Updated: Oct 31, 2020
When I set out to reduce plastic waste, I found a surprising and completely unintended benefit: I felt happier.
I’d dabbled in minimalism, was interested in slow living and simple living, and certainly cared about the planet, but something shifted when I decided to take specific steps towards reducing plastic waste.
Plastic equals convenience: things ordered online and sent right to your door, prepared food from the grocery store that’s ready to eat, individually-wrapped granola bars. This is especially the case with food. By slowly and systematically removing these plastic-clad conveniences from my life, I was making the choice to have my life be the opposite of convenient: intentional. I was choosing to do a little more of the work myself in exchange for the pleasure of doing the work. I was choosing to interact with the world for five minutes rather than “save” five minutes. Because when you think about it, what are you saving that time for? If you can spend five minutes being present and having a meaningful interaction, isn’t that worth the time? Without realizing it, I had become a convert to slow living.
In my efforts to reduce plastic waste, I found myself in a deeper relationship with my food and with my body. By agreeing to slow down, I felt my anxiety relax. My appreciation for the planet deepened as I did my best to protect it.
By trading convenience for intention, I figured out how to slow down time.
We’ve long been warned against being busy for the sake of being busy. Making the choice to slow down and live intentionally is the antidote — or at least my antidote. I hope it becomes yours too.
This is Part 1 of a 5-part series on how my transition to slow living has benefited my body, my mind, and my environmental impact. Stay tuned for more.
A note about privilege:
I could spend the entirety of this post talking about the role privilege plays in the low and zero-waste movement. In short, it’s not pretty. The picture-perfect, Instagrammable lives of people who claim to teach you how to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle are often unrealistic and reserved for the very wealthy.
That’s not what I’m interested in; it’s not what I’m advocating for. I’m advocating for a life that, when possible, trades convenience for intention, allowing you to slow down and experience things rather than blow past them, smart phone in hand. I absolutely realize and sympathize with the fact that not everyone has the privilege to slow down. A single mother working two jobs probably doesn’t have time to travel to a far-away bulk grocery store, want to spend the extra money to buy produce that’s organic, or have the means to purchase a high-speed blender to grind her own peanut butter.
But maybe on her one night off a week, she can revel in a simple pleasure like making popcorn on the stove with her kids. Maybe she can trade responding to emails first thing in the morning for taking 5 deep breaths. Maybe she can stretch or take a walk during her lunch break rather than scroll through social media. And in fact, you might find that slowing down actually saves you some money. More on that later.
The idea behind slowing life down and living more simply is to heal the mind, the body, and the planet. While the most ideal scenarios may cost a fortune, I still maintain the the best things in life — and the most accessible — are free.
Part 1: Reduce Plastic Waste
Most of us have become increasingly aware of our increasingly serious plastic problem. In case you haven’t, allow me to give you a crash course.
First, there’s the horrifying knowledge that every piece of plastic waste we’ve ever created still exists somewhere on the planet (1).
What about recycling, you say? Turns out it’s not as reliable as we thought. About 91% of plastic is not recycled — even if it’s cleaned and disposed of in the proper bin (1). Plastic can take up to 1,000 years to break down completely (2). In the meantime, it ends up in landfills and largely in our oceans. In the latter, the combination of salt water, rough currents, and exposure to sunlight causes plastic to break into tiny pieces called microplastics. These are often mistakenly ingested by fish and other sea creatures, allowing them to work their way up the food chain into the bellies of whales, sharks, and — yup — us.
Not great, ey?
For the sake of our planet, our children, and all the species with which we share the earth, it is imperative that we figure out how to reduce waste and especially how to reduce plastic waste.
One of the quickest ways to reduce plastic waste, reduce your carbon footprint, and keep your body healthy is to alter the way you grocery shop.
Do some research to find stores that sell in bulk near you, ones with big ole bulk bins of grains, beans, and nuts.
Benefits for the earth:
The most obvious benefit of buying in bulk is that you have the opportunity to create zero waste. Yes, those flimsy plastic bags are lining the aisle just waiting for you to tear one off, but you definitely don’t need them. Look in the produce section near the mushrooms; many grocery stores have paper bags there that you can repurpose for bulk items. You can buy reusable produce bags or cotton / muslin bags, or even make your own if you’re crafty (just be sure to use light-weight fabric so you’re not charged for the weight of your bag in addition to the weight of your food!). If none of those are great options, go ahead and tear off the plastic bags — but bring them back to reuse next time.
