Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Not So Simple Life

From the busy bean of Green Bean.

It was 10 o'clock. I pulled out of the school parking lot after volunteering in my younger son's classroom for the morning. Wheeling toward town, I contemplated how much I could get done in the next hour and a half - before I was due to pick up the kindergarten carpool.

Squinting through scratched sunglasses and a too-dirty windshield, I ticked off items on my list: grocery store, collect and label items for the school auction, more envelopes for the big Valentine project. I paused to wonder if the grocery store carried recycled envelopes. That would knock out two things at once. A snow parka for my oldest, and more chicken feed.

There was no time for the farmer's market, or even Whole Foods with its brimming bulk aisles and tattooed checkers expertly cramming my canvas bags full. I opted for the small locally owned grocery store instead. They, at least, carried local, organic milk in the returnable glass bottle. I fished some cloth bags, including a handful of produce bags, out of the trunk and headed inside. I stocked up on milk, some local oranges, organic apples from two states over and, after inspecting the greens in their produce section, opted for the organic spinach in the recylable plastic container. Better than a throw away plastic bag, I reasoned. I passed over the rest of the veggies as my winter CSA pick up was in two days. We could survive until then.

At the check out stand, I packed my own bags - mimicking the Whole Foods method of over-stuffing cloth bags. I then jetted to a local thrift store to scope out ski jackets but came up empty. I'd have to go back another day.

A peek at my watch indicated that I only had a twenty minutes until pick up. Did I take the groceries home and unload or try to make it to the office supply store for the recycled envelopes because, no, the market had not carried those after all? Home it was - with a quick stop on the way to pick up some wine donated for the school auction. And then, before I'd had a chance to take a sip of water or check email, it was pick up time.

Heading back out to the car, I passed the lemon tree my mother in law had bought for my birthday. Bright green leaves peeked out - new growth. I thought where I might plant it. I thought about the large backyard, where I dreamed of planting fruit trees and an edible garden but, as of yet, hadn't found the time.

And then I thought of the recent article Zero-Waste Home from Sunset magazine, the one Erin linked to on Tuesday. It features a Northern California home that emits virtually no garbage and very little recycling. The featured home is lovely. Spotless almost in its modern simplicity. The kitchen stocked with clear glass jars of homemade goodness. I thought of the lifestyle featured in that article. It seems such a simple life but that is illusion. You see, I once lived that life!

I miss that life. I do. There is something wholesome and comforting about buying beans in bulk, carting them home in natural colored, organic cotton bags, storing them in glass jars and then letting them luxuriate overnight in a water bath, before cooking.

There is something heartwarming and fulfilling about opening your pantry to see, not boxes of processed food made in a factory in China, but granola bars, cookies, crackers made in your own home, the home of a friend, or by some local baker.

There is something magical and settling to pulling from your own oven a tight little loaf of artisan bread, shaped by your own floured hands, right down to the criss-cross mark across the top.

There is something that centers one about that kind of life. It is slow. It is wondrous. It is meaningful. But it is not simple - the life of zero waste.

All those containers filled with baked snacks were baked in the wee hours of the evening. The jewel toned jars of jam lined like soldiers in a parade took time - while the boys were at school, or in bed, or outside exploring with dad. All those finds from the thrift score were the result of multiple trips. Sometimes you leave with three bags full and other times, with nothing.

It's not that the simple life is not wonderful. It is just that the simple life is, well, not simple. Fortunately, for those of us who cannot do "not simple", we can still live in accordance with our greener principles.

The green life can be for those of us who sit for an hour, encouraging a child through math problems that should only taken 10 minutes. It is for those of us who have little ones under foot or older ones bucking the system of "no gift" birthdays. It is for those who work full time outside the home and those who cannot afford to pay $8 for someone else to make our own jam out of locally grown berries.

As my simple life has devolved into one that is not-so-simple, here are the following ways I've sought to stay on the green path. Please add your own ways to live green on a tight schedule and budget.

  • Use Dr. Bronner's soap to avoid 1,4 Dioxane, which is a known carcinogen and appears in most dish soaps including "environmentally friendly" ones.

