Compost – a better land fill

In 2014 we were staying with my mom while saving up for a house, and there was a large backyard used mainly for the exercise of mowing the lawn. But then, I learned about composting. It was incredible. The onion skins, the carrot tops, the apple cores that were filling up the trash can every day and making it all stinky could instead be thrown out into the backyard. After the labor of raking up a yardful of leaves, instead of stuffing them into brown paper bags for yard waste pickup, they could just be piled up in the backyard messily.

Even though my mom’s not a gardener, composting piles were immediately useful as there were some dips in the yard and a couple of holes where shrubs had been dug up and wouldn’t be replaced. All the compostable material went right into those spaces. It would mound up for a while, but then it would break down or compact. Then more could be heaped on top and eventually that would flatten out also. Of course, this is similar to the concept of sanitary landfills, but without having to put all the produce trimmings in plastic bags first and then sealing them underground forever where they wouldn’t benefit the soil.

Fast forward a couple of years to this February. My husband and I had just bought our own house. One of the very first projects on my agenda was to set up a compost bin so I could have plenty of rich humus for future gardening projects. Being frugal, I found some hardware cloth that had been abandoned in the back yard, secured it into a cylinder shape with some twist ties (my husband has a whole collection that he’s saved), shoveled the grass off of its new location, and “planted” it. Success! All the food scraps we had, all the yard waste, I just threw it in there for our first five months without ever turning it, watering it, or whatever else it is that people do with compost piles.

From the outside it hasn’t looked like much has happened and I didn’t really expect much when finally turning / moving the compost to a new bin this weekend. But I was hoping, and was rewarded with this.

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Rich on the inside!

Although the outside was dry and didn’t sustain any kind of life, some of the inside was rich, moist, and full of bugs helping to break it down further. So now I understand why you’re supposed to turn the pile, to get some of that other material on the inside and benefiting from this goodness. Maybe in the future I’ll turn it more than once every five months. We’ll see.

As for the new compost bin, I needed one that was just a little larger. Strolling around the neighborhood during bulk pickup week turned to my advantage when I found a perfect-sized portion of chickenwire, which I’ve used as my new enclosure.

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The new compost pile

You can see a bit of the mess I made shoveling out another section of grass and some of the heavy clay soil underneath. I should probably add that back into the compost. The pallet was used for a gardening project earlier in this year, but it had bugs around it that looked like termites so into the compost it went too! At least it’ll help serve as a support. The new bin is about half-filled from the contents of the other full compost bin. And I’ll start filling up the old bin again (it’s closer to the house) while this one breaks down. If I wasn’t so lazy, I just might have compost for the fall garden. But, meh, I’ll settle for spring. 🙂

Interested in learning more about composting in your backyard? Zero Waste Chef has a great post on Composting for the Lazy.

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The Garden After 5 Months

We’re well into July now and the Austin heat means that most days this month have hit the triple-digits. I have a definite tan line on my neck from spending hardly any time outside, and most of the veggies just can’t take the heat. But anyhow here are the highlights of the garden five months after moving in.

Previous months:

Cucumbers

Dead now. But my Straight Eights were producing all through June and even gave me a few in July before they all shrivelled up and were a pain to pull because the vines had entangled themselves with other veggies I planted too close together. I hope to see more in the fall garden, though.

Peppers

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Not even close to growing a bell pepper

The jalapeño pepper is still a tiny little thing and has no hope of growing anything this summer. The bell pepper looks leafy at least but there’s no telling if any of those will wind up in my skillet either.

Tomatoes

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Front yard tomato

The Roma tomato plant I added at the front of my house is just barely leafier than this now. It doesn’t help that I sometimes forget about watering plants that aren’t in the backyard garden. There’s one tomato on it but it’s kind of pathetic.

Of my two Romas planted earlier in the year in the backyard, I pulled one as soon as I got overwhelmed with / sick of tomatoes earlier this month. (I harvested at least 50, which for me is a ton.) The other was butchered mercilessly as I composted it limb by limb before getting tired of the heat and failing to finish the job. A couple of days ago I noticed a new tomato on that plant, it’s a survivor! It hasn’t even been watered all month.

