Week 9

Food Waste

Roughly one-third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted every year (stopwastingfoodmovement.org); in America, it’s 40% (savethefood.com)

Food waste accounts for 8% of global emissions (rubiconglobal.com)

Food waste that decomposes in landfills releases methane, which is at least 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide (Washington Post)

It was just over a year ago that my family started composting. We compost through our county, which means taking our bags of food scraps, paper towels, popsicle sticks, pizza boxes and so many other things about a mile down the road to the drop-off site during designated hours. Despite this small inconvenience, it is so gratifying to see how much less trash we throw out and how much of our waste will turn back into soil that can be used to grow more food.

We’ve gotten pretty good at composting, and have inspired several of our family members to do it too. They even compost at my kid’s elementary school, so kids as young as 5 are learning how to sort their waste from an early age. My office does not have compost (it is coming soon, I’m told), so I’ve started to bring home my banana and orange peels and other food scraps to compost here.

The thing we could do a lot better at is consuming more of the food that we buy. Kids are picky; some days they’ll eat three helpings of mac and cheese, while other days they won’t even finish half a bowl. But it’s not just them. We have a tendency to buy and make more food than we’ll actually consume, despite careful meal planning. Every weekend when we come home with the week’s groceries, I find stuff in the fridge from previous weeks that went bad before we could eat it.

So how do we solve this? One tip I heard that I’d like to try is designating a drawer in the fridge for things that will expire soon. I’ve also heard that certain containers/storage methods can keep things like lettuce from wilting for much longer than the clamshells they come in at the store.

I also need to get better about having leftovers for lunch, rather than opting for my usual Lean Cuisine or eating out. And I need to pay more attention to portions; my husband eats more than I do, so why do we always dish out the same amount of food on both of our plates?

These small changes seem like good, attainable goals for reducing our food waste this week. What tips do you have for making sure your food doesn’t go to waste?

Week 8

Lower-Waste Laundry

The average washing machine uses over 40 gallons of water per load (nps.gov)

The dryer uses over 4 times as much energy as the washer (energy.gov)

Scented laundry detergents and dryer sheets contain carcinogens that get into the air through laundry vents (washington.edu)

This week is going to be a challenge and recap in one, because, life. My husband typically does the laundry, so I told him he is off the hook this week. We already follow some pretty green laundry practices, but we can always do better.

Here are a few tips I’ve found that I will follow when I’m doing this week’s laundry, some of which are new and some of which we’ve been doing for a while:

  • Do your laundry at night (or early morning): This tip came from The New York Times Climate Fwd email, which is a great resource if you don’t already subscribe. Running your appliances at off times puts less strain on the energy grid. This also means not doing your dishes, laundry and baking a cake all at the same time. I started the laundry at 7:30 on Saturday morning, and waited until Sunday morning to do the last load.
  • Use the right settings: Our washer and dryer came with our house, and are not the newest models. We used to wash our clothes at the “energy saver” setting, but that used warm water. We switched to always using cold and have not noticed any downsides. This week, I also changed the spin setting to “hang dry,” which should mean they are good and rung out and will need less time to dry. For the dryer, I’m honestly not sure which setting is the most energy efficient, but read that the moisture-sensing setting is best, so will try that. It’s also very important to clean out the lint trap between loads, or the dryer has to work harder to dry the clothes.
  • Line dry as much as possible: It’s December in Minnesota, so drying clothes outside is not an option. We lost our bamboo drying rack in a previous move, so until we buy a new one, I am draping whatever I can over the ironing board, shower curtain rod and various hooks I can find around the house. And adding a drying rack to our shopping list this weekend!
  • Use eco-friendly laundry products: I am excited to finally use my bulk laundry detergent that I got at Tare Market. I only need to use one tablespoon per load, and best of all, there’s no plastic container to dispose of when we run out! For drying, my mother-in-law got us some wool dryer balls for Christmas several years ago, and they still work great. No more dryer sheets in this house!
  • Only wash things that are actually dirty: As Americans, we have a tendency to obsess over cleanliness. But just because you wore something once DOES NOT MEAN IT’S DIRTY. Does it pass the sniff test? Does it have any visible spots or stains? If not, put it back in the closet or drawer and not in the hamper. I was extra conscious of this all week, especially with pants, outer layers, pajamas and towels that can almost always be used multiple times before washing. I draw the line at underwear and socks.
Dryer balls and bulk laundry soap

So how did it go? More or less it went just fine. I learned that it does take a little more planning; if you’re washing something you want to wear the same day, for example, line drying isn’t going to cut it. We fit a week’s worth of laundry for four people into three loads, which is about typical for us. Ideally, we could cut down the number of loads by being even more conscious of wearing things until they are truly dirty.

