Can “package-free” be sustainable?

This month Josh Blaine, manager of the in.gredients grocery store here in Austin, stopped by at the beginning of our Talk Green to Me book club to discuss zero waste and other efforts. The discussion tied in with many of our read books including this month’s The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom, and of course Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free.

in.gredients was launched in 2012 as a package-free neighborhood grocery, which is pretty awesome. Of course, Beth Terry heard about this, and Josh describes her as “like a kid in a candy store” when she came to check out the shop.

I hadn’t heard of the store before reading Plastic-Free as it was nowhere near my neighborhood. When I visited the store about a year and a half ago, I think getting there on the bus took nearly two hours. It was definitely not my neighborhood grocery and visiting was anything but sustainable. It was a bitter-sweet visit too because this was after in.gredients had made the difficult decision to also sell packaged goods.

At times I’ve fantasized about opening up my own neighborhood grocery store (not too seriously) which really is package-free, but after Thursday evening I have a much better understanding of just how difficult that might be. Josh explained that they wouldn’t have been able to stay in business as a package-free grocery. When customers bring in their own containers, they’re less likely to pick up other things. Potential customers may skip a visit to the store or go elsewhere if they don’t have the right supplies on hand. And some things that customers want may not be available package-free, like coconut oil or soymilk.

Package-free food also doesn’t always last as long, which sometimes is irrelevant but sometimes is really important like for beer which is only at really good quality in kegs for a couple of days. That means it has a much shorter time frame to sell within. in.gredients is also a smaller neighborhood store, so having something things packaged like in kegs means that there’s going to be a lot less variety for customers to choose from. Unfortunately, there are so many reasons why packaged goods can be better for business.

To get more customers, in.gredients switched from all package-free to a focus on local foods 18 months after it opened. But that’s not just lipservice. Food sold at this store may be as local as vegetables grown in the garden in their front lot. They also work with many local farms like Urban Roots and Green Gate Farms. After hearing Josh talk about how closely in.gredients works with the vendors I’m more tempted to go back just because I know I’ll be able to pick up anything I see and buy it knowing that some really good people have already done the hard work of finding vendors with earth-friendly and community-friendly processes.

Josh is part of the Austin Zero Waste Alliance, and zero waste is definitely still one of the core values of the store. I don’t remember the specifics, but I think he said that the average amount of trash created by a person per day is five pounds, which is what their store creates in a month! They’re able to do this by making it a priority. They even work closely with local vendors to arrange for deliveries in reusable packaging like buckets of granola that go directly into the bulk bins before being cleaned and swapped out during the next delivery.

There’s so much more that was discussed, like involvement in the community or fair pricing, but my current dream is just to be able to buy what I need without getting a lot of extra trash as part of the deal. They still have a bulk selection filled with good food, though, and fresh local produce free even of stickers. So if you’re in Austin, stop by in.gredients to pick some up or other local goodies.

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Gratitude Journal #2

It’s been a little while since Journal #1, so I’m sharing just a few more of the things that I’m grateful for. The first brightens my day every time I walk up to the front door.

Zinnias

When this flower bloomed recently, I was really surprised how a weed could be so beautiful. As it turns out, these are from the zinnia seeds that I planted months ago and which I had given up on. They look totally different from the picture I remember on the seed packet, but no matter, these are stunning. More are just starting to bloom now.

Our New Air Conditioner

When it’s really hot and humid out, the cool air in the house feels so good. It should be saving energy compared to our old unit. And it definitely helps me sleep better, which is worth anything. I’m also really thankful that we were able to afford it without having to borrow money.

A Backyard Bounty

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So many tomatoes!

There’s not as much going on in the veggie garden at the moment, but I’m still harvesting a bunch of Roma tomatoes. We’ve been slicing them on pizza and chopping them up into chili and spaghetti sauce. It might soon be time to make some salsa.

Turtles

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Our neighbor, Leonardo

For a while now, my husband has occasionally been seeing a turtle or two in the creek near our house, but today was my first sighting. I’ll call him Leonardo, after my favorite ninja turtle. 🙂

The Library

Because in addition to everything else they recently got new copies of The Monkees on DVD, which I’ll be enjoying over my summer vacation.

