Are minimalism and zero-waste living wasteful?

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I have been increasingly struck by the irony of how wasteful zero-waste living, as well as minimalist living, can be. Two recent articles have helped to reinforce this thinking; their focus is on minimalism, which I will tackle first. These two articles were written in response to the popular Marie Kondo Netflix series. Benjamin Leszcz and Katherine Martinko argue that we should not dispose of items based on whether they spark joy; rather, that we should examine our possessions in the light of “making do”, a deeply pragmatic philosophy. It means asking of our things the only question we should ever ask of them: “Can you fulfill your intended use for me?” (Leszcz).

When I declutter my home, my approach mirrors more closely the concept that Leszcz and Martinko propose. I’m a pragmatist at heart: If something doesn’t serve a purpose, I don’t need it. I’m actually more concerned about the waste that minimalism and zero-waste living can generate. In our rush to declutter our homes, how much of our possessions end up in the landfill? It could be argued, of course, that they are destined for the landfill at some point; we’re simply doing it now rather than later. At the very least, we should donate as many of our decluttered items as possible, which is what I have tried to do.

The move to zero-waste living can generate a large amount of waste. The graphic above for a zero-waste kitchen is an example of what I mean. I know that I have been guilty of buying “zero-waste swaps” instead of making do with items I already have in my home. So, for example, I’ve bought sets of travel cutlery, when it would have been simpler to use cutlery I already owned. It’s tempting for us to want the shiny stainless steel or bamboo items that proclaim “zero waste,” but aren’t we simply creating more waste when we do this? We have, in fact, fallen prey to zero-waste marketing.

I’m cautious about articles such as the two above because I fear that they will encourage people to not declutter their homes. The article could reinforce the “I might need it someday” mentality that continues our hoarding habits. Rather, I think we need to consider the “do I use it approach” when we assess our possessions, and the “do I need it” approach when we consider purchasing something new. This is where “making do” comes in. I think the bigger question we need to tackle is why we purchase so many items that we don’t need and that we never use. I’ve been fighting this tendency for the past several years; I’ve made significant progress, but I do need to constantly question myself. Let’s look at a recent case in point. While I was in Ottawa this past month, I stopped by a favourite store, Zone, which sells home accessories. I absolutely love home accessories and, in particular, linens, so this type of store is my achilles heel. I know this, yet I still went in, as I love to look. While there I came across these linen kitchen towels. I absolutely love linen, and the price of these towels was very good. I grabbed two and walked around the store: I forced myself to take this time to mentally run through my kitchen linen drawer. I could see the large stack of perfectly usable kitchen towels in this drawer. I already have far more towels than I need, thanks to my past shopping behaviours, so I put the towels back on the shelf. Yes, they were an excellent price, and they were pretty, but I DID NOT NEED THEM. Thankfully, I wasn’t shopping with a friend, because I likely would have been convinced to buy them. It’s taken me a long time to get here. I think I go to stores such as Zone to test my resolve; it would be easier, of course, to simply avoid the stores completely, but I love beautiful things and enjoy looking at them (hence my fondness for art galleries). It’s a dangerous line, however, and I have faltered once or twice.

Making do is a philosophy I want to continue to explore and embrace. Something I’ve considered doing is creating an inventory of certain items I own that are the most tempting to buy; in my case, this would be handbags, kitchen and bathroom linens, and makeup. I can check the inventory to see whether I already own it, or something like it,  e. g., do I need a third shade of this colour lipstick? I think all of us need to make a clear distinction between wanting something and needing it; just because something is pretty, or on sale, or a steal, doesn’t mean that we need to bring it into our homes. Can we reuse what we already own, or put it to another use? Case in point: When I switched to loose-leaf herbal tea, I explored tea infusers in the stores, but I found them all to be too fiddly and awkward.  I looked at the French press in my kitchen cupboard and thought “why not use this, instead?” In other words, I shopped from my kitchen and made do with what I already owned. I recently sewed old napkins into produce bags. I have turned into my grandmother Georgina and am perfectly happy with that.

Simplifying my cleaning products

I have gone through various processes to simplify my household cleaning products. My goal is to find a solution that is as minimalist and zero-waste as possible. I’m happy to say that I’ve boiled down my cleaning to two products: Laundry detergent and liquid dish soap.

