We’ve made a lot of lifestyle changes over the past 18 months to reduce our family’s environmental impact and tread a bit more lightly on the planet. A few months ago I listed them in a big personal Facebook post, but when I wanted to tag a friend in it recently I couldn’t find it, so I decided that it might be easier to just explain what we’ve done here, instead. I know that several of my friends would also like to recycle more, and generate less waste, so I hope this information is useful. If you’ve got no interest in this topic please just look at this cute photo of a family cuddle from a couple of days ago, and enjoy the rest of your day.
Of course, this isn’t twin-specific information (and I shudder to think about how many nappies went to landfill over the first three years), but what’s great is that the zero-waste mindset is normal for Hattie and Joe’s generation. They don’t have any rubbish bins in the playground at school. They have spent their entire kindy and school lives recycling stuff to make awesome 3-D art that they then bring home to clutter up my living room. Our kids know a lot about the importance of protecting the planet – it’s their parents (and grandparents) who need to lift their game and actually start changing their habits.
Before I start…
Let me be crystal clear: if you read this blog post and decide to use it as a stick with which to beat me because I’m not taking some environmentally-friendly action that you think I should prioritise, you will out yourself as an utter dick, and I will have no hesitation in making fun of you. I wish it wasn’t necessary to say that, but I’ve learned the hard way that a lot of eco-conscious people are insufferably smug and critical (I recently left a zero waste Facebook group because it was full of absolute zealots who endlessly criticised anybody who wasn’t living up to their lofty environmental ideals). Don’t be that person! All that behaviour does is alienate people and make them feel like they shouldn’t bother if they can’t be perfect.
Also: if you’re somebody who does bugger-all yourself to try to lead a more environmentally-friendly life, you have less than zero right to critique my or anybody else’s lifestyle choices. Try that and my mocking of you will be swift and merciless. I know that this kind of behaviour typically stems from feelings of guilt about being too unmotivated or disengaged to try to make changes yourself, and if this is you I hope you can get your act together soon. But either way: don’t make your guilt my problem!
My advice about making changes
The first thing I’d say about becoming more environmentally friendly is that your best best is to aim for sustainable changes. There’s not much point in trying to radically change your entire way of life if you can’t keep it up. If we all made a few sustainable changes, that would have a good collective impact. And every time you make an easy and sustainable change, you pave the way for other people to follow your example (hence me writing this blog post and sharing information about what’s worked for us!)
My second piece of advice would be to be realistic about what you can achieve, given the other demands on your time and energy. That Facebook group I left seemed to be full of people who had endless time to make every cleaning product and food item from scratch. That’s not my life: I work full time and so does Tristan, I’m just about to start a full-time Masters, and Hattie and Joe keep us fairly busy. This point is linked to my first point about sustainability: I might be able to make everything from scratch once or twice, but I won’t be able to maintain that.
Also, I suggest not making things too complicated. I’ve found that reverting back to the lifestyle of past generations is a good way to make environmentally friendly changes, but by that I don’t mean living like a frontier woman and using washable cloth toilet paper: I mean living like I remember living as a kid growing up in the 1980s, and using a washable kitchen cloth instead of endless rolls of paper towels.
With kids, I think the key is to make good choices seem like they’re totally normal for your family. We will very seldom drive to the local shops with them: we walk. It’s good for us and for them, we all get to engage with our local community, and we’re not using fuel and creating pollution. Similarly, they know that they’ll only get driven to or from school if it’s really rainy. We live close enough to school for them to walk, so that’s what they do – currently it’s with their au pair, but by the time they’re eight or nine they’ll be old enough to do it unaccompanied.
And that point about paper towels reminds me: eliminating single use plastic is obviously a big focus for many of us (and an admirable goal), but I suggest thinking a bit harder and trying to eliminate other single-use products. When you think about it, it’s crazy that we’ve developed a lifestyle that is so heavily geared towards using things once and throwing them away. Everything like that requires resources and money to buy and produce. In most cases there is a multiple-use alternative, or an easy way to reuse a supposedly single-use item. I’m a huge reader, but nearly all of my books are bought second hand (or I borrow them from the library). When I need something for the house, I try local charity shops first before buying anything new. We declutter and donate to charity shops on a regular basis.
With all that background information set out, here are the changes we’ve made.
Food shopping and kitchen-related changes
Here in New Zealand single-use plastic shopping bags have now been banned, but – nonsensically – the supermarket is still full of plastic bags in the fruit and vegetable aisle and in the bulk food aisle.
We shop at Pak ‘n’ Save, and I have a big supply of tough jute bags and a couple of good-sized insulated bags for frozen and refrigerated items. New World is a good source of cute shopping bags (but really, who cares what they look like?)