Curbside Free Piles

Because I was able to get rid of the dirty and not needed yet fully functional ice chest from the back yard (that came with the house) without doing anything more than dragging it over near the sidewalk out front.

The Garden after 4 Months

Yay! Four months after moving in, I’m finally eating more food from the garden. For a short while anyhow. All of May was clouds, rain, and thunderstorms, even into the first week of June. The rain finally cleared a couple of weeks ago, but the plants didn’t get any opportunity to sunbathe without the heat. We’ve had highs in the 90’s almost every day since, and it’s not going to get cooler again for months. (Time to start planning the fall garden!)

Here’s the breakdown for all my food plants:

Tomatoes & onions

I was elated when the first green tomato that I picked and left on the dining table as an experiment actually started turning red after a week or two. Fortunately, after the heavy rains let up several of the tomatoes started turning red on the plant. Unfortunately, with the dry weather, several leaf-footed stink bugs took up residence. I saw some while they were still nymphs, but my collapsed tomato plants are kind of a big leafy mess to pick insects out of and most hid when they saw me coming. I’ve harvested a couple dozen of these tomatoes so far and will probably pick the rest tomorrow. Even if they’re still green, I want them for myself and not for the stinkbugs.

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Roma tomatoes visited by a leaf-footed stink bug

The onions around it never grew very large bulbs, but I’ve been harvesting a couple every week. They’re still full of good oniony flavor.

Cucumbers

I love cucumbers but had to give a couple away this week because they were all coming out at once. Like the tomatoes, they didn’t fruit until the rain stopped and we started getting sunny days. I’m not sure if these plants will make it much longer. That picture was taken just a couple of days ago, and in that time many more leaves have already started curling up and giving in to the summer heat. They probably would have produced more if I had planted them more upright so that I could more easily find the cucumbers at the right time instead of when they had swollen well past the diameter of large supermarket cukes. Lesson learned.

Melons

July should be melon month, so I’m trying to be patient but it’s hard. Every day I go out there to look at this tiny watermelon hoping it will have grown a lot, but I can’t really see any difference day-to-day. There’s one other similar looking melon that I’ve found also. Not sure if they’re from the Crimson Sweet seeds I planted or from one of the bastard melon seeds. I planted them all in the same area and the vines are completely intertwined now.

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Baby watermelon

I just saw this one for the first time a couple of days ago. It’s larger but was in hiding under the foliage. Looks like the cantaloupe seed I planted.

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Here’s hoping that there are others hidden away. 🙂 Also, I really hope a couple of canary melons come out this summer, but I’ll end up picking up a couple from Engel Farms at the farmers market anyhow.

Squash

I think my squash plants are dying already also. They’re certainly less vigorous now. Spoiled by the constant rain but then sudden heat. Even though the yellow squash here hasn’t grown full-size yet, I’ll probably pick it tomorrow to ensure I get some sort of harvest from this crop.

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Squash plants no longer vigorous

Scattered plants

I transplanted this bell pepper a few weeks ago now, and it looks pretty happy although there’s still a ways to go before it’s large enough to produce any fruit.

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Bell pepper

The lemon tree sapling that was starting to look good last month is looking even better now, but the other one is pretty dead. 😦

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Lemon tree – 1 year 8 months old

The tomato plant I recently transplanted into the front garden bed is starting to look pretty happy also.

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Tomato plant in the front yard

The jalapeno pepper that’s in another bed out front is still pretty small, but peppers are supposed to be able to stand up to the Texas heat so it probably still has plenty of time to grow. I obviously didn’t do a very good job of removing grass from this bed.

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Jalapeno Pepper

Not pictured here but yesterday I also stopped by my mom’s to pick some oregano and the garlic that I planted in the garden there last fall. I got five good sized bulbs with nice papery skins so they probably won’t need too long to finish curing. There are still a couple more to harvest, but I’ll do that next week when I go collect seeds from the lettuce plant that bolted a while back.

