Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sustainability in a Disposable World

Living with four children in a materialistic, self-absorbed world sometimes feels as if it's the opposite of sustainable. It's disposable. Mechanical pencils, last year's worn-out baseball cleats, laptops with a three-year life expectancy, video game cartridges, DVDs, empty juice cartons, abandoned musical instruments, half-inflated soccer balls, outgrown bikes, too-small clothing, granola bar wrappers and torn lunch boxes.
What is a mother to do with all of this stuff? If you asked me a few years ago, I would have responded that I threw things out like a mad woman or bagged it all up for the Purple Heart pick up. But, then I bought more stuff. I would have also rushed out to the store the very instant I felt that I needed a new spatula, shirt, snack, dish, candle, towel or cookie that I felt I must have right there and then. It wasn't a sustainable life and it really wasn't much of a stress-free life either.

The burden of stuff kept me running. To the store. To the school. To the mall. To the warehouse club. To the sporting goods shop. I was tired.

As the awareness of our environment grew in our family, we recycled more. Then we realized we were recycling too much. Why have a bin full of empty glass iced tea bottles, plastic milk jugs and aluminum cans when you could make your own tea or lemonade and have your milk delivered to your doorstep in returnable glass bottles? And so ended my need to run to the store to buy tea the very minute we ran out. I simply opened the cabinet and made some more.

That felt good, so we thought about what else we didn't need to rush out and buy. Why not make your own cookies, waffles, pancakes and lunches? Why not mend the lunchbox, patch and re-inflate the shrunken soccer ball, donate the DVDs to the school, take the unwanted video games to a resale shop to trade for new ones, hand down the bikes to neighborhood children and scout Craigslist for new ones? And we did.

Then we got excited. What else didn't we need? Trading stuff for time was like a drug and I was hooked. Making cookies with my son was better than shopping for cookies with a crabby toddler. Showing my older boys my 'mad computer skilz' when laptops need fixing is more rewarding than dropping them off the store to be repaired. My husband teaching my sons how to use tools to fix broken household items, sports equipment and cars will provide them skills for their future and memories of time with their Dad.

Sustainability has been a journey. Sustainability at times has been a challenge. More often than not sustainability has been a compromise. With middle school aged kids sometimes you allow the iPod, but shop for clothing from the thrift shop, buy used video games and find hockey skates on Craigslist. And that's the key.

My sons are learning how to live sustainably in a disposable world. They think twice before tossing away a mechanical pencil that can simply be refilled with lead. They appreciate a better quality used hockey skate from Craigslist over a poor quality new hockey skate from a discount store - for the same price. They consume less, yet expect more. That doesn't mean they don't want a new iPod, I'm sure they do and a whole lot more. They have just learned to value what they have, buy only what they truly desire and make a smaller impact on the planet.

Living sustainably is for me, a learning curve and sometimes a challenge. For my sons, it will be a way of life and their benchmark for normal. Knowing that I have passed this practical sense of living on to my children to in turn pass it on to future generations means sustainability is achievable. One small step at a time.

Note: This is my post for the August APLS Carnival, if you want to submit your post on sustainability, you don't have much time! Post by Aug. 12th and email your post to aplscarnival (at) gmail (dot) com. Or, if you simply would like to be added to the bushel basket and prepare a post for next month's carnival, that's OK too. Hop on over to the APLS blog and hang around awhile!


Alana said...

I love it! Seeing what you throw out really makes you stop & think. A trash journal made me switch over to a lot of reusable items and made me make more things from scratch to avoid packaging, especially those granola bars.
You're doing such a service to your sons. I wish that my mom had tught me more value of things, rather than just go out and buy a new one.

Green Bean said...

Oh yeah! Another awesome post.

First: "Trading stuff for time was like a drug". Love that. I too felt that I spent my old life running from store to store to meet our needs. Life is so much simpler and more relaxing now.

Second: I love that you brought up compromise for kids - that you allow the iPod. We are teaching our children the beauty and wonder of sustainability, to appreciate our resources. It is a journey but it must be one that has a few compromises in it and a little bit of fun.

Great post.

MamaBird said...

I so love this - "stuff for time" is so right on. I feel that way 100% - even about things like making my own bread in my breadmachine -- great post.

Bobbi said...

You're brave to go sustainable with kids. Mine are 19 and 16 and out of the house at college or driving to friends' houses now. I don't know if I would have had enough stamina to take on life changes when they were younger.

Alana: what's a trash journal?