A lot of people seem to struggle to remember to take their bags, but that’s just a case of habit: after all, we don’t tend to forget to take our wallets when we go shopping. I’ve found that have a plentiful supply of bags makes life easier – we have some in each of our two cars, and also some at home. And I have one or two little foldable bags that I can take in my handbag in case of unexpected purchases – I’ve got the kiwifruit bag that New World brought out a while ago (I don’t actually shop at New World very often because it sells the exact same stuff as Pak ‘n’ Save, except at higher prices, but I will admit to visiting the pick and mix lollies there occasionally).
I bought reusable produce bags early last year – I bought them somewhere online, because this kind of thing wasn’t readily available at the time. Happily this has changed, and you can now buy reusable produce bags in plenty of places, including supermarkets. They obviously involve an initial investment, but they’ll last forever.
I use the bulk food aisle as much as I can (especially for pick and mix lollies, and for nuts for snacking), and I don’t subscribe to the theory that they bags the supermarkets provide for this purpose are single-use. I just keep them with my supermarket bags and my produce bags, and use them until they fall apart.
A recent development at Pak ‘n’ Save has been the option to take your own containers to the butchery and deli counters, in order to buy products without plastic wrap. I haven’t done this yet, primarily because we use Hello Fresh most weeks and therefore don’t buy meat at the supermarket, but it sounds like a great development. I am a little concerned that organic free-range chicken won’t be available at that counter (and I won’t buy any other kind), but I do know that there’s a local butcher in a nearby suburb that is also happy for customers to BYO containers, so I guess I could buy chicken there instead.
And yes, we use Hello Fresh most weeks. There is some plastic waste involved in this – specifically the soft plastic around the meat – but most of the containers supplied are recyclable, and there’s a lot of paper packaging that can also be recycled. Hello Fresh is brilliant for us because I typically have half an hour to make dinner after getting home in the evenings, and this approach enables my au pair to do the prep for me. It also means that we eat very healthily, and have very little food waste.
One thing I would like to start doing is reducing our Hello Fresh consumption to every second week, and have vegetarian weeks in-between. We like vegetarian food, and we don’t eat vast quantities of meat (I could think of nothing more dull than ‘meat and three veg’ dinners every night), so I think this would be an easy way for us to reduce the impact of our food choices. We had a vegetarian au pair a few years ago and we easily adjusted to that way of eating.
Another thing we need to look at is our milk consumption. I love milk and so do the kids, but we need to cut back, in order to be able to switch from buying plastic milk bottles to buying refillable glass bottles. The need to cut back before making this switch will be driven by the huge expense associated with buying milk in glass bottles, as that’s only available in the local Farro supermarket (which is far more expensive than Pak ‘n’ Save), and I don’t want to take out a second mortgage in order to afford to make cheese sauce. More broadly I do understand the issues associated with the dairy industry and the degree to which it contributes to pollution in New Zealand… but I really love milk. And cheese.
I’d also like to make is a move towards baking our own bread and rolls. Every week we buy a couple of loaves of bread, and a couple of bags of rolls for the kids’ school lunches, and that involves more single-use soft plastic coming into the house. We do own a bread maker, so I have no excuse other than a lack of sufficient motivation. But I WILL do this!
One thing we have done is cut down on buying stuff with a lot of packaging. Kids’ snacks are notorious for this, so we have simply stopped using them. I am nobody’s idea of a 1950s housewife, but I bake every weekend to supply things for Hattie and Joe’s lunches: banana and chocolate chip muffins; and cheese puffs. These things both freeze really well, so once-a-week baking sorts us out for the entire week. I use Sistema containers for freezing, and I also use supposedly single-use sandwich bags for freezing too – they can be washed out and re-used over and over again.
Other simple changes we’ve made include:
- no longer buying kitchen towels (we use washable kitchen cloths)
- not buying muffin tin liners (just grease the tins properly like people used to do)
- using reusable silicone baking sheets instead of baking paper
- never using cling film (we store all of our leftovers in Sistema containers in the fridge or freezer)
- reusing glass jars for pantry storage
- buying some pantry storage jars second-hand from local charity shops
- using a bar of soap in the kitchen for hand-washing, instead of a bottle of liquid soap
- using biodegradable rubbish bin liners
One thing I’ve been meaning to do for ages is setting up a Bokashi system to deal with our food waste. I’ve even got the buckets I need to do it – I just haven’t got round to it. SOON! If we had this up and running we wouldn’t need liners for the rubbish bin, because we wouldn’t have anything wet going in there.
