Makeshift Shoe Rack

When you have limited money and resources, the best fixes often come from creative solutions! Currently my husband and I are living in a room that is really only made for one person. We have a lot of things taking up space (that we are going to need when we get our own place) but not a lot of storage space. We are fairly minimal with most of our things, although there is still room for improvement in some areas. For example, one area that we have a hard time downsizing is our shoes. The shoes that no longer served their purpose were donated a long time ago so everything we have left are shoes that we actually use (although I would still like to get down to only four or five pairs each at some point). One of the main issues that we were having in our tiny room was what to do with all our shoes. They kept ending up everywhere and no matter how nicely we tried to keep them lined up they always seemed to look very messy.

 

IMG_4644

With our closet serving double duty as storage we are very limited in our options of where to put them.  Then the other day I was moving things around, once again trying to shift stuff so that it doesn’t look so cluttered, when I came up with an alternative. I had some small wooden pallets that I had used to decorate with at my wedding (that I plan on using more once we move) but that are really bulky and taking up a lot of space. I also unearthed some Mason jar cups in the kitchen things that I inherited last year. I decided to make the bulky pallets and currently-not-in-use cups serve a dual purpose by converting them into a temporary shoe rack. I stacked one pallet on top of another putting the four Mason jar cups in between to create a space just big enough to fit our shoes! It is not an ideal solution but with our limited space and our need for storage it has been pretty effective at helping us contain our shoes and make use of our things. Once we move, I look forward to having a proper shoe area and for these items to serve their original purposes!img_4642.jpg

 

My (Almost) Zero Waste Wedding

Although I never spent hours as a little girl dreaming about what my wedding would be like, I certainly had some preconceived ideas about weddings in general. However, when it came down to it, my wedding was so far beyond what I ever imagined it to be… and it was perfect! Obviously, I am not the same person now as I was when I first started thinking about weddings. As I’ve grown, I’ve completely changed what I thought I wanted, what I thought I had to have in my life, and what I thought would honestly make me happy and fulfilled.

Wedding Walking

This transition of thinking has gone on to change all aspects of my life. And most of those preconceived ideas revolved around things. All the things I thought I needed were reinforced through advertisements and other media outlets as well as by friends, family members, and strangers alike. And wedding celebrations were no different. I grew up thinking I had to have lots of wedding decorations, a fancy ceremony and an even fancier reception. I thought I would have to spend lots of money to have the perfect wedding. I thought I had to have a ton of decorative flowers and expensive bouquets, a huge cake, special dishes, a specially reserved ‘wedding venue’, catered food, live music, printed invitations sent on expensive paper/envelopes, matching brides maids dresses, special car for the bride, an engagement ring AND a wedding band, a honeymoon, and so on!

Wedding Cairn Building

 Even when I first started planning my wedding last year, I was still buying into the idea of the majority of these things. If I had the money I might not have reconsidered them either. That’s how ingrained they are in our society. These things are nice and do make for absolutely beautiful weddings! But they can all really add up, even when you choose affordable alternatives. Thousands of dollars can easily be put into a wedding, which if you really think about it is actually quite crazy. You can spend weeks, even months of your life making just enough money to cover the cost of only one day! That idea didn’t sit very well with me especially since there are so many other things that I would rather spend my money on.

Luckily, like everything in my life since I discovered the zero waste and minimalism lifestyles, I started questioning whether these were things that I truly needed and if they were what I actually wanted or just what I had been told that I had to have. It was only through the planning process and as a result of an underwhelming wedding budget that I decided to redesign many traditional wedding practices to create my perfect wedding.

Once I discovered the zero waste movement I knew that my wedding could no longer be exactly how I imagined it would be. But it was truly the minimalism philosophy that cut away all of the extra things to leave me with the core parts of my wedding, just like it cuts away the clutter of my daily life to show me what is most important. That’s not to say that I decided to scrap every wedding tradition. What I did instead was actively choose what parts genuinely added value to my special day and put most of my focus on those instead of wasting my limited time and resources on things that didn’t matter as much.

The most important things we decided to focus on were family, friends, and celebrating our relationship and future together. We decided to plan and orchestrate it all by ourselves with help from our friends, family, and ultimately the community. We decided to keep the wedding local since our small hill town is fairly close knit and willing to lend a hand to help out a neighbor. We decided that the wedding would be at the nearby waterfall and we asked permission to use the local fairgrounds for our reception. I also got ready in the the town church with my bridesmaids. One of my friends made some beautifully designed wedding invitations and Save the Date notices which we opted to send out via email (we wanted the wedding to be as zero waste as possible and didn’t think it was worth spending money on something that would eventually just get thrown away).