I also learned that dryer lint is not compostable because of all the synthetic fibers in our clothes. So, a long-term goal will be to pay closer attention to what our clothes are made of and buy only 100% cotton or wool, which may not be possible but is a good thing to be mindful of nonetheless. I also want to look more into how to conserve or reuse the wash water, but that is for another week.

That’s it for now. What challenge should I tackle next week?

Week 7 Recap: Opt Outside

This four-day weekend was an eventful one. Between unexpectedly hosting Thanksgiving dinner at our house, multiple snowstorms, cutting cable and a big college football game, we packed what felt like a week’s worth of activity into one long weekend.

One thing we didn’t do? Shop! Well, mostly. On Black Friday, the boys and I made good on my promise to #OptOutside and joined my husband at a local park where he was coaching his high school cross-country ski team (only in Minnesota is that a high school sport). We hit the sledding hill first, and the boys had an awesome time. I even got some exercise myself by carrying their sleds back up the hill god knows how many times!

Sledding our hearts out

Next, they joined dad for some skiing. Our oldest took lessons last year and was pretty good on his feet. The 4-year-old skied for the first time, and despite lots of spills, he said he liked it even more than sledding. It was so fun to spend time outside as a family, try new things and enjoy the first big snowfall of the season.

When we got back to the city, I did go to Walgreens to pick up photos for our Christmas cards that I’d ordered online the day before, but resisted the urge to buy anything other than some candy and drinks. On Saturday, I made a Target run and bought two things: a TV antenna, and an impulse t-shirt purchase for my oldest son.

On Sunday we did our usual weekly grocery shopping trip at Target, but did not buy any gifts or decorations, as tempting as they were. The store was pretty empty, even by typical weekend standards. But that doesn’t mean people weren’t shopping: According to Forbes, online shopping was up almost 20% on Black Friday alone. Cyber Monday is expected to make similar gains. But I’m happy to be in the minority, because the only things I’m planning to buy are gymnastics and chess classes for my kids, because registration opens that day and they fill up fast.

Of course, I do have Christmas shopping to do. And Santa will be coming to our house. I am not the Grinch, you know! But I am buying a lot fewer tangible gifts this year. In addition to the charity donation our family is doing, I’m taking my team at work out to lunch instead of buying them random socks or lotions as I’ve done in the past. And I’m keeping it simple for my husband and parents, only buying things they specifically asked for.

Are your holiday shopping habits changing this year? Let me know if you’re doing more or less shopping this year and why, in the comments or via email. Now onto next (really this) week’s challenge!

Week 7

Opt Outside

Over 165 million people shopped over Thanksgiving weekend in 2018 (Forbes)

Black Friday pulled in a record $6.22 billion in online sales last year (Adobe Analytics)

2019 is expected to be the first ever $1 trillion holiday shopping season (eMarketer)

Despite growing interest in minimalism, buying secondhand and resisting the urge to consume consume consume, holiday shopping continues to grow year after year. The economy is strong, unemployment is low, and it’s easier than ever to think of something you want, grab your phone or computer, and have it arrive at your doorstep as soon as tomorrow.

Personally, I’ve become overwhelmed by the amount of stuff in our lives. For the past few weeks, I’ve been in major purge mode, donating or selling on Facebook old toys, clothes and other things we no longer need, or hardly used in the first place.

Beginning with our son’s fourth birthday earlier this month, I started to plant the seed with relatives that we don’t want an influx of even more stuff for birthdays and, now, Christmas. For his birthday, I asked for one gift per household and sent a very specific list that included a lot of experiences like museum and theater tickets. Some people followed our requests more than others, but overall it resulted in a much smaller haul than past years. With zero complaints from the birthday boy!

And now, we enter the official holiday shopping season. Of course, we will buy presents for our kids, and they have emailed Santa their lists (the North Pole has WiFi now!). We’ve also told relatives what to get for them. Instead of sending a big list to everyone, we sent specific items to specific people and left it at that. My husband and I also gave each other our (very short) lists, and I was able to find his main gift secondhand on Facebook (yes, Marketplace is truly the gift that keeps on giving).

