Small (Environmental) Economies

The Planet Earth

I have often noticed that almost every one has his own individual small economies – careful habits of saving fractions of pennies in some one peculiar direction – any disturbance of which annoys him more than spending shillings or pounds on some real extravagance. […] String is my foible. My pockets get full of little hanks of it, picked up and twisted together, ready for uses that never come. I am seriously annoyed if any one cuts the string of a parcel instead of patiently and faithfully undoing it fold by fold.
–Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (1851)

I’ve been thinking about this passage a lot lately. Gaskell wrote this as a parody in the mid-19th century, when waste was much less common than it is today. Gaskell’s narrator pokes fun at herself for saving on packaging, while Gaskell herself was probably woefully unaware of how much waste packaging for goods of all sorts would produce a century and a half in the future.

I think that most of us here probably waste far more than we need to (I certainly do), but at the same time, most of us probably have our own little small personal economies to reduce waste, and it strikes me that sharing these with each other could be useful. We may not save the world with these, but it still makes a small difference. And the more environmentally mindful habits that we form, the more likely we are to be mindful all the time.

One of my personal economies is waste associated with take-away food — I try not to make a habit of buying the stuff, and so I make up big batches of soup and freeze them, or make up a chickpea-based salad that will last a few days in the fridge, so that I don’t get stuck buying my lunch when I’m at work. (And it’s a great way of using leftovers too.) If I know in advance that I will require take-away, I often take a lunchbox with me, and ask that that be used instead of a disposable container.

My efforts in this direction, however, are compromised by the amount of disposably plastic I use in other areas. For instance, I like to freeze meat in individual portions — one or two sausages, one chicken breast, etc — and I find myself using disposable freezer bags for this task, because with plastic tubs, you end up with a lot of wasted freezer space (and my freezer is not large). Perhaps someone here will have some sort of personal environmental economy that will help me with this issue.

There are also a few things that I’m just starting to do, so they aren’t habits yet — but I’m hoping they will become so. For instance, the waste of my food scraps has been bothering me, and I don’t have a big enough garden to make compost. I feel rather silly that it never occurred to me before that the community garden down the street from me would have a use for compost scraps, and now that I’ve got in contact with them, I’m hoping that I can form a habit of delivering my plant-based scraps to them once a week.

So, what are your personal little environmental economies? Where are the areas that you’d like to reduce waste, but you need a few tips on how to go about it?

(And just a disclaimer — while I’m obviously all about sharing suggestions here, please don’t be shaming anyone who doesn’t do X. Everyone’s situation is different, and a little economy that may be very easy for you may be very difficult for someone who doesn’t have as many spoons as you, or for someone in a different financial situation, etc.)

Categories: Culture, environment, Sociology

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13 replies

  1. We’re lucky enough to have space here, so all the scraps go either to chooks or compost; and, of course, backyard eggs and vegies mean less packaging compared to buying those at the shop. Takeaway is no more than weekly and is usually fish and chips or pizza, so there’s not much damaging packaging involved there.
    We also have time and a home washing machine and line, so we can reuse things: cloth nappies in that phase of life, cloth table napkins, tea towels and cleaning cloths instead of throwaways and paper towels, cloth menstrual pads. I wear clothes until they’re holey or unravelling. Bulk buying of things like green coffee beans. Reusable water bottles. Reusable school-lunch packaging. I also read lots and lots of library books – saves money and saves having yet more dead tree lying around at home – not that there’s room for any more. And we freecycle, in both directions.
    What do we waste? Same as you – meat packaging. I can’t quite bring myself to try to clean plastic bags for reuse again and again when they’ve had raw meat in them – it just feels too unhygienic, and with gastrointestinal health issues myself I try to minimise handling of raw meat and blood as much as possible. With three omnivores and three carnivores in the house, we go through a reasonable amount of meat. Suggestions on this are welcome: at the moment I buy the cats’ meat in bulk and package portions into mini-ziplock bags for freezing (a 150-180 g portion feeds them both), with the organ portions separate so that I can monitor them more closely. I defrost the bags in another tupperware type container in the fridge so that there’s no contamination if the bags have sprung a leak from being knocked around in the freezer. (The dog’s meat has less need to be super-fresh, so that’s packed in bags with 4-6 dinners per bag for freezing- not all that much waste there.) Maybe I could freeze bits of liver and kidney in an ice cube tray or something, and then pack those in a big bag? But how would I then defrost the portions in a sanitary way without creating more cleanup?
    Other things: We have more electronics than is environmentally friendly. I run the air conditioner whenever I need it. (I count that as a health expense, however, and we do have solar now.)