  • Run the dishwasher only when full. Turn off the drying cycle and let dishes air dry.

  • Turn down the settings on your fridge and freezer and keep both full for more efficient usage.

  • Buy bulk packages of yogurt, crackers, and such and, repackage them in reusable containers for lunches and snacks on the go. Our local market carries milk and yogurt in reusable glass jars. You pay a deposit for the jars at purchase and then get the deposit back when you return the jar. If possible, shop in the bulk aisle with your own cloth produce bags. This only happens for us when I can make it over to Whole Foods but when I go there, I stock up on oatmeal, nuts and dried fruit from the bulk bin.

  • Swap out juice boxes and water bottles for reusable bottles, like Sigg.

  • Switch to rags or dishtowels in lieu of paper towels; cloth napkins in lieu of paper. Our used towels and napkins go in the hamper with the rest of the laundry and I haven't noticed an appreciable difference in the amount of laundry I do.

  • Whenever you home cook, double your patch. Freeze leftovers in single meal sized portions. Now you have a frozen dinner that is healthier, better tasting, has no packaging and costs less than a Lean Cuisine.

  • Look into a CSA (community supported agriculture) or buying club for delicious, sustainable food delivered to a home near you. This is even easier than supermarket shopping because you can leave the kids in the car while you grab your box of goodness from a neighbor's front porch. ;-) I've gotten too busy for the farmer's market so I now belong to a CSA.

  • Make your coffee at home. Kicking the Starbucks habit obviates the need to carry a reusable mug, saves some dough and allows you to control (1) the type of coffee (look for shade grown, fair trade and/or organic; all three is best), (2) the filter used (go for a reusable filter is best or ones made with recycled paper), and (3) disposal of filter and grounds (compost!). With a programmable coffee maker, you'll save time (and gas) by not hitting Starbucks and have your cup of joe waiting when you get up in the morning.



  • Trade clothes with friends or relatives. Thrift stores often have great prices and a large selection but are not always organized and you are not always able to find what you are looking for. Consignment stores are sometimes a better alternative as they tend to have a higher quality selection, require less digging but cost a big more and, of course, eBay and Craigslist which allow for very targeted searches of a second hand item.

  • Wash clothes in cold water and use a quarter of the detergent called for.

  • Only do full loads of laundry.

  • Wash your clothes less. Are you jeans dirty after an evening out at a restaurant? Do your kids need to have their pj's washed every day or will once a week suffice? Lowering your clean clothes standard saves time, money and energy.

  • Have less stuff. This takes more time initially but, clean out your closets, your dresser drawers, your desk drawers and sell items on Craigslist, freecycle them, or donate them to a local charity. The more stuff you own, the more time and money you need to spend organizing it, cleaning it, storing it. Just get rid of it (and don't buy more). You won't miss it.


  • Unplug the TV, DVD player and computer when not in use. We keep our DVR directly plugged in so it still records but switch everything else off via a power strip.

  • Use less light (after switching to CFLs or LEDs). We have one CFL light bulb on at night in our family room. We adjusted quickly to the dimmer lighting and, when guests come over and turn on the overhead lights, feel somewhat blinded.

  • Don't renew magazine subscriptions. You can get the same information on the Internet and will reduce paper waste. Also, if you're like me, I felt compelled to read a magazine that I might otherwise not when it landed in my mailbox. Reading it took time as did moving it from pile to pile before I actually found the time to flip through it.


  • Adjust your sprinklers for rain and slowly reduce the amount of time they are on. Less water often makes plants grow deeper roots, which is healthier for them and your water bill.

  • Compost. Many counties offer subsidized compost bins. A few years ago, I got a $200 Smith & Hawken compost bin for thirty bucks. Alternatively (and even easier once it gets going), lobby your city to pick up compost. We did and now I don't even bother with the home compost bin any more. Plus, industrial compost picked up by the garbage company allows you to compost so much more - pizza boxes, those paper napkins Chipotle snuck in your bag, cardboard and paper of any type that has gotten wet or been stained by food, those crazy "compostable" containers that take out restaurants now use that would never compost in a home compost bin, meat, cheese, and the list goes on.

