Can “package-free” be sustainable?

This month Josh Blaine, manager of the in.gredients grocery store here in Austin, stopped by at the beginning of our Talk Green to Me book club to discuss zero waste and other efforts. The discussion tied in with many of our read books including this month’s The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom, and of course Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free.

in.gredients was launched in 2012 as a package-free neighborhood grocery, which is pretty awesome. Of course, Beth Terry heard about this, and Josh describes her as “like a kid in a candy store” when she came to check out the shop.

I hadn’t heard of the store before reading Plastic-Free as it was nowhere near my neighborhood. When I visited the store about a year and a half ago, I think getting there on the bus took nearly two hours. It was definitely not my neighborhood grocery and visiting was anything but sustainable. It was a bitter-sweet visit too because this was after in.gredients had made the difficult decision to also sell packaged goods.

At times I’ve fantasized about opening up my own neighborhood grocery store (not too seriously) which really is package-free, but after Thursday evening I have a much better understanding of just how difficult that might be. Josh explained that they wouldn’t have been able to stay in business as a package-free grocery. When customers bring in their own containers, they’re less likely to pick up other things. Potential customers may skip a visit to the store or go elsewhere if they don’t have the right supplies on hand. And some things that customers want may not be available package-free, like coconut oil or soymilk.

Package-free food also doesn’t always last as long, which sometimes is irrelevant but sometimes is really important like for beer which is only at really good quality in kegs for a couple of days. That means it has a much shorter time frame to sell within. in.gredients is also a smaller neighborhood store, so having something things packaged like in kegs means that there’s going to be a lot less variety for customers to choose from. Unfortunately, there are so many reasons why packaged goods can be better for business.

To get more customers, in.gredients switched from all package-free to a focus on local foods 18 months after it opened. But that’s not just lipservice. Food sold at this store may be as local as vegetables grown in the garden in their front lot. They also work with many local farms like Urban Roots and Green Gate Farms. After hearing Josh talk about how closely in.gredients works with the vendors I’m more tempted to go back just because I know I’ll be able to pick up anything I see and buy it knowing that some really good people have already done the hard work of finding vendors with earth-friendly and community-friendly processes.

Josh is part of the Austin Zero Waste Alliance, and zero waste is definitely still one of the core values of the store. I don’t remember the specifics, but I think he said that the average amount of trash created by a person per day is five pounds, which is what their store creates in a month! They’re able to do this by making it a priority. They even work closely with local vendors to arrange for deliveries in reusable packaging like buckets of granola that go directly into the bulk bins before being cleaned and swapped out during the next delivery.

There’s so much more that was discussed, like involvement in the community or fair pricing, but my current dream is just to be able to buy what I need without getting a lot of extra trash as part of the deal. They still have a bulk selection filled with good food, though, and fresh local produce free even of stickers. So if you’re in Austin, stop by in.gredients to pick some up or other local goodies.

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The Not New Jeans

I recently had to retire a pair of jeans, so I’m not ready to lose another. This pair is pretty special too. It’s the only pair I still own from back when I still bought jeans new. They probably lasted so long because I’m very partial to jeans that are blue, but these black jeans are finally fully broken in and super comfortable. Maybe a bit too broken in, as I recently discovered this small hole in the inner thigh section.

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Ripped jeans quickly approaching the point of no repair

It’s a good idea to check your clothes regularly to see if they need mending anywhere, maybe while putting them away after each washing, but much of the time I find my clothes magically washed. For some reason, this is one of the chores my husband enjoys.

Anyhow, even though I found this late and the worn-thin fabric had already developed into a hole that I could poke my finger through, there was still plenty of time to save these jeans. I quickly gathered up some supplies:

  • Some scissors
  • A denim patch from a pair of retired jeans
  • A needle
  • Matching thread

(Some people are really into visible mending and you can do that too, but I prefer the kind that no one notices. )

In this case, the hole was small enough that I started by stitching both sides of the gap together. This makes the rest of the sewing a lot easier.

Then, with the dark side of the patch facing outwards, I loosely sewed it around the worn out area. Sewed a couple of zigzags through the middle to make sure all of it was firmly attached. Sewed near the edges of the patch (after trimming to size) so the patch wouldn’t be tempted to come loose. Sewed any area where it wasn’t already sewn. The inside may not be pretty, but hey it’s the inside. The spot that was previously worn thin is now well-reinforced.

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Completed patch from the inside

Since they’re black jeans and the hole was on the inner thigh, you’d have to be looking really hard to see the patch.