  2. I wash and re-use baking paper. It sounds like a little thing, but I bake a lot, and I don’t want to replace my huge collection of metal pans with silicone. I end up using the pieces about 3 to 6 before they die, and it means I’m not always cutting the stuff to size.
    I reuse bags, just ordinary shopping bags or freezer bags, in the freezer. I wash them out then peg them up. Its less of a hygiene issue for me though, because we don’t eat meat. Mr takes his sandwiches to work in bread bags, too (I use a box).
    We also take plastic bags to do the shopping, because even if I take the big green bags or whatever, I still want something to put beans in, or grains, or little onions.
    This is gonna sound extreme, but I also make my own soy milk now, because we go through 10 litres of the stuff as a household, and its a lot of packaging. We got a machine (the lovechild of a blender and a kettle), so all I do is soak the beans and strain it after.
    I still waste packaging though – for me its tofu packaging, chocolate wrappers, and fancy vegan cheese wrapping 🙂

  3. @ Lauredhel: Oh yes, reusable menstrual products are something that I really need to get into. I also bought a whole bunch of handkerchiefs a few months ago, and I keep forgetting to keep one in my handbag. Both of these are things that I can address relatively easily.
    @Keira: I think making your own soy milk sounds like a great idea. I’ve heard that the fresh stuff is much nicer than anything you buy packaged anyway. Also, I love fresh soy beans! I also love your idea of re-using the plastic bags for fruit and veg.

  4. We can’t reasonably compost (a zillion reasons), but I would get depressed every time I’d finish cooking and see how many vegetable bits were filling up the trash. So I started putting them in a big freezer bag. Pepper cores, onion skins, the tops of carrots, things that I know will go bad before I get around to eating them (leafy greens, I see you), stuff like that. Then, when the bag is full, I boil it, strain it, and freeze the broth in ice cube trays. When frozen, I pop the cubes back in the freezer bag, and I have a big bag full of veggie broth, each cube being about 1/4th a cup.
    I still end up throwing away the soaked vegetables, which makes me sad. And, to be honest, jesus, I do not use that much broth. It just kind of sits there, and sometimes I make a risotto, and sometimes I convince a friend that they really need a lot of veggie broth, because of reasons. I am trying to convince a drinky friend of mine that they will be great ice cubes in Bloody Marys and she needs, like, at least 3 freezer bags. But still, even knowing the vegetables still go in the trash and the broth will sit in the freezer until I die, I can’t bear to throw out pepper cores and carrot tops. The waste!

  5. It’s more reducing energy than reducing waste, but I’ve been gradually moving from power point to battery-operated gadgets for the little things around the house. A $15 Dick Smith travel alarm clock runs on the smell of a AAA battery for ages, compared to up to 50 KWh per year for my old bed side alarm clock radio. And my bedside lamp is now a “mechanic’s” LED torch on a stand – bright enough to read by. Batteries do have a carbon footprint to make and dispose of, but the power usage is minuscule compared to gadgets designed to run off the mains.

  6. I don’t like reusing baggies for raw meat, either. Sometimes I’ll use a bread wrapper-and use twist ties to separate chunks, so I can just take part of it and not the whole bag. Good way to separate hamburger patties, ect. And that bag will also be inside a plastic grocery bag or two. I know, I know. I have cloth bags and I do *try* to use them at the store, but I still end up with a few plastic ones. I save any small plastic containers food is packaged in, so I can have some small ones for the freezer. The heavy duty wax paper bag that’s inside a cardboard cereal box is good to reuse, too. It makes a nice heavy ‘bag’ to freeze things in.
    The mesh plastic bags that some produce comes in-(oranges, onions, apples)-wad one up, rubber band it, best scrubbie for dishes or dirty hands ever.