Wedding Tractor

I personally set up the fairground picnic tables with the help of friends and family. Our friendly neighbors lent us dishes, silverware, serving dishes, and space to prepare some of the food. All of our friends and family brought a dish to be share and to compliment the other dishes prepared by my mother-in-law. My Mom purchased handwoven napkins from a friend to be used by our guests which also served as her wedding present to my husband and me. My best friend brought her iPod and speakers to DJ for us. We used some things we found on the fairground and some random items from my house to decorate with which I organized and over saw myself. Another friend brought her amazing camera to take wedding pictures for us and many people took turns with it or their phones (and they certainly got some amazing shots)! Another neighbor, with an absolutely stunning garden, gave us cuttings from her hydrangeas. Each of my bridesmaids took a branch which served as their whole bouquet. Later on we used the leftover flowers and our own ‘bouquets’ as displays for the tables. The exchange student we are hosting also made a few origami pieces to add to the decorations. (Side note: Initially, I wanted plotted flowers because I don’t like killing a plant just because it’s pretty but I was unable to get them together in time so when my neighbor offered up her beautiful flowers we accepted. In the future I hope I can get a cutting to propagate so that I can always have flowers from the same bush that I got my ‘bouquet’ from on my wedding day!)

Wedding Waterfall Kiss

My husband and I had decided against getting wedding rings since we simply could not afford them at the time and were questioning whether it was something that we actually needed. However, his parents we so beyond generous that they decided to buy them for us as a wedding gift (luckily wedding rings are much cheaper where they live)! Neither my husband or I are huge fans of really frosted cakes so we decided on a small homemade angel food cake, however, there was so much food that we forgot to put it out! We borrowed my brother’s car and my Dad was my chauffeur. We bought my husband a nice new shirt since the idea of a tux was a little to formal for our type of wedding.

I started off trying to find a secondhand wedding dress but had no luck whatsoever. I considered not using a traditional wedding dress and going with something else but everything I found was either too formal or not formal enough. With a limited number of shops around I had to really search around to check traditional and non-traditional wedding dress stores. I eventually fell in love with a traditional wedding dress. The only problem was that it was way outside my price range. So I gave up on the dress search for a little bit. Then one day someone messaged me letting me know that a Bridal shop was going to have a huge sale on dresses. Turns out that several stores around were participating in the National Bridal Sale Event, including the store where I found the dress I fell in love with!

Wedding Shoulder

I got there super early on the day of the sale with my fingers crossed hoping that the dress would still be there. And sure enough it was! Initially, the dress was a $1,000 but with the sale I got it for $500. It was still a little more than what I wanted to pay, but since it was the one thing I was truly going to invest in for the wedding it was well worth it. I chose a color for my bridesmaids but let them all pick out their own dresses. And they all looked amazing! We kept the guest list to around 15 people due to our small budget but we made sure that it was the people we most wanted to spend our special day with. My bridesmaids helped me with my makeup and hair and my cousin painted our nails the night before. Overall, we only ended up paying for the justice of the peace, my dress/shoes, my husband’s shirt, the wedding license, and some food/beverage items. I didn’t keep a close count on how much it added up to be but I think it was somewhere between $800-$1,000.

14247885_10202001195186998_243464176_o

All together our wedding was mostly zero waste with a few exceptions. We had asked guests not to bring gifts since we didn’t want to have to deal with the waste of gift wrappings and didn’t want to be given things that we may not need/want. Most people were very good in following our wishes and opted to give us cards instead with money to help us start our lives together (which turned out to be extremely helpful). The few gifts we received were very well thought out and have been great additions to our life. On the plus side too, we were able to reuse most of the gift wrappings (ie. gift bags and tissue paper).

A couple of other things that added to our trash count for the day were beverages and food packaging waste. The one item that I was willing to be flexible on was sparkling cider as it is my favorite drink and since neither my husband or I really care for alcohol. However, I could not find a place where they sold sparkling cider without trash (due to the cap and wrappings on the top). Someone also purchased some alcoholic beverages without my knowledge but by the time I saw them there was nothing I could do, so I just recycled what I could. A few dishes that guests brought came with some tinfoil or plastic wrap although the large majority did not. I was impressed because in general very few people knew about my zero waste lifestyle and I had only briefly mentioned in the invitation my desire to minimize the waste at our wedding. And for the most part everyone was really respectful of that (Thank You Friends and Family)!