  • If you take care of your yard yourself, use a reel mower and leave the grass to decay on your lawn. This is called grasscycling and is great for the environment and your lawn. Also, be lazy and let leaves decompose where they fall. This is nature's way of maintaining a balance, providing habitat to wildlife and freeing up your time.


Farmer's Daughter said...

Great post! I ran out of time to read the tips but I will be back later!!!

Anonymous said...

I find it sort of comforting, as I am in one of my "what have I done for green lately" self-flagellating places at the moment, how many of the things on this list we already do. The thing's not that "out there" a list, this is the stuff that, if we ALL, everyone, not just the greenyfringe, took even half of these simple steps, we could probably really make a dent in the problems.

Great post!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

This is a great and comprehensive list, and such a great reminder of what we can all do, even without too much effort. I'm very jealous of your city composting. I want that so much!

Elaine said...

Great tips! I also try to keep an empty container in my purse for leftovers, if I eat at a restaurant. Then I don't have to ask for a doggy bag.

AmazinAlison said...

Excellent list.

@Elaine: Why didn't I think of that before?

Given that I don't live in lemon tree country, a big one for us is keeping the thermostat set lower in the winter. It takes us a while to adjust each fall, but we've got it at 65F during the day and 63F for the middle of the night. We've stocked up on thick socks and sweaters!

I also try to have a few days per week that we either stay home or walk/bike where we need to go and leave the car parked.

And we buy less and or replace less frequently -- everything does not need to be brand new. For example, a lot of our cloth napkins look pretty old and faded/stained, but they work fine. I don't give them to guests, but they are perfectly good for daily use, so why replace them?

I've also been pretty reserved in our accumulation of toys. Rather than having themed toys I've sort of directed our accumulation around wooden blocks and second hand duplos (with a new marble set that works in) that all work together. My son who is almost four spends a lot of time building and using his imagination. Sometimes I feel bad when we visit a friends house and they have a zillion different kinds of toys, but at home he never complains...

Anonymous said...

Great article. I can't believe you found the time to write it!! I am totally impressed. I also didn't know about the dishwashing soap. Very disturbing.

Green Bean said...

@Abbie: Thank you! The article ended up being longer than I intended - too many ideas. :)

@Jen: "Self flagellating!" That is exactly why I wrote it. I was feeling so guilty that I don't have time to do all those things anymore but then I realized how much I still do.

@Erin: Perhaps you should get a campaign going for city composting and bring your kids to the meetings. :)

@Elaine: Genius! Just like my little fold up cloth bags when I forget the real ones in the trunk!

@Alison: I feel that way about toys too. It becomes more of an issue when they get older and have kids over for playdates - which is why I finally caved after 5 years of "no gift" birthday parties. Still, all those toys are no replacement for imagination, which blossoms with fewer, simpler toys.

@Danielle: Touche! I'll confess to cribbing the list of tips from a list I put together in 2007 or 2008, and while writing, got inspired to finally do something on the garden!

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

Wow, that is a lot of information in one post. Always important to celebrate success. I would love to have a pantry full of glass jars of food I grew and preserved myself, but I'm decades (or forever) away from there. I whole-heartedly agree with lowering your cleaning standards. In fact, just being lazy is a great way to go green:

I, too, wish we had city composting. I want to compost, but I don't garden, so it seems sort of silly. Still on my to do list. . .along with starting a garden.

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

P.S. Love the butter wrapper idea! I've been buying organic soap wrapped in paper at WF, and stick the wrapper in one of my clothes drawers until it doesn't smell anymore before recycling. Like a potpourri sachet, with far less effort.

Green Bean said...

Thanks Betsy. I adore the soap wrapper idea. Those easy ways to extend the life of something always grab me. Thank you for sharing it and your thoughts on going green the lazy way. I wholeheartedly agree!

Marianne said...

Thank you for this post! I found it encouraging and very realistic!


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