The biggest change we are making this year is to our extended family gift exchange. In past years, all of the adults picked a name out of a hat on Thanksgiving and bought them something under $50. This worked for many years, but after a while, you only need so many scarves and perfumes, and you eventually run out of ideas. 

So this year, we are giving our $50 to a charity instead. We will discuss the specifics of how we’re going to go about it on Thanksgiving, but we’re excited for this new tradition. It even brought somebody back into the gift exchange who had previously opted out!

Which brings me back to the title of this week’s post. Ironically, the “Opt Outside” tagline was started by a retailer, REI, who bucked the trend and is closed on Black Friday to encourage people to spend time outdoors that day instead of shopping. In Minnesota, the state parks all waive their admission fees that day.

While I haven’t regularly gone shopping on Black Friday, I haven’t actively avoided it, either. I’ve bought things online, gone later in the day, or gone shopping on Saturday. And I will never forget working that weekend at the Target checkout in high school, yikes!

This Black Friday, we will make a point to visit one of our local parks and avoid the mall altogether. Even if we are buried in a foot of snow, as they are predicting! And I will not buy anything online, either (which I’m trying to avoid regularly, not just for the holidays).

Are you planning to cut back on your shopping this holiday season? If so, why and how? If not, why not? I’d love to hear from you!

Week 6 Recap: Plastic-Free Periods

Another pain-free challenge in the books, and I’m starting to feel like a broken record. This wasn’t supposed to be easy. Am I not picking hard enough challenges? In a lot of cases, I am enhancing a habit I already have, or paying closer attention to it in an effort to be more deliberate. But other times, like this week, I’m doing something I’ve never done before. So why isn’t it harder?

Maybe it’s not that the challenges are too easy. Maybe it’s that the hardest part of creating any new habit is taking the first step. Take this week for example. It’s not like I had never heard of menstrual cups before. I had, but there wasn’t anyone or anything pushing me to try it. Now, thanks to this blog, there was.

Aside from one panicked moment when I thought it had fallen out (it hadn’t), switching to the Diva Cup was pretty seamless. I worked out, slept, showered and went about my life as usual without any issues. No leaks, no pain, and best of all, NO GARBAGE!

Now that I’m in the plastic-free period club, I may add some Thinx or other period underwear to the mix in the future. But for now, I am thrilled that I will never have to buy tampons ever again!

Of course, the Diva Cup is only one of many brands available. It was the only one sold at Walgreens, but if you like to shop around, there’s a handy online quiz that will tell you which cup is best for you based on your age, physical activity level, flow and other details. Take it here!

Going into next week, I’m not entirely sure what my challenge will be. It is Thanksgiving week, so I’m thinking about something Black Friday/holiday shopping-related, but am not sold on it yet, especially since I’ve already done some secondhand shopping and selling for this holiday season. But I will cover that at some point soon, if not this week.

Until then, leave a comment or email me at climate52challenge@gmail.com. Thanks for reading!

Week 6

Plastic-Free Periods

In 2018 alone, people in the U.S. bought 5.8 billion tampons.

Over the course of a lifetime, a woman will use between 5 and 15 thousand pads and tampons, the vast majority of which will wind up in landfills.

Tampons flushed down the toilet can end up in the ocean when sewer systems fail.

“We’re still selling shame along with the menstrual products,” Elizabeth A Kissling, author and gender studies expert

— “How tampons and pads became so unsustainable,” National Geographic

When a friend suggested this blog topic, I laughed. Even though I’ve been a professional writer for over a dozen years, I’ve rarely been the subject of my own writing. And now you want me to write about my period? Ha!

But then I found myself at Walgreens. I headed down the “feminine care” aisle (can we come up with a better name for this, please?). Rows and rows of shelves were filled with disposable pads and tampons. Then, like a lone lily pad in a sea of pink and turquoise plastic, I saw it: the Diva Cup.

It comes in three sizes, and they make it very easy to know what size to get. (I’ve given birth, twice. Enough said.) For around $40, it seemed a little pricey, but when I did the (very rough, I was a journalism major for a reason) math, it just about evens out to a year’s worth of my usual Playtex Sport tampons. Which I just ran out of. So, I guess we’re doing this!

At age 35, with a minor in women’s studies to boot, why have I never considered this before? I could say it’s because I’m a creature of habit and just doing what I’ve always done. But it’s a lot more than that, isn’t it. As this awesome National Geographic article explains better than I can, we have been taught for centuries that periods are dirty, shameful and not to be discussed. Just take care of it, don’t talk about it, and no one needs to be the wiser.

