I grew up in the middle of 7 acres of woods in New York state. There was a period when my family kept two gardens, had a variety of berry bushes, 2 bee hives from which we harvested honey, and in late winter we made syrup from the tapped maple trees’ sap. I was in Boy Scouts and our local troop made money by recycling newspapers. I gave up doing spring track and field (1 mi. run and pole vaulting) in the middle of my high school sophomore year because it interfered with backpacking on the weekends. The idea of being stewards of the land, having regard for the environment, was a given.
Then, the summer before my senior year in high school, while on vacation, my family passed through a mining town in Montana. I noticed that many of the people working in the restaurant where we had lunch had mental and physical developmental disabilities. I realized that while mining likely provided a significant source of employment for the town’s people and thereby income for the community, if the tailings – the residue from the extracted ore that is often flushed into local streams and rivers – became mixed up with the local water supply, then the way of doing business and how they saved money by dumping the refuse was causing a bigger issue. Polluting the water was impacting the population, creating a generation that would have lower functional capacities and higher health care needs.
The environment can be incredibly resilient, powerful even, and yet quite fragile in other respects. Any brief, objective survey of the last few decades (or human existence), will show that we have an impact on our environment, and it on us. As much as we would like to be in control, and to harness it for our comfort and profit, at best our relationship should be one of (here it comes again), interdependence. In many ways, if left to itself, the natural world will do its thing without any human assistance. It is completely independent. But as humans ARE of this world, we do depend upon the environment. To the degree then that we can adopt a relationship that is not completely self-serving, but contributes back to the environment, the better it will be able to provide for our needs.
You’ve likely seen the slogan: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” I think this is a helpful framework for us to consider what role our personal economy plays with regard to the environment, in an action-oriented way. To start, by reducing what we consume has manifold benefits: we spend less money, so that’s good for our wallet. By having less stuff cluttering our home, it makes for good mental well-being and lower stress, which leads to better physical health. To have space in our rooms, our refrigerator, on our shelves and in our closets, on our desks, gives you space to think, to be creative. It also is a reflection of values and knowing what we want to bring in and what we don’t, so that when faced with the offer or choice, we know how to opt for simplicity of lifestyle. For instance, as a regular practice, I refuse to take the swag bag at a conference. I don’t want the bag – I have enough bags at home to serve all my carrying needs. I don’t want the trinkets. Instead, I take the program / agenda out, since I do like that as a printed piece, and know that I will be recycling it when I’m done. Plus, it’s usually lightweight. I make a quick assessment if there is anything else to be taken (such as a book, or the metal travel fork/spoon/chopstick combo) balancing the benefit the item will provide with the weight and space it will occupy in my personal shoulder bag. Is it worth lugging around for the next 48 hours? Most of the time it isn’t. And so the majority of materials never even leave the check-in booth, as I hand the bag back, doing my best to be gracious about it, and walk away. (Now, it can be argued that the material has already been purchased and will go to waste. This is true, but I benefit from not bringing it into my life, and I make a statement to the conference organizers that this established practice should be reassessed. I have started seeing a change recently.)
You can also reduce through attrition. This means that as something wears out, you don’t replace it one-for-one. I’ve started doing this for books, kitchen gadgets, appliances, clothes, and shoes. I had a pair each of low-top and high-top hiking boots. As both were in need of replacement, I subsequently bought only one pair of nice high-tops, and discarded the other two. Less cost, less space.
One year, during the period when my wife and I fast, we discovered one morning that the coffee maker didn’t work anymore(!). We rushed breakfast with tea and ibuprofen, and then realized that we had a perfectly good stainless steel French press stashed away with our camping gear. After a few mornings, I’d gotten the hang of it (ratios and whatnot) and now we have a more intimate experience making coffee, a pot I don’t worry about breaking, and more counter space since we tossed the electric one.
The same thing goes for books. I luuuuv books. I love how they look. I love the worlds they hold. I love the memories. But there can be too many for me, especially if I assess how relevant they are to me now. And once they start getting laid out in double rows, or stacked in piles on top of the bookshelf, I know it’s time to pare down. I’m sure Marie Kondo would roll her eyes at me. So, I assess what’s no longer relevant, really not going to be read (since it’s been 10 years and I haven’t cracked it since bringing it back from the box someone else had set out their front door, labeling it “free”), and it isn’t something I want to hold onto and read to my kids. Then, off it goes to the local drop spots around town: The free book exchange, the independent coffee shop, the Little Free Library boxes, friends who actually do want the books, etc. Then, if I do happen to see a book that I absolutely must have, I know that I have to give away at least 2 or 3 in exchange. Is it worth it? Can I just get it from the library instead? The assessment helps increase what I value in my life, while decreasing the clutter, cost, and environmental impact. All good things.
If you want to reduce your consumption, simply look at everything you bring into your personal sphere, be it purchased by you, or given to you. It may mean conversations with loved ones who want to shower your children with so. many. toys. It may mean then constructively finding ways to help them show their love and generosity, but in a way that helps everyone’s happiness, rather than leaving the recipient with a house of clutter. Mind what you buy, especially groceries. Use a list to plan your meals and then another list to streamline what actually goes into the shopping cart and thus into your home. When we reduce, we take less out of the environment and put less waste back into the environment. The tree gets to stay as a tree, rather than get cut, pulped, pressed, written on, discarded, and then decomposed in the landfill now residing where the forest once stood.
When we reuse, on the other hand, we’ve accepted whatever product into our home, but we now consider what other purpose it might serve. The box the car seat came in now serves as the console of a rocket ship. The plastic grocery bags are used again for vegetables, or transporting wet or dirty clothes. Various sized plastic bottles are filled with water, put into the freezer (making the freezer run more efficiently), serving as cold packs for cooler lunches, or blocks of ice for the refrigerator when the power goes out.
Reusing can take different forms and it need not be you who does the actual reusing. I know many folks will give away children’s clothes, and receive in kind. It’s how I grew up and how my kids are growing up. We’re part of a close knit group of families and as our children outgrow clothing that’s still in good condition, we’ll stick them into a garbage bag and pass them onto the next family. It’s fun seeing clothes loved fourth or even fifth hand. If you don’t know someone, or they don’t want what you’re giving away, chances are there is a thriving industry of used and second-hand markets. In our area there are annual conventions for selling clothing, toys, and gear for infants through childhood. There are always then also the more established non-profits, such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, Purple Heart, Habitat for Humanity, and others who will make house calls and pick up materials, including furniture.
The possibilities are quite infinite. Apart from the satisfaction of giving your creative noodle a workout, reusing stuff at least gives a longer lifespan to that which we do use. And it helps as a mental prompt to note the usefulness of what we already have, minding then to not bring in any more, if we can help it. This stems back to the idea of mindfulness, awareness, consciousness of what our goals are, and fighting back against the forces of materialism, saying, “No, thank you. I have enough.”
Currently, recycling is having a bit of a crisis due to shifts in markets and economic states, and many state government programs, while they still do curb-side recycling pick up, will only dump it along with the garbage, since no one is willing to pay for it anymore (or it costs more to recycle than to dump). This is especially true for plastic. However, there are still local stations and boxes that will accept particular types of materials, such as clothing and scrap metal. I know there are also salvage industries and markets for industrial recycling of building materials. Good intentions to keep our waterways and forests clean are important. Do what you can to find out how much of your refuse can actually be recycled in your locality, and then make an effort to adhere to the practice. But as all undertakings are dependent upon means, to develop new business models that are actually designed to help the environment (and not just look good for publicity) is important too. For those of you interested in this type of social entrepreneurship, please take up the challenge.
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