by Heidi Rupke
I grew up in the 1980s, a lovely time in many respects. We kids rode our bikes all over the neighborhood for hours at a time. We ate Little Debbie snack cakes with impunity. Playing video games required going to an actual arcade. When our family talked about big issues, care for the environment wasn’t one of them. We were more worried about the Cold War than global warming.
Yet many of the things we did as a matter of course had a smaller environmental impact than other choices we could have made. We gardened. We passed around hand-me-down clothes among neighbors and cousins. We picked fruit from nearby orchards (Ah…Michigan!) and canned and froze the bounty for cold-weather consumption. We rarely ate out, and my parents were fully 45 before their first international flight, a gas-guzzling activity if there ever was one.
Contrast this last feat with my own three children, who first flew overseas before the oldest of them hit double digits in age. Ouch. And hooray for visiting my sister in Australia. My husband and children and I do, however, consciously pursue some choices that will offset the negative environmental impact of that travel. Care for the earth is a family value, both stated and implicit. Happily, pursuing environmental health often goes hand in hand with personal and communal health. Win, win, win.
Though not perfect, I am trying to live in a way that lessens my part in environmental destruction. My actions result from concern about rising rising sea levels and increasing numbers of extreme weather events and out of a desire for clean air and water for all. Addressing any of these things requires large-scale cooperation and likely, a legal framework. However, voluntary actions and culture changes are places to start, and these can lead to larger changes.
Here are a few environment-forward practices from my home, from small steps to larger commitments. Try one or try them all. Share some of your own ideas. But if you’re as concerned as I am about handing down a habitable planet to our grandchildren, do try something and talk about it with your friends. The more we work together, the greater impact we will make.
- Practice gratitude. This may not seem like an environmental action, but I assure you, it is. Consumer culture is rooted in the idea that we need more–things, experiences, knowledge, whatever–to make us happier. To flip that narrative, we need to notice what we already have. Health, shelter, a good night’s sleep, balance, friends, a strawberry: all of these things are gifts. When we focus on what we have, we buy less, create less trash from packaging, reduce pollution from transport, and generally make ourselves happier.
- Cultivate wonder. If there is a small child in your life, spend an hour with him or her, noticing whatever catches the child’s attention. Ants. Shadows. Ribbons. Mud. Swings. Stars. Birds. Noticing these things slows us down and removes us from vicious consumer cycles of buying, using, storing, and donating or trashing. The book The Overstory by Richard Powers changed my entire outlook on trees. They are truly marvelous,
- Buy your favorite snack foods in bulk. Place individual portions in reusable bags, beeswax wraps (purchase online or make your own; I make a few hundred every fall to sell locally), or washable glass or stainless steel containers.
- Use handkerchiefs rather than tissues. (Full disclosure: we use both at our house. On high capacity days, the tissues come in handy.)
- Borrow rather than buy. Text your friends or ask your social media community if you can use an item and then return it. You create community, save money, and lessen your carbon footprint with one shot.
- Purchase used rather than new. If you don’t need an item urgently, cruise thrift stores and yard sales until you find what you need.
- Bring your own containers to restaurants. This feels like it could be socially weird, but it’s really not, especially with smaller, locally-owned places. This actually saves them money on containers and you all look cool doing it.
- Patronize your local farmer’s market.
- Purchase quality items and use them as long as you can.
- Organize your food storage containers. I recently matched every container with its lid and stored it with the lid on in my drawers. It makes me so happy to avoid constant rummaging through a lid drawer. My favorite glass containers have fold-down, snapping tops and are pretty inexpensive at IKEA. Pyrex glass is often not recyclable and its lids disintegrate after far too short a time, in my opinion.
- Compost. There is no faster way to reduce the number of trash bags you take to your bin than to compost. Basically, you are separating out the raw fruit and veggie scraps, adding leaves from your yard and some brown cardboard from your toilet paper rolls and letting nature do its work. A well-tended pile does not smell and creates fantastic fertilizer out of your garbage. In Memphis, where I live, we even have a service called The Compost Fairy. For $5 a week, they’ll clean your buckets, take away your compost and bring you finished compost twice a year. Couldn’t be easier and changes your environmental impact today.
- Refuse single-use plastics whenever possible. This is a hard one because single-use plastics are EVERYWHERE. Think: plastic bags, straws, plastic wrap, yogurt cups, sample cups, milk jugs, packaging around new items. There are some great blogs on plastic-free living and zero waste lifestyles that have more specific ideas than I do. But in general, refuse whenever possible and recycle if refusing is not possible. Think of this activity as a game and give yourself a point every time you save a plastic item from going to a landfill.
- Pursue active transportation. Whenever possible, walk or bike to your destination. Carpool or take a bus when you can. Carpooling has given me new friends and a better connection with my neighborhood.
- Cook more often. Base menus around produce (which can be purchased without packaging)
- Advocate for green initiatives with your local city council.
- Garden, even a little bit. Do you really want to pay $3 for a plastic container of herbs? Me neither. Get a pot, grow some thyme, and your next dish will taste amazing.
- Keep a flock of backyard chickens.
- Reduce your number of cars.
- Coordinate with friends and neighbors to create a lending library of tools. On our block, we share ladders and a lawnmower. We can do more.
- Outfit your house with solar panels. Or if that’s not in your budget, do a green audit of your home and implement as many energy-saving updates as you can.
That’s my story, or part of it, since I’m constantly learning. What’s yours?
About Heidi Rupke:
She enjoys the arts that her grandmothers practiced out of necessity and and skill, such as quilting, gardening, keeping chickens, and hanging clothes outside. She lives in Midtown Memphis, where you can often see her riding her purple bicycle with her husband and three children. Her not-so-secret weaknesses are pretty fabric and screen porches.
Read her delightful piece about Greening the Kitchen at Edible Memphis