I’ve used a variety of cleaning products in the past. I’ve made my own products but, frankly, found that I needed to buy too many items in the process, which is hardly cost effective or efficient. I’ve used soap nuts in the past to clean clothes and to make an all-purpose cleaner, but now that I’ve switched to a high-efficiency front-loading washing machine, I don’t find that the soap nuts work as well anymore, especially since I wash all my laundry in only in cold water. I used a bar of Savon de Marseille to wash my dishes for the longest time, but this meant having a separate product to clean surfaces.

Organic Earth market to the rescue. I am beyond excited that Organic Earth now has a refill station for Down East laundry detergent and dish soap; I take my own glass jars, which they weigh that the store (after deducting the tare weight). These two products are all I need to clean my home. The laundry detergent works very well for my HE machine as well as for hand-washing my clothes. I use the liquid dish soap to wash dishes, as well as to clean counters, the toilet, the windows, etc. It’s a simple matter of adding a small amount of dish soap to a spray bottle of water. A nice bonus: Down East products are made across the harbour in Dartmouth. I much prefer to use dish soap than the more popular castile soap. I can buy liquid castile soap in bulk from The Tare Shop, but I think it creates a little too much lather, and is also more expensive than the dish soap. Two products; that’s it.

Ethique hair conditioner bar

I have been using the curly girl method to look after my hair for a while now. In this method, I use only conditioner to clean my scalp. Shampoos are very harsh on my hair, and even those without sulfates leave my hair tangled and dry. So, while I  no longer buy shampoos, I do go through a lot of conditioner and gel which, unfortunately, come in plastic bottles. I have tried using homemade flax seed gel, but I did not find it gave my hair enough hold, and it smelled a little too nutty for my taste. Until I find a better solution, I will continue to use gel in plastic bottles, but I buy litre-sized bottles so that I don’t go through smaller tubes, which do not recycle as well.

I have been looking at various conditioner bars to replace the plastic bottles of conditioner that I use. Conditioner bars are not as easy to find as shampoo bars, at least not in local stores. I’ve explored other options such as Etsy. Unfortunately, a number of conditioner bars I’ve found contain sulfates (Lush, in particular, has sulfates in all its shampoo and conditioner bars) or silicones. Silicones bind to your hair and require shampoo to be removed properly, so they’re not good for me.

I’ve heard a lot of the Ethique products from New Zealand. My concern about these products is that I’m not prepared to have them shipped from New Zealand, as this is hardly carbon friendly. Unfortunately, I can’t find their products in local stores, so I settled on having a conditioner bar shipped from Amazon’s Toronto warehouse. This is hardly ideal, of course, so I will continue to explore more sustainable options.

Having said that, I am very pleased with the Guardian conditioner bar (for normal to dry hair). I have used it on my scalp as a cleanser, and it has worked well. I use it on my hair as a conditioner, by simply rubbing it along wet hair. I use it on dry hair as well by rubbing the bar in wet hands, then running my hands along my dry hair. The bar conditions well, has good slip, and rinses out well. The bar is very small, so I’ll see how long it works; it’s on the steep side at $28 for 16g bar. Mind you, I go through a lot of bottles of conditioner, so the bar may prove to be more cost-effective, and there are no bottles to recycle. The shipping, of course, reduces the low impact of the conditioner bar. Our local zero-waste store has conditioner bars, but I have not found a proper list of ingredients yet, so I will see whether the store owner can provide me with one.

Zero-waste eating at the office

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I try to extend my zero-waste lifestyle to beyond the home. The image above shows the items I use at my campus office on a daily basis. I make my own coffee at work, as this helps keep waste to a minimum. I’m also very particular about my coffee, and I make a far better cup than I can find on campus. I grind my beans at home in the morning and transport them in the smallest of the stainless steel containers. The middle container contains sugar that I refill as necessary from the bulk container at home. The largest container has snacks such as almonds. The blue coffee mug is made by a local artisan. Not shown are the stainless steel coffee tumbler I use when I’m teaching for ease of transportation, and the French press in which I make my coffee.