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Mended jeans

So, there you have it. My jeans are saved. The 1,800 gallons of water that it takes to grow cotton for a new pair of jeans is spared. The pesticides, dyes, and chemical softeners that would have gone into creating that new pair are also spared. Best of all, I’m spared the frustrations of trying on a billion pairs of new jeans before finding one that fits kind of okay. I have a perfectly good pair already broken in.

Free Paint, Recycled Paint

In Austin, anyone can stop off at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off center to pick up some totally free ReBlend paint. Paint isn’t supposed to be thrown out in the trash, so people who have left over paint take it down to the Drop-off center, where it’s blended into one of three color combinations and repackaged for anyone in town to pick up. The blending process releases any VOCs in the paint, so while it may have had VOCs originally at least they won’t be released in your home. And did I mention that this paint is free?

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In April I made my way out there to pick up paint for some ugly walls in our new house. Taking the bus was a bad idea because it was a lot further to the bus stop carrying a few gallons of paint, and my carrying bags weren’t quite right for the job. Fortunately, by walking I had the opportunity to enjoy this railroad to nowhere.

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Nature victorious!

When I visited only the dark beige color was available, but any paint would have suited my needs. While there, I checked out the Reuse Store (free stuff that other people dropped off but still has a lot of use in it) and got a hammer, screws, a nice Italian planter, and possibly other things that I don’t quite remember.

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Recycled paint!

My mom had given me a few paint roller supplies, but I made a trip to the hardware store and picked out a couple of quality brushes that should last the rest of my life–a 1.5″ angled brush for detail work and a 3″ paint-all-the-things brush. (I had been hoping the Habitat ReStore would have some used paintbrushes, but sadly it only sells them brand new.)  Plus, I picked up a short ladder at a yard sale in my neighborhood because I had no other good way to reach near the ceiling. Holding the small amount of paint for each day was simple with a reused plastic container. I’ll probably give away the paint roller supplies on Freecycle in the near future.

(Note: If I had decent carpeting I would probably need to invent a dropcloth also but fortunately, or unfortunately, the carpet that came with the house is permanently stained and at some point in the non-distant future should be removed.)

This is the closet in our guest bedroom before it got its new paint job. It was off-white and doesn’t look too bad there, but the other walls had many spackle spots and smudges which didn’t make it look very friendly. I couldn’t bear to take a picture of them.

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Before

And here’s our happily repainted guest bedroom.

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After. Non-nasty walls!
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With contrasting white trim

My husband was so happy at the improvement. At some point I’ll probably be making another trip to the Reuse Store to pick up a small jar of white paint to touch up the trim. (They have so much free stuff!) But in the meantime I have a half a bucket of paint left and will be working on the hallway and bathroom cabinets, which are the two things that most need it.

At this point, even though I have several other rooms that could benefit from it, I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be getting another large bucket of paint anytime soon. While working with this stuff I’ve realized that I’m pretty much just putting a layer of plastic on my walls. Not sure how I feel about that. The greenest solution is obviously to live with smudgy walls, but nope. This warrants further investigation. Do you know of any good alternatives?

The Reused Water Bottle

You hear a lot about using reusable water bottles instead of disposables, but most of the time it’s quickly followed up with an evaluation of the best reusable water bottle to buy. Creating new reusables tends to use more resources than single disposables, so there’s a break-even point at which your investment becomes better for the environment than continuing to use disposables.

Want to get to the break-even point instantly? The greenest water bottle that you can buy is the one you already own. Maybe it’s sitting in your recycling bin at this moment. Maybe it’s at the thrift shop. Or maybe it’s a kombucha bottle that someone else drank from and struck your fancy (as mine is). In the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle priority list, reuse comes before recycling every time. You save one container from disposal or recycling costs and another one from the expense of being created.

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My beautiful water bottle

I’ve been using this bottle for the past year. It’s enhanced by a coozie from my college days that was just sitting around and doing nothing. Sure, I browsed Etsy looking at the billions of lovely creations that could have graced my bottle to provide the much needed grip, but I had to be honest with myself and admit they weren’t needed with this alternative.

Some zero waste advocates are just following the trends and using the movement as an excuse to buy new stuff, but don’t be fooled. Many zero waste swaps are super frugal or even free. The next time you’re tempted by some zero waste instagram pics, look around at what you already have and hang onto your money for the things that are really important to you. For most people, that isn’t a super fancy water bottle, or a particular kind of jar just to store trash in.

P.S. – If you’re still buying disposable water bottles, take a moment to calculate how much money you spend in a year on just water. Once you do that, the switch should be obvious.

