Zero Waste: The Pragmatic View

A couple, three weeks ago, I saw a blog post entitled “Zero Waste in 30 Days.” So, I read it. I am, after all, working my way toward reducing waste as much as I can. And the plan will massively reduce the waste you generate.

There was only one problem. It was grossly impractical and difficult to implement. Take bread, for example. Your options were to bake your own or run all over town to find a bakery that will put your bread into your own re-useable bag. And that’s assuming you have a store near you where you can get your flour out of the bulk bins.

Now, I do bake my own bread and I am making an effort to bake it more often so that I don’t bring more single-use plastic into the house and into the waste stream. But the part they don’t tell you is that while baking your own bread isn’t that hard or even that time-consuming, it can be a real drag to do week in and week out. I know. I’ve done it. And it does become yet another drain on what time you do have.

I am very happy to see all the efforts to reduce waste, but things like Zero Waste (in caps) worry me. It’s too much all or nothing, and when it comes to things like reducing waste – a much needed part of environmentally sound living – absolute Zero Waste is not exactly realistic. Nor is it all that easy.

Reducing waste is hard. We have all that plastic and other throw-aways because they make life easier. People aren’t going to want to do things that make their lives harder – they have enough going on as it is. Also, people don’t like feeling guilty, and Zero Waste sets you up for guilt in a big way, because you’re going to throw something out.

I’m afraid people are going to see Zero Waste as too hard and/or too guilt-inducing and give up on even trying to reduce waste.

Another thing I’m seeing with the Zero Waste thing is elitism starting to happen. And that is a very bad thing for reducing waste. Consider, vegans are their own worst enemies when it comes to their cause because so many (not all) of them are so incredibly self-righteous (much like evangelical Christians, I might add). There’s a Buy Nothing group in our area, and I happened to overhear how some in the group were getting pissy because someone else had bought something. That is not a group I want to be involved in.

The problem is that it’s Zero Waste, it’s Buy Nothing. It’s the extremes that both those ideas imply, and the zealotry that extremes tend to generate. Yet neither is particularly practical – there are things I have to buy, such as the flour to make my bread. There will be some waste no matter what I do because jars break, note paper gets written on, paper tissues become necessary. And zealotry means if I’m not completely committed to Zero Waste, then I’m not committed. But when it’s all or nothing, guess what? I do nothing, as do most people.

Let’s try this instead. Let’s start looking at reducing waste as a process. You’re not going to be even mostly waste-free overnight. You’re not even going to do it in 30 days. It’s going to take time. And that’s okay.

Even better, rather than just a few of us going completely waste-free, wouldn’t we reduce a lot more waste if we encouraged people to reduce waste bit by bit? We’ve reduced plastic grocery bags by an enormous amount, and now, cities in California, at least, are banning plastic straws. Let’s just not forget that people with certain disabilities need them to drink stuff and not judge when we someone drinking with one. We can work on plastic tops and cups next.

I’m not saying stop your own efforts to get as close to Zero Waste as possible. I’m doing the same. But I also realize that I’m not going to do it as well as someone else, nor are you, and maybe we ought to focus on encouraging a larger group to do a little, rather than insist that everyone do a lot.

How to Bring Home the Groceries Without a Car

how to bring home the groceries without a carThere are two times when not having a car can be a real pain. One is when the buses or trains don’t go to where you want to go when you want to go. The other is when you’re trying to haul groceries and other stuff home from the shopping center. Both those times are why we’ll often choose to rent a car.

Now, we can and do fetch groceries without the car. There being only two of us humans, we don’t need huge amounts of food. And while we buy the dog food in 20-pound bags, we only need to buy it every other week. So, given the usual chaos of our lives, there are good odds we’ll be renting a car on the weekends we need to buy dog food.

Except for a few weekends ago. We had to replace some of our tech gear and the dogs needed food. And we’d decided against renting a car because of the cost. Did that stop us? As you can see from the photo to the left, of course not.

Even when the haul isn’t going to be this excessive, it does take some planning to grocery shop. I generally have to remember the granny cart or my other wheeled bag. Plus some extra bags. We like to try and include an insulated bag and some frozen packs since it does take longer to get the milk home.