Plastic Free July Planning

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We’re just a couple of weeks away from Plastic Free July! The goal is to give up single-use plastics for the month. Generally, people choose a few swaps they want to pay close attention to during the month so they end up being a habit afterwards. Fewer single-use disposables means less trash or recycling to deal with. It means fewer resources needed for making single-use containers. Less petroleum needed to be extraced from the earth. Less plastic ending up in the ocean. And more. plasticfreejuly.org has all the info.

If you’re new to PFJ, they propose the TOP 4 to look out for: plastic bags, water bottles, takeaway coffee cups and straws. Ready to sign up for the challenge? Sign up for a weekly email with tips, tricks, and support throughout.

Since I’ve tackled the TOP 4 in a previous challenge, I’ll be tackling some custom goals for my Plastic Free July. You may notice these are all food-related challenges since that’s what I purchase most frequently.

  1. Quit bagged popcorn
  2. Make milks
  3. Make veggie burgers
  4. Make pasta

Goal 1: Quit Bagged Popcorn

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Plastic-free popcorn?

At the office, there are dispensers of already popped delicious popcorn. With a reusable bowl, it might seem at first glance to be a plastic free-indulgence. But then you figure out where it came from…

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Double-bagged in plastic and plastifoil 😦

At this point I’m an addict. I eat several bowls of this popcorn a day, even though I know it goes against my less plastic goals. For Plastic-Free July I’ll have to bring more alternative snacks to the office to help me quit this cold turkey. A month without this stuff should cure my unhealthy addiction too.

Goal 2: Make Milks

I buy alternative milk for my husband from the grocery every week. And it generally comes in those stupid part-plastic / part-cardboard / part-foil bottles. Worse than most plastics, they’re not at all recyclable and by weight are probably half of what ends up in our kitchen trash bin.

So, the goal is to not buy any such milks in July. Instead I can try my hand at making oat milk, rice milk, pecan milk, almond milk, or whatever other varieties look promising. This one will take some investigation.

Goal 3: Make Veggie Burgers

Not bean burgers. Not mushroom burgers. But burgers filled with all kinds of delicious garden veggies to add something new to my repertoire. A few burgers for immediate consumption and some for the freezer for my husband’s burger fix. This will swap out one of the vegan “meat” products that I buy for my hubby (in plastic) each week.

Goal 4: Make pasta

Okay, this one is a stretch. Not sure if I’ll get this far. But we regularly buy pasta in plastic bags because to the best of my knowledge there is no bulk pasta available here in Austin. (If you know of such a thing, please let me know. Then this goal will be updated to try out some bulk pasta instead.)

I won’t use a pasta stretcher or anything elaborate. There are lots of instructions online about simpler pastas to make. It’s worth trying at least one time.

Book Review: Not Buying It

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Judith Levine’s book Not Buying It: My year Without Shopping was one of the my earlier influences towards taking frugality to the next obvious step of wasting less money on things that I don’t need. After an overwhelming holiday (a.k.a. shopping) season, she and her husband decided to take a break from shopping in 2004–no new clothes, no processed junk food, not even greeting cards. This book is a journal of her experiences throughout the year–shopping withdrawl, social pressures, political pressures, activities to fill time that was previously spent shopping, Buy Nothing Day, and after many months something approaching non-shopping nirvana.

Their non-shopping year in 2004 was not so far removed from the September 11 attacks and the aftermath of politicians sharing economic concerns, and the politics of shopping runs a strong vein through this book. Levine notes:

“It was impossible to remember a time when shopping was so explicably linked to our fate as a nation. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product, and if the gross domestic product is what makes America strong, we were told, the marketplace is what makes us free. Consumer choice is democracy. A dollar spent is a vote for the American way of life. Long a perk and pleasure of life in the U.S. of A., after September 11 shopping became a patriotic duty. Buy that flat-screen TV, our leaders commanded, or the terrorists will have won.”

Or while planning out a home improvement project that was already underway and exempt from the no-spend rules:

“After dinner, I take out the paint chips I have been collecting and spread them across the kitchen table. Engrossed in the pure, flat colors, grouping them in twos and threes, placing them in light and in shadow beside fabric swatches and blocks of wood, I forget global warming, the war in Iraq, the egregious George W. Bush and the only slightly less egregious John Kerry. As I make a note to bring home several cooler grays from the hardware store–Benjamin Moore alone must have a hundred–it occurs to me that I have better choices in paint than I do in presidents.”