80% of Austin trash isn’t trash

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The city of Austin adopted a Zero Waste plan in 2009 with the goal of diverting 90% of waste from landfill by the year 2040, and they’ve just released the results of the 2015 Community Diversion Study. This is the first study of its kind done here in Austin. I haven’t read the full report yet but wanted to share the overview of findings.

Unfortunately, we didn’t meet the 50% diversion goal for 2015. Only 42% of waste ended up reused, recycled, or composted this year. But it may give us some of the information we need to forge ahead.

“I’m extremely encouraged by the results of this study,” said Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert. “The report has provided us with valuable data that shows us how we are doing and where we need to improve as a community in order to reach Council’s vision of Zero Waste.”

Here’s the breakdown of the material analyzed on its way to be landfilled. 18% could have been recovered and reused as is. 26% could have been recycled. And a whopping 37% could have been composted. Less than one-fifth of the load would have gone to landfill if those resources had been sorted to the right place.

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Fortunately, there are several steps already lined up to help us improve.

  • An ordinance already exists to require recycling for multi-family properties in Austin with at least 10 units, but as of this fall it goes into effect for properties with at least 5 units.
  • Also starting this fall, businesses over 15,000 sq. ft. will be required to divert organics material for composting, and over the next couple of years all food businesses will have to take part.
  • Austin is also hosting the 2016 Zero Waste Business Conference in June, which should both get some much-needed attention on the subject and present more ideas for improvement.

There are also some hopes to roll out curbside organics collection for more than the pilot group of residential customers, but I don’t think there’s any budget allocated yet for it.

Personally, my guess is that at least half (probably much more) of the big number above could be reduced by source reduction–that is, buying less stuff and using less packaging for the stuff that is bought. It’ll be an interesting read to see how reduction is handled in the report.

Paper Towels FTW!

Normally, I hate paper towels. I use cloth towels or rags in the kitchen. I keep a clean handkerchief with me at work to dry my hands after washing up. And I no longer make bacon or fried potatoes (for health reasons). Napkins and paper towels just fill up the trash or compost bucket too quickly.

But lately I’ve been washing my hands several times throughout the day and using a fresh paper towel to dry my hands each time. And it comes down to one of the few reasons that can make disposables worth the waste–health.

You see, since we moved into our new house, I’ve been occasionally going out back to pull some of the poison ivy. I’d wash my hands and arms once I got back inside and didn’t have any ill effects. Everything was working so well. I felt invincible!

Unfortunately, I must have gotten a bit overconfident. In this past week, what I at first thought were bug bites on my arm multiplied and spread after scratching them. And there are more of the little bite-like marks now across my arms and wrists, just begging me to scratch them. I even have some redness and itchiness on my abdomen and belly button. Overall, it’s not bad for me compared to horror stories I’ve heard about poison ivy, and I’m pretty sure some of the itchiness is psychosomatic. But it’s made its point, and I’ll be more careful in the future.

For this week, though, in case the urushiol oils are still around somewhere, I’ll be doing a bit of cleaning, rewashing clothes, and throwing out a paper towel every time I wash my hands.

Not New Thread

For a long time I’ve been dangerously low on thread (other than travel-sized pieces). My patchwork denim reupholstery project has been on hold for a couple of months now, and this weekend it was time to be more active in replenishing my supply.

I’ve had success with Craigslist for other things previously, so I scoured the site for any hope of people who wanted to part with excess spools of thread. Fortunately, there was a yard sale not too far away and the pictures included a bunch of yarn, so it was a good bet. And best of all, everything was free! Sure enough, I found a spool of thread but it was tiny. And, well, since everything was free I ended up grabbing a bunch of other stuff.

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Much restraint went into choosing only these free items

You may see some larger spools in this picture, but those are actually crochet thread and it may not be a good idea to try using them in the sewing machine. I also got some gold sequins and beads that were bundled up with the thread, a tablecloth, tv tray, salt shaker, grater, jar of paper clips, dishwashing liquid, pinking shears, kitchen spritzer (for oil), glass baby food jars, curtain rod holders, a drying rack, and a bunch of embroidery hoops. Good thing I’ve made my peace with not being a minimalist (although I sometimes still ooh and awe over pictures of minimalist homes).

For the next promising lead, someone was offering a set of extra sewing items for just $20. The ad was posted a week and a half ago, so I didn’t have my hopes up but it turned out to be a smashing success!

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So much thread!

Three huge spools of thread. They’re all polyester, but I’ve also made peace with the trade-off of plastic goods vs. buying new. Since everyone recommends having a pair of shears just for fabric, the heavy-duty pair that came with the set is really sweet. There’s a tracing wheel, which I would never have bought new for myself but will definitely use, zipper feet which may or may not fit my sewing machine, and a couple of different types of snaps.