While I’m not about to start conversations about my period on the bus, making this topic part of the climate conversation is something we can and should do. I will do my part by no longer buying tampons and disposable pads, starting now. And I will let you know how I like the Diva Cup, whether you want to know or not!

What reusable period products do you recommend? If you haven’t tried them yet either, why not? Let me know in the comments or at climate52@gmail.com.

Week 5 Recap: Bulk Shopping

Another successful challenge this week. I went to Tare Market with my containers, and it was so easy! First, I weighed my containers on the scale and wrote their weights on them. This is how the staff knows what weight to deduct from your purchase. If I use these containers again, that step will already be done.

The main thing I wanted to get was dishwasher detergent, but due to an ordering issue, they were out of it. I was disappointed, but decided to get some powdered laundry soap instead. I’ve only ever used liquid laundry detergent, which comes in a giant plastic container. So I’m looking forward to trying this, which takes only a tablespoon of detergent for a large load.

I looked around at what else they had a saw a lot of cool stuff: grind your own peanut and almond butter, coffee and tea, hand soap and shampoo, even ketchup and mustard! For dry foods, there were a lot of flours, grains, spices, nuts, snacks like chocolate and fig bars, dog treats and lots more. It’s not a place you can do all of your shopping, but is a great option for avoiding packaging on all sorts of products.

My bulk purchases from Tare Market

I ended up getting some salted cashews in my small mason jar, and some whole wheat noodles in my other container. As far as cost, everything did end up being a little more expensive than what I’d typically buy at Target. But you have to pay more for quality, and I am happy to support this local business and the environment at the same time.

This experience has also made me think more seriously about joining our local coop, something I’ve never seriously considered. Unlike Tare, the coop is a full grocery store with locally sourced produce, meats and frozen foods. It is also closer to our house. I just asked for a membership for Christmas, so if we get it, that will be just the boost we need to give it a try.

That’s it for this week! Next week’s challenge will be a bit more … personal. Any guesses what it will be?

As always, feel free to email me with ideas and questions at climate52challenge@gmail.com.

Week 5

Bulk Shopping

I know, I know. Shopping in bulk is nothing new. But for whatever reason, I’ve never done it. We have our grocery shopping routine, which is going to Target bright and early every Sunday to beat the crowds. We know where everything is there, the kids can get a free cookie, and we can be in and out in an hour.

I try to be as conscious of a Target shopper as I possibly can. I bring my own bags (which has an added bonus of getting 5 cents back per bag), I’ve learned which yogurt containers are recyclable (Chobani – yes! Dannon – no), and I bring compost bags to put my produce in. But Target doesn’t have a bulk section, so we end up bringing home a lot of packaging.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article for a local parenting magazine (which will be in the December issue, hooray!) about going zero waste. Part of my research was visiting a new market that had just opened in Minneapolis. Tare Market is the state’s first zero waste market, and they make it easy for first timers to shop in bulk. They also carry bulk items that co-ops don’t, like cleaning products, laundry and dish soap, and hand soap and shampoo.

I don’t have a plethora of cute mason jars or tins to bring with me, but I looked around my kitchen and found a few things that should work: an empty oatmeal cylinder, a clear plastic storage container, a small mason jar, and a plastic bread bag.

Bulk shopping here I come!

I know I want to get dishwasher detergent since we are almost out, but other than that I’m going to wait and see what they have. I also want to compare prices and see if shopping this way is more, less, or similar in price to buying the same items in traditional packaging.

What do you like to buy in bulk? Is it more or less expensive than shopping at the grocery store?

Week 4 Recap: Civic Engagement

What a week! It’s not every election (and certainly not the one three years ago) that everyone and everything I vote for ends up winning. But that’s what happened this year. Without any formal way to predict the outcome, people were pretty on edge about how the trash referendum would pan out. The folks on the “no” side were very vocal about their beliefs, and depending who you talked to, it felt like they easily could have won.

I worked from home on election day, so I went to the polls mid-morning. I then checked in for my text banking shift. It wasn’t working at first, but eventually the organizers figured out that all of the texts were done and had me do some phone banking instead. I can’t recall if I’ve ever done that before, but if I did it was back in college. The software was pretty slick–it synced up to my cell phone so the calls looked like they were coming from a local number, and it automatically dialed all the numbers as I went down the list.

I made 40 calls, and the majority went unanswered. I left two voicemails, and got three or four real people on the phone. Most of the people I reached had already voted or were planning to vote the way I was advocating for. I was able to educate one of them on the endorsed school board candidates, and the last person I talked to was particularly receptive. On voting day, most people have (hopefully) already made up their minds, so the message was more about making sure they got to the polls to cast their votes.