But non-consumerism results in more for Judith than just asking friends to meet her for a walk or a picnic instead of going to the mall or to a restaurant. There are times where the best alternative to buying something new is to ask to borrow it from someone else. This is something I have trouble with myself but am encouraged by Judith’s experiences.

“Not buying has forced Paul and me to feel vulnerable and to ask for help, an almost un-American behavior. But the ability to ask for help might be a good skill to cultivate. Today I asked, and got service and a smile…. [W]hat I need is some non-consumer confidence.”

Sadly, early in the book I was secretly cheering when Levine gave in to a purchase or allowed someone else to treat her to a restaurant meal because it allowed me to feel self-righteous that I wouldn’t stoop to that level (although that may not be entirely true). At other points I felt guilty about aspects of their project that “beat” my own such as the fact that I rarely make it a full week without going out for lunch with my work friends. But it’s not a competition, and what’s right for each person will be different. I could learn much from Judith’s moment of nirvana the first time she goes into a store without feeling tempted to purchase anything.

“And just as I realize I am free of the desire to shop, I also feel free of the desire to judge others who desire to shop. I can condemn overconsumption and the systems that support it and it supports, but I don’t have to condemn the shopper.”

This is one of those books that gets me excited, and honestly there’s still a bit of an instinct there to go out and immediately buy a Buy-Nothing to satisfy my excitement. 🙂

But it’s okay. I take a breath and realize that not buying it is about giving me more control over my life and freeing up my time for other interests. I might start some veggies for my fall garden, relax with some yoga, or (very likely) curl up with another good book from the library.

The Not New Jeans

I recently had to retire a pair of jeans, so I’m not ready to lose another. This pair is pretty special too. It’s the only pair I still own from back when I still bought jeans new. They probably lasted so long because I’m very partial to jeans that are blue, but these black jeans are finally fully broken in and super comfortable. Maybe a bit too broken in, as I recently discovered this small hole in the inner thigh section.

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Ripped jeans quickly approaching the point of no repair

It’s a good idea to check your clothes regularly to see if they need mending anywhere, maybe while putting them away after each washing, but much of the time I find my clothes magically washed. For some reason, this is one of the chores my husband enjoys.

Anyhow, even though I found this late and the worn-thin fabric had already developed into a hole that I could poke my finger through, there was still plenty of time to save these jeans. I quickly gathered up some supplies:

  • Some scissors
  • A denim patch from a pair of retired jeans
  • A needle
  • Matching thread

(Some people are really into visible mending and you can do that too, but I prefer the kind that no one notices. )

In this case, the hole was small enough that I started by stitching both sides of the gap together. This makes the rest of the sewing a lot easier.

Then, with the dark side of the patch facing outwards, I loosely sewed it around the worn out area. Sewed a couple of zigzags through the middle to make sure all of it was firmly attached. Sewed near the edges of the patch (after trimming to size) so the patch wouldn’t be tempted to come loose. Sewed any area where it wasn’t already sewn. The inside may not be pretty, but hey it’s the inside. The spot that was previously worn thin is now well-reinforced.

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Completed patch from the inside

Since they’re black jeans and the hole was on the inner thigh, you’d have to be looking really hard to see the patch.

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Mended jeans

So, there you have it. My jeans are saved. The 1,800 gallons of water that it takes to grow cotton for a new pair of jeans is spared. The pesticides, dyes, and chemical softeners that would have gone into creating that new pair are also spared. Best of all, I’m spared the frustrations of trying on a billion pairs of new jeans before finding one that fits kind of okay. I have a perfectly good pair already broken in.

Gratitude Journal #1

Being a zero waste afficionado can sometimes get you down. After all, there’s a lot of waste in the world. Taking inspiration from some other bloggers, I’m taking note of some of the things that I’m grateful for and which keep me from getting down.