The seller was an awesome woman who was interested in selling these to someone who would use them and kept the other items from the set which I didn’t need to share with someone else. Thanks, Savannah!

The Garden After 3 Months

It’s been a month since my last garden update, making it three months since we moved into this new home and started attempting to grow some food. It’s been storming a lot lately, so it’s great that the plants haven’t been damaged by the harsh weather. Plus with all the rain, I haven’t had to water much.

Lately I’ve also been reading articles and blog posts about people just starting their veggie garden now, and there’s always a brief moment where I think to myself “Wow, they must be crazy!” Living here in central Texas, the clock is already counting the days until the sun becomes insanely menacing and kills the garden for the summer. So without further ado, let’s get to business.

Squash Bed

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Yellow squash blooming

It was only about a month ago that I planted this found pallet with a bag of compost, yellow squash, and a couple of nasturtiums. There are plenty of leaves, I haven’t seen any insects yet, and I think that little guy at the bottom center of this picture may be the beginning of my first-ever homegrown squash.

Melon Bed

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Various melons and nasturtiums leafing out

I planted three varieties of melon in this bed–cantaloupe, canary melon, and watermelon–and expected them to be sprawling out of the bed more by now. But it’s okay, they may just be waiting for the warm weather that’s coming very soon.

You can see from this picture that my bright idea to use these hollow-frame doors for the garden beds turned out to be a rather poor idea. They’re not holding up to the weather as well as the plants are. Lesson learned: even with the best intentions upcycles sometimes quickly become downcycles.

Cucumber Bed

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Cucumber vines taking full advantage of the tomato cages
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An infant cucumber!
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Holey radish leaves

The cucumber plants look pretty healthy so far. They’re vining out everwhere and I’ve seen at least a couple of baby cucumbers. The radishes that were planted in the bed haven’t fared so well, but I didn’t expect much from them since they’re a cool season crop and were primarily here as a companion plant for the cucumbers. I did get to eat a few of the radish leaves before insects got to them, and the roots are pretty much non-existent.

Tomato Bed

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This is what happens when you grow tomatoes without support.
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Adolescent tomatoes

I’ve gradually been eating the onions from this bed. They’re not big-bulbed, but they’re still oniony and with plenty of greens. The tomato plants have been crowding them out anyway.

Speaking of tomatoes, I bet these two plants have a gazillion little tomatoes growing on them. I can’t bring myself to cut any of them off, so we’ll just have to wait and see if the plants have the strength to bring all of these babies to adulthood. I’m eager to try a truly fresh tomato for the first time.

The real star of the show in this bed, though, is the borage. I didn’t know what this was before this year, but it is beautiful. And surprisingly huge. The leaves are supposed to taste a bit like cucumber and they really do! A bit fuzzy, but you can either just deal with it or cook them so the fuzz texture goes away. I hear they’re also prolific self-seeders so there just might be even more borage in my future.

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Flowering borage
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Borage flower

Lemon Tree

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Meyer lemon at 1 year 6 months of age

My first Meyer lemon plant is still sprouting more leaves, so I think it’s going to make a come back. It’s still many, many years from fruiting though (if it ever does). Sadly, it looks like the other lemon plant didn’t make it. It maybe time to start a couple more, which means it’s lemonade time!

Front Yard

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Small transplanted Jalapeno and tomato plants with a couple of marigolds in between (and grass and weeds)
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Front bed in progress

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve started pulling some of the grass and weeds from the area by my house. My mom brought some rounded brick pavers she didn’t want anymore, which has blocked off a section of grass-free zone. I mulched lightly with some newspaper ads and planted some marigold and zinnia next to the couple of rosemary plants that I added almost immediately after moving in.

Digging up the beds a bit has unearthed tons of small stones, and I’ve already started on adding a row of these stones right next to the house, both for walking on and to keep bugs slightly further away from the structure.

Up front, I also transplanted a couple more tomato plants and a jalapeno plant. Not sure yet how well these will grow since they’re on the north side of the house, but any greenery up front will add to the curb appeal.

Coming Soon

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Lonely bell pepper infant

I have a large hollow brick so this weekend this little guy can go outside and be amongst friends. If there’s one thing I’ve learned gardening, it’s that plants hate being pampered and are most likely to thrive if you let them do their own thing. Maybe I’ll get better at gardening eventually, but why worry if they do just as well on their own.

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Rosemary babies

I’d read online that rosemary is very reluctant to start from seed, so I wasn’t expecting much. But they must have liked some of the warm weather we had when they were planted because these sprouted right up. Then again… we’ll see how long they survive.