That night, I went back and forth between checking Twitter, Facebook and refreshing the Secretary of State website for the results. At each update, the “Yes” trash vote was in the lead. By a wide margin. Sometime after 10 p.m., it was clear that the Yeses had it. It ended up not even being close, with 63% voting yes. It was also a high turnout year, on par with an even-numbered year and double the last off-year election. Way to go, St. Paul!

After the post-election high wore off, I attended a community visioning session that my county was leading on Thursday night. There were maybe 30 people there, and we broke into small groups based on topic. I picked the transportation, housing and environment group, which had about eight participants. It was a very constructive and respectful conversation without any one person dominating the conversation or being overly negative.

I was comfortable speaking up and sharing my thoughts about the need for higher density housing, community-minded thinking being more important than individual needs, and the importance of people who have the means doing whatever they can to help those who do not. Because if you’re just trying to pay rent and make sure your kids are fed, there is no way you can take on climate change.

Now that this election is over, I will continue to go to public meetings and participate in environmental advocacy. My local zero waste group, which is how I first got into this world, is hosting a happy hour in a couple weeks that I hope to attend. I was also asked by one of that group’s co-leaders if I’d want to join her for a meeting with the county about curbside organics. It feels good to be viewed as an environmental advocate both by peers and others in the community!

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for next week’s challenge!

Week 4

Civic Engagement

“There’s a danger in focusing on consumer behavior. There’s a danger of giving the impression that the solutions to the climate crisis have to be shouldered by women and men who care enough about it to change their personal choices. They do. But as important as it is to change a lightbulb, it is way more important to change policies. And in order to change policies, we have to have new policymakers. So the most important role that individuals can play is in taking their concern and passion for a better world into the voting booth and turning out in large numbers to overcome the dominance of our political system by big money.”

— Al Gore via The Washington Post

When I started on this journey about a year ago, I was focused solely on what I and my family could do to reduce our carbon footprint. About six months ago, I went to a “zero waste for beginners” workshop, where one of the speakers stressed the importance of attending community meetings and getting involved at the policy level.

At the time, I didn’t really agree. Deep down, I think it was because doing that felt very far out of my comfort zone. Plus, I work full-time and have two kids, so where am I going to find the time to go to meetings I’m not being paid to attend?

But between then and now, something changed. This summer, I saw a notice in one of my neighborhood Facebook groups about a proposal for a new drive-thru Starbucks going in four blocks from my house. A similar development (known locally as Carbucks) was wreaking havoc in another neighborhood, where an off-duty police officer has to direct traffic because the design is so horrible. The idea of building a drive-thru in my walkable, transit-friendly and bike-friendly neighborhood hit a nerve, and I decided to go to the public meeting with the developers on a Monday night at the library.

The room was PACKED. People were mad. And while a lot of the attendees were your stereotypical long-time residents and retirees, a couple of the people who spoke up at the meeting were my age and also at their first meeting.

I got home and immediately wrote a letter to the editor of my community newspaper. They published it the next week. I felt empowered. People took notice, and tagged me on Twitter to write more. So I did, and got published again. This time it was about a contentious trash referendum that’s on the ballot in this week’s election, and how voting yes is the environmentally conscious vote. (If you’re interested, this blog by local writer Naomi Kritzer has a good synopsis of the issue.)

I joined the “Say Yes” advocacy group for the trash referendum, which is co-led by my city’s zero waste group. I attended a climate change advocacy training workshop on a Sunday afternoon. I ordered yard signs. I went to a debate. And I posted on my personal social media accounts about local politics, something I’d never really done before.

And you know what? It worked. In one example, a colleague who I’ve never talked to about politics saw my posts, did his research, and thanked me—for his more than 5,000 followers to see.

Election day is Tuesday. Also on the ballot are city council and school board races. While I’ve always voted, my research typically involved reading the endorsements online a week before and calling it a day. This year is completely different. On Tuesday, I’ll cast my very informed votes, do two hours of “text banking” (like phone banking, but via text) for the trash referendum, and probably stay up way too late following the results on Twitter.

I also signed up for a community engagement session on Thursday night run by my county at the local high school. If it weren’t for getting involved in all of the above issues, I never would have known about it, much less attended.

I’ll check back in after the election and the county meeting and let you know how they go. If you have an election this week, be sure to vote!