Sunday, May 20, 2018

So I finished another essay recently. As is the case with most of my writing, it doesn't get at exactly everything I wanted to say but alas, here it is. (It's also on my Medium page, which you can see here. I half-heartedly pitched it to a few places but heard nothing so to the Medium page it goes!). I've been following the zero waste trend for a few years and finally got around to organizing some of my thoughts about it below. I hope you enjoy ‒ especially all of my zero waste friends, who may find it critical but hopefully it comes out as more thoughtful? Here's to hoping, and to calling this one done. As always, comments and thoughts encouraged!

The Allure of Zero Waste

It seems reasonable to say that we have a problem with plastic.

I’m often shocked at the amount of packaging — plastic or not — that I use every day, and the effect of this is often anxiety-inducing. All of the waste amassing in our oceans and landfills and alongside our sidewalks deeply disturbs me, mainly because I like things to be neat and clean but also because I know that there is little hope of it going away anytime soon. Still, the 4 million tons of trash we produce a day is a problem that I never knew what to do about until I stumbled on the term “zero waste,” a new lifestyle trend that advocates for living without consuming any single-use plastics or trash at all.

I first learned about the idea over ten years ago when Colin Beavan, a New Yorker, attempted to live the most sustainably a human possibly can. With his blog “No Impact Man,” Beavon lived a carbon-free lifestyle for a year, forgoing electricity, gas-powered transportation and packaged food to see if it were possible to live without any environmental impact. Beavon’s project stuck with me, though I never went through with it myself, and years later, I was reminded of it again as the zero waste movement began cropping up on the internet with more and more fervor.

Like Beavon’s “No Impact Man” project, zero wasters attempt to do what, to many, seems unachievable: they live without producing any trash. Rather than take a 13 gallon trash bag out to the curb every week (as I do), zero wasters collect their trash in a small mason jar, filling it up over the year, if that. Subscribing to a zero waste lifestyle intrigued me from the beginning. The purity, sanctimony, perfection of it all drew me in, especially since I try to live an environmentally responsible life and often, overwhelmingly fail.

After reading through zero waste blogs incessantly, I began taking on some easy zero waste swaps myself: cotton cloths instead of paper towels, reusable bags at the grocery instead of plastic ones, bulk tea instead of the packaged variety. I kept telling myself that I’d go full zero waste for a month but then each week crept in, never the right time for the experiment.

Initially I thought that I would start on a Sunday at my neighborhood’s farmers market but I often woke up hungover and in need of a Gatorade, or I had brunch plans with a friend on the one day the market was open and couldn’t make it to buy local fruits, veggies and cheese unpackaged before it closed. Reality set in that going zero waste was really hard, and so I kept putting it off.

The most daunting aspect of zero waste for me was figuring out what to do about groceries. In order to avoid anything wrapped in plastic, zero waste calls for buying unpackaged fruits and vegetables, and then grains, pasta, legumes and snacks from bulk bins (using your own reusable bag for filling of course). This means making all of your food from scratch, which, for a mediocre cook like myself, sounds almost impossible.

While there’s a rhythm one develops when they do more of their own cooking, it’s hard for me to fathom how I can make three meals a day from unpackaged ingredients while also working, maintaining friendships, seeing family, exercising, going on a weekend trip, taking up a hobby or dealing with an illness. I know it can be done. The internet assures me it can be done. But while I subscribe to the tenets and the idea of zero waste, I just can’t see how one makes food without plastic wrap working its way in.

Take for example, a veggie burger and chips for dinner. The zero waste way of making a veggie burger and chips means setting aside a few hours one night to make the burgers from beans, onions, peppers, spices and an egg, and then frying one’s own potato chips. Perhaps this is doable but then what happens when I want to add ketchup and mustard? Do I grab my mustard seeds and start grinding? Also, do I have to start the whole process the day before, soaking my own beans and cooking them on the stove in order to avoid an aluminum can? Would every meal be a two day affair?

