My first taste of post-grad adult life came as a volunteer in Ireland a few years ago. I had to adjust not only to living off-campus but also to living in another country. One big adjustment came with grocery shopping. Irish law prohibited single-use plastic bags, so on my first trip for groceries, I had to buy a few reusable tote bags.
Over the weeks and months, I got in the habit of packing those totes into my work bag on shopping days, lest I have to cut into my volunteer stipend to buy more bags if I forgot. When I moved back stateside, the habit was ingrained and permanently displaced the plastic or paper question in favor of my reusables. When I moved back to Chicago and our own bag ban came into effect, I felt ahead of the curve, economically and ecologically.
Over the years, I’ve gradually collected other habits for green living. By no means am I an eco-warrior, but I do value efficiency, thoughtfulness, and practicality. Friends and experiences have helped me see how wasteful we can be without realizing it or thinking twice. So here are some tips that have helped me, not as an expert but as a novice trying to be a good steward of creation.
Though I had slain the grocery bag beast, plastic bags seemed to follow me wherever I went. Luckily, my mom had established a great habit at home that I retained as an adult: after unpacking family groceries, my mom would put the empties under the sink in our “bag of bags.” While having a few can be handy for this or that, eventually, we’d accumulate an excessive number. So once that bag got full, she’d toss it in the van, and we’d deposit it into the special recycling container at the grocery store entrance. These receptacles are still common and can be your escape hatch from the overwhelming deluge of bags in your living space.
Moreover, I had to force myself to speak up to decline bags. Most places automatically use a bag out of courtesy and service, but we can decline it! At Subway, when my sandwich is made, cut, and wrapped, I speak up before the bag gets busted out to say, “I’ll just take it like that — thanks!” At restaurants when leftovers are ready to come home, if the bag isn’t paper, I’ll tell the waiter, “I don’t need a bag — thanks!” And for whatever reason, the toughest place for me was shopping in stores other than where I buy food. It took me longer to build the habit of reusable bags for those trips, so now the bags just live in my car’s trunk, ready for any errand at any store.
In college, we had the ease of single-stream recycling. Hall staff and activist dormmates taught us that most anything could be recycled. It was great — and fairly mindless. But out here in the real world, such ease isn’t always the case. Though we’ve come a long way from the onerous task of sorting recyclable waste — I still remember Wednesday nights in the garage, boot-stomping cans, smashing milk jugs, and sorting cardboard and newspaper into paper bags with my dad — there are limitations in a lot of places on what can be recycled. Dumping recyclables in plastic garbage bags wreak havoc on recycling machinery or make more work for recycling plant workers, for example.
While directing retreats at a rural, woodsy retreat center, I learned from our diligent facilities director that only paper, cardboard, and #1-5 plastics could go in their bins. I wasn’t sure what this excluded, as I’d never really paid attention to the little numbers. Luckily, the high school where I work thoroughly educates on recycling. At a short assembly presentation and from flyers placed next to our bins, I learned of the plague of #6 plastics, which are not acceptable in many curbside and residential recycling programs. I wept for the #6s I’d mistakenly recycled but vowed to be better going forward. Take a peek when you buy or use plastic cups and food containers — many water cups, yogurt containers, and other food-related items are #6, so perhaps choose an alternative product or save your #6s until you can recycle them properly.
I’ve always been a reusable water bottle guy, and I believe that using plastic bottles for water is a wasteful thing best reserved for emergencies. I definitely love utilizing Tupperware for leftovers and bring-to-work lunches. Since I started working, I have even started to bring silverware from home instead of counting on the supply of disposable cutlery or clean silverware in the staff lounges.
Even with all these practices, I didn’t appreciate how I could take another step forward in preferring reusables to be a better steward of the earth and our resources. Friends and family have shown the way: One friend shops with Tupperware, eschewing single-use produce bags for her own reusable containers and brings a set of cutlery with her in her handbag for when she eats quick meals out. Another friend always uses cloth napkins, a good way to cut down on paper napkins and paper towel consumption. My wife introduced me to the Silpat, a reusable, washable silicone sheet that can go down on baking trays under anything from chicken breast to fresh cookies to prevent sticking without using cooking spray or wax paper. Plus, soon a new service will offer refillable versions of mainstream products from well-known companies in industrially cleaned and re-delivered reusable containers.
For my daughter, we often travel with her spill-proof sippy cup, and when we go out to eat, we’ll usually fill it with water. We do it pragmatically because it’s the best way to prevent a mess; but it also avoids using a new cup, lid, and straw each time (if you can preempt a proactive waiter before they try to help a parent out). I think it’s time for me to try to follow by traveling with my own reusable, too. It might mean an additional clumsy conversation or an odd look or two. But like all things, it’s just a habit that needs to be practiced and repeated. And it’s another small step toward better stewardship of creation.