Melons

Melons are amazing. They’re the one plant that still looks really happy with the summer heat.I’ve been watering them only once or twice a week.

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All kinds of melon leaves
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A baby watermelon that wasn’t meant to be

After a few cantaloupes and canary melons, I was excited about finally getting a watermelon. The excitement was short-lived as I soon after saw the growing melon slightly larger than a softball but covered with a huge brown spot on one side. I got that away from the vines as quick as possible, hoping another healthier melon takes its place. Will probably need to get soil tests done in the near future though.

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A new batch of canary melons has sprouted

Watermelons may take too long to grow but I have a good feeling about the canary melons. I created this new garden bed for another round and the baby vines are looking healthy. I’ve already thinned them out a few times, hoping to keep the most vigorous few plants.

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Yes, even smaller melons need support

One of the older canary melon vines crossed over into the former cucumber bed, giving me the first mid-air melon I’ve ever grown. Despite reading and watching much advice about giving your melons proper support, I decided to experiment and see if this melon could hold its own weight. As it turns out, it can’t. I took this photo yesterday morning and then in the afternoon it fell to the ground. Not fully ripe yet because it’s still a bit small and the skin isn’t textured yet, but as what might be the last homegrown melon of the season I’ll savor it as much as possible. (Still, fingers crossed that more melons emerge.)

Chance of Rain

After weeks of dry heat, there’s finally a chance of rain this week (with slightly lower temperatures). To take full advantage, I transplanted my puny little next batch of tomato seedlings outside, stuck some yellow squash seeds into a mound of dirt, and put some cucumber seeds in the ground along with some support. It may not be the best timing to plant any of these things, but with plenty of warmth and water and love, just maybe they’ll make it through. *fingers crossed*

A Visit to Zero Waste Grocery Store in.gredients

The Austin Zero Waste Lifestyle Meetup is all about getting people to try new zero waste activities, and getting food is definitely one of my favorite activies so I was excited to see this as an upcoming meetup. Today we met at the in.gredients grocery store, with the intention of learning more options about buying without packaging waste. Of course, this idea stemmed in part from a recent book club discussion with Josh Blaine, manager of in.gredients.

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Welcoming entrace to in.gredients, with seating for eating 🙂

As we settled in I checked out the grounds and was pleasantly surprised to find a Little Free Library.

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Bonus books at the grocery store

And then had a look around their on-site garden. Maybe one day mine will look similar.

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Groceries in the making

Inside the store, there was plenty of local food stuffs to make your mouth water. And they had bulk options for all the basics like flour and salt and chocolate-covered almonds, laundry detergent (no longer available at Wheatsville unfortunately), pet food, and even a soap log that you could cut your own bar of soap from.

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I still have enough soap for forever but really want to try this next time I need some

Since it was a Saturday afternoon, I was already stocked with groceries but tared one jar by the door for something special.

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Tare sticker. The only packaging waste I took home from this shop.

So, what did I get? They had samples of dragon fruit (so strange! yet delicious), which I was then sure my husband would want to try also. I managed to avoid the chocolate and grabbed some unsweetened coconut flakes to fill my jar. (Not a local option I’m sure, but they’ll come to good use.) Plus, I grabbed some long beans because they looked really good. I was already at the checkout when I spotted the package-free breads behind the register and took home a loaf of sourdough (in what was formerly a shoe bag).

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Groceries from in.gredients without waste packaging

Afterwards, the meetup organizer Melissa shared a bit of her kombucha, which was awesome for two reasons. One, because it was on tap and she was able to get it in her growler with no additional waste. And two, because in.gredients provides real cups to use when dining on-site. (They wash them of course.) This was my first taste of kombucha, and it struck me as tasting a lot like natural ginger ale. I may have to try more of that in the future also.

So all in all a successful meetup. And I’ll be back!

Staycation Day

Yes, Plastic-Free July was on my mind even on holiday. I don’t know if you can call this a staycation if it’s a single day, but my husband and I both had the day off from work and were eager to go out and see the town.