In the background are a matching water jug and glass. I dislike drinking from a water bottle. I do have a stainless steel bottle I use when I’m on the move, but when I’m in my office, I prefer the elegance of these two glass items.  The black item in the water jug is a charcoal filter, which can be composted once it has been exhausted. In the centre of the photograph are the plate and ceramic bowl that I use to eat my lunch, as well as a cloth napkin and stainless steel cutlery. There is a sink at the office, so I can wash all these items easily.

I make a point of bringing my lunch to work every day. I like to control the quality of the food that I consume and avoid take out food as much as possible. Further, bringing my lunch cuts down on a lot of waste. And finally, of course, my cooking is normally far better than anything I can buy on campus :).

If there is a social function at work that features food, I make a point of taking my cutlery and plate, if possible. I rarely get weird looks anymore.

Low-impact oral care

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I am a little (OK, a lot) obsessive about oral hygiene. Keeping teeth and gums clean, strong, and healthy, unfortunately, can generate a lot of waste. The biggest offender is the plastic toothbrush, which should be changed at least once every three months. These toothbrushes are not recyclable and all end in the landfill. I brush my teeth about four times a day, so I go through a lot of toothbrushes. I have been using bamboo toothbrushes for about four years. I use the Brush with Bamboo or Brush Naked brands; I prefer the latter, because it’s a Canadian brand, but I can’t always find it in local stores. I buy soft bristles, since these are best for the gums. The toothbrushes come in biodegradable cellulose and cardboard boxes; unfortunately, Halifax doesn’t allow cellulose in the compost. The brushes are made of nylon, so once the toothbrush needs to be replaced, I use a small set of pliers to remove the bristles, which go in the garbage bin, and place the handle in the green bin.

I don’t find manual brushing overly effective in removing plaque, so I use an electric toothbrush at night. When it comes to the health of my teeth and gums, I am prepared to make environmental compromises, which is a theme in this post. I use an Oral-B Pro electric toothbrush, which has a pressure sensor that alerts you if you are brushing too vigorously, and which has a set timer for 30 minutes per quadrant of your mouth. I’ve noticed a significant reduction in the amount of plaque buildup on my teeth since using it these past few years. I use my bamboo toothbrush throughout the day.

I don’t use mouthwash: I really don’t see the point. If your teeth and gums are clean, why do you need a mouthwash? Besides, I don’t want that plastic bottle in my home. It’s easy to make your own mouthwash using a simple combination of water the peppermint essential oil, but I don’t bother. I do not chew gum to freshen my breath for two reasons: Most brands of gum use a lot of packaging and, further, I have TMJ, which makes extended chewing uncomfortable. I prefer to carry mints, which I buy in bulk, and which I use if I don’t have easy access to my toothbrush. I use a stainless steel tongue scraper in the morning and evening, and I find this does an excellent job of removing any residual odour-causing bacteria.

The environmental impact of flossing has always bothered me. Most flosses come in plastic containers that can’t be recycled, then you need to put all that floss in the landfill. There are more environmentally-friendly flosses now that come in glass jars; you can buy the floss refills for the jars. The floss is biodegradable but the catch for me is that it’s made of silk, so it’s not vegan. There are some vegan flosses on the market, but they can’t be composted. I find flossing uncomfortable, as I have a small mouth and my teeth are packed very tightly, which makes it difficult for the floss to slide in evenly between the teeth. The best compromise I’ve found is a handheld Waterpik flosser. Yes, it’s plastic, but it will last me several years; more importantly, it’s done wonders for my teeth and gums. At my last dental checkup last week, the hygienist noticed a significant improvement in my gums, and I had absolutely no bleeding during the cleaning.

Toothpaste is another area where waste can be a problem, as most toothpaste tubes cannot be recycled. You can make your own toothpaste; the typical ingredients are baking soda, coconut oil, and possibly xylitol. I categorically refuse to do this. Most DIY toothpaste has a very high concentration of baking soda, which can cause tooth enamel erosion. Second, I am a strong believer in the positive impact of fluoride on tooth enamel. I know some people are concerned about the impact of fluoridation, but my research has shown that you need to consume very large amounts of fluoride for this to occur. I am not about to compromise the health of my teeth on the statistically insignificant danger of fluoridation. My compromise is to use fluoride toothpaste in the morning and evening and less wasteful alternatives during the day, such as Lush’s solid toothy tabs (yes, they do come in plastic, but at least it can be recycled), which are excellent for travel purposes, or David’s toothpaste, which comes in an aluminium tube.