And a good list is imperative. You really can’t just start tossing stuff in your cart willy-nilly because, at some point, you’re going to have to figure out how it’s all going to fit in what you have to carry. That may sound pretty obvious until you’ve actually gone and bought more stuff than you can carry. I’ve come pretty darned close, let me tell you. Having the granny cart with me is a big help because I use it as my regular shopping cart. That way, I know when I’ve got too much stuff.

Most times, only one of us will go out. As I noted above, we don’t generally need too much food at one time. But then there are those weeks when it helps to have two of us working together, like when we had the 20-pounds of dog food to buy, plus the extra tech gear, plus all the usual stuff we eat. We did it, as you can see. And it was kind of fun, too.


Edging Toward Waste-Free Living

waste-free living

A nicer, cheaper and more relaxed way to eat dinner

When we started working on waste-free living a number of years ago, we weren’t really thinking about the massive problems of landfills filling up and the over-consumption of resources to make and ship things that are only used once. We were thinking paper plates and napkins cost a frickin’ fortune. We have perfectly nice dishes and cloth napkins, we should use them.

Which is what we do. I gotta concede, it can be a nuisance. After all, you have to wash ceramic or other dishes and launder napkins. They don’t necessarily last forever. Plates and glasses occasionally break, it doesn’t matter how careful you are. Napkins eventually wear out and/or get stained.

The bottom line is that there are always tradeoffs when it comes to doing anything that’s going to be better for our planet. But there are advantages to waste-free living. For one thing, it’s frequently cheaper. I’m not re-buying stuff all the time. I can make new clothes out of old ones (when I get around to it, admittedly, but I can), and the results are often more creative than what I can find in the stores. While the initial layout on cloth napkins is significantly more than picking up a package of paper ones from the supermarket, I only buy them once every few years. And using dishes with cloth napkins and nice glasses does make dinner nicer and more relaxing.

I’m not saying we’re perfect. We still occasionally use paper plates, mostly for our biggest parties simply because we don’t have enough china for everyone. I have a bit of a tech habit, although I do make whatever gadgets I buy last way longer than expected. We’ve got a couple laptops that have been relegated to specific uses, but they’re six years old and still running.

We’re edging into this. I suspect we’ll never get it one-hundred percent right (whatever that is). But it’s more about trying to do a little better each day. It’s being okay with not being perfect. Just because you forget to bring your reusable plates to the potluck doesn’t mean you won’t remember next time. I’m working on bringing reusable cups with me so that when I do get a soda or something, I can use my reusable cup and not a paper or plastic one.

Waste-free living is as much a process as it is an end. And it can be a nuisance. But it can also be fun.




The Smells of Walking

walking, benefits of walking

A jacaranda in spring bloom

When we first gave up car ownership and I started walking more, I discovered something that I’d been missing. My sense of smell.

Okay, the sense, itself, was never any worse than it’s ever been. But when you’re in a car all the time, you forget that there are smells all over the city.

I know what you’re thinking – that most of those smells are pretty grim. Okay, some are. But a lot aren’t. A lot of smells, like the scent of a flowering jacaranda tree, are pretty nice. Then there’s my fave and it’s everywhere in Southern California – star jasmine. It’s a shrub that’s very, very hardy and so it winds up in a lot of planters around here. It’s not technically a jasmine, but when its small white flowers bloom, oh, the smell is exquisite.

Then, of course, there’s another human-made smell: street food. I love street food. There’s a guy with a small little rig he pulls behind his truck, called El Ultimo Tren. He makes burgers and tacos and they’re delicious. And the smell… Oy, it’s gorgeous!

I sometimes wonder if my deadened sense of smell got that way because there was nothing to smell. If anything is going to get through the airflow of a car, it’s going to be pretty strong, like a skunk or diesel fumes. The more subtle scent of flowers? Not happening. So with nothing to smell, I stopped smelling.

So now, I’m out on the streets, letting my under-used sense of smell get a work-out and it’s been pretty good.

Thoughts on Hanging Laundry

Laundry hanging

The clothes hung out to dry

With the spring warm-up, I’m back to hanging laundry out to dry.

Bend and stretch, reach for the stars…

That’s what hanging laundry is all about – bending down to get stuff from the basket and maybe a clothespin or two, then stretching up to get the shirt or blouse or pants pinned to the line.

Yes, I know I’m dating myself with that little ditty – or maybe not. It was from Romper Room, the pre-school show that I grew up with. Miss MaryAnn, I think, led our show, but there were later incarnations, some of which I found on YouTube.