Benefits for your wallet:
If you’re interested in how to eat healthy for cheap, buying in bulk is your answer. Foods bought in bulk are generally cheaper than those bought in packaging. Many stores will have pre-packaged bulk items in the same aisle as the bulk bins, and even those tend to be more expensive than scooping things yourself. Pretty silly, huh?
I’ve done some price comparisons and the situations in which buying in bulk is not the cheapest option are quite rare. Remember, you’re paying for the packaging. If there’s no packaging, you’re paying for your food and nothing else.
Benefits for your body:
Another benefit of buying food in bulk is that you’ll generally make healthier choices. While they do carry sesame sticks and peanut butter pretzels in bulk, they don’t carry Doritos or potato chips (at least not that I’ve seen). Instead of getting a bag of potato chips, scoop up some popcorn kernels. Pop ‘em on the stove, drizzle on oil / butter, sprinkle on spices, and BAM: you’ve created a delicious, low-waste, savory snack that’s far better for your bod.
Benefits for your mind:
You might be thinking, “Making my own popcorn sounds great, but that’s so time-consuming.”
Yes, that is completely true. But hear me out: That’s the point.
Instead of tossing packaged foods into our carts and into our pantries, buying in bulk opens the doors for a very different relationship with our food. You can see, feel, smell, and taste exactly what you’re buying. I’ve personally grown to love the ritual of pouring my bulk purchases into various jars and arranging them on my shelves after getting home from the grocery store.
Now that you’re convinced, here are my bulk shopping secrets.
Here in Colorado, Sprouts is my go-to. They have a pretty extensive selection of bulk items. You can get the things you’d expect to find, like nuts, oats, beans, rice, chocolate-covered goodies, dried fruit, and trail mix. They also have some bomb savory snacks like Asiago and herb sesame sticks (!!), veggie chips, popcorn kernels, and peanut butter-filled pretzels, as well as a seriously dangerous selection of sweets including licorice bites, sour gummy bears, and honest-to-goodness brand-name Jelly Bellies. Plus you can get everyday kitchen staples including brown sugar, sea salt, spices, tea, coffee, semi-sweet chocolate chips, and flour, and some more obscure items like tapioca starch and coconut flour.
You could very easily get all of your food staples from the bulk section, and that’s pretty much what I do. I bring my reusable produce and cloth bags to the store, fill ‘em up, and either write the PLU number on my grocery list or take a picture with my phone. I used to bring my jars and fill them directly, but so many employees were bamboozled by tare weights (which is inexplicable considering they advertise themselves as a bulk foods store…) that it just became easier to use bags.
The Denver area is also lucky to have a growing number of bulk stores for liquids, home, and personal products. Zero Market is by far the best. They have an absurdly large selection of liquid staples in bulk. We’re talking white distilled vinegar, olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, and canola oil. For home and cleaning products, they have dish soap, laundry detergent, window cleaner, all-purpose cleaner, castile soap, etc. For personal care stuff, they have essential oils, argon oil, jojoba oil, epsom salts, shea butter, sweet almond oil, shampoo, conditioner, lotion... all in bulk. As you gradually replace plastic items with more sustainable ones, they’re a great source for things like stainless steel razors, compostable dish brushes, reusable face clothes, metal and glass straws, reusable produce bags...plus a million more things.
If you’re in the area and are trying to reduce your waste, go there. Seriously.
MIY: Make it Yourself
In addition to buying in bulk whenever possible, try making some staples at home. For many things, you’ll benefit from having a high-powered blender or food processor. If you don’t want to invest in a new one, look on Craigslist and at thrift stores. Talk to your roommates, friends, and neighbors and see if anyone wants to go in on one together. You could get together for a Saturday afternoon and make giant batches of peanut butter, hummus, soup, etc., and split the cost of the ingredients as well as the bounty of delicious homemade staples.