This is not impossible. Many people around the world make their meals from scratch but they are usually a) women in rural areas with no other choice or b) full time homemakers with someone else’s salary supporting them. As writer Taffy Broddeser-Akner’s mother says to her in a Bon Appetit essay, “You can either cook or work.” I work, which means I buy my grapefruit juice and almond milk in plastic and cardboard containers thank you very much.

In a way though, I am spoiled, as we all are. So much of what we buy comes in some form of packaging, and the zero waste movement is undeniably a response to this modern fact of life. I don’t go a day without consuming something (if I include the most vital act of feeding myself) and what comes along with consumption is its nasty byproduct: single use packaging. So the question is: how then do I stay sane and live my life, avoiding a pesky product I see everywhere I look?

Most zero wasters would say that the end goal of zero waste is not necessarily to arrive at a place where you produce no trash but rather, to rethink habits and reduce where you can. As Celia Ristow of the blog Litterless says, “Zero waste means progress, not perfection.” That is a sentiment I can get behind. I can rethink what I buy. I can forgo plastic in some areas. And yet, the world doesn’t really know what to do with the moderate so there tends to be a novelty in the end goal of zero.

This is bad for me, considering that I have the opposite of an addictive personality. I’m much too indifferent to go to extremes, too curious to not want to try everything. And so, while I have taken on some easy zero waste swaps, I mostly scroll through zero waste feeds on Instagram and wonder how anyone gets to that end goal. Do they have hobbies? Do they ever crave a frozen pizza? In my more cynical moments, I find myself rolling my eyes, believing it a scam (no secondhand garment has ever fit me that good, I think, staring at the young woman in her “thrift store” jeans). But of course, I am not actually opposed to the trend, just wish that social media acknowledged its difficulties within the context of real life.

Part of my objection to zero waste is laziness, sure, but also part of it is gendered. The work of making one’s life zero waste means more time spent in the kitchen, doing women’s work and part of me fears that while women slave away to curb our reliance on plastic and put as little dent in our landfill as possible, men won’t offer to help us in this fight. In addition, there’s the possibility that while women stay at home in the kitchen, men will spend their time working, rising to positions of power, perhaps making decisions of graver environmental consequence.

Of zero waste bloggers, the majority are young millennial women or stay at home mothers, a trend which makes me uneasy. I went to a zero waste meet up once and walked in to find a table full of women. A table that soon began lamenting over how to get their boyfriends or husbands on board with these new, more tedious habits. Most women are still fighting for society to see household chores as a task of both male and female head of households, and so what will happen when we add to this task list?

And what’s more, there may be deep-rooted patriarchal notions at work behind the female buy-in of this trend. Underneath it all, I wonder if there is an uneasiness in women to take up space (either in a room or via trash in a landfill) or a tendency to sacrifice so others don’t have to. I wonder if women feel they have more power in their homes than their workplace or senator’s office. Of course, perhaps it is none of these things. Perhaps it’s just an effect of its styling; marketed toward women, it leaves men hesitant to pick it up.

Regardless, I do feel there would be some resentment if I spent my nights prepping to make zero waste lunches and dinners and condiments and cleaning products while my boyfriend buys his Chipotle and goes off to rock climb every other day, as he does. While I’m busy being zero waste, will he be busy training? What then if I want to climb alongside him too?

The nuances of modern day feminism can be confusing, and ultimately a woman’s choice of how she wants to work toward change is her own. Colin Beavon, aka “No Impact Man,” ran into similar issues that many homemakers face in his “No Impact Man” documentary, saying to his wife at one point, “You only eat local food but who provides it, who cooks it, who gets up in the morning and makes you breakfast every day, does your lunch, does your dinner then generally washes the dishes when it’s all done?” Ultimately both his concerns and his wife’s as a working mother are valid. It brings up the most important theme that zero waste brings to bear, one I think that confounds us all: what are we willing to do, what are we willing to sacrifice so that we can preserve our planet?