Wedding Eat Flowers

I know my wedding might not be for everybody but honestly it was completely amazing for my husband and I! It was quite a bit more work than some weddings because we had to put a lot of time into the set up and clean up. However, we are extremely grateful that so many people came together to make the day so special for us. We were deeply moved by the sense of community we felt on our wedding day and we would not have been able to do it without everyone’s help! I think it was also a good lesson to see how a day could turn out so beautifully with so little money but so much love!

Unfortunately, we were not able to celebrate with all of our friends and family because of our tight budget and since they all live so far apart. In the future we are looking to host a couple other celebrations to give everyone we know and love a chance to celebrate our marriage with us. We also did not go on a honeymoon which is one tradition that I support wholeheartedly due to my love for travel but again that is something we look forward to doing in the future. I will be able to use my dress again which is why I was willing to put so much money into purchasing it and hope that when I am ready to let it go I can pass it on to someone else who will enjoy it as much as I have. We look forward to hosting more zero waste celebrations in the future and continue building on our zero waste journey together.

Creative Fixes

Recently, while working on a different project, my husband broke the handle off of one of our handheld garden tools. The tool is a combination of a hoe on one side and a cultivator on the other. Some places refer to it as a cuttle fish hoe. Either way, it is a great tool in the garden and other than the broken handle, it is in excellent condition. I know that I can get a new, good-quality one for not a lot of money and easily dispose of the one he broke (recycle the metal top and compost the broken handle). However, we decided that it would be easy to make and reattach a new handle. I love when our creativity and resourcefulness allows us to fix something that would otherwise go to waste. Here’s how we did it:

IMG_4317[1]

Using a handsaw we cut off a section of a fairly straight branch that we found on the ground. In choosing this branch, we made sure that it was slightly thicker than the handle hole so that the head of the tool won’t wiggle or come flying off as we work. We want it to fit as snug as possible. After that we cut the branch down to a good size and decided which end would be the handle and which would hold the head of the tool. Next, I used the hoe side of the tool itself to scrape all the bark off of the branch until it was mostly smooth.

IMG_4329[1]

Using the handsaw and a pocket knife we whittled down the end of the branch, making four flat sides, until it almost fit into the head of the cuttle fish hoe. Using a hammer I drove it the rest of the way down and we will secure it with a small screw.

Now our cuttle fish hoe is fixed and ready for more work. And better yet we didn’t create any trash or have to pay for a new one!

IMG_4322[1]

On another note, here is a picture of the other project my husband was working on. We are getting into the rainy season and got tired of the amount of dirt and mud we kept trekking into our car. Therefore, my husband built these wooden “landing pads” where we can wipe our feet off before getting in!

IMG_4335[1]

Secondhand Purchases

An important part of  a zero waste lifestyle is shopping secondhand. Secondhand shopping is really a great part and I would even say, a staple, of this lifestyle for a couple of reasons. To begin with, it provides alternative ways for getting what you need while preventing items from being sent to landfills. Oftentimes the items have no or minimal packaging and trash  (generally just stickers) and best of all they can usually be purchased at a fraction of what it would cost to buy new. I tend to find my items at local tag sales, secondhand/consignment shops, online websites for local sellers, and from friends/family. Here are a few such secondhand items that I acquired recently.

IMG_4110[1]IMG_4111[1]

The local auction house held a tag sale of items that weren’t valuable enough to be able to auction off. The auction house had become responsible for the estate of 93 year old hoarder who unfortunately passed away not too long ago. Although many of the things I saw were mainly just “clutter” after some digging around and even a trip into the depths of the basement, I walked away with some very useful items. When buying secondhand you really have to be on the lookout for your diamonds in the rough because typically you come across a bunch of junk before you find the quality items you are looking for. The best part was that altogether I only paid $20 for these items. After making my purchases, I had an interesting conversation with the lady at the auction house. She told me a little bit about how they came to acquire the estate of the hoarder and mentioned that most of these items had been in storage for about eight years. She told me never to put things in storage stating that the cost of storing all these items that they had acquired had been more expensive than what they were actually worth. Now that I’m a minimalist, I doubt my hoarder tendencies will return but it was intriguing to see now from the other side how the inability to let go of things negatively affects people.

