Lighten Up

I’m working on a proposal for a book about living a “good life”—a mindful life that’s healthy for you and for the planet, rooted in whatever place you find yourself. With that in mind, I’m going to start posting a weekly thought about how to “lighten up” our impact on Earth in simple, every day sorts of ways.

This week’s thought comes from my experience at our local natural food store, a wonderful resource for our small rural town. After reading in David Sirota’s column, “We can put the ‘I’ in environment” that the 100 million plastic shopping bags Americans use each year require an estimated 12 million barrels of oil, I was feeling virtuous about having remembered my cloth shopping bags. 


Until I looked around the store at what I was buying: almost everything on the shelves was encased in… you guessed it, plastic. Plastic bags for the bulk bins, plastic bottles for the shampoos, personal products, detergents and household cleaners; plastic “jars” for vitamins and supplements; and plastic liners in the boxed crackers and cereals. Even here, where the environmentally aware, health-conscious community shops was a storehouse of packaging made from petroleum in one form or another. (Note: Even if the “plastic” is the feel-good biodegradable form made largely from corn, it’s really made from petroleum and other fossil fuels, since corn grown by conventional agriculture requires the energy equivalent of around 750 gallons of gasoline per acre in machinery, fertilizer, pesticides and other inputs. Data from a paper by Cornell University professor David Pimentel.)

What’s a “lightening up” shopper to do? Buy in bulk wherever possible, choosing products with the least packaging. For instance, since Richard and I eat oatmeal for breakfast regularly, we buy our rolled oats (organic, of course!) in 25-pound bags. I store the oatmeal in clean five-gallon buckets with lids (yup, they’re plastic, but I intend to use them for the rest of my
life) in our pantry, and keep the daily supply in a glass canister in the kitchen. Preparing breakfast just means measuring out the day’s oats, adding dried fruits and nuts, and cooking the mix, without consuming any packaging.

At the store, I picked the largest container of fragrance-free concentrated laundry detergent I could find. Since it was from Seventh Generation, the company which prides itself on its healthy and environmentally friendly products, I expected the plastic bottle would at least be recycled plastic. Nope.

Hence my next suggestion: Reuse plastic whenever possible. (I now bring those plastic bulk bags with me to the store–I keep them in my cloth shopping bags–to refill at the bulk bins, again and again.) Recycle your plastic containers, and better yet, vote with your dollars and buy from companies that use recycled plastic instead of the “virgin” stuff. If companies used recycled plastic, it would create a market for all the plastic we’re currently trying to recycle that sits around in bales unused.

What does the Lewis flax in the photo above, a lovely wildflower blooming now in our restored native grassland yard, have to do with lightening up? It’s there to brighten up the mood of this post and to remind you that change only works if it’s sustainable, if we take it a bit at a time and integrate the new stuff into our daily routine before we try to add anything else. So remember to “lighten up” what you expect of yourself even as you “lighten up” your footprint on the planet.