The work of change is hard, as zero waste reminds us. Working toward social good involves difficult things like running for office, organizing over the long term, putting our kids in public schools, adopting or fostering, using our time to help a friend or a family member or stranger overcome addiction, depression, what have you. And when it comes to the environment, I think if we’re honest with ourselves, it involves similar sacrifice. It means reducing our trash, living in smaller spaces, taking public transportation, living closer to the things we need, consuming less, flying less, eating less meat.

That being said, I am far from perfect. I fly 3–4 times a year, a number I morally can’t feel right about even if I buy carbon offsets at the end of the year. And jealousy pervades me often. Daily I see clothes I would like to have; I see friends and strangers traveling places I would like to go; I think about living someplace with a yard. Still, I know that I could be doing more. I can’t help but think of my Grandpa, who grew up during the depression and still wears slippers from thirty years ago, the hole in the big toe patched up and worn away a thousand times over. Living in a world where temperatures rise and natural disasters intensify, I question what I really ask of myself (honestly, not much).

It is perhaps one of the most unpopular of opinions, that change will come with a cost to ourselves but it is one I wish we would all start to embrace. As of right now, I am not zero waste but I am making zero waste changes, trying to lessen my environmental impact. I’ve begun to feel the pang of sacrifice — either through the time that I spend preparing my own food or the money I donate or the bus trip I take instead of getting into my car — as a token, an acknowledgement that I’m doing the hard work. And when it hurts, I reach out to others doing the same to find some joy in it all.

Of course, change won’t come from just changing my own habits, as many critics of zero waste will say (an argument that honestly, I find quite banal). If I wait for everyone to become magically selfless and anti-consumerist, the results will be disastrous, but I do think there is hope that when a select group starts adopting new habits, pressure will accumulate for larger, systematic changes. Perhaps one day, plastic will be cast aside and a new, compostable version will come to fruition. Perhaps, a carbon tax will finally take effect. Until then, all I have is the power to reduce my consumption and maximize my political power.

Still, I wrestle with the hypotheticals often; my critiques of and compassion for zero waste. There are certain scenarios I wonder about, like whether it would be better to stay at home and prepare a zero waste, local, vegetarian dinner or just grab whatever I can (in whatever packaging it comes in) because I have to run to my senator’s office after work and protest whatever needs protesting. In this case, the latter may be a worthy exception.

In the end, with gender and privilege and ability wrapped up in all of this, the practicality and effectiveness of a zero waste lifestyle can be difficult to decipher but I think working toward a sustainable future will always be a hard battle, full of a thousand nuances. It’s confusing — but I suppose working toward any worthwhile goal always will be.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

So two weeks ago, I moved to Salt Lake City from Chicago (!). The move came after a few years of wanting to live somewhere new, preferably somewhere with access to the outdoors. I like the city a lot actually, from what I've seen so far. I like the cute neighborhoods and the mostly blue skies and the mountain views in every direction. There are things that are lacking, like public transportation and an abundance of restaurants on par with those in Chicago, but I will deal just fine.

Right before moving, a funny thing happened where I ended up stumbling on old journals from high school while I was cleaning under my bed. I stopped packing for a second to read through them and was quickly reminded of my younger, even more idealistic self. The journals were filled with nomadic dreams, notions of radical environmentalism and mostly, a lot of Bush era despair. There was a part of me that wanted to drop everything after sifting through them and travel without aim and live among the train-hoppers but then I thought, what would I do about money and health insurance and the existential feelings that come when I wander with no idea of where I am going?

I am not as radical as I hoped as a teenager but oh well, I've come to find that, like most, I actually enjoy routine and stability. I like creating my own home and a consistent paycheck and luckily, a bit of disposable income for hobbies and travel plans and donations. I'm 27 and don't have a MFA or any published work but I do have words that I have written and a belief that maybe I actually prefer writing without publishing. For now, that feels like enough.

And in terms of travel, I love seeing new places (preferably thoroughly) but I like my career too. I was talking to a co-worker about this recently and realized that the European model really is my ideal, with its generous vacation policy. In a dream world, I would be able to work and be productive but still have the chance to wander for four or five weeks each year. (But of course, I've lived in Honduras and know the other side of the spectrum, that I'm lucky to have a job at all.)