Beany said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I'm always curious about the mommy lifestyle. How do you all do it all?

I remember when I first thought to look at the ingredient list on a pancake box. I felt so cheated! That it was just flour, eggs, milk and baking soda and I was forking over all this money to buy it? The less time I spent at the grocery store meant more time at home. It _is_ a drug.

Wendy said...

Your life seems very similar to mine, and it is about compromises. We have the iPods, but shop for clothes second-hand, and it's actually been kind of a fun mental exercise to come up with ways to get the things we think we need without having to buy them. Freecycle has been good, but even better is repurposing something we already have.

As for buying pancake mix vs. making pancakes at home, I actually found dozens of recipes for "mixes" online, and we now make our own pancake mix, hot cocoa mix, and pudding mix ;).

Interestingly, my husband was disappointed that we had so little recycling this week ... until I pointed out that we didn't have much garbage, either. We've cut down on both, by doing just what you've done and that is, cut out the packaging and making it ourselves - or reusing, like with our milk bottles.

Great post!

The Purloined Letter said...

Excellent post. "Learning" to live with less often shows us joy that has been lurking in the corners between all that stuff!

eco 'burban mom said...

alana - Hmmm, a trash journal is a good idea!

GB - Yes, you have to compromise, that's the hardest lesson my kids have taught me. I'm not winning every battle!

mamabird - it's true, isn't it! The more stuff you give up, the more time you have.

bobbi - I'm sort of a bossy mom, I really don't take no for an answer. Probably going to give my kids something to tell their therapist when they're 30.

beany - Exactly!! Why be tied down to running out of pancake mix when all the stuff is right there in the pantry! You got it exactly right, it makes it so much easier for me to cook for 4 kids when I'm not stressed about running out of this mix or that bottled thing.

wendy - we noticed the same, big decrease in both trash and recycling. Though, our neighbors probably don't see it. We have this HUGE blue trash can on wheels, with one itty bitty trash bag in it!

purloined letter - that made me smile. You're right, I never used the word joy, but that's really what it is! Joy in learning to love what you have!

organicneedle said...

I love the "benchmark for normal." That is exactly what I hope to achieve. Every time my 4 year old says to my husband, "Don't throw that out. I can think of like ten things to do with it," my heart sings. I also agree about the compromise. Life is meant to be enjoyed. I want my children to know it is okay to indulge in a new gadget now and again...just recognize it as an indulgence and not a birthright.

greeen sheeep said...

This one hit home with me. We went from a bag of trash a day and not recycling any of it; to 1 or 2 bags for the week, along with a bin of recyclable plastic. I save and reuse all the glass and paper.

Making your own rather than running out and buying ready made is a new concept in our house. Some of the family hasn't adjusted yet. All too often I hear there's nothing to eat! Unless there are cookies or some similar treat easily accessible, hubby starts to forage like a bear just out of hibernation. Grumbling and groaning included.

That damn Orville Redenbacher commercial with the husband curled in the fetal position, whimpering on the floor in the midst of healthy snacks pretty much sums this house up.

Joyce said...

Great post! I think you've really hit it about right. Your kids can have all the fun their friends are having, but they are having some other neat experiences, too, like fixing things with their dad and eating healthy family dinners. Good for you!

Julie Artz said...

People frequently ask me how I have time to make my own yogurt, bread, and granola, to preserve so much of the summer bounty, to garden and compost, to shop the farmer's market, and still have time to blog, to work (albeit part-time) and live.

But I think you've got it right--we can trade "stuff" for time, we can incorporate these things that we make and do into our normal routine with our children, and we're not only helping the environment, but we're connecting with our children and showing them a better way to live.

Do I have too much stuff? Yes, absolutely. But each step I take feels like a step toward something simpler, something more authentic...

Mindful Momma said...

Yes, I too remember the days when I felt compelled to rush out to the store so that (god forbid!) I wouldn't run out of juice boxes! I think it can be hard, especially for kids, to avoid the consumer culture but learning to live happily with less gives you so much freedom in the long run. Very nice post!

Abbie said...

I love how you have connected sustainability to more time. Recently, I was at a shower and gave a hand made gift. Some people looked at my and said, kind of in a condescending tone, that they didn't have the time to hand make gifts. Almost as if saying that I have nothing to do, they're so much busier than me. The reality is that I have lots of things to do, lots of responsibilities, but I make time for the things that I value and the things that I enjoy, and part of that is living sustainably.