Bend and stretch, reach for the stars…

We have a dryer and during the past few wet months, we used it. But hanging laundry out is a way of cutting down on the use of natural gas and electricity, letting the sun do its business to get our clothes dry. I’ll toss them in the dryer for a few minutes at the end of the day to soften them up a bit. But the time in the dryer has been greatly reduced.

It’s not a fun job. A basket full of wet clothes or towels or linens is plenty heavy. Then there’s the irritation of a sock or pair of undershorts falling out of the basket onto the dirty ground. Shake it off and hope you don’t have to wash it again.

This used to be Woman’s Work, which makes me wonder how the heck we got this idea that women are the weaker sex. Well, I know how, but sheez, most women were not wimps back in the day. If you had any money at all, you had servants, but that was as often as not, the girl from the neighboring village looking for a husband or your own daughter. And it’s as likely as not, you did the same work yourself before getting married. At least through the late Nineteenth Century.

Bend and stretch, reach for the stars…

But the job has its moments, too, in the repetitive movement. In the satisfaction of getting everything in the load on the line – not always easy given that our new high-efficiency washer actually takes bigger loads than our old one. Shirts and pants – the larger items going up first, with socks and smaller things after. Socks are easy to squeeze between the shirts and pants and other tops, so they go last in case I need the extra space. And for once, they don’t. The laundry is hung and I feel virtuous. Until I forget to get it off the line before dark. Again.

Blessings From the Homeless

One of the great joys and blessings of walking and taking public transportation is that I get to talk to a lot of different people. Okay, some of them are a little scary. But they’re rare. Most folks are pleasant and some… Well, the wisdom is amazing and I am often humbled.Blessings from the homeless

Take last week. My route took me over a freeway overpass and near the end of the offramp is a place frequented by homeless people, hoping to get some change or whatever from the drivers coming off the freeway. I had stopped and was waiting for the light to change, and as is my habit, was trying to do some unobtrusive leg stretches. The homeless man nearby spoke to me.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have anything,” I said, thinking he was asking for change.

“No,” he said. “Do you have cramps? Because I have a banana.”

Well, I didn’t have cramps and said so.

“Even a homeless person can give,” he replied.

I thanked him and moved on, feeling rather sad that I really didn’t have anything for him.

But why is it that the folks who have the least are the most willing to share what little they have? How can I justify not sharing all the good things I have when even a homeless person was willing to give me his banana to relieve me of some leg cramps?

I was truly blessed by this encounter. And I did write the check to Catholic Worker right away, to help support their program of feeding and caring for the homeless. But, gee, if I’d been in a car, I wouldn’t have had those blessings, or many of the others I’ve encountered simply because I walk or ride the bus. Anne Frank was right – people really are good at heart.

Carless in L.A.: Thermostat Wars


Photo credit Shari Weinsheimer

Somebody was joking recently about their thermostat at work being set to hypothermia. I added that our household thermostat is at the same setting. My husband says it’s not. I said it is. The thermostat wars are on again!

The problem is that we’re both right. He sets the thermostat to a nice, cool, but livable 68 degrees – which is considered appropriate for those of us wishing to conserve our natural resources. Well, I’m sitting here in my office with teeth chattering, a hoodie covering my sweatshirt, sweatpants on, as well. I’m freaking cold, dammit! Here’s the catch – the house thermostat got bumped up a while ago to 71 degrees.

My internal thermostat

The problem is my age. I’m at that stage of life where my internal thermostat is running haywire. I used to be a freaking polar bear, running around in shorts until the temperature outside dipped in the mid-60 degrees. 68? Totally comfy. Not since the hot flashes started. You’d think that would keep me comfortable when it gets chilly out.

No, the exact opposite has happened. Unless I’m up and around, I start getting chilled at 72 degrees. Much lower than that, and we’re talking about a bone-deep chill that does not go away without a hot shower. Or a night spent wrapped around my husband, which is only fun for a short time, since neither of us sleeps well when wrapped around each other.

What’s a reasonable, conscientious person to do?

I’d like to keep the house at 68 degrees, but I’m miserable. I tried a space heater. Even the one with the best “green” rating from Consumer Reports still costs more to run than it does to heat the whole house. Granted, our house is pretty small, but you’d think I was blasting the BTUs on this puppy – and I’m not. I don’t mind bundling up some, but when I have to wear gloves and a hat to write at my desk inside, I’m sorry, that’s too cold and uncomfortable.

