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Could Your Family Live a No-Waste Lifestyle?

Taylor Hengen Newman

Since becoming parents, we’ve been engaged in an ongoing battle against the accumulation of ‘stuff’ in our home. Even though we immediately recycled the endless stream of catalogs that began arriving as soon as I became pregnant with Kaspar, and did our nesting via a few key hand-me-downs, gifts, and Craiglist purchases, many of those items were still never used (like the crib), and others were quickly traded out for alternatives that better suited our baby (like our diapers of choice). I bear this in mind when nowadays when reassuring perplexed, pregnant friends that no, they don’t need buy a Buy Buy Baby before they’re prepared for parenting: they just need a few basics, and can make other purchases as they go.

Truth be told, however, even though Kaspar’s now two , and we’ve kind of got this down, we’re still constantly purging our home of piles of one kind or another. Papers, projects, toys, shoes… life with a toddler is chaotic, and we’ve come to accept that a certain amount of activity-related mess is inevitable. We mostly embrace it, but also try to keep extraneous ‘stuff’ from even entering the door (we must constantly remind the grandparents of this). Kaspar’s toys are high quality, long-lasting and intended to grow with him. He doesn’t yet care about what’s ‘cool’ or in fashion (the fact that he’s kind of a clothes horse is all on me). I know the day will come when ‘stuff’ takes on more significance for him, and I hope we’re prepared when it does. For now, we attempt to set a household precedent -- and hopefully an example – by thinking consciously about what comes into our home, and equally as consciously about what’s going out. We pass Kaspar’s outgrown clothes along as hand-me-downs, we recycle everything we can, and we compost our food scraps. Yet, despite our efforts, our kitchen’s waste-basket always fills up within a few short days.

Since we are conscious about our household waste, and since we still manage to generate a fair amount of trash, I was floored when I read about this mom’s adoption of a “No-Waste” family lifestyle, and its results: she estimates her family’s total trash output to have been about two bags in the last year. Two! Christina Little had already mastered cloth diapering with her first daughter, but when she discovered this other No-Waste mom’s website soon after her second daughter’s birth, she went in whole-hog. She, like many parents, felt overwhelmed by the ‘stuff’ in her home (first world problems, right? It’s okay…), and her solution has been to change her habits as a consumer in order to dramatically change her role as a producer of waste.

Little only buys products that are recyclable, compostable or will last her family for years. She makes many of her family’s toiletries (Christina, if you’re reading this, I follow these instructions for DIY laundry detergent—highly recommend). She approaches cooking differently now, too, buying fresh ingredients and using them all; in fact, simplifying her cooking style (using what she has rather than buying for recipes and thus wasting what goes unused) has meant her family can afford organic produce and grass fed meats, something she’d wanted but previously couldn’t put down the cash for. Guests in her home must take their waste with them when they depart. Although she feels she has a long way to go, it sounds to me like she’s rocking this thing.

In fact, what really interested me about this was the awareness that not only initiated her decision to live a No-Waste (or “minimal-waste”) lifestyle, but has also expanded just from living it. Her awareness that she was buried in stuff led her to pursue an alternative, and now she even researches company practices before handing her dollars over for any of their wares (some things, like makeup, are pretty challenging to make). She’s put her awareness that our actions impact the rest of the planet (which creates effects that, in turn, impact us all right on back) into conscious action on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, many Americans don’t have time to make their own deodorant, but I wonder if a heightened awareness of our collective trash output (American waste generation statistics are pretty staggering… and totally embarrassing in light of other countries’), and our ‘stuff’ problem, would lead to changed behaviors on a larger scale. Excessive packaging and waste are frequently generated in the name of convenience alone – but often, choosing a waste-free alternative isn’t any less convenient; it’s simply a matter of making a different choice, or substituting one habit for another. Disposable razors, toothbrushes, and other toiletries – not to mention the packaging from household cleaners – take up tons of space in landfills. Simply making a different purchase (recyclable and biodegradable alternatives exist for all of those items), or making a large batch of an all-purpose cleaner at home, can alleviate this burden on our environment. Other choices may require some advance-thought, but really aren’t difficult to do. I hadn’t, for example, considered bringing glass jars to the grocery store for the meat I purchase, as Little does. I’m looking forward to making the adjustment. In fact, reading Little’s story has inspired me to re-evaluate all of my purchases, as a daily practice. (Did we need those rocket ship-shaped ice-pop molds? Um... Probably not. But we will use them for years, I have no doubt, and as a result won’t be buying individually-packaged popsicles. Phew, close one!).

As it happens, this kind of critical thinking is gaining speed, especially among moms, who are increasingly questioning, increasing awareness, and sharing ideas around addressing our collective ‘stuff’ habit and the waste it produces (hence the blog that inspired Little's shift). Moms, too, whether stay-at-home or working, are generally the people making the decisions about what comes into the house, day in and day out. Since a lot of what piles up in landfills are household products, from diapers to tampons, and food product packaging, that means moms can make a major dent in the problem – or, put differently, a major stride toward its solution – by deciding not to contribute to the waste anymore. If we all held our homes to higher standards when it comes to waste, and held companies to higher standards when it comes to social and environmental practices, we’d leave a heck of a better legacy for our kids than the one that was left for us.

What do you think? Could get your family’s waste down to two garbage bags’ full per year? What steps do you take already to reduce ‘stuff’, and waste, in your home? Do you think shooting for no waste at all (or minimal waste) is realistic for your family?

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