Waste not, want not

My family’s attempts to lessen our impact on the earth remind me of driving a car with a manual transmission for the first time: When you finally take your foot off the clutch, the car lurches forward with a screech, then stalls. Eventually you get the hang of that third pedal and start to enjoy the ride. We, too, have alternately leaped forward (often with a screech) and stalled as we make our way toward a more harmonious, environmentally conscious way of life.

Early on my husband and I coasted. We recycled our recyclables, used cloth napkins instead of paper, and walked whenever possible. We had fun wrapping presents with whatever was at hand: a sock, a scarf, a pillowcase. Sometimes we would use a piece of fabric to wrap a gift, telling the child whose birthday it was that the wrapping was really a cape. And because our children were too young to have an opinion, we never bought those prepared lunches that are wrapped in plastic and encased in a cardboard box.

My first great leap occurred nearly 10 years ago, when we were attending a conference at a university. We ate our meals in a self-serve cafeteria, which my children loved because they could choose not only what to eat but how much. I was appalled as they thoughtlessly dumped their half-full plates into the garbage can. How could they be so oblivious to the waste? How could they not care?

Since then I’ve looked for opportunities to help them understand that food doesn’t just come from the grocery store. We shop at the farmer’s market, visit an orchard in the summer and fall, and grow raspberries and tomatoes in our backyard. I’ve also tried, with limited success, to interest my children in cooking so they will understand the time and effort it takes to bake a cake or assemble lasagna.

Another time I was hand-washing a shirt and thinking about a book called Peace Is Every Step (Bantam) by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in which he writes that sunshine, rain, and soil are present in every tangerine. I was wondering if there was any sunshine in my rayon shirt when another thought struck me: “Who made this shirt?” I looked at the label: “Made in China.”

I pictured a young girl I had heard about on National Public Radio who was forced to leave her home and move to the city to make a living. Now she works in dense, unhealthy conditions elbow to elbow with girls from other farms and villages, as they all sew clothes for 15 hours a day for people in the West. I felt a deep sense of regret for my complicity in an economy that makes this sort of arrangement not only possible but inevitable. I promised to take very good care of the shirt.

Taking extra care with my clothes only worked for a while. Eventually I realized I had to take the next step: to buy (with very few exceptions) only secondhand clothing for myself. In the beginning our children went along with my plan, but now that they are getting older, used clothes have become a harder sell. I still suggest the resale shop first whenever something is wanted or needed, then if we can’t find it there, I usually give in and go to a regular store. But I grouse all the way.

As for my husband and me, our enthusiasm for secondhand merchandise has expanded into many other areas of our household. We’ve bought plates, glasses, blankets, tablecloths and napkins, furniture, and books from resale shops. I’ve had several jackets re-lined, we had our couch re-upholstered instead of buying a new one, and we’ve come to revere our local shoe repair man, a short, stocky Russian with thick fingers who can restore just about anything-from shoes and purses to luggage-to almost-new condition.

Our secondhand economy is continuously sustained by something my husband, who works in manufacturing, once told me: “When you buy something-anything-it causes someone in marketing to tell someone in production to make another one just like it.” That thought runs through my head every time I pick up a cute mug from the coffee shop or a stuffed animal my daughter would love. Then I put the thing back on the shelf. …more next week

by Ann O’Connor, from U.S. Catholic  magazine

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