Almost once a month, I send a “Waste Watchers” email to my Benedictine Sisters. These are tips to both challenge and encourage us (including me!!) to become more aware of our habits that waste the Earth’s resources. Below is a list, in order of priority, of these mindful practices.
REFUSE – Do I really need to buy it? Can I make it myself? Can I make do with what I have? Do I really need a disposable plastic straw or coffee stirrer? Do I really need a disposable plastic liner in bedroom and bathroom trash cans? Refuse to use or buy plastic if an alternative is available.
REDUCE – Can I use less of it to make it last longer? Am I finishing all of it before trying something different? Can I use multi-purpose products (like vinegar/baking soda cleaner)? Can I take shorter showers or bathe every other day? Can I gradually reduce my wardrobe by selecting 1 neutral color (black, navy, gray, brown, beige) for wardrobe basics? (Use favorite colors for shirts and scarves) Wear layers and lower thermostat in winter. Wear light weight clothing, use fans and raise thermostat in summer. Turn off electric lights if you are away more than 5-10 minutes.
REUSE – Can I keep reusing this item rather than tossing it out? (Some, not all, plastic items can safely be reused.) Can I find it 2nd hand at a charity shop or swap with friends?
REPURPOSE – Similar…can I find a different, creative way to use it? Or can I give it as a gift to someone?
REPAIR – Can it be refurbished instead of trashed?
REPLACE – Is there a less wasteful, less polluting substitute? i.e.: Buy only non-disposable items when possible. Buy glass/metal/wooden/bamboo storage containers instead of plastic.
RECYCLE – This is your next to last, not 1st resort to avoid waste!
ROT – Start a compost and/or worm bin to create free, “upcycled” super soil.
My grandparents (born in the late 1800’s) were not wasteful because they had to live frugally to make ends meet. Although my mom’s parents lived in town, not on a farm as did my dad’s parents, they relied on a backyard garden and chickens, like all their neighbors. They also lived before disposable products were invented, particularly plastics. Milk was delivered to the door in glass jars that were returned. When things broke or quit working, they were repaired or repurposed, not trashed. Both grandmothers sewed and knitted clothing and linens. We don’t want to turn back the clock or pretend that we can become “Little House on the Prairie.” But we can resolve to be less wasteful and have a plan to practice the eight “R’s” listed above.
Some form of a “dump” has been around for thousands of years as evidenced by archeological discoveries of heaps of discarded shells and animal bones. But only in modern times have trash landfills proliferated worldwide to the point of creating huge amounts of methane gas from decomposition which affects climate change and pollutes ground water. For over 2 months, a landfill in the greater Birmingham area caught on fire and kept burning, releasing toxins and affecting air quality for nearby neighbors. Most of us don’t think about where our trash ends up after we toss it out, or the consequences of all that waste on our planet and us. Some of our waste ends up in huge garbage patches in the oceans and beaches, killing wildlife. Microplastics have been found from Mount Everest to the ocean floors. About 77% of people recently tested were found to have microplastics in their bloodstream.
The Zero Waste movement is a worldwide community of individuals and families who are trying to create less trash, for many good reasons. The above list of eight “R’s” to avoid waste are what I’ve learned from this community. When I try to put them into practice, though, I feel like I’m swimming against a strong current. Picture salmon swimming upstream, jumping waterfalls and other impediments to return to their spawning areas. I’m swimming against the strong current of my own ingrained wasteful habits, but also the habits of a culture that values ease, convenience, disposability, and frequent fashion changes more than the health of the planet and its occupants.
If you haven’t already watched the documentary, BAG IT, I hope you will view it on YouTube. This video explains in detail the true costs and consequences of both producing and throwing out one mass-produced item – disposable plastic bags – made from non-renewable fossil fuel. A few countries are now banning the use of disposable plastic bags in stores for reasons that you will understand after you have watched this video.
Jesus invited us to ponder two ways of life. The first choice is so comfortably easy and widely unrestrained that the majority travel that road. The alternative path is narrow and challenging so that few choose it, he says. (Matthew 7:13-14) Love in all the depths and breadth of its meaning is certainly the narrow way. I encourage you (and me!) to practice this one small facet of love that affects the common good and all of God’s good creation. Let’s try to support one another in the “swimming upstream” practices of the eight “R’s.” Let’s be a community who relies less on products whose production pollutes the Earth. Let’s make efforts to replace disposable with reusable items that create less trash. Let’s share ideas and learn from each other’s creative, fun ways to practice the eight “R’s”!
By Sister Sara Aiden Burress, OSB