same goal, saving the earth (us) from devastating climate change. Second, that the change happens on ALL levels: individual, community, government, corporate, etc.  Third, that everyone recognizes that they have a responsibility to act, and that every one of us has a special role to play. Pick an issue that interests you and run with it: protest laws your find unjust, reduce your waste, travel with public transportation, be a voice for the voiceless, go to a beach clean up, talk to your loved ones about the issues, run for office, VOTE. It is all important, and it will all add up.

This is not a call out. I am not shaming anyone for their past action or inaction. As a kid, I was terrified by climate change, and assumed the adults would take care of it. It was more comfortable for me to ignore it, so I did. Now I’m the adult. What will be my excuse to the next generation?

This is a call in. I invite anyone and everyone to join the movement toward a brighter future, in whatever way you can. Don’t wait until the flood waters reach your doorstep. Reject greed and apathy. Embrace compassion and responsibility. Rise to your highest self and do something about it. Every bit counts.

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Tray Mauvais: A Story Of Unwanted Plastic

Hey. It’s been a minute.  Again.  But I have a pretty good excuse this time: two weeks ago, I moved to France for the semester.  And it’s been awesome so far!  I have studied french since middle school and it is such a gift to be here to experience the language and culture for an extended stay.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I will definitely be posting in the future about how packaging, recycling, waste management, etc. compare between France and the US.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot, but I’m feeling like it will be best to write about it after I’ve been here for more than a few weeks, and have more experience with la vie française.  For now, I’d like to share a story about what happened to me last Friday.

First, let’s backtrack.  On Monday night I moved into my temporary dorm room for orientation, where I found 5 trays of food on the desk.  It soon became clear these were meant for breakfast: 2 pains au chocolat, a box of orange juice, instant coffee, plastic cutlery, creamer…

All I saw was a pile of plastic.  And worst of all, lots and lots of soft plastics, which have no chance of being recycled.  Upon a later investigation of the dumpsters near the building, I determined that whatever I put in the recycling would be contaminated anyway—people were clearly throwing regular trash in.  (You can read my previous post about plastic recycling here.)  So I knew nothing I would put in would see a recycling center.

It was getting to be dinner time, so I went in search of food I could cook.  I bought pasta and sauce at a place nearby only to discover there were no pots and pans in the kitchen.  Frustrated and utterly exhausted from the long flight, I came back to my room and ate the pains au chocolat in the first tray.  This was not what I would have chosen, but alone and practically in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country, I felt it was all I could muster.

Over the next few days, I resolved to either eat the food or pawn it off on my classmates so at least it wouldn’t go to waste.  I thought it was a 5 day thing, enough to keep us fed until we figured out how to go grocery shopping.  Then I got back from class on Friday, and FIVE MORE trays had appeared.  My peers rejoiced at their restocked supplies, but I was dumbfounded. More plastic? I didn’t ask for this!!!

At that point I had two more weeks of orientation.  That meant at least two more deliveries.  They would just keep bringing more, trays would keep piling up, I would keep eating this processed food that was already starting to make me feel icky.

Shame on me! I thought. I should be grateful they brought me free food, some people live with hunger and food insecurity their whole lives!  But after giving it some more thought, I realized it wasn’t free.  The cost of these meals was hidden somewhere in the program fees and we were definitely paying for it.

I sat sadly on my bed, staring at this future plastic waste, this future debris in our waterways, this future absorber of toxins.  Que faire?*  I realized I had been going easy on myself the whole trip.  I’ll be in a foreign country, I though, I won’t be able to find plastic-free alternatives right away.  Maybe that was true the first few days, but I had been allowing myself to slip from my usual standards. Heck, I had found a bulk store on the 3rd day.  How could I sit passively and watch myself consume all this plastic?

I got up and went to the office of la cité universitaire.  I was nervous the whole way over, because I would have to speak to the secretary in french.  But it wasn’t so bad.  I was able to communicate, if a bit clumsily, what I wanted–no more deliveries.  Afterward I was so relieved, and proud that I had actually done it.

It is remarkable how easy it is to consume what is most convenient.  This food was literally placed in my room. This is definitely an extreme example, but it happens all the time.  The cheapest option with the most packaging is always front and center, with the logo facing you, ready to be plucked from the shelf, shiny and pristine, like some grotesque, eternally ripe fruit.