So I set the thermostat as low as I can and wait as long as I can to do it. I wait to use my space heater until the late hours of the night so my husband isn’t so warm, he can’t sleep. I don’t like the idea of carbon credits, but fear I’m going to have to cash a couple of my carless points in for this one. I don’t know what else to do. Sigh.

Carless in L.A.: Get Out of Your Car and Say Hi

PeoplewalkingWhen I heard about the race-based shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, last week, I got angry. All I could think was that this has got to stop. We have to do something about racism. Every one of us.

Now, you may ask, what does this have to do with trying to live a greener life? Everything. Because who are we saving the planet for if not for our fellow human beings? We can live greener than green, but if our hearts are polluted by the non-thinking tendency to believe the worst in others not like us, then what’s the point? We live green to create a livable and beautiful world, but that has to include a whole lot of folks who don’t look like us. Or think like us.

But first, we have to acknowledge that while we are not violent White Supremacists (and I’m not even suggesting that we are), we – especially those of us who are White – have to face up to the negative stereotypes we have of others not like us. We may not consciously harbor negative thoughts about others, but they’re there. They happen. Our media are filled with negative stereotypes and images of people of color, with few positive images to balance the negative ones. We can’t help but be affected by that. I’ve taken classes in African American culture. I have several Black friends and I’ve done and said stupid things.

The trick is to face it and work harder at getting rid of those negative attitudes. You can’t fix something you refuse to acknowledge exists. And I think I have a way to do it, which also happens to correspond to the main theme of living green and, in our case, without owning a car.

Racism is based on fear. I think that’s pretty obvious. So if we’re going to get past this, we need to take the fear out of the equation. How to do that? We get out of our cars.

I’m serious. When I first started using public transportation more, back when I was living in the Chicago area, I noticed something odd. People said hello to me as I passed them on the street of the northern Chicago suburb where I was living. Okay, after a lifetime in the suburbs of Southern California, passing people on the street was weird enough. But some people – all of whom, by the way, were Black – said, “Hi, how are you?” as I walked past them. And it felt good. So I began saying hi back. And that felt better.

Then when we gave up our car, I began saying hi to everyone as I walked past them. I nodded and smiled at folks on the bus. I even spent one day doing nothing but praying for each person I encountered – not aloud, but enough that I was connected to all the people around me.

I know some of you are thinking, “But what if you’re saying hi to a gangster or rapist or crazy killer?” The odds are astronomically against it, though I could be. But I don’t think I’m putting myself at risk by doing so. In fact, given my self-defense training, I have good reason to believe that I’m actually doing something protective.The first principle of self-defense is being aware of your surroundings. Saying hi to people means I’m doing exactly that. Also, when I say hi to someone, I’m immediately telling that person two things. One, that I’ve seen him or her and could probably identify that person (not at all what your average crook wants), and two, that I’m not afraid of that person. If the person is your basic good person, like 99.99 percent are, then me not being afraid is reassuring and friendly. If I happen to come across that somebody nasty, well, folks like that do not want to mess with someone who isn’t afraid. That’s why self-defense coaches tell women to put on that bad-ass attitude when they’re walking around. And, finally, people don’t generally attack people who are nice to them.

So here is my challenge to you – get out of your car for a day or two and take a walk around your neighborhood. Or the next neighborhood over. Offer each person a confident, pleasant hello. See what happens. You may just find that that kid with his pants down past his backside is the local honor student. You may just find your heart growing lighter. You may just find that you’re making life on this planet just a little bit better, and that’s kind of the point of this whole exercise, isn’t it?

Carless in L.A. – It Takes Planning

Los Angeles Metro bus arrivingIt didn’t seem like any big deal. I was helping a friend do a mail-out and needed to pick up the letters and envelopes. So I called her and asked how much paper was involved. I just wanted to figure out if I needed to walk by her place before or after I did my other errands. If there was a lot of paper involved, I’d go by after the errands so I didn’t have to carry it around all day.

Seemed pretty normal to me, but then I’ve been getting around without a car for almost two years now and my friend totally relies on hers. So she was a little surprised and not sure what to make of it. But as I later explained, it’s what I do.