Handmade Projects

Ever since I started to transition to a zero waste lifestyle, my relationship to (and appreciation for) the things that I own, has completely changed. Now that I actively choose what I allow into my life, I’ve noticed an especially important change in my mindset around cost, quantity, and quality. My focus use to be mainly on cost, especially on low costs, as well as on quantity (ie. How much can I get for the lowest price?). Today my focus has switched to be on quality, durability, multi-functionality, in as few objects as possible. Even if that means taking time to find the right item, making do without, or even sometimes paying a bit more money to get something that will be better in the long run. (ie. How can this object be used in more than one way? Do I already have something that could do the same thing? Is it going to last? Is the higher cost worth it?). This change in mentality has led to an even greater appreciation for anything made by hand.

I especially love to find things that are made by hand from natural resources especially when they also serve a functional purpose and are aesthetically pleasing. I treasure handmade pieces, in general, because I feel that there is a lot more love that goes into making them. Often times when you buy handmade things you can talk to the maker directly and learn about the processes that were used or where the materials were sourced from. I also tend to prefer them because they automatically feel like they are better quality items then something you would buy in a store.  However, as much as I love handmade pieces, handmaking something yourself takes your appreciation for that object to a completely new level.

Recently my husband, my Dad, and I embarked on a project to produce one such handmade, functional item. My Dad has always had a love for wood working and when we stumbled upon a cherry burl that he had been storing for many years, he finally decided that it was time for it to be made into something. A burl is an abnormal growth on a tree where the grain has been deformed while the tree was growing, due to stress from things like an injury or fungus. They are typically shaped like a ball and are often highly prized due to how rare and beautiful they are. We decided to make the cherry burl into a bowl.

The grain in the wood from the burl is so pretty! I really treasure this piece now for a lot of reasons. First of all, it’s handmade (obviously). However, like I mentioned before, there is something intrinsically different about handmaking something for yourself. Also I really treasure the time and experience that I had during this project because of the special opportunity to work with and engage with some people who are very important to me, in an activity that was truly meaningful and added value to my life. We truly connected and bonded over this creative project and my Dad had the opportunity to pass on some of his knowledge and wisdom at the same time. Also I love this bowl because it looks like a functional piece of art. I know that it will be used for many years to come. If it ever gets scratched we can easily fix it with some sanding.  The only waste that was produced during this project was from the sandpaper. This waste, however, could be eliminated completely by using a cabinet scraper which I didn’t know until we had already finished sanding everything. I’ll definitely be investing in some before our next wood working project.  We already had everything else we needed for this project and all of us thoroughly enjoyed making something new together!

Minimalism and Zero Waste

As I’ve mentioned before, I think minimalism goes hand in hand with the zero waste movement. Although both come from different goals and ideals, I think there is a lot of overlap since they share a common element: living and consuming more intentionally and conscientiously. What that looks like will be different for every person. The following is a list of words/phrases that come to mind when I think of minimalism and zero waste, things that can apply to both (but don’t necessarily have to).

  • Necessities vs. Wants
  • Money saving
  • Aesthetics
  • Quality/long lasting products
  • Creating more time/space
  • Focus on the important things in life
  • Simplicity
  • Peace of mind
  • Conscientiousness/Intentionality
  • Easier to clean
  • Opting out of consumerism
  • New sense of gratitude/appreciation (especially for what you already have)
  • Creativity
  • Renew/Reuse/Upcycle
  • Refusing more “stuff”
  • Fewer things, more life

All of these things are reasons why I strive daily to be even more a part of the zero waste and minimalism movements!

 

Levels of Knowing Your Products

When buying a product there are many things to take into consideration. What I like to remember when shopping is that every decision we make has an impact on the others around us whether we see it or not. And overall I think that our money, as a powerful societal driver is one of the things that can have the biggest impact (unfortunately). Every time you buy an item you are voting for that product, for the system that created that product, for the transportation, and labor and everything else associated in the process to get that product to you. When I was studying abroad in the Dominican Republic, we took a field trip to a factory called Alta Gracia. Alta Gracia is the only factory among developing countries (or so we were told) that has pledged and been certified to pay its workers a living wage as well as actually provide decent working conditions. Even after hearing all the horror stories about working and living in developing countries it was still pretty astounding that so few companies in these nations actually make sure that their workers are treated with basic respect and dignity and are paid enough to be able to support their family’s basic needs.