I have chosen to go the other way, hard as it is.  Back home, I was not 100% plastic free–I am not perfect by any means, and it often takes an experience like this to get myself back on track and make more sustainable choices.  I also acknowledge the insane amount of privilege I have to have these choices in the first place, and do not judge anyone who is not in my position.  I try to do what is right for the planet with what I’ve got, even and especially when it pushes me out of my comfort zone.  In the wise words of Jen Sincero, from her book You Are A Badass at Making Money:

“Where there’s a will there’s a way; we just prefer to pretend there isn’t a way so we don’t have to take responsibility and do the uncomfortable stuff required to grow.”

I’ll be posting again soon. Au revoir! ❤

*What to do?

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How I Accidentally Healed My Acne

When I first started reexamining my wasteful habits, I was only thinking about the trash. I was fascinated and inspired by the prospect that I could do something to guard against pollution that was so simple. All it took, apparently, was a change of habit, a creative solution, some experimentation.

What I never expected two years ago, when I first ordered ingredients to make deodorant (my very first switch!), was how it would affect my health in such a positive way. I stumbled upon a healthier lifestyle completely by accident, and I’m very glad I did. The most visible shift I experienced, and a daily reminder of how much my health has improved, is my clear skin.

As a teenager, my acne was never that bad, but I can’t remember a time in high school when I didn’t have acne on my face. I was very embarrassed by it, and it definitely had a negative impact my self esteem. I also did the worst thing you can do, which is pick at it. I wore concealer every day for years to try to hide my acne and scars. I hated it.

I tried all kinds of different solutions. We even ordered Proactiv at one point. After my freshman year in college I was very frustrated with my skin, so I went to the dermatologist and got a prescription for some aggressive acne cream. It didn’t help. Most of the things I tried ended up drying out my skin, causing my skin to produce more oil, which made my acne worse.

Around the time I started researching a low waste lifestyle as a sophomore, my boyfriend encouraged me to try fragrance free soap. He had had really bad acne until he found out he had a fragrance allergy, and was able to clear up his skin after cutting it out. He gave me a bar of olive oil soap and I gave it a try.

Quick side note: “Fragrance” can be any number of chemicals on a long list that makes beauty products, laundry detergent, and other cleaning products, smell good. Anything that falls under this umbrella list doesn’t have to be listed as an ingredient of these products. Because you can’t tell what exact ingredient is used, it’s hard to track if something in it is harming your skin. A lot of people are mildly allergic to, or react badly to something on the list, but have no way of knowing what the offending ingredient is. Have you ever had the weird experience of your deodorant suddenly not working, and then when you switch to a different scent, that one works instead? I believe this is due to the reaction your skin has to the fragrance in the deodorant.

I ended up liking that soap a lot, and ordered a whole box of it. It didn’t come in plastic, which was important to me, and my skin felt pretty good using it. I still had acne, but not as much. It wasn’t until I switched my moisturizer that I really started to see results.

I searched for many months for a moisturizer recipe that didn’t have any oil in it, and that also had readily accessible ingredients. This moisturizer does not exist. I heard about oil cleansing and tried that for a while, but it went horribly. I was too impatient to wait through the “adjustment period” and gave up after I had a full face of pimples again. Then I came upon a YouTube video where a woman said she used jojoba oil as a moisturizer. I had never heard of the stuff, but after reading about it, and a quick search on Amazon, I decided to try it.

It worked wonders. It’s a light oil that makes skin feel healthy and soft and doesn’t clog your pores. And here’s something big skin care brands don’t tell you: when you put healthy, nourishing oil on your skin, your skin produces less oil. This is what ultimately cleared my acne. All those “oil free” scrubs and moisturizers and creams I had been using were actually making my acne worse. I couldn’t believe it. I still get hormonal acne and stress acne here and there, but it’s very mild and goes away in a few days.

There were some other things going on that also helped. In my effort to avoid plastic bottles and cups, I started drinking mostly water. My metal water bottle became a non-negotiable must-be-on-me-at-all times item. It’s sitting next to me right now as I write this. I have no doubt that being properly hydrated and drinking less sugary crap had a big effect on my skin, as well as my overall health.

Similarly, I bought less processed food to avoid the packaging. This meant I ate a lot more fruits and vegetables. After a while, I noticed that when I ate something really greasy my acne would be visibly worse by the next day. That, and the fact that I felt better when I ate healthier, was all the evidence I needed to focus on making as much food as I could at home. Because I could literally see that it was worth it.

