Low-waste living wasn't a conscious choice for me. Instead, it seeped into my daily activities an untold number of years ago, as a delightful byproduct of being a minimalist. Still, I've learned along the way, some lessons embarrassing to admit.
Composting requires no special supplies or skills.
During one of my stints living in an apartment, I routinely saved produce scraps, and then walked to the edge of the verdant hill my complex sat on in order to toss my pile into vegetation below. I now own a house with a yard whose back edge includes several feet of dirt and wild shrubs, so I deposit the cast-offs there, albeit more systematically, in what apparently is a compost pile.
All composting takes, I recently discovered, is a foot or two of outdoor natural space. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and other reputable groups recommend using a bin—but I sure don't and neither does a smart friend who lives in Brevard, North Carolina, and turned me onto the dummy-proof method. That said, I compost only kale stems, orange peels and the like. I throw them on the dirt, and then cover them with dead leaves during fall and winter and grass clippings in spring and summer. When I have more produce scraps, I put them on top of the heap after first turning it a bit, and then pile on more leaves or clippings.
Surplus clothes, sheets, towels and other textiles turn into lots of waste.
I'm a big fan of Nekkid parties, aka clothing (or anything else), swaps. Wasn't always this way. Before a move in 2008, I told an enterprising friend I had a bunch of stuff to drop off at a donation center, and she stopped me in my tracks. Shortly afterward I threw my first Nekkid party: Friends came over with items they no longer wanted. Each of us got rid of our rejects and acquired newfound treasures. Then the rest went someplace like Goodwill.
But textile waste’s magnitude was lost on me until I wrote a 2016 news article about Reunion Yarn Company, which unravels yarn from old sweaters so that others can spin it into new sweaters. The woeful stats back then: 21 billion pounds of textiles end up in U.S. landfills annually. Meanwhile, 3.8 billion pounds of textiles get recycled annually, but much of that gets shredded—and can't be reused. The takeaway is that billions (!) of pounds of unwanted textiles end up in the trash heap. So buy less, and have a Nekkid party.
You can borrow almost anything—but that doesn't mean you should.
Last summer I learned I could borrow garden and power tools from the library. This blew my mind. Straight away, I took out a hand hoe and a trowel (which I never used). Here's the rub: Loans last only two weeks, no renewals allowed. That translated to aggravation coordinating my schedule with when the tools were in-hand, while being at the mercy of weather patterns, plus dealing with multiple visits to the library. Ultimately, it made more sense to spend $15 on a hand hoe. Had I lived within walking distance of the library, things might have been different.
I also borrowed a neighbor's lawnmower two summers ago. After several frustrating attempts coordinating its return, I got my own—which leads to the next lesson.
The lowest-waste option is not always the best option.
Purchasing a manually powered mower was a no-brainer—or so I thought. I love exercise, I hate noise, and I have no interest in smelling like gasoline. Plus, my yard is a reasonable size. The problem, dear reader, is that planning just the right time to mow—which my Fiskars demands—is maddening. Here’s why: The lawn can't be damp, let alone wet, nor can it be taller than 6 inches, or the mower's blades lazily press the grass down instead of cutting it. That means agonizing over my schedule in order to get out during ideal conditions, weather included and work deadlines notwithstanding.
After spending an inordinate number of hours mowing, or trying to mow, I finally hired a strapping young man, on referral, to handle my yard with his power mower. The sound was deafening, and in just three visits he managed to scalp the grass, send mulch flying from flower beds and damage my driveway. So I let him go and deemed myself best for the job, plus I really did want the exercise. Then I bought an electric mower when it was on sale.
Yes, I now own two lawnmowers. But at least I use them both.
Journalist Mitra Malek’s new house came with a pristine fescue lawn. If weeds overrun it, she plans to replace it with rocks and low-maintenance native shrubs and trees.