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A hearty breakfast at 24 Diner

We took the bus downtown to start the day with brunch at 24 Diner. I’ve been there before and the food is consistently delicious. With real plates, real glasses, real silverware, and cloth napkins, this place is great for a plastic-free meal. I even remembered to ask for no straw although I think that’s their default. And to be a bit more healthy I opted for the veggie sausage instead of bacon or conventional sausage. It wasn’t my favorite and they were rather large patties but I managed to eat one and fortunately my husband was game to eat the other so no nutrients went to waste. As a special bonus, 24 Diner sources their food from local farms.

Afterwards, I stopped in at the Whole Foods across the street to get a brownie to snack on later during the day. Using a clean cloth napkin from home, I was able to take it from the display case without any single-use packaging. And it was delicious. 🙂

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 Bob Bullock Museum (stock photo)

We were stuffed from the large brunch and decided to pass up a visit to the Capitol, instead heading straight for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. As a native Texan who has frequently been right across the street from the museum, visiting is something that I’ve been meaning to do for a long while, but amazingly it’s never happened until now.

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Museum admittance stickers 😦

I should have guessed that getting in would require some kind of plastic, but I didn’t even think about it until we were told to wear these stickers as proof of admittance. Fortunately, they were pretty small so not as much plastic as it could have been.

My favorite part was the mini-theater with clips from the Austin City Limits shows since 1974, but there was also a (non-Texas-specific) exhibit about food waste that caught my attention. They had a ceiling-height column filled with boxes and plastic food depicting the average amount that gets thrown out by a family each year. It’s really tragic. I’m not perfect about using up every bit of food, but I take some relief that my husband and I have made a lot of improvements on this front in the past couple of years.

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Huge screen at the IMAX theater (stock photo)

After browsing all the exhibits, it was time for a show. We had tickets to see the new Ghostbusters movie in IMAX 3D as a special treat. By filling up at brunch, we had no problems passing up the bottled beverages or boxed candy. The ginormous screen and how close we were sitting to it was kind of intimidating before the movie. The previous time I tried to watch a 3D movie gave me a bit of a headache. But this time it all worked out great. Nothing distracted me from the movie, and when it was all over we returned the 3D glasses for washing and reuse. No plastic wrappers or single-use anything.

And if you’re wondering about the movie, well, if you’re a fan of the original Ghostbusters you’ll probably enjoy this reboot. Even with the characters and plot changed around a bit, it’s very true to the franchise with plenty of goofy comedy, dangerous weapons, and original ghosts (plus Slimer, of course). If you’re not a fan of the original Ghostbusters, I have no idea what you’ll think.

After this, we headed back home on the bus with me humming Ray Parker Jr’s “Ghostbusters” most of the way. I gave into some cravings to end the day with junk food as we ate a Little Caesars pizza (no plastic tables in the box) for dinner while watching the original Ghostbusters. Not perfect, but all in all a great day with minimal waste. Even the pizza box will be put to good use feeding the compost.

Plastic-Free July Grocery Shopping

I haven’t bought as many groceries this month because of the invasion of relatives who visited and left behind so much food that I can’t stand to see go to waste. But there’s still some decent variety in this week’s grocery trip so you can see what I do to try to keep my shopping plastic-free and where there’s room for improvement.

Bulk Goods

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Peanuts, chili beans, and rolled oats bought in bulk

In Austin we’re very fortunate to have a number of stores in the area with bulk bins. I’ve found that even at the stores where they don’t tare containers, no one blinks if you bring your own light-weight bags to purchase bulk goods in. But I really do like seeing what I have on hand easily, and have been using glass jars for my bulk purchases from Wheatsville. Most of the time I can even get away with reusing the same sticker as a previous visit or rubberbanding a piece of scrap paper to the jar as a label to get the goods home without any waste. Mason jars are especially good for this because I can cut out a piece of scrap paper using the lid as a pattern and display it in the lid after screwed on.

Fresh Fruit

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Watermelon, peaches, and figs

There were plenty of delicious fruit options at the farmers market today. A small watermelon, a basket of peaches, and a basket of figs made their way home for me and with nary a produce sticker. Anything left over after we devour them can go straight in the compost bin (although I’ve been eating the watermelon seeds and saving some of the peach pits for a future peach-tree-growing adventure).