I feel like I'm saying a lot of the same things I've said in previous posts but I guess the new surroundings have just reminded me again that life is good, even though it's not what I expected. I will be moving into an apartment and starting a new job in a few weeks and am excited and nervous and at times, conflicted. My life isn't exactly the narrative I constructed for myself as a 17-year-old but I'm old enough to buck plans now, give up the idea of a set narrative and live instead as life comes (and yet I'm torn, is holding tight to a dream the only way I'll ever get there?).

My motto, it seems, always: oh well. Onward and onward.

Friday, March 23, 2018

So in this edition of things I love and other people may or may not care about, I present my low-waste beauty routine!

In the last few years, I've been trying to find beauty products that are affordable, free of harsh chemicals, effective, and somewhat sustainably packaged. In case you are searching for these things too, here's my long-winded breakdown of what works for me:

Skin Care: Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay ―  It's kind of a messy product to use but the 1 lb. jar I have lasts forever (years!) and in addition to being safe to use, it really clears up my skin. Plus it's only $9, which in the world of acne solutions is quite cheap. 

Hair Care: I've tried a plethora of natural shampoos and had luck with very few of them until I found Acure Shampoo and Conditioner (Acure products can be found at Target). Recently, I switched it up and am now trying the Seaweed Bath Co. Balancing Shampoo and Conditioner. Both work for straight, oily hair, are free of sulfates/parabens/phtalates and are only $10 each, which honestly is the most I'll pay for hair care.

Hair Cleansing Rinse: I am addicted to using an Apple Cider Vinegar rinse for my hair to clear up dandruff. I fill up 1/4 of a bottle with ACV, dilute it with water, add a few drops of essential oil and then work it into my hair a few days a week. It works wonders.

Moisturizer: I use Coconut Oil or Almond Oil, basically whatever I have on hand. The bottle of Almond Oil I have has lasted me years, which makes me feel like it's lower waste, packaging-wise, because it lasts so long before I recycle it. Using oil on my face does cause breakouts though so I avoid that.

Face Moisturizer: Right now, I'm using Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer with SPF 15. I can pick it up at my neighborhood Walgreens, which I like, and it only has a level 2 rating on the Skin Deep guide so it seems safe to put on my face. It's kind of on the pricey side at $17, comes packaged in plastic and I go through it every 6 months so I don't know, still searching for a good option here...

Soap: I use whatever unpackaged bar soap I can find at the store when need be, like this one.

Razor: I'm a bit scared of safety razors so I picked up a Preserve Razor from Whole Foods last time I was there. Although the razor handle is plastic, it's made from recycled yogurt containers so it's not terrible. I'm trying to hold onto the razor handle as long as I can and just replace the blades in order to reduce waste.

Deodorant: In terms of eco-friendly deodorant, the only one I have had any luck with is Schmidt's Natural Deodorant, which comes in both plastic and glass packaging. Recently I took a nose dive into natural deodorants on the internet and think I might try Magnesium Oil next. I'll report back!

Dental Care: In addition to using Brush with Bamboo toothbrushes, I pick up Tom''s from Maine from Walgreens and then stock up on EcoDent floss at Whole Foods. Tom's has a level 2 rating on Skin Deep so it works for me. The tubes of toothpaste can't be recycled commercially but they are recyclable through TerraCycle, which works to divert hard to recycle materials from the landfill. Also, EcoDent Floss comes in a cardboard container, which feels like a much better option than all of those oddly shaped, plastic floss containers I've used for so long.

Makeup: My makeup is still of the drug store variety but maybe, maybe one day I'll shell out $100 on organic, recyclable makeup with RMS. I am almost 28 so perhaps it's time?

Makeup Remover: I use reusable cotton rounds (in black preferably) and water to remove makeup at the end of the day. No complaints, they do the trick and last forever.