 

Back to the olive oil drawing board

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Olive oil is an important staple in my life. I always have an ample supply of olives in my home, as well as olive oil, both of which I buy in bulk from the Bedford Basin Farmers’ Market, where they allow me to use my own glass containers. I have written before of my love of Savon de Marseille, which I use in bar form for personal use, as well as for household chores. I have been looking for a zero-waste or low impact body moisturizer for a while. Over the summer, I experimented with using just olive oil, which worked very well. I still bought a hand cream, however, as I can decant the cream into a travel-sized container when I am out of the house. I’ve learned from experience that oils do not travel well in handbags.

When my local zero-waste store started to carry bulk moisturizer, I thought this would be an ideal way to stop buying packaged hand cream; further, this meant that I could use one product instead of two, as I could use it as a body moisturizer as well. Unfortunately, this bulk moisturizer is simply not rich enough for my hands, and after just a few days, my cuticles started getting dry. My skin is genetically dry, and is prone also to eczema, so this cream simply didn’t do the trick.

I’m back to my original plan: I use olive oil as a body moisturizer. I use a re-purposed glass pump bottle and use two-three squirts per body part. The key is not to use too much. The oil absorbs quickly; I don’t know if this would be true for other skin types, but it certainly is the case for mine. I have gone back to using a hand cream that I can decant in a travel container. Because I use this cream only for hands, it lasts a long time. My choice is the Body Shop’s collection of vegan hand creams. I have been pushing the company to make at least one scentless alternative. The creams are rich enough for my needs, and the company uses a lot of recycled plastic for its containers.

Lush Naked skincare

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Lush is expanding its inventory of Naked products; 35% of its products are now completely package free. I have been using a number of their package-free body products, such as the King of Skin, for several years, but in the past week, I’ve tried their new Naked facial care products.

My facial skin is dry, delicate, and easily irritated. Most skin cleansers, no matter how gentle, dry out my face. I’ve found that using olive oil to cleanse my face, and wiping my face with an Erase Your Face cloth, has cut down significantly on skin irritation. Oil cleansing has become very popular. The most common method used is a combination of two parts castor oil to one part olive oil. You need to remove this oil with a very hot wash cloth, as castor oil is very viscuous. This method dried my skin out, as I found the hot wash cloth too harsh. I’ve had better luck with using plain olive oil and warm water. I was interested in trying the new Lush Naked Like a Virgin cold cream, which is an oil-based solid cleanser. The key ingredients are olive oil, jojoba oil. I apply the bar to my damp face, massage into the skin, and wipe off with an Erase Your Face cloth soaked in warm water. I then rinse my face with some more warm water and pat to dry. The bar does a good job of removing makeup, and my skin doesn’t feel dry or irritated. The only thing I don’t like about this product is the addition of fragrance which, sadly, is something that Lush insists on using for most of its products. The fragrance consists largely of Limonene. Fortunately, it’s a very mild scent and doesn’t stay on the skin once the oil is rinsed off.

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I have been using facial oil for a long time; I make my own oil that consists of jojoba oil as the base, to which I add argan oil and rosehip seed oil. I use this facial oil at night in lieu of a serum. I find serums to be far too harsh on my skin, especially since many of them contain what they call anti-aging ingredients, which often serve to exfoliate the skin. My face can’t tolerate exfoliants. I find these serums to be both too irritating and drying. I layer a rich facial balm over the facial oil at night, as the oil isn’t enough. Travelling with facial oils can be messy, as I’ve had a few spills from the high altitude in a plane, so I was interested in trying one of the Naked facial oils. I was given a sample of Banana Oil, whose main ingredients are murumuru butter, banana, grapeseed oil, and mango butter. I’ve used the sample only on my neck so far: No irritation so far. I will try some on my face tonight, now that I know the cold cream doesn’t cause irritation. I am a little concerned about the fragrance, as this product is not washed off, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

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While it’s easy to make my own products, I do need to buy a lot of separate items; for example three oils for my facial oil, versus one Lush naked bar. The bars would be very good for travelling, as well, as they would not count as liquids.