Well, that’s it. There are so many other foods I wanted to plant, but I’m still a novice and shouldn’t get too far ahead of myself. As the storms ease up, I’ll need to be extra vigilant about insects who want my delicious veggies for themselves. No way, insects! They’re all mine!

A Car-Free Adventure

On a journey yesterday to pick up a Freecycle find, I relied on Google maps to check for a good walking path from the nearest bus stop. In addition to the house not being located close to public transit, the streets were curved in such a way that I’d have to walk in a big “U” to get there. Fortunately, Google showed another option–a trail path that would provide a more direct trip and save me 10-15 minutes (44 minutes total walking one-way).

Let me take a moment to say that I’m not crazy to make this trip, although I recently took a personality evaluation for work which mentioned that I get more satisfaction from doing things the hard way. There were lots of pros in favor of this little trip:

  • I was in the middle of a book (Fight Club) which I could use the extra time on the bus to finish up.
  • Walking is one of my primary forms of exercise, and I could use more of it.
  • This would give me an excuse to explore a new park & trail area.
  • The Freecycle find!

Anyhow, I got to the school that the trail was behind and pretty quickly found this.

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Whoa! That’s a steep drop. Not the trail. I found the path just a bit further down. But the trail split up into multiple paths not on my map. Which to take? I guess I chose incorrectly because next I had to climb my way down this.

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I walked down many trails, turning back each time when the path kind of petered out. These trails must not have been used much because I ended up picking up a stick and waving it in front of me continuously to keep the spiderwebs from sticking to me.

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Many would-be dead ends tried to stop me.

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But I didn’t take no for an answer…. At least for a while. Eventually I gave up on finding the trail and turned around to make sure I’d still get home in time to make a Mother’s Day lunch for my mom. Those 50 minutes in the woods were fun, but they didn’t bring me at all closer to my ultimate goal of finding Freecycle treasure.

Back at the main street, all was good for a while until I saw this in the distance.

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That road leading up towards the right was the one I would need to take. My legs were certainly going to get a good workout today. Fortunately, I made it to the top, completed the “U”, found my treasure. And instead of using any common sense, I decided to go back via the trail hoping that it made more sense from the opposite direction.

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Started off nice.

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There were no alternate paths for a while. Just one clearly defined trail. And it wasn’t even full of spiderwebs! 🙂

But then there were some smaller turn-offs and I wasn’t really sure. Should I keep going down this path? Should I try turning? Because of my time limits today, I wasn’t taking any chances. I got out my phone and turned on location services for the first time since I got it a few years ago. It showed me exactly where I was and lead me right to this creek crossing.

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I turned up my pants hems and let the water rushing over the crossing seep into my shoes, relieved that the most difficult part of finding my way back was complete. The real path back even took me by this mosquito pond, which made it obvious that the first time I just didn’t go far enough in this direction. There must have been a way.

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Impatient and foolish, I turned off the main path once again as soon as I saw the school nearby. I climbed steeper rocks to get there and was prickled by some low cactus in a section of high grass. But from there, it was home free. I had my bounty of a medicine cabinet for my bathroom.

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And by going through the woods, I also found this skateboard. If I figure out how to keep the wheels from sticking, it will find much use.

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So all-in-all the day was a success. I got home, washed up, and made a nice lunch for my mom. I had gotten plenty of exercise, lovely greenery views, amazingly didn’t get bitten by mosquitoes, and found some treasures. Really, does it get better than that?

Good Reads

It always inspires me to see so many people out there who are either trying out new changes for a more sustainable lifestyle or who are sharing knowledge that they’ve acquired over years of mindfulness. Here are just a few of my favorite blog entries from the past week in case any of these inspire you also.

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Over at Pioneering the Simple Life, a broken plastic wheelbarrow was restored to working condition with wire stitches.

Ania has taken inspiration from a hamster in small steps to improve her quality of life and help the environment.

Mhloe has completed her second month of zero waste and confirms what I suspected was true in that you never need to buy a new pen again. (I find pens on the ground so often that buying a reusable one is out of the question.)

Dani shares her experience making a drop-off at the landfill and how she hopes to never have to do that again.

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Sky is swapping out single-use tissues and single-use grocery bags.

Peggy describes some of the reasons why it makes sense for everyone to cut back a bit on the meat and dairy and why she’s vegan.

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Nikki salvaged some delicious produce by dumpster diving.

And although Earth day is now past, it’s never too late to take advice from this Earth Day tip offered by Katy from the Non-Consumer Advocate.