My skincare routine is now filled with simple ingredients that you would more likely find in a kitchen pantry than a medicine cabinet. My daily routine includes fragrance free olive oil soap, jojoba oil, and a tiny bit of tea tree oil if I have spots. Every once in a while (sometimes once a week if I’m really feeling it) I use bentonite clay and apple cider vinegar to make my own face mask. And that’s pretty much it.

I feel good about my skin these days, and each time I wash my face is a reminder of the waste I have avoided creating. Good for me, good for the planet. What more could I ask for?

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I Tried The Grow NYC Composting Program

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One day I was looking at the NYC greenmarket website (because that’s the kind of eco nerd I am) and I discovered they have a food scraps collection service. You bring your stuff to the farmer’s market every week and that’s it. Suddenly you’re composting! I decided to give it a try.

I started a little bag of food scraps in my freezer that day and I was off and running. You can put in any vegetable/plant material, as long as it’s not too greasy, as well as grains (bread, rice, etc), egg shells, coffee grounds, and more. (This is the full list.)

What became apparent, after about a day, was that I was not in the habit of separating out my food waste. I kept catching myself chucking a peach pit or a spinach stem in the trash, and immediately feeling guilty. ‘Oh right! Compost…’ It didn’t help that I live with several roommates, and I didn’t want them to think I was weird for keeping food scraps in a bag in the freezer. (No one has said anything about it, so I guess they don’t care.)

After about a week I had started taking out the bag every time I cooked, so it was right there when I was done chopping something. I even started to remember to bring compost home from my lunches at work! Depositing my food waste was also a great excuse to go to the Union Square Farmer’s Market, where I could also do some shopping for the week. I would simply bring my scraps up to the bins on the west side of the square, dump them in with everyone else’s compost, and be on my merry way. Easy!

What I love about the drop off sites is it takes the headache out of composting, which always seemed wildly out of reach to me before. How am I going to setup a compost heap in my backyard? Will it smell? Would anyone in the area take my compost? Is it worth trying vermi-composting? Up until this summer, I had only lived in places that had little to no composting infrastructure in place. At school, I even emailed the administration to ask why we didn’t have composting, and the reason I got back was that it got too cold in the winter to keep a composting machine running. Sigh. In these kinds of situations, consumers are put under pressure to figure out how to deal with their food waste themselves, and in most cases, don’t. I certainly didn’t. (And I care enough to write a blog about it!!!) In the city, with a system already in place, it was easy and I could see other people were doing it too.

This matters because according to the Guardian, Americans throw out 150,000 tons of food waste per day. PER. DAY. That really adds up over a year, ten years, and all of that food waste releases methane, a gas that contributes to global climate change. Yes, your food scraps that go in the trash are warming the planet. You are also throwing all the water, money, and pesticides that went in to making that food, down the drain, as well as the money YOU paid for the food. It’s a lose lose situation. Most shameful of all, we have a hunger problem in this country, the most wealthy country in the world, with food deserts and food insecurity disproportionately impacting poor communities and communities of color.

***

If you’ve ever raked wet leaves back to reveal dark, moist soil, that’s what composting achieves—organic material is broken down into workable, nutrient rich soil that can be used to grow more plants. The leaves break down into the soil that feeds the trees that dropped them. Nature is very good at creating circular systems. It’s when humans interrupt these systems, that things go wrong.

P.S. I had heard rumors that the city was starting a curbside organics collection program. I only saw the bins once, in a very fancy area in Park Slope. Here’s what the city’s website says on the subject.

P.P.S. If you are interested in the food waste issue, check out Rob Greenfield’s work here.

 

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Making Deodorant With Lisa Cohn!

I recently appeared on my friend Lisa’s YouTube channel!  We show you how to make Lauren Singer’s deodorant recipe, which was the first personal care product I ever made myself!  Check it out here.  Subscribe to Lisa here.

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The Truth About Recycling

bottles clean close up cold
Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com

“At least it’s recyclable!”

I hear this all the time.  In reference to plastic bags, food containers, packing materials.  This is apparently supposed to make me feel better.  The truth is that almost none of this gets recycled.  Almost none?  Yes.  We’re talking 91%.

Recycling has a good rep in the United States.  Recycling bins are colored a happy shade of green (like the trees!) and children are taught that recycling helps the environment.  

But research has shown this is not the case.  A small portion of it ends up in incinerators, and most of it ends up in landfills, or floating in our oceans.  The plastics that are lucky enough to be processed by recycling facilities can often only be recycled once before they cannot be recycled again.

(Here is a chart showing the difficulty of recycling different types of plastics.)

