Zero Waste – free your life from trash

I’ve been concerned about environmental issues for quite a while now. As a kid, I was so proud to be able to read, I read everything. I’m serious, everything…! Not just children’s books or all of my school books, I even read manuals for fun (no kidding) and every single brochure people handed us. One of those brochures told the story of pollution, ozone depletion, rainforests being destroyed, and how to recycle. I was six years old, and I was shocked! I got angry at the lady behind the counter of the bakery because I thought she put the bread rolls we bought into too many bags – unnecessarily. When my cousin, 20 years my senior, tossed away his cigarette bud onto the street, I called him names (very loudly) and blamed him for polluting the environment. I yelled at my parents telling them that I hated adults because were all selfish! How could they destroy our future and not care, just because they would be dead by then anyway! (Um, in hindsight, I think I was probably quite an angry little girl.)

Well, there is quite a wide range of environmental issues that all deserve our attention, and that will affect all of our lives sooner or later. Trash, however, unlike the destruction of the rainforest, is something very visible in all of our lives. Something, that accompanies us where ever we are, what ever we do. It’s probably because it’s so omnipresent, that we hardly notice it anymore. I like to call that “trash-blindness”. I used to buy those tissues made of recycled paper. I thought they were oh-so-environmentally-friendly. However, even if those tissues were (well, they do usually turn into trash in less than a minute, so one can debate as to whether or not disposable items like these can be called environmentally-friendly just because they were made out of recycled material), but they were also wrapped in plastic that will inevitably end up in a landfill somewhere. Or worse, as microbeads in the ocean.  We throw all these things away all the time and it’s out of sight, out of mind. We know these things don’t just vanish into thin air, but we never pause to think about where they actually end up.

One Christmas maybe two or three years ago, I asked my two grandmothers-in-law what the heck they did with their trash back then. They laughed and said: “Trash? We didn’t have any!” Everything today is packaged. Back then, they went with their baskets, bottles, cans and jars to the mom-and-pop store and got them refilled. Every family had a pig that would eat all kitchen scraps and leftovers. Whatever the pig wouldn’t eat would be tossed onto the compost pile in the yard. Items were repaired, clothes would get resized or used for cloths. Everything flammable would be burned in the easter bonfire and big metal items like a broken tub they would sink in the swamps once every blue moon.

“It’s so different nowadays,” one of them said, “today, it’s impossible to avoid all the trash. And this plastic, they say all sorts of things about it on TV. We didn’t even have plastic until the end of the 1950ies here in this village. Now everything’s covered in it.”

I wondered… Is it really impossible to avoid all the packaging?

How I used to live

Naturally, I always considered myself very eco-friendly. My husband and I hardly ever buy bottled beverages but stick to tap water, tea and sometimes a cup of coffee, usually when we have guests over. We know that bottled water is not only absolutely unnecessary and bad for the environment, but water in PET bottles can even contain radionuclides, anthropogenic substances and acetaldehyde – and trust me, none of it is good for you!

Like most people in Germany, we usually carry a tote bag for groceries and other things we might buy. We use certified green electricity by a provider that only offers eco power, so that all profits will be invested into expanding sustainable energy sources and not some nuclear power plant. Of course we also try to be very efficient with electricity. The average U.S. American household uses a whooping 11,698 kilowatthours (kWh) per year. The average Canadian household consumes even more with 11,879 kWh. Well, the UK – just like the rest of Europe – consumes a lot less with just 4,848 kWh. The average German household needs even less with a rather lean foodprint of 3,512 kWh. That’s not only very close to the global average of 3,471 kWh, but it’s in fact a mere 30% of what a North-American household eats up!

We were very proud last year, because we finally managed to cut down our annual electricity consumption to just under 1,000 kWh. That’s what the average American household uses per month. So imagine how much money we are actually saving even though we opted for the more expensive green electricity! We also sold our car four years ago to favor public transportation and riding our bicycles. We wear our clothes until they pretty much fall apart, and we only buy new clothes to replace the old ones. Again, all those decisions and changes are not only eco-friendly, but they actually helped us save a lot of money.

What I failed to question

We thought that we were living on a pretty small footprint. Until I stumbled upon a report on the Johnsons. Little did I know that those few minutes would turn out to change my life as drastically as the brochure I happened to pick up when I was six.

I couldn’t believe that this family of four could fit their trash of an entire year into just one jar! And clearly they weren’t living off the grid somewhere in the woods. I, too, felt I don’t want to deal with all the trash, day in, day out.

Zero Waste, that’s how Béa Johnson calls their way of living. Will I ever go completely “zero waste” and be able to fit my year’s worth of trash into a jar? Most probably not. I also don’t think we even have stores that sell dry goods in bulk to begin with. But this doesn’t mean we will not work towards eliminating trash where we do have the option to do so!

Besides, in my opinion living sustainably is so much more than just avoiding trash. It’s about reducing your overall carbon footprint, about not being part of this consumption craze nowadays, about simplifying your life in order to live within our environmental means.

