In the world of seeking zero-waste inspiration, it can be difficult to find inspiring folks who also have families with very young children. It’s harder still to find zero-waste families with small children and two parents who work full-time. As a working parent in a family with two of them, I’m the first to concede that there are moments when we choose convenience over conservation. Takeout pizza is not what you might call a rarity in our family.
We need to make fewer excuses for our generally abusive relationship with the planet—and the people on it—not more, but the truth is that sometimes making an effort to curb waste can feel like taking on another part-time job. At the end of a busy week, making a choice to walk a few extra blocks to a grocery store that sells bulk tofu, or backtracking to find recycled rolls of toilet paper, or carting bags full of compost to the farmers’ market, requires concerted effort. I do sincerely think that much of this effort can be made to fit manageably into a busy life, but I also understand that there are folks out there without the minutes in the day or the mental space to implement those changes easily. For lots of folks, getting through the day-to-day pressure of working, and living and, perhaps, also raising children, feels…hard enough.
I won’t deny the environmental and human cost of convenience, but here’s a post offering a bit of encouragement to folks who haven’t found a way to entirely extract themselves from systems that can be inherently wasteful. If, for whatever the reason, you find yourself in a position where you rely on services of convenience, here are a few simple ways that you can still reduce your waste footprint:
Shipping/Packaging/Subscription Services: If you use delivery services, especially from big, online companies delivering straight to your door, you’re likely overwhelmed by packaging materials. Here’s what you might consider:
+ Send a note: Adding a note to sellers can be a simple and very effective way of cutting down on waste. From Etsy and other small online shops, to much larger online businesses, there’s usually an opportunity to add a note to the seller during checkout. When there is, I’ve recently started to include a note that reads something like this: “If it’s possible to ship with as little plastic as possible, that would be so greatly appreciated!” No guarantees of course, but I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how effective this has been for me so far.
+ Reuse: We don’t have a lot of room to store things like packaging materials in our apartment, but I do keep a small tote in our closet for things like mailers and envelopes that I can reuse when sending my own packages. When you receive a package that includes things like dreaded packing peanuts, consider bringing them to a local shipping and mail service shop. In cases like this, it can be so helpful to develop a friendly, neighborly, and most-importantly mutually beneficial relationship with a local business. In the case of packing peanuts, they can put peanuts back to use right away, and none of them end up in the landfill (or flying around the sidewalk).
+ Combine shipments/Choose wisely: If you buy regularly from large online sites like Amazon, there are a few habits to consider changing. One easy fix is to shop from Amazon’s Frustration Free Packaging portal, which includes a huge catalog of goods shipping without plastic, blister packs, boxes within boxes, and other wasteful packaging. Not every product sold on the site is available in this kind of packaging, but it’s definitely worth a look. Other measures like checking boxes to ensure that multiple products you order will ship together is also relatively easy. It might mean opting out of next-day arrival, so try to plan ahead when you can.
In an ideal world, we’d make all of our own food, from scratch, with whole ingredients. Reality means that sometimes takeout feels like the simplest option. Here are a few habits to incorporate into your takeout routine:
+ Take less: Whether you have an account with a service like Seamless, or you’re phoning your local pizza parlor for delivery, you can make a note for them to please not include napkins, utensils, soy sauce, or whatever other extras they might otherwise include. If you have a sushi takeout habit, buy a bottle of soy sauce to keep in the fridge instead of relying on single servings packaged in plastic. Better still, if you’re feeling like you’d like someone else to take on cooking duties for the night, consider dining out instead of ordering in.
+ Patronize thoughtfully: While it would be excellent if all businesses paid the same kind of attention to their packing materials, that’s not the case. If you’re ordering takeout from a local restaurant, vote with your dollar by patronizing the businesses that pack their food most thoughtfully. Instead of getting your takeout from the shop that’s still packing their dinners into styrofoam clamshells, buy from the local spot filling up compostable containers instead. If you’re considering a meal kit service, shop around to try to find one making efforts to curb waste. This article from last summer is sobering, but some services, like Sun Basket, do seem to be making efforts to improve their packaging.
+ Pick up: This requires quite a bit of forethought, but our local sushi restaurant is pickup-only, so it’s easy for us to bring down a few glass containers when we place our order and they happily fill them for us. (Whenever I say this, folks chime in with examples of this not working. Of course! Not everyone will oblige, and sometimes there are missteps. But if you get in the habit of asking, eventually you’ll find the places and systems that work for you!) And if you can’t supply your own reusable container, of course, don’t forget to recycle whatever you can!
Outsourced labor: Lots of us rely on the labor of a whole network of people and businesses to keep our lives flowing. Sometimes this outsourcing of labor can mean that we’re one step further removed from the ways our lives impact the environment. Here are some things to do:
+ Talk to people: Like a sending a note to a seller or dropping off a box of packing peanuts, it’s worth considering how valuable developing relationships with actual people can be in your zero-waste efforts. If you live in a city and rely on services like getting laundry washed out of your house, for instance, ask that the folks at laundromat not use a plastic bag when packing your clean laundry. If you have someone else care for your kids while you work, open up the conversation about the efforts you make in your own family to reduce waste. Show a caregiver how your family composts, or sorts recycling.
+ Provide solutions: At the laundromat, supply your own environmentally friendly detergent. If you hire a cleaning service, choose one that uses environmentally conscious cleaning solutions, or provide your own. If someone else cares for your children while you work, provide them with tools like reusable water bottles, or refillable snack bags, or whatever else will make their jobs easier and keep your family’s waste in check.
What did I leave out? Other easy fixes for curbing convenience waste?