  7. The mesh bag -> dish scrubbie idea is great, I’ll have to try it!
    The main thing we do is compost, and it means we create only about one supermarket bag of rubbish per week, apart from the cats’ business, and I am thinking how we should better deal with that.

  8. My council is the best council. They gave away free indoor compost bins last year, so now my kitchen waste goes in a nice box under the sink instead of in the bin. Tres useful, and it eats everything but kitty litter. My environmental tip is to have a good local council. (Helpful, I know)
    My only other tip is rechargeable batteries. So worth the initial expense.
    Off topic: Keira, tell me more about vegan cheese! I haven’t been able to find any in Melbourne, except for vegan cafes, and the one they use tastes like socks. Do you order yours online?

  9. Thanks for the great tips, everyone!
    I can definitely second @TheAmazingKim on rechargable batteries — I used to use them back when I had a camera that took AAs (I still use rechargables for my camera, but they’re camera-specific and not standard), and they saved on both money and waste in the long run.
    @Marie — I love making my own stock, although I’ve been rather slack about that lately, though meaning to get back into it. If you’re a meat-eater, this is a great way of using chicken carcasses too.
    Actually, on that note, another thing I’m starting to do — though it’s not a habit yet — is buying a whole chicken and cutting it up myself. There’s much less waste this way, especially if you use the carcass for stock. And buying a whole free range and/or organic chicken is still cheaper than buying all the seperate cuts of an intensively farmed chicken.

  10. I do the chicken carcass into stock thing, too.
    We have no garden to speak of, but donate our Bokashi compost to friends with yards.
    We got about half last year’s Santa sack haul for the Tiny Tyrant from carefully combed 2ndhand stores, gathered and cleaned if necessary in the months before.
    Likewise, a fair whack of kiddo’s clothes come from the same source (both tricky since we try to steer away from intensely marketed brands and heavily, strictly-policed gendered items, but can be done).
    We all have op-shopped wardrobes, in fact.
    I use a combo of plastic and homemade cloth pads.
    We got thermal lined curtains for the Western-facing windows in our home last summer.
    We use the clothes dryer very, very rarely, preferring the hills hoist or a collection of drying racks.
    The Tiny Tyrant has a “useful box” a la Playschool, into which we dip for G.D.Craft. It comprises empty toilet rolls, cereal boxes, washed out bottles, etc.
    We wash out and re-use glass jamjars, etc for my own G.D.craft supplies (and current sewing supply box used to hold cupcakes, hah).
    I make my own deodorant from baking soda, coconut oil and essentail oils, to save on packaging. Do it in batches, then keep the bars in the fridge.
    I really want to try making our own rice&almond milk, because the oat stuff we drink now is hellaciously expensive and it sounds quite easy. Gave up on soy after reading a couple of sources talking about it being similar to the oestrogens in the body. Already have indicators for family tendency to have high oestrogen levels.

  11. For Victorian hoydens, the state government wants volunteers to trial electric cars for 3 months.

  12. I’ve lived mostly in apartments in recent years, and have come to love my little worm farm which lives on my balcony.
    They are great for those who don’t have enough space for compost, and they are self-contained so they don’t smell.
    You can buy purpose built ones, or there are heaps of tutorials around for how to make your own.
    It produces both soil and liquid fertiliser, which is great for my small collection of pot plants.

  13. I wouldn’t reuse bags used for raw meat either, for health/hygiene reasons. When it comes to cat litter, which somebody mentioned, I’ve been told that one shouldn’t put it in the compost bin. This is because cats are carriers for some parasites and viruses that can be harmful to humans if ingested – salmonella is one of them, especially if the cats are able to hunt. I’ve found that using pet-store food (such as Iams or Royal Canin) has reduced the amount of feces considerably, as the food contains less non-digestible bulking-up stuff. Each bag is more expensive than a matching bag of regular store-brand food, but the total price of food and kitty litter comes to about the same, and the cats seem healthier too.
    There are cat litter boxes that use far less litter, letting the urine and feces gather in a sort of compartment below the one where the cat sits. I think they’re called PeeWee. And some people have trained their cats to use the regular toilet, though many cats will refuse.

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