If you’re game to make some things yourself, the first thing I recommend is peanut butter. It’s the gateway drug into making it yourself — so easy and cheap it’s ridiculous.
Next time you’re at a grocery store, look for a jar of peanut butter that’s made with just peanuts — no palm oil, corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, or any other funky additives. It’s crazy difficult to find! Even Justin’s nut butters have palm oil in them. If you do find a peanut butter unicorn that’s made of only peanuts, it will run you between $7 and $12. Very dramatic.
Instead, you can buy peanuts in bulk, blend ‘em up, and have your own batch of all-natural PB in minutes. The other day I bought a pound of roasted and unsalted peanuts in bulk for $1.30 and blended them up with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of honey. I had a jar of all-natural peanut butter in minutes and it cost me $1.30. Plus I created zero waste in the process! Win for my body, win for my wallet, and win for the planet.
Some other easy homemade staples are hummus, almond butter (though you’ll need a serious blender / food processor), almond milk, granola bars, muffins, and bread. Yes, all require time, but that’s the exercise: trading convenience for intention.
Baking bread in particular has become a therapeutic ritual for me. To create a truly delicious loaf of bread, patience is absolutely vital. What better metaphor can you think of for slowing life down?!
Say you want a savory snack. Instead of grabbing for a bag of chips, you decide to make a bowl of popcorn on the stove. You bought popcorn kernels in bulk at the grocery store, which created zero waste and cost you about 30 cents.
By making the popcorn on the stove, you’re engaging in the action of heating up the oil, watching the kernels dance around, and shaking the pan as they pop. These small actions bring you into the present moment and s t r e t c h out time. Once you pull the popcorn off the stove, you control exactly how much butter, oil, or salt you toss into it (and you avoid the nasty stuff that lines popcorn bags (3)). You flex your creative muscle by testing out some new seasonings (Try Old Bay! Try nutritional yeast! Try fresh herbs!). You sit down with a homemade snack that makes you feel like a honest-to-goodness homesteader. Plus you stood for five minutes longer than you would have otherwise. WINS. ALL. AROUND.
About Animal Products
I’m not vegan; I eat animal products. For my body, being vegan isn’t my healthiest option. I’m not able to operate at my highest capacity and contribute my talents to the betterment of the world. This may be sacrilegious to say in the world of low-waste, but I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to be vegan.
I do think it’s necessary, however, for everyone to seriously consider the amount of animals products we consume daily. If we can all eat as many plant-based meals as possible, we'll find a sustainable balance that's beneficial for our bodies, our wallets, and the planet. Meat doesn't have to be the main event or something we eat at every meal. For many, meat maybe isn't even something we eat every day.
By changing the way you cook and think about food, you can easily cut down on meat without feeling like you’re starving.
By "shop local," I mean really local: physically go to farmer's markets, butchers, and dairy shops. Purchasing locally-produced food is beneficial for the planet because it means food has traveled fewer miles, requiring less fuel. This is a tremendous benefit, but I find buying from local merchants to also be deeply personally enriching.
By frequenting local farmers markets and shops, you have an opportunity that’s pretty rare in 2019: you can talk with the very people who’ve brought your food to life. Think about that for a second. How often do you get the chance to talk with Dave of Dave’s Killer Bread, Bobo of Bobo’s Oat Bars, or Binnie of Binnie’s Coconut Butter? Clever branding may make us feel like we know who’s behind our food, but it’s nothing like actually speaking with the people who create it.
Shopping local gives you this rare treat. You get to learn where your food came from, how it was grown or prepared, what makes it unique. The farmer / baker / butcher / chef will be thrilled that you’ve taken an interest in what they create. You’ll build a relationship that goes beyond just a transaction.
By reducing your reliance on single-use plastics, you can deepen your relationships with food, your body, your community, and the earth.
For more on how to slow down and tune in, check out the rest of the series!
Want to know more? Check out my sources:
(1) Plastic facts: https://www.earthday.org/2018/03/07/fact-sheet-end-plastic-pollution/
(2) How plastic breaks down: https://www.thebalancesmb.com/how-long-does-it-take-garbage-to-decompose-2878033
(3) Danger of microwave popcorn: http://time.com/5218647/healthiest-way-to-make-popcorn/