  1. After recent flooding in the area, our home is still safe and unaffected.
  2. I’ve seen far more beneficial than less desirable bugs in my veggie garden so far this year.
  3. My poison ivy rash is subsiding, and fortunately it looks like my carelessness didn’t result in my husband being affected. He has been happily itch-free. 🙂
  4. We had enough money saved up to replace our air conditioning system after having it checked out by an expert and finding it to be in even worse shape than expected. And all taken care of before the real heat of a Texas summer begins.
  5. We have delicious, clean tap water.
  6. There’s a library right next door with awesome free books, movies, and magazines. We can even use its bathroom in an emergency if ours is inaccessible.
  7. The first cucumber of the season.
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For tomorrow’s salad

A Graduation Celebration, Or “The Day I Totally Pigged Out”

My oldest nephew graduated from high school today! I still remember him best as a small child, and it’s so strange to see him now ready to fully embark on the journey of independent life. He’s a lover of animals and a vegan, and has a beard the likes of which would definitely have kept him from walking back at my high school graduation (although it’s nothing compared to his dad’s).

Deciding on a gift was easy. My husband and I gave him cash. He recently earned an honor for Economics, so there’s some hope that he may use it wisely. 🙂

We didn’t go out and buy a five dollar greeting card for him. I could have made him a card from some nice paper that has printing on only one side, but I still had a pack of generic blank greeting cards that I picked up at Goodwill a while back. As it turns out, another family member needed a quick card, and we did make that one out of a sheet of paper that was laying around and some markers. It was a fair decision because later on, the graduate was happily counting all the cash he had received while the various cards were laying about totally neglected.

My cousin (his father) hosted the celebration party at their house. Many other relatives were there, and even my grandmother made it in to town for the festivities. But we were nowhere near enough people to eat the smorgasboard of food that unfolded before us. We started with crackers and hummus dip and chips with pico de gallo. There were vegan cookies. Someone brought chocolates. Then food started coming into the house from the grill. Burgers and sausage. It was surprising that with a vegan graduate there were no veggie burgers, but I was hungry and immediately gobbled up the beef delight before me. By that time, more food appeared and fortunately included many fruits of which I ate some pineapple, strawberries, and grapes. A batch of veggie kabobs made their way in, but those were specially for the birthday boy and not enough to go around. The trays kept coming, though. Some chicken kabobs. Shrimp kabobs. Being surrounded by food, I helped myself to a sausage burger. Within one hour I had eaten more meat than I would normally eat in a week! Then veggie burgers appeared, only after I was stuffed enough to avoid any more entrees. More veggie kabobs appeared, but those again were just enough for the graduate. So much food around me! One of the chicken kabobs also somehow disappeared into my mouth. After that, I kept nibbling for the duration of our stay, barely managing to stick to strawberries and grapes.

Oh, but it wasn’t just the excess of meats. (Or the fact that the kabobs were probably store-prepared and excessively wrapped on foam with plasticwrap in addition to the kabob stick.) The drinks that were available at the party were canned sodas and bottled water. I had considered bringing my own, but the auditorium where the graduation was held had a no outside food or drink policy and I was afraid they’d confiscate my favorite water bottle. I drank from the water fountain at the arena, but I was out much longer than anticipated and needed something more. Since bottled water is so repulsive to me, I opted for the soda. Full corn syrup. Full caffeine. Full plastic-lined can. In retrospect, bottled water is still probably better than canned soda in every respect — for the environment, for my health, for the wallet of my hosts.

So, there you have it. My confession of how I succumbed to the pressures of the day. It’s not so bad though. Another time, I might have eaten multiple burgers or several chicken kabobs. I might have really pigged out on the individually-wrapped chocolate candies instead of filling up on fruit. I could also have partaken in the cake and ice cream. This was moderation and progress. I can only hope that the ton of food left over also left an impression that maybe less food should be bought for the next time. Then again, in our family I’m not sure if there’s ever been a celebration where we didn’t all leave with achingly full bellies. We haven’t learned yet.

