To be an environmentalist means to take on a certain measure of the world’s burdens. If that seems like a raw deal, well, even so we wouldn’t have it any other way. And yet, after recent depressing ruminations on the state of the climate and affairs generally, I thought it was only fair to give equal airtime to the flip side: joy. Though this may not be the case for you, for me living sustainably has meant shifting many aspects of my life in a way that has made my whole life better, not just my environmental impact.
Biking and walking places instead of driving is one of the truest pleasures I know - the added exercise, the wind on my cheeks, the leaves underfoot. When I lived in Chicago, I commuted a half hour by foot each way nearly every single day, even during the winter. (If you’re curious about walk commuting, I wrote more about my experiences - and best practices - here). The morning walk was a time to gear up for the day, and the evening walk a time to process the workday and leave it behind for the night.
Now, in Madison, I love the feeling of soaring on bike pedals on the way to the grocery store or having twenty minutes to soak up the view of the lake while walking to yoga. My partner bikes to work most days, too, and has implemented a rule for himself: if he’s not sure whether to bike or drive that day, biking will always feel better. Driving is convenient, and for some people and places, necessary. But how much better it feels to get somewhere myself - I’d do it this way even if cars ran on fairy dust instead of fossil fuels.
When we do have to drive somewhere, I’m learning that carpooling with friends to a get-together instead of driving separately means more time spent with friends and less time fast-forwarding through podcast ads. Alongside the slight inconvenience of having to coordinate schedules and set aside more time to get to our location, carpooling also means closeness and piling into a car together and asking about each others’ days, instead of going it alone.
And that is maybe the crux of it: the most unexpected benefit of zero waste for me has been how much it has meant learning to lean on myself, my friends, and my community, and how much doing so has improved my life. So much of what is sold to us as convenience can have the effect of encouraging us to believe we can’t do things for ourselves, that the things we need can only be found in stores. Choosing to try to buy less and to waste less means taking back some of that power. I can buy canned pumpkin, or I can make pumpkin purée from a whole pumpkin and in doing so learn something about cooking and about self-reliance.
To me, zero waste means gratefully accepting a friend’s old toaster instead of buying a new one, hosting a community swap, giving away extra food before leaving on vacation, and texting friends about extra zero waste gear to ask, “Do you have a use for this?” It means a simmering pot of cinnamon-scented applesauce bubbling away on the stove instead of a plastic jar of Mott’s, having a friendly conversation with a barista when I hand over my reusable mug, browsing thrift shops with a pal, and making homemade gnocchi on a Saturday afternoon instead of picking up a plastic package of it. (Note: homemade gnocchi is so good, and surprisingly not really that hard to make).
I could buy canned pumpkin, buy applesauce, buy gnocchi, buy a toaster, buy new clothing, and buy coffee in a paper cup. Of course I could, and sometimes I do. But instead of buying something that’s packaged or brand-new, I can often make it or find it in my community. Doing so over and over and over again throughout the years has instilled in me a sense of security I didn’t have before. I can support myself, and when I can’t, the people around me can.
None of this is meant to be saccharine or to gloss over the difficulties of choosing to live more sustainably. Preparing food from scratch does take more time than buying it packaged; that’s a choice not everyone can make. Secondhand shopping takes more time than buying something new (but on the other hand, costs less money). I’m also mindful of the fact that the ability to make these choices depends on having an able body and being part of a community with extra resources to lend each other, both of which are incredible privileges.
I’m wary of movements that claim to have all the answers for everlasting happiness and peace, and I’m not arguing that zero waste is a happiness quick-fix. Really, I’m only just starting to articulate all of this to myself after four years of making these kinds of choices. But, it’s true. Tuning into the impact of my choices has made me choose differently - and these choices have made me, generally, happier. Practicing environmentalism can look like deprivation; anything can look like deprivation. But it can also look like joy.
Pictured, drying herbs (thyme, oregano, and chocolate mint) from our small patio garden. (Here’s a how-to).