Even though everyone seems to like recycling so much, most people know little about it.  Few people know to rinse out food containers before putting them in the bin (if you don’t, these materials are considered contaminated and will not be recycled), and even fewer know what the numbers in the little recycling triangle actually mean.  

I do not believe people are inherently apathetic about the environment, I am more inclined to think that Americans do not receive a proper education about waste, recycling, and the like.  For example, I once knew someone who put tea bags in the recycling (which, by the way, aren’t even compostable because most are lined with plastic).  I sincerely don’t think this person intended to contaminate the rest of the recycling, perhaps they just didn’t know.

I would also theorize that the greed of corporations has led to an increasingly wasteful, convenience driven consumerist culture, which is ultimately more profitable for big business.  It makes companies look good to say their product is recyclable, but they are in no way liable for the environmental impact that that product has after it has been used.

I once saw a sign over a trash/recycling receptacle in a Starbucks that said something like, “One day everything will be recyclable.  Until then, please sort your recyclables into the correct bin.”  What does that even mean?  One day we will achieve a perfectly sustainable way of living without changing our habits?  Needless to say, I’m skeptical.

These days, recycling is just another form of greenwashing.  We put a plastic container in the recycling bin and feel good about “doing our part”, but when we don’t think about what happens after that, we are doing the natural world, and ourselves a disservice.  Plastic is clogging our waterways and killing our wildlife as never before, and we must act now to reverse this problem.

And by that I do not mean we need to clean up the ocean or improve our recycling infrastructure or make everything recyclable.  Those are important steps, but they don’t get at the root of the problem—we must stop producing and consuming so much plastic.

Let me put it this way: if you had a sink that was overflowing, what would be your first move to clean up the water?  You wouldn’t scoop up the water on the floor by the handful as more came gushing down, you would turn off the faucet.  Stop it at the source.  Shouldn’t we do the same with plastic?

Here are some actions you can take:

Stop buying drinks in plastic bottles.  Or at least cut out plastic water bottles.

Always shop with your own reusable bags.  Have at least one in your bag, in your car, anywhere easily accessible to make it easier.

Avoid plastic straws and cutlery, and to-go coffee cups when possible.  These are not recyclable.

Ask questions.  Why does this fruit come in plastic?  Where does my recycling go when the truck picks it up? Tell people what you find.

Tell companies that you don’t like their packaging.  If you’re trying to avoid waste anyway and are cutting certain products out of your life, tell the companies WHY they are losing one of their valuable customers.

Call your representatives and demand action.  Suggest taxes be placed on single use plastics, show your support for plastic bag bans, demand companies be liable for the waste they create, etc.

Don’t wait for other people to save the environment. 

It is all our responsibility.  The change starts with us.

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On Being Young and Broke in the Sustainability Movement: A Lifestyle Guide

I first entered the online sustainability community as a second year college student. I loved all the innovative companies and initiatives I was reading about, but there was one huge, glaring problem: I couldn’t afford them. I have been very lucky to have the financial support of my parents throughout college, but I was always overloaded with school work and had no time for a job, which left me with little spending money. Of course I want to buy ethically produced clothing, organic produce, and package free soaps! But a lot of that was just out of reach for me. Mary Kat of The Plastic-Free Chef put it best:

We need more solutions to deal with waste that don’t require average people to bankrupt themselves. Why should I have to pay extra money out of my meager paycheck to compensate for the fact that corporations manufacture enormously vast quantities of waste? Why aren’t they held accountable for that?

So what can we do? How can we still reduce our waste and not break the bank? Here are six things that make my little environmentalist heart happy but also do not ruin me financially.

Buy Second-Hand Clothes

Let’s be honest here: the production of clothes creates huge amounts of waste. Not only are gallons and gallons of water used in the process, but the fashion industry creates 5% of all carbon emissions in the world. (!) There is also a massive amount of fabric that gets thrown out in production.

By buying second-hand, you are reusing items that are already in the waste stream. This means new resources don’t have to be used every time you need a t-shirt. Instead, you can buy one that already exists! Second-hand also means you are not supporting the fast fashion industry, which, besides literally creating clothes to be thrown out after a few weeks, has a track record of human rights violations against the workers who make the clothes. (Case in point: the recent H&M scandal.) Do yourself, and your fellow humans a favor and go to the thrift store instead. The clothes are usually cheaper than buying new anyway.