I also need to start using white vinegar to make cleaning products. Apparently it’s very easy, and as soon as we’ve finished our current supplies of cleaning products we’ll give it a whirl.
Health, beauty and other bathroom stuff
The bathroom is such an easy place to go waste-free. As I mentioned in the bullet list above, we’ve swapped liquid soaps for bars of soap – I think of this as one of those ‘what did we have when I was a kid’ changes that are effortless to make. We make our soap-buying waste-free by getting it from a stall at a local weekend market (Takapuna’s Sunday market, which is excellent for fruit and vegetables as well). We make it even more waste-free by taking our own bag in which to carry the soap! The soap we buy reminds me of lovely soaps we used to buy from French markets, and they’re such good value: we buy big bars for the shower for only $6, and they last for ages.
For things like cleanser, moisturiser, shampoo, and conditioner, I’m completely converted to Ethique’s glorious products. These are New Zealand-made products that are now stocked in Australia, the UK, and the USA, so do yourself a favour and visit their website to find your nearest stockist. They work brilliantly, they smell gorgeous, and they are waste-free. My favourite product is the Heali Kiwi shampoo bar, which is great if your hair is slightly dandruff-prone. I also love the Bliss Bar cleanser, which smells delectable and makes my skin feel amazing.Superstar makeup remover. It’s fantastic. It’s a solid bar that you use with hot water to generate a balm, which then removes every scrap of makeup from your face – including waterproof mascara. It also has great comedy value because you can make yourself look hilarious with mascara residue while washing your face.
At the moment we’re using up some liquid shampoo supplies for Hattie and Joe’s hair, and then they’ll also start using Ethique products. Ethique even makes amazing bamboo soap dishes for the shower!
My next Ethique purchase will be one of the solid deodorants – I haven’t bought any yet because I had deodorant supplies to use up.
Other zero-waste changes I’ve made in the bathroom include:
- never buying makeup wipes – they’re bad for your skin and bad for the planet! It takes two minutes to wash your face properly
- not buying cotton pads for makeup removal – instead, I bought a supply of baby face cloths from Kmart (but with Superstar you can pretty much use your hands)
- not buying a facial exfoliator – if you wash your face with a face cloth, that provides sufficient exfoliation
- not buying a body exfoliator – a handful of white sugar added to your soap-sud-filled hands will do the trick.
We’ve also made a switch away from plastic toothbrushes (for the kids and me, at least – Tristan remains in a committed relationship with his electric toothbrush). We have a Toothcrush subscription, so we get three bamboo toothbrushes in the post each month. Next year we’ll probably cut this back to a delivery every two months – once a month seems a bit excessive in retrospect, and we’ve building up a bit of a toothbrush stockpile.
I think some people have had issues with bamboo toothbrushes going mouldy, but we haven’t had any problems (and we live in very damp and humid Auckland). The trick seems to be to dry them properly after each use, and to store them flat so they don’t have moisture trickling down on them all the time.
The other big change I’ve recently made is to try to have zero-waste periods. I know a lot of people use menstrual cups and are completely converted to them, but the thought fills me with horror: I’m one of those women for whom a smear test is less ‘a somewhat uncomfortable ten minutes every three years’ and more ‘an excruciatingly painful 45 minute feat of endurance that I put off for as long as possible, and might have to pre-load with several vodkas before finally booking my long-overdue appointment’. So the thought of repeatedly having to deal with this kind of situation was not something I could embrace, even though I wanted to make my periods waste-free. My compromise was to use organic tampons (which I don’t flush – if you flush your sanitary products, please stop immediately!). However, I wanted to find a better solution, so this month I’ve finally made the switch to period pants. These sound bonkers if you’re coming to the idea out of nowhere, but they work brilliantly. You can read about how they work at the ModiBodi website (they’re not the only producer, but they’re the ones I’ve used so far, and they explain how they work very well). I don’t want to get into too much detail in case you’re reading this while eating a strawberry yoghurt or something, but let me give you some bullet point thoughts that might answer your questions:
- It doesn’t feel like wearing wet underwear
- It feels like wearing normal knickers
- No odour
- No more messy than changing a tampon (and I’m guessing it’s less messy than dealing with a menstrual cup)
- Quick and easy to rinse out after wearing
- Very easy to wash – throw them in your normal cold water load, and line dry only (don’t use the tumble dryer)
- Less period pain and cramps
I’m totally converted, and I’ll definitely be buying them for Hattie when she gets to this stage of life. So many girls around the world (and even here in New Zealand) can’t afford sanitary products, but these products last for years and are so easy to use. And girls are increasingly starting their periods at primary school, and the schools aren’t set up to deal with it – these products will make it all so much easier!