Throughout my visit I began to think deeply about the importance of knowing where your products are coming from and what sort of conditions these products are created in. It made me reflect back on some of the truly pivotal classes that I took in college. In one of these classes we used a website to check our slavery footprint. Our footprint is calculated based on the things that we own, have bought, and personal habits. Although not completely accurate, the website gives visitors an idea about how the things that they own are related to modern day slavery practices.

(The idea of “slavery” may sound odd in this context and many people may believe that it is no longer something that happens in our society today, and that it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, that is not the case and after examining my slavery footprint in this class I decided to spent the next semester in another class called Human Trafficking. In this class we examined cases of modern day slavery and ways that people are still sold like commodities especial as sex slaves, child workers, general workers etc. If you do some research you can see how modern day slavery is still happening ALL over the world. Yes, that’s right even HERE in the United States.)

This website also makes it clear that supporting products made with slaves supports overall slavery. I don’t remember how big my slavery footprint was back in college but I recently redid the slavery footprint survey and I’m sure that today it is much smaller than it used to be. Nevertheless, I’m ashamed to admit that even today after all my zero waste lifestyle changes there are still 31 slaves in my slavery footprint who “work for me” and are associated with the items I own and my lifestyle choices. I think we can all agree that even just one slave is far too many.

As a result of these experiences I came up with this series of levels that questions just how well you know the products you consume. These levels overlap in many areas and there may be something that I missed or left out but here is general idea of things that should be taken into consideration when buying something-especially when buying something new. I phrase these levels into questions as a way to make you really think about the processes that are used to make the products you consume but also to use as a future reference when you are in a store looking to purchase something. And if you ever come across a product where you don’t know the answer to any of these questions I urge you to find out. This system is far more complicated than we imagine and includes so many different components. All along the way and through these processes we can choose what we support and if we don’t like how companies are doing business or how they are making their products, it is our societal responsibility to urge them to make a change. To make it more sustainable. To make it more just. To make it more humane. If companies don’t provide you with information about what their products contain and don’t empower consumers by giving them what they need to make informed decisions and choices (ie. Products with GMO’s or that use slavery/bad labor practices) then we most especially need to say something! There are plenty of documentaries out today that show what bad conditions certain laborers work in; they are easy to find with just a little bit of research.

First Level: Raw Materials

What raw materials are used to make that product? How are those raw materials obtained? Are these materials obtained in a way that is damaging to the environment? Do these materials pose a threat or negatively impact human health or the health of other beings? Are there any byproducts produced in the processes used to obtain the raw material? What sort of negative effects can that byproduct have? How are these byproducts dealt with?

Second level: Transportation and Processing of Raw Materials

Where do the raw materials go from there? How are those raw materials transported? What fuel is used to transport it? What sort of processes do the raw materials go through in order to become the product that you will ultimately end up purchasing? What is needed to make those processes occur (ie. machinery) and how are those things obtained?

Third level: Workers

How do those processes affect the people who are working in that factory and creating that product? Do these processes create harmful and negative conditions in which people work? Are those people treated fairly and paid a living wage? Are they given a reasonable amount of time-off? Are these companies looking out for their workers or looking out for themselves? Is the health and wellbeing of the workers taken into consideration? How much influence and control over the processes or workflow does the individual worker have? Are the workers allowed to unionize? Are there opportunities to move up? Are workers given multiple trainings to improve their skill sets? Are companies honest about their treatment of workers?

Fourth level: Packaging and Transportation to Store

Once the product is finished, how is it packaged? Is the packaging necessary for transportation; are there other solutions or other options the company could have used instead? From the packaging, what is wasted? Is the packaging a single use product or part of the overall product? Who packages them? What sorts of conditions do they work in? From the factory to the store or market, how is the final product transported to where it will be sold? What is the difference between the place where it is made and where it is sold? How far does it have to travel? What types of resources are needed to transport it? Who transports it? What is their job like?

Fifth level: Marketing, Selling, and Quality of the Product Cost

How is the product marketed or sold? What sorts of resources are used to market or sell it? Is the product something that people really need or is it something that people have been convinced that they need? What is the quality of the product? Is it made to break within a set amount of time or is it made to last a long time? Is the product affordable or is it sold for ridiculous prices? Are all the costs of producing, shipping, and disposing of that object built into the price of the object or is marked down to make it attractive to buy? Is it marked up in price? How much of the money that you paid for that object will actually go back to all of the workers that make it? How much money goes to the bosses and overseers and the other people at the “top” of the company? Is it fair? How does the demand for this product affect the supply? How does the demand for this product affect the economy? How does the production of this product affect society and the world?