A lot of this is not exactly zero waste, i.e. comes without plastic, single-use packaging, but it's much less wasteful than what I've used in the past. The majority of these products are rated safely on the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database, fit my budget, come in bulk quantities, can be found at my neighborhood Walgreens, Target or Whole Foods (which avoids the carbon footprint that comes with shipping) and they work, most importantly.

For more on the subject of zero waste swaps, I'm in love with my friend Celia's blog Litterless. This article is a great place to start if you're hoping to make a switch to a less wasteful, sustainable lifestyle.

Also, FYI, none of the above are affiliate links  ―  just sharing because I'm semi-obsessed and hoping someone may find something they need!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

My month in Mexico has almost come to an end. It was different than expected. Usually I try to find a way to have built-in community whenever I travel solo, and for this trip, I thought there would be other artists and writers working on their projects alongside me but it looks like I should have done a bit more research regarding my accommodations (I was swayed by the B&B's pretty pictures and semi-reasonable price I guess). It turns out more artists come in the summer and so what I came down to find was along the lines of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, i.e. a bunch of American retirees who had traveled south for the winter.

The group was a wonderful, eccentric bunch, all dressed in huipiles (which I have weird feelings about but generally think I'm okay with). They spent their days laughing and shopping and inviting me over for a margarita from time to time. But since they weren't really the type of group to go out at night, I missed out on exploring Oaxaca's nightlife and meeting some locals my age. No matter, what I ended up getting in return was a month with very few distractions, a rough draft of my novel done, a lush garden and sunshine out my door, and a small yellow room to call my own.

All in all, it was a success, although at times a solitary one. I'm ready to go back home and give my novel some space to breath while I figure out what's next. Still, my heart aches a little as I leave this charming, noisy, earthquake-prone town. I'll miss Oaxaca, inevitably, like I do with all things when I leave them.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

I have been in Oaxaca for about two weeks now and must admit, I've become a bad tourist. There is much to see and do and eat here but I've found myself forgetting to explore, mainly writing, reading and wandering off when I need food. To be fair, I came here to write so there should be no guilt there but of course, in my mind guilt and anxiety always find their way in. 

Which leads me, I guess, to a fun story: a few days before I left, I had a scare that my arm was at risk for paralysis. It was my last week of work and I was frantically tying up loose ends, finishing up every project I could while also ignoring the fact that I was about to solo travel down to Mexico in a few days, and all of sudden my arm went numb. Fully numb.

My initial diagnosis was that it was due to the fact that I had cut my wrist while doing dishes a few days earlier. A ceramic plate broke in my hand while I was washing it, and I was worried that the plate had dug in, hitting a vital nerve. But after a trip to the doctor's, I realized that no, it was just too much computer use and most likely, anxiety. In all of my years, I've seen my fair share of ways in which anxiety can manifest itself but that was definitely a new one for me.

Now that I'm here, I'm trying to be anxiety-less. Honestly, it's almost absurd to have any anxiety, being that I'm able to spend a month writing in 80 degree weather. But talking to other writers here, I see it everywhere. The anxiety that you're not writing enough. The anxiety that you're not enjoying yourself enough. 

An interview with Chicago author, poet and sociologist Dr. Eve Ewing stumbled into my inbox this week and summed it up so well. Her motto? "I always forgive myself for what I'm not doing."

"This is really dramatic," Ewing later says, "but when I finished my dissertation at two in the morning in my house in Boston, the very first thing I thought about was Harriet Tubman and slavery. I burst into tears. And I was like, 'I just finished my dissertation, and my ancestors were enslaved and if they tried to read people would punish or murder them! And they were ripped apart!' That was straight to where my mind went. I also was extremely sleep deprived. But you know, when you get that perspective, it's like, 'Uh, yeah, I got it pretty good.'"

So as of right now, I'm channeling Ewing, forgiving myself for whatever I'm not doing, being as easy as I can on myself, acknowledging that I've got it good. I've picked an achievable daily writing goal and every day, I do it. I am here, I am fine, I am writing! It is sometimes torture but it is also sometimes pure bliss.