Buy In Bulk

Whenever you have the chance to buy in bulk, do it. It is almost always cheaper than buying something in packaging. Why? Because when you buy something in packaging, you are paying for the packaging. Wouldn’t you rather just buy the thing you need? Take oatmeal for example. I eat it almost every day. An 18oz container of oatmeal is about $3.00, depending on where you live. You pay for the oats, the cardboard container, the plastic lid, and the plastic seal. I was blessed with a nice bulk section in my grocery store in college, where I could get oatmeal for $1.19 per lb. That is literally half the cost of the packaged oatmeal—AND you get to prevent all that packaging from making it’s way into a landfill.

But what if your grocery store doesn’t have a bulk section? Not to worry, you still have options. If you buy the biggest possible container you can get (i.e. a 10 lb bag of rice) you are still getting the most bang for your buck. By doing this, you are paying for more of the cost of the actual food than the packaging, and you are reducing your demand for items with a greater packaging to food ratio which is ultimately more wasteful.

Make Your Own

This goes for lots of things, but I’ll focus on food here. Making lunch at home, for example, is always cheaper than buying. Try committing to pack lunch every day for a month, and you’ll see the difference in your bank account.

In addition to this, a lot of plastic food containers you get from takeout or grab-and-go spots are made from plastic #6, or polystyrene, which is very difficult to recycle. (Recycling is going to a whole other post on this blog, but here’s the gist: the lower the number, the more likely your local recycling plant can process the material. If you live in a rural area or an area with little recycling infrastructure, they will likely only be able to process plastics #1 and #2.)

Think Like A Minimalist

No, I am not going to tell you to get rid of all your possessions. But what I will tell you to do is ask yourself, while you’re considering a purchase at the store: how does this add value to my life? If you have three pairs of black shoes do you really need a fourth? Did that shirt you bought last year ever actually get worn? Get honest with yourself and consider what you really need. Adopting this mentality has saved me so much money because I have simply not bought clothes and other thing that I didn’t need and didn’t absolutely love. The rule I follow for buying something new is if I want something, I wait a month, and see if I still want it. If it was an impulse buy situation, that desire usually goes away. If, say, I haven’t had a pair of sandals that aren’t falling apart all summer, then maybe it’s time to look for new sandals. (Not that I would know anything about that…)

Repair What You Have

I come from a family of engineers, so it was normal to me to open up something that was broken and try to fix it before even thinking of buying something new. But you don’t have to be an engineer to make a repair—the internet is your friend! The world wide web has taught me how to replace the screen on my iPhone, darn jeans, and so much more. I would highly recommend acquiring some basic sewing skills so you can easily fix small rips and tears in your clothes. Invest in a small tool kit of pliers, screwdrivers, and hammers, and you can fix loose sunglasses arms, jewelry and more. If you can’t fix something, support your local businesses and hire someone to do it. I recently had a pair of my favorite boots re-heeled by a cobbler, and I now expect them to last twice as long.

A lot of things made in the past 30 years are simply meant to be thrown away (so you have to buy more), and by making them last longer, you are fighting against this disposable culture, so good for you! And, when you repair something instead of chucking it, you are inherently reducing your demand for the new materials that make up that item.

Use A Reusable Coffee Cup

This one gets thrown around a lot, but it’s so important. Because of the plastic lining in paper coffee cups, they are very very difficult to recycle because the two materials have to be separated to do it. I know of one location (University of Toronto, I see you!!!) that actually does it. 99 times out of 100, it will not be possible. But when you invest in a reusable mug, or use a jar from home (try an old salsa jar, for the low low price of $0) you don’t even have to worry about that. You’re not participating. If you drink a coffee every day before work, that adds up fast…roughly 250 coffee cups a year just got saved from being thrown out. You’re killing it!

As an added bonus to lowering your impact, most places will give you a discount when you bring your own. Starbucks offers 10¢ off, and I’ve seen some places offer as much as 50¢ off. Coffee shops love it when you bring your own cup (you’re saving them money too!) but if you get a grumpy barista, don’t let it get to you. Remember why you’re doing it, and move on. You’ve got this.

Bonus: Be Kind To Yourself

Forgot to bring your reusable cup? Didn’t get a chance to pack lunch because you woke up late? Can’t find any jeans that fit you at the thrift store? (Um, that’s me.) Take a deep breath. Life happens. If you don’t get around to these things, it’s okay. If you do any of them some of the time, you’re doing great! What matters is that you are choosing to be a conscious consumer, instead of following the metaphorical pack. But I will say this: what will make the biggest impact over time are the small, consistent changes that we can make every day. So no matter what you decide to do, be dedicated.