Sixth level: Consumer and Shopping

Where does the consumer go to purchase that item? Is it local or far away? How does the consumer get to the store to purchase it and what resources did they use to get there? Is the consumer buying new or second hand items? What does the consumer use to carry it home in? What waste is associated with the item? How is that waste dealt with? Does the consumer follow proper product care guidelines to make the product last as long as possible? How is the product treated by the consumer once the item is purchased? Does the consumer use the product until it is no longer useful or is it disposed of even though it can still be used? Does the consumer upcycle or reuse all the parts from a product even if it is no longer useful? Can the consumer potentially be negatively affected by consuming this product? Is the consumer aware of the potential dangers? Has the product been sufficiently tested to prove that it is safe? If the product does negatively affect consumers does the company take full responsibility? Does the company properly compensate the consumers negatively affected by their product? Does the company take measures to make sure that their future products are safe once it comes to their attention that it has been unsafe for a consumer? Does a company make sure that their product cannot be used by consumers to negatively impact other people?

Seventh level: Disposal

When a consumer is done with the product how do they get arid of it? What sort of resources do they use to get a rid of it? Does the consumer choose to dispose of it properly? And if not what happens to it? What sort of negative impacts can it have even if it is disposed of properly? Where does it go? Is it reused/upcycled or recycled or thrown away in a landfill or incinerated? Does it end up in the ocean or pollute local water sources? Does it continue the nutrient cycle? How long will that product take to break down? Will it ever break down?

Like I said there may be even more levels on which you should know what you own and buy but there are the ones I can think of. There is a lot more going on to the things you see in the store than just what appears on the shelf. And more people need to think about these things before buying them. More people need to care. My suggestions are: 1) buy local and if you can buy second-hand instead of new 2) know your companies and products as well as all the processes that are used to make them 3) aim for high quality, natural materials, and ethical sources 4) know how to properly dispose of the product and how long it will take before you need to buy it again 5) fix, reuse, and up-cycle things before resorting to throwing it away 6) don’t buy what you don’t need and 7) always refuse to create more waste, reduce your footprint and what you need to live, reuse materials that you have, recycle everything properly, and rot everything else!

Your product should be a product that is good for everybody every step of the way!

If you are interested in finding out what your slavery footprint is I definitely encourage you to google it and take a peek around to learn ways you can take slavery out of your life.

Leave No Trace and Zero Waste

I think to some extent the Zero Waste principles are similar to Leave No Trace, a set of ethics promoting outdoor conservation often adopted by hikers and campers in order to make sure that our wild areas and public places stays wild, pristine, and beautiful. Leave No Trace is all about living lightly on the land and minimizing the impact that human beings have on the local ecosystem. It also works to educate people about how their choices and lifestyles impact nature. It is my personal opinion that Leave No Trace can be (and should be) applied on a wider level.

Just like there are seven principles to Leave No Trace, the following are what I use as my seven principles of zero-waste:

  1. Plan ahead and be prepared in order to avoid waste creation

Taking steps in order to avoid participating in creating trash is key to being successful. It may be as simple as remembering to ask for your drink without a straw at a restaurant or as involved as picking up food from shops in your own reusable containers.

2. Invest in long-lasting, multi-functional, durable products

Single waste products are designed to be thrown out after one use only a practice that is both wasteful and unsustainable. Buy products that you need so that they last for a long time and invest in high quality products that are not going to break easy or only serve for one use.

3. Think of the end life of products and choose organic alternatives.

When you buy a product know that it will end up as waste; a day from now, a week, a month, a year, ten years, a lifetime. Someday it will break and no longer be serviceable so choose wisely to ensure that when that day comes it can go back to the earth instead of a Resource Graveyard.

4. Dispose of ALL materials properly

For the items that you can’t buy biodegradable alternatives for, make sure you dispose of them properly. Improperly disposed of items can cause a lot of damage. Even properly disposed of items can cause damage! Get to know your local recycling centers (especially for hard to dispose of items) and other areas for waste disposal and carefully follow their guidelines.

5.Reuse and up-cycle what you have before buying second-hand

Reinventing what your items are used for can go a long way to making the most out of the materials that you already have and preventing excess waste creation.