Fresh Veggies

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Mixed greens, avocado, carrots, and onion

We were already mostly set on veg too, but I needed an extra onion from the farmers market. And to fill out our salads for the week, Wheatsville has both organic carrots and mixed greens available in bulk. I just have to be sure not to squash the lettuce! Yes, the avocado has a sticker, but my husband really enjoyed it so it was worthwhile. Today I used up many of last week’s veggies by dicing them up and making a hearty spaghetti sauce–no spaghetti jar needed.

Bread

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Package-free baked goods

Yum, fresh package-free bread from the farmers market. Plus a package-free bagel picked up from the display at Wheatsville with my clean napkin. (It was a full bagel until I left the store.) Normally, I’d get more bread than this but we’re still working through frozen bread leftovers from my sister’s visit.

Eggs

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Eggs in a reused carton

Normally a cardboard carton is good enough to get through plastic-free July. But bulk eggs that you can take home in your own (reused) cartons? Even better! This is an awesome option at Wheatsville… although this carton should probably be retired soon.

Milk

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TetraPak! 😦

I know, I know. TetraPaks have at least a couple of layers of plastic, and there aren’t even facilities to recycle them in my area. I’m about to try my hand at making some oat milk again. But I got this as a backup because my husband would be grumpy if he didn’t have some kind of milk product to drink. Well, only grumpy until he went out and bought some himself, likely picking up other plastic-wrapped goods in the process. If I keep my husband away from the grocery store, that in itself is a less-plastic success.

Household Goods

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Plastic-free toilet paper

Originally I hated not getting quite as good a deal on toilet paper as was possible with the multi-packs wrapped in thick plastic. But since then I’ve grown very attached to the idea of only having to pick up a single roll or two of TP every week and never having to lug home one of those monstrocities. Totally worth it.

Well, that’s it! I told you it was a smaller shopping trip this week. What do you do to keep your groceries plastic-free?

Gratitude Journal #3

There are so many things I’m grateful for, and recognizing the importance of gratitude is one of them. Every day recently I’ve been making an active effort to recognize the things that make life wonderful. Here are just a few recent items for which I’d like to offer my thanks.

Natural Beauty

Pink fireworks flower

I found these pretty pink flowers by the bus stop a week ago and was immediately struck by their beauty. Although I feel a bit bad about doing so, I plucked one for myself and kept it with me to admire throughout the day.

I’m also grateful for the internet which has helped identify this plant as a mimosa pudica, also known as the sensitive plant because it closes its leaves when touched. Will definitely have to try that out the next time I stop by.

Our Box Fan

We got it from a garage sale earlier this year, and keeping it aimed right in my direction keeps my much cooler without having to turn down the thermostat as much. It’s a net win for energy savings and comfort.

Local Wildlife

In addition to the turtles in the creek next door, there are almost always some fish swimming around. Birds and squirrels like to hang out in my lawn. And when they get into the garden it’s usually something innocuous like eating one of my plentiful tomatoes which I don’t mind sharing. They did manage to wreak havoc with the cantaloupes, but I’m glad they enjoyed them.

The Library

Living right next to the library is great. I love reading and even this smaller library has plenty of variety to offer. This week I even picked up a tree field guide and now know how to recognize an American Elm. There are quite a few around my house.

My Job

It’s not my dream job, but I really enjoy most of my work. And the casual environment means I don’t need to worry if my jeans are starting to get a little worn out. Plus, it’s helped me finally get to a phase of my life where I feel comfortable sharing some of my income with causes I support.

Surprise vegetables

Baby pumpkin

Every time I’ve thought that the cucumber harvest was over, I kept finding one more. Will another appear? Only time will tell. And in my mom’s yard (my previous garden) one of the pumpkin seeds from last year finally decided it was time to start growing.

Health

My parents and siblings are all in good health. A little over a week ago, I got to meet my new nephew for the first time when my sister and her husband came down to visit. He’s not only in good health but very active. He’ll be walking before they know it. 🙂

This Guy

Empty soda can on the floor of a bus

If a can or bottle is rolling around on the floor bus, I’m usually too lazy to pick it up and just let it roll around some more. The man with the shoes in this pic saw the can rolling around and not only picked it up but checked the rest of the bus for careless discards to dispose of at the trashbin at the next stop. It may not have gotten as far as recycling, which we sadly don’t have at bus stops here, but it’s a huge step in the right direction and has inspired me to do what I can to make a positive difference.