If you only buy what you need (as opposed to what all those advertisements tell you you should desire), you will waste a lot less time on buying stuff and spending money in general. This time you can spend with your family, on hobbies or projects. You will also accumulate less stuff, which means less time for maintenance and taking care of all your possessions. If you own less you automatically need less space. Less space can save you a lot of money – a smaller apartment costs less, a smaller house might even mean you can live mortgage-free. This extra-money can be spent on your kids or on healthier food options like organic groceries. Or you can decide to only work part-time and to not spend most of your waking hours slaving for some corporation.

Who said you can’t live large on a small footprint?

My husband works part-time as a student council and lecturer at a university. I quit my office job a year ago and am waiting tables for the first time in my life for two days each week. Most people wonder how we even manage to survive. Regardless, we both feel that we have never lived more luxuriously. Yes, we have both worked full-time simultaneously (not too long though), so we do know what it’s like to be a two-paycheck couple with no kids. We were always tired and we made bad and unhealthy choices just for convenience. But the worst part for us was that we hardly got to spend any time together.

We met in my first year of college and we started dating right away. After four years we decided to get married for no particular reason but for the fun of throwing a crazy party. We have now been married for seven years already. We have always spend our days together! We had only been dating for a couple of months when we decided to spend a semester abroad on the Canary Islands together, even though we were actually enrolled at different universities. Later in grad school (same university, different faculties) we didn’t just went to the cafeteria together, no, we even took the same classes, studied together in the library, held presentations together, went to Taiwan and Tokyo together. We do not work well if we do not see each other constantlyWorking full-time means we only got to see each other after work, when we were both tired and hungry. We fell asleep on the couch every other night, too exhausted to really be there for each other. We both gained weight because we ate a lot of junk food. When we did managed to go out on a weekday, it was to grab a drink and to tell each other how little fun we had during the long day. My life was pretty much like this:

That was when the realization suddenly hit me – this is pretty much how it’s gonna be until retirement! Groundhog day for the next 30+ years of my life! This is the final destination for which I went to school, college, even grad school – and it sucked big time! Sure, I’d probably climb some steps of the career ladder, I might go to a different company, but all that will still be within this horrible 9-5 system. Just think about it – the higher I climb, the less time I will be able to spend enjoying life with my hubby! It made my head spin. And I knew I wanted out. My husband and I both went back to working half-time. That was definitely quite an improvement and it could have worked for us, if I hadn’t had a hard time at work. Working only part-time in a job that usually requires people to work full-time seems to upset the system. Like a full-time employee the company expected me to treat my work as my main focus in life. My loyalty to the company was doubted.

Even though I only worked half-time at the company, I came home just as tired and fed up. I was constantly in a bad mood. All I (and all of my colleagues) could talk about was work and how bad we were treated at work. It sucked all the energy out of me. After a while we decided it wasn’t worth it. We knew we had saved up enough money to get us through at least a year maintaining our standard of living. So I quit.

Second. Best. Decision. Of. My. Life. (The best one was definitely to date my husband 😉)

Even though we now have a lot less income than we used to, we can finally afford to buy everything organic. We buy in bulk, which is a lot more expensive in Germany. We are foodies, so we eat out a lot, sometimes even every day. We go on trips a lot. We have moved to another (bigger) city and we rented an apartment in the city center. Everything we need (and a lot more!)  is in walking distance. Since this city is very vegan-friendly we have finally managed to switch from vegetarian to vegan. My husband has to commute to work (2-3 times a week), but that’s ok, he rides the train and uses the time he commutes to answer emails and stuff. We are able to spend a hell of a lot more time together. All in all, we are very happy and content.

So far, we haven’t gotten the feeling that we had to tighten our belts. We don’t budget and we don’t penny-pinch. Like before, we spend our money when we feel like we want to do so. However, since we started to transition to a zero waste lifestyle, we just don’t feel the desire to buy stuff anymore. And when we do, we do go for quality instead of quantity.

We have always tried to declutter. But like with most things when you’re exhausted, you run out of time and energy before you manage to finish the project. Now we finally had the time and energy to tackle this and we got rid of most of our stuff. We feel so much lighter. Never before has housekeeping been so manageable! Our apartment is cleaner and tidier than ever before.

My blog (my baking blog, not this one) hadn’t received much attention for a while, and I enjoyed blogging on a more regular basis once again.

This blog, too, is a project that I probably wouldn’t have ever dared to blow life into, hadn’t I quit my job. Hadn’t I quit my job, I might no have had the energy to work on aligning my lifestyle to my values. Like before, I would have been miserable knowing I’m making bad choices just because I’m too worn-out or because work forced me to function. Instead of getting through the day with the help of what feels like gallons of coffee, I can now choose to just get enough sleep every night. If I fall sick, I won’t have to pop some pills to crawl to work, I can just rest. All that feels very luxurious to me. I have stopped buying myself a ton of useless stuff just because I feel like I have worked so hard and suffered through the day so I deserve compensation. That’s not luxury or quality of life, that’s just a waste of money and resources for five minutes of comfort.

Oh, and did I mention that we still manage to put money onto our savings account each month?

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