6.Minimize your needs and waste to minimize your overall impact

Living minimally goes a long way towards living lightly on the earth and creating as little of an impact as possible. I consider the move towards Minimalism a great extension of and compliment to the Zero Waste Movement. Although their goals are fundamentally different, working in tandem they aim to create more conscientious consumers. Minimalism, like Zero Waste, will look differently for every person.

7.Respect the earth and all sentient beings by being considerate and conscientious of your waste and your impact on others

Fundamentally, I believe that the Zero Waste Movement is a movement towards honoring our earth and fellow beings through respectful, conscientious consumption. Being aware of where you live lightly and where you don’t and taking steps to create a real change goes a long way towards accomplishing this.

Overall Zero Waste living includes: 1) taking step to prevent more unsustainable waste creation, 2) reducing the number of things that are needed to live, 3) reusing items as much as possible, 4) recycling when needed, and 5) composting everything else.

What is Zero Waste

In general, the Zero Waste philosophy is about minimizing, as much as possible, the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, incinerators, and the general waste stream by encouraging individuals to change lifestyle habits for more suitable, environmental, and sustainable alternatives. On a broader level, the Zero Waste Movement it is also geared towards creating systematic social changes; changes that redefine how we think of, use, and interact with every object we come in contact with throughout our daily lives.

Since the Industrial Revolution our relationship with ‘Stuff’ has changed. Where once everything was made by hand from biodegradable natural materials, today our things do not break down and are made in factories by machines out of materials that, more times than not, are toxic to our bodies, other beings, and our planet.

These non-biodegradable materials end up in a “Resource Graveyard”: dumps, landfills, and incinerators. Therefore, these non-biodegradable materials prevent a sustainable, closed-loop resource cycle from forming. Not to mention that this concentration of waste negatively affects the surrounding society and environment.

The hope of the Zero Waste Movement is to create lifestyles that are healthier and more natural, ethical, economical, efficient, and sustainable.

For me, that has meant going back to our roots and finding alternatives for everything that I need in life from more organic and sustainable sources. Being part of the Zero Waste Movement has been an exercise in creativity in finding appropriate alternatives and it has also meant a lot more composting and organic materials (the only ‘good type’ of waste products around)!

Due to the Zero Waste Movement, I now have a more meaningful and sustainable life-style that is as close to creating zero-waste as possible. As a worldwide community, we all need to become empowered to make a change so that we can ease the burden on those most affected by waste and be good stewards of the world for the generations to come.

Moment of Change

Growing up I never thought much about the waste that I produced. And it was an even longer time before I came to see waste as an ethical issue. Everyone knows the basics of not being wasteful even as children. Just think of all the many ways that parents prompt their children (eat all your food, turn off the water when you brush your teeth, don’t take too much toilet paper, turn off the lights when you aren’t using them, only take what you are going to eat etc.). I too learned all these things as a kid. However, it was a much longer time before I developed a deeper understanding of what it means to be wasteful and the ethical implications associated with wastefulness. Even today my understanding and definition of wastefulness and its role that it plays in society is changing.

There are many experiences that led to my developing consciousness related to the ethics of waste. The big wake up call for me, however, was in my junior year of college during my study abroad program in Santiago, the Dominican Republic. I decided to go into a special program called Service Learning, a program dedicated to teaching students through hands on experiences, complete immersion, and internships. I ended up working with an after-school program for underprivileged students in Cienfuegos, the worst neighborhood on the outskirts of Santiago. The community of Cienfuegos is located right next to Rafey, the local landfill and dumping ground for all of Santiago’s trash. In some ways I will never be able to articulate what it is like to be in a Trash Mountain Community. Throughout my internship this is a term that was used to describe communities like Cienfuegos. Communities who are deeply affected by and dependent upon the landfills that override the same spaces that they live, work, and die in.  It is overwhelming to see first-hand the sheer enormity of the difficulties that these sorts of communities face.

20141002_160719

Rafey, the local landfill. Other than trash and people there is also a surprising amount of cows in the landfill who are brought up by farmers to graze off from the plant material and kitchen waste amongst the waste.