Free Paint, Recycled Paint

In Austin, anyone can stop off at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off center to pick up some totally free ReBlend paint. Paint isn’t supposed to be thrown out in the trash, so people who have left over paint take it down to the Drop-off center, where it’s blended into one of three color combinations and repackaged for anyone in town to pick up. The blending process releases any VOCs in the paint, so while it may have had VOCs originally at least they won’t be released in your home. And did I mention that this paint is free?

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In April I made my way out there to pick up paint for some ugly walls in our new house. Taking the bus was a bad idea because it was a lot further to the bus stop carrying a few gallons of paint, and my carrying bags weren’t quite right for the job. Fortunately, by walking I had the opportunity to enjoy this railroad to nowhere.

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Nature victorious!

When I visited only the dark beige color was available, but any paint would have suited my needs. While there, I checked out the Reuse Store (free stuff that other people dropped off but still has a lot of use in it) and got a hammer, screws, a nice Italian planter, and possibly other things that I don’t quite remember.

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Recycled paint!

My mom had given me a few paint roller supplies, but I made a trip to the hardware store and picked out a couple of quality brushes that should last the rest of my life–a 1.5″ angled brush for detail work and a 3″ paint-all-the-things brush. (I had been hoping the Habitat ReStore would have some used paintbrushes, but sadly it only sells them brand new.)  Plus, I picked up a short ladder at a yard sale in my neighborhood because I had no other good way to reach near the ceiling. Holding the small amount of paint for each day was simple with a reused plastic container. I’ll probably give away the paint roller supplies on Freecycle in the near future.

(Note: If I had decent carpeting I would probably need to invent a dropcloth also but fortunately, or unfortunately, the carpet that came with the house is permanently stained and at some point in the non-distant future should be removed.)

This is the closet in our guest bedroom before it got its new paint job. It was off-white and doesn’t look too bad there, but the other walls had many spackle spots and smudges which didn’t make it look very friendly. I couldn’t bear to take a picture of them.

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Before

And here’s our happily repainted guest bedroom.

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After. Non-nasty walls!
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With contrasting white trim

My husband was so happy at the improvement. At some point I’ll probably be making another trip to the Reuse Store to pick up a small jar of white paint to touch up the trim. (They have so much free stuff!) But in the meantime I have a half a bucket of paint left and will be working on the hallway and bathroom cabinets, which are the two things that most need it.

At this point, even though I have several other rooms that could benefit from it, I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be getting another large bucket of paint anytime soon. While working with this stuff I’ve realized that I’m pretty much just putting a layer of plastic on my walls. Not sure how I feel about that. The greenest solution is obviously to live with smudgy walls, but nope. This warrants further investigation. Do you know of any good alternatives?

The Reused Water Bottle

You hear a lot about using reusable water bottles instead of disposables, but most of the time it’s quickly followed up with an evaluation of the best reusable water bottle to buy. Creating new reusables tends to use more resources than single disposables, so there’s a break-even point at which your investment becomes better for the environment than continuing to use disposables.

Want to get to the break-even point instantly? The greenest water bottle that you can buy is the one you already own. Maybe it’s sitting in your recycling bin at this moment. Maybe it’s at the thrift shop. Or maybe it’s a kombucha bottle that someone else drank from and struck your fancy (as mine is). In the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle priority list, reuse comes before recycling every time. You save one container from disposal or recycling costs and another one from the expense of being created.

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My beautiful water bottle

I’ve been using this bottle for the past year. It’s enhanced by a coozie from my college days that was just sitting around and doing nothing. Sure, I browsed Etsy looking at the billions of lovely creations that could have graced my bottle to provide the much needed grip, but I had to be honest with myself and admit they weren’t needed with this alternative.

Some zero waste advocates are just following the trends and using the movement as an excuse to buy new stuff, but don’t be fooled. Many zero waste swaps are super frugal or even free. The next time you’re tempted by some zero waste instagram pics, look around at what you already have and hang onto your money for the things that are really important to you. For most people, that isn’t a super fancy water bottle, or a particular kind of jar just to store trash in.

P.S. – If you’re still buying disposable water bottles, take a moment to calculate how much money you spend in a year on just water. Once you do that, the switch should be obvious.