Five Frugal Things (the Plastic-Free version)

With the folks in town lately there’s been too much food to really get down to my Plastic Free July resolutions, so instead in the spirit of the Non-Consumer Advocate here are some of my no-spend and plastic-free wins for July so far.

  1. My sister and her family left behind tons of leftovers after their visit to my mother’s so my husband and I have been doing or duty of eating them up the past few days and still have plenty to go. What we didn’t expect to eat soon enough, we stuck in the freezer. That’ll keep any of this food from going to waste before we can get to it.
  2. This evening I was entertained for a good half hour by watching the trees outside our bedroom window swaying in the wind. If you look around, you already know that often nature can be much more entertaining (and relaxing!) than anything on tv.
  3. I’ve eaten two canary melons from the garden in the past week and enjoyed every bit of them. Although critters got to most of the cantaloupes, I was able to save the last one and it’s waiting in the fridge now to be eaten. Last week I also planted more melon seeds to hopefully get some more delicious zero-waste, plastic-free, local, and organically grown fruit this fall.
  4. The two Roma tomato plants that we grew this summer produced way more fruit than we could possibly consume, so last week I took care of most of them by blending them up and then cooking them down into tomato paste, which has now been divied out into (appropriately enough) old tomato paste jars and stashed in the freezer for future use.
  5. Our tv was in bad shape. It was turning off on its own and creepily also turning back on on its own fairly regularly. I was ready to take it to be repaired rather than abandon it to be “recycled” and then have to replace it, but fortunately neither option turned out to be necessary. We left it unplugged for a week (we have a second tv set so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice), and since its long siesta it has been working great.

Now your turn. What frugal things have you been up to?

Book Review – Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

A few months ago in book club, we read Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, which focused on what makes cheap clothing so cheap (shoddy construction, labor outsourced to overseas countries, mass production, etc.) and how not just this but treating clothing as disposable commodities hurts us in general. Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture continues the story for everything else out there–cheap furniture, cheap houses, cheap food, cheap everything.

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Shell references the following IKEA commercial as a prime example of how sellers would like us to look at potential purposes.

If a better lamp exists, why not purchase it? You can always leave the old one out on the curb. And if you get tired of the new lamp after a while, nothing’s to stop you from upgrading again. Of course, with this kind of mindset, it’s not so simple for anyone to be happy with a purchase anymore, because they’re always anticipating a newer, better thing from the moment they get it home.

Cheap illustrates how the very fact that the item being purchased is cheap lowers its valuation in the mindset of the buyer.

“Discounting plays many tricks on the human mind, and among the more intriguing is the influence of discounting on our relationship to the purchase itself. Although almost everyone seeks bargains, most of us make the tacit and often unconcious assumption that doing so involves a trade-off of quality for price: Regardless of what the tag or brand claims, we perceive things bought on sales or at a discount as less desirable or efficacious or durable than things for which we paid full price.”

 

In one referenced study, one group of students bought an energy drink at full price, and another bought it discounted at half price. Even though it was the same exact drink, the students who paid half-price got nowhere near the energy effect of those who paid full price. The same was found to be true of discounted painkillers. They had a far less powerful effect on pain than the same ones at full price. So maybe cheap and discounted goods aren’t always such a good deal after all.

Like OverdressedCheap also describes how quality is being cut across the board. Items to be sold are designed to meet a certain price point. This is nothing new, as this book describes the first discount stores and how they really came of age in the 50’s and 60’s. Originally, these were stocked with random items that could be bought cheaply for resale, and then as globalization really picked up stores were able to custom-order anything they wanted to sell, themselves shopping around for the lowest-priced manufacturing even if the materials and labor were a bit suspect. Continuing the IKEA example,

“[IKEA] designs to price, commissioning its suppliers to build not a mug, per se, but a custom-designed 50-cent mug; not a kitchen table and two chairs but a custom-designed kitchen table and two chairs for less than one hundred euros. Every year IKEA challenges its suppliers to lower their prices, and every year it challenges its designers to dream up still cheaper objects to sell, whether new ones or updated versions of classics.”