It was in those months walking between the trash strewn streets and poverty stricken families that the ethics of trash and our disposal of it really became real to me. Everyday there were people that I worked with whose lives were affected on every level by their proximity to Rafey. After a while I think that I even came to normalize the waste and the issues that the community faced because it was the only way to be able to do what good I could while I was there instead of getting bogged down by everything else that I knew I couldn’t change. And despite everything that I dealt with on a daily basis, I had an amazing study abroad experience. Coming home was even harder than I thought it would be. After the glow of having been abroad faded, I was left with reverse culture shock and the normalization that I had developed in the Dominican completely disappeared as I came back to the clean, unaffected streets of Massachusetts. I got locked in a deep sense of despair over the fact that other people didn’t get how profoundly my experiences had changed me. The faces of the people I worked with every day would parade across my mind, their voices whispering in my ear every time I threw something away, every time I saw something that I knew they wouldn’t have taken for granted. It truly began to bother me to realize how many things that we do daily that directly affect someone else negatively. But it bothered me even more to realize that as a society we have been conditioned so thoroughly that we rarely stop to think twice about doing these things.

20141002_160537

Workers in Rafey collecting recyclables in big bags in order to exchange them for money. The going rate for two glass bottles was RD$1 (peso) the equivalent of 7¢ in the U.S.

  So right here, right now this is me stopping, thinking twice, and rewriting to script.

Those months in the Dominican and the following months after coming home I have never felt so helpless in my whole life. There were little boys and girls I was working with in the afterschool program that were literally living and dying in trash. Children who couldn’t even write their own names because the only way they could get food was by picking recyclables out of the landfill instead of being in school. Children who were (and still are) stuck in a community and system wide cycle of poverty so profound that there seems to be very little hope of ever breaking it. Coming back from the Dominican I felt like I should be doing something with all that I had learned. All the things that I had seen literally seem to haunt me since everything reminded me of my experiences there. I have also never felt so guilty about where I was born before-no matter how hard I tried to forget it.

20141002_161055

The day before I went to the landfill an armed fight broke out because the company paying for the trash collected by the workers wanted to lower the going rates for the recyclables, angering many. The armed military men picture here were there to “keep the peace” amongst them all while workers tear into a new load of trash in the background.

However, everything changed the day that I randomly stumbled across an article on Facebook about a girl who had only produced a jar full of trash in over a year. In the article the term the “zero waste movement” popped up and sure enough just a couple of hours and many internet searches later I was well on my way to being completely hooked on the idea. Although it took me many months to really start implementing changes in my own life I have come to be in a place where I am finally living in a way that is more ethically aligned with my beliefs; beliefs created by my experiences.

20141002_154058 - copia (1)

A young man carried his load of recyclables away from Rafey in order to exchange what he collected for money. These heavy bags used to be hauled by children much younger before the after-school program I interned with put a stop to a large majority of the child labor issues within Rafey.

Many people think I’m crazy and many more people think that I’m a tree hugging hippie. I get why they think that because once upon a time I would have thought that too. I’ve had to learn how to forgive people who think that because I know now that they just don’t get it. And they might never understand it. But let me state this: living your beliefs and being ethically/morally concerned for the well-being of others and the place that we all call home doesn’t make you a hippie-it just makes you a person who is trying to do the right thing precisely because it is the right thing to do. No one lives in a vacuum; therefore, everything that we do has an affect on others around us. For me that is the beautiful part of life. We are all connected one way or another. And I believe that through that connection we are all responsible for one another. Discovering the zero waste movement has allowed me to go from being helpless to being empowered. But even better than that, it has allowed me to realize that no matter how small a step we take, we collectively can do our part to make a big difference in fixing this mess that we collectively have made.

 

20141002_155825

To get  a better sense of how big these bags of recyclables are look really closely at the man on the right side of the truck. The bags are at least as high as he is and could probably fit several grown people easily when they are empty.

20141002_153954

Here is one of the main entrances from Cienfuegos leading into Rafey. You can see a lot of liquids that have leeched out of the landfill to create or contaminate this “stream”. Although it may be hard to tell from this picture Rafey was 15 capas or layers high when I went to see it in 2014. It may be higher now.

20141002_155049

Again it is hard to get a sense of just how big Rafey is without going to see it for yourself but just take my word for when I say that it is absolutely enormous! This shot is just of one side of the landfill. I could turn in all directions and see practically the same view any way that I turned almost as far as the eye can see. I was not able to explore even a fourth of the landfill.

Photo Credits go to Mercedes Munoz. This wonderful lady also deserves a round of applause for all the hard work she is doing to make a difference with her Service Learning Students in Santiago!