You see, it’s not that hard to get around Los Angeles without a car. But it does take some planning. If I need to get groceries for the week, I have to think about doing so before I leave home. I do keep some of those grocery bags that fold up into small packets in my backpack. But if I’m going to be getting milk and other heavy items, I generally need my granny cart.

People talk about living in the moment – and I generally prefer to. I just can’t all the time. I have to think two and three steps ahead sometimes because I have to account for the possibility of late buses. Or what the weather might be doing. Or what I’ll have to carry with me or bring home. I think about grabbing lunch in terms of whether I have time before the next bus comes – and it’s always a bit dicey when the lunch counter takes its sweet time and if I miss the coming bus, I’ll have to wait another hour. I once had a shop owner offer to make me a waffle and bring it to me at the stop. That way, if I had to leave before the waffle was ready, I didn’t have to pay for it. He got there in time and it was a damn good waffle.

So tomorrow is the trip to the podiatrist. I have a meeting with another friend after that and had to think about getting her mobile number just in case the bus runs late. Oh, and I really should have set the time for the meeting after I’d checked out how I was going to get to the podiatrist’s office. Oops. But I have her number. It’ll work out. At least, I’m planning on it.

Carless in L.A. – Yes, We (Mostly) Are

A little over two years ago, the State of California proclaimed our car dead. As in we couldn’t get it smog certified. It wasn’t anything we weren’t expecting for a lot of reasons. Let’s just say it was time.

Not a good time economically, mind you, and that is partly why The Beloved Spouse and I decided not to get another car. The other reason is that we had been talking about walking or using public transportation instead of driving for a good many years, and it occurred to us that having a car made it too easy to drive. I’m not sure if we thought we’d last this long, but we have not owned a car for over two years while living and working in Los Angeles County, and I don’t see us owning one again for a very long time.

What surprises me is how ho-hum most folks are when we tell them we don’t own a car. I don’t know if they’re horrified that we’re living in utter poverty – we’re not. In fact, after giving up the car, our economic situation improved quite nicely. Or perhaps folks are terrified that we’re going to hit them up for rides all the time. We refuse to do that. If we can’t get where we’re going and back under our own steam, as it were, we probably won’t go. Or we’ll rent a car. Or maybe it’s finally hitting home that it’s not all that difficult to live in Los Angeles without a car as you might expect.

I won’t say it’s perfectly easy, but it’s not that hard, either. For one thing, even though we live in the ‘burbs north of Pasadena, we do have two bus lines within easy reach of our house, something I get not everybody has. And we do rent a car if there’s an event at a time or place that would make it hard to catch a bus. But pretty much the rest of the time, we get around by bus and light rail.

The Beloved Spouse has been commuting via bus and light rail ever since he got his job in downtown L.A., which made it a lot easier to live with one car between us. So he’d been set for a while. I mostly work at home, so that helps as well. Still, I don’t think we could have given up the car six or seven years ago. One reason is that L.A.’s public transportation system is getting better, but the big helper is actually technology. Our smart phones pretty much make our lifestyle choice possible. Because I can read, check email, do social media and all that on my phone, wait and travel time is actually productive time for me now. I can keep working and it doesn’t matter if it takes an hour or more to get from home to wherever.

But there are also smart phone apps, particularly Go511, that will tell me when the bus is coming via GPS. Google Maps can plot a route better than the Metro app can because it can take advantage of multiple systems besides Metro, the main L.A. County bus and light rail system. And I can pull down a bus schedule whenever I need one from the mobile Metro site.

Does it take planning? Yes. It’s a lot harder to head out on the spur of the moment or on a lark. And I really have to think about how many groceries I buy because my granny cart has only so much room. Because Metro has such unenlightened views about dogs, we can only take our basset hound Clyde to the dog park on those weekends we’ve rented a car. Getting out and about at night can be a bit tricky because the buses don’t run as often or as reliably after 7 p.m. But there’s a hotel with a taxi stand near our light rail stop and that can fill the gap. And riding the bus when we’re sick or injured is not a lot of fun, although, again, there’s always cab service if something’s really urgent or icky.

On the other hand, we’re always driving relatively new cars because that’s what the rental company has. We do pay for our own insurance, but we don’t worry about car maintenance. That’s the rental company’s problem. And renting rarely costs us more than $200 a month. Let me know where I can buy a car for that kind of payment.

So, yes, you can manage quite nicely not owning a car in L.A. In fact, you might even find it fun. I know we have.