Another target for selling products with reduced quality are the factory outlets. According to Shell, “Factory outlets are America’s number-one tourist destination, the fastest-growing segment of not only the retail industry but also the travel industry.” The stories of people going on vacation somewhere and then using up much of their precious trip just to shop somewhere and save a couple of bucks is insane. Even with the brand names, she says, most of these outlet stores are no longer places to buy overstocked goods or those that didn’t fully meet quality standards. Instead, they’re selling products that are custom-created to be cheaper varieties of what the name brand represents. It’s like going out for orange juice and ending up with Sunny Delight (which can be cheaper because it contains little actual juice).

Personally, for a long time I wondered how Target could sell Converse shoes at half the price of other stores, before finally realizing that they weren’t the same shoes as all.

“Hundreds of other brands from Levi Strauss to Mercedes-Benz slice and dice their offerings for various markets, selling different products in different types of stores for different prices under the same brand. This practice is pervasive at discount retailers. Chains such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, and Home Depot have items manufactured “to their specifications,” meaning that the brand name is almost devoid of meaning. A television with a model number available only at Best Buy or Wal-Mart is–no matter its apparent brand–a Best Buy or Wal-Mart television.”

Of course, in my case, I never took a really good look at the shoes in question. I couldn’t have recognized quality shoe construction if it was staring me in the face. And unfortunately, according to Shell most other consumers are just like me thinking that they’re getting a bargain when it’s really something entirely different. And even though the cheap cost adds that devaluation mentioned above.

Shell closes with a call-to-action for all of us to take the true cost of goods into account and to ensure that those true costs are fully disclosed for easier decisions.

“Bargain hunting is a national pastime and a pleasure that I, for one, will not relinquish. But knowing that our purchases have consequences, we can begin to enact change. We can set our own standard for quality and stick to it. We can demand to know the true costs of what we buy, and refuse to allow them to be externalized. We can enforce sustainability, minimize disposability, and insist on transparency. We can rekindle our acquaintance with craftmanship. We can choose to buy or not, choose to bargain or not, and choose to follow our hearts or not, unencumbered by the anxiety that someone somewhere is getting a “better deal.” No longer slaves to the low-price imperative, we are free to make our own choices. As individuals and as a nation, we can turn our attention to what matters, secure in the knowledge that what matters has never been and will never be cheap.”

As for myself, the next time I come across a $5 frying pan at the supermarket, I’ll be much more confident in passing it up and holding out for quality when I actually need one.

PFJ Day 1: Plastic Everywhere

Plastic Free July has started! And started as a collosal failure. 😦

It started when I went to visit my folks since my new nephew is in town for the week. They wanted to have lunch at Whataburger, and I was content that I could get a burger with just a paper wrapper. Sure, there’s also a plasticy sticker on the wrapper, but not too bad. And since we were ordering together, it was just one line item on the receipt instead of a whole separate receipt. Unfortunately, while I went to grab a table while others were still ordering, the cashier was unconvinced that I didn’t need a drink and insisted that I have one. On her. And my folks still up there ordering were happy to accept the extra foam cup and even pick up a packaged straw to go with it before they reached my table. This has never happened to me before. For the past year, I’ve been able to make sure I had a bit of water before going out and have never had any problem having a light meal without an additional drink. But there you have it, a foam cup and straw that ended up going straight in the trash.

More folks were coming over in the afternoon and it had already been named Rudy’s day. We placed the order online for what seemed like a ton of food, and it all came in foil trays with foil lids or foam cups with plastic lids, everything totally wrapped up in plastic wrap. Plastic serving utensils included as a bonus, plastic-wrapped of course. Decent enough quality to be reused but probably won’t be. And in the end less than half of the food was eaten. But that may be because my visiting sister and her family will be happily eating barbecue leftovers the rest of the week–when they’re not trying out other barbecue places, that is.

So no, I didn’t break any of my own rules for Plastic Free July, but I may have taken a step backwards. The next time I go over to visit this week, I may just take my own food as a backup. At least there’s usually watermelon too. 🙂