Once again last week I got tied up in summer traffic and got home very late. The teenager was sick in bed and my husband was digging potatoes. I started picking squash and cucumbers, and putting the goats who were pegged around the yard inside their fence for the night.
It was getting dark and no one had started dinner, and there was still cheese to make. We ordered food from the Chinese restaurant in town, which is a little laughable. We had a house and garden full of vegetables, eggs and three kinds of our own goat cheese in the fridge, and here we were eating takeout from plastic containers.
Summer can be like that. People get too busy or go on vacation and suspend their normal habits — suddenly the travel mug stays home and the family is sipping single-serving drinks in the car or eating takeout with disposable plates and flatware at the outdoor concert.
There’s all that extra driving and more convenience buying.
I’m not willing to admit that summer is ending, but whether or not it is, this might be a good time to recommit to the basics of planet stewardship. One way to do that is to be more aware of how much we take, buy, use and throw out.
Do you really need it? Do you really have to throw it out, or can you use it one more time?
“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” the old adage says.
It might be basic, but here’s a summer toast to the four R’s: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle.
Don’t take what you don’t need — the extra bag, the plastic fork, the straw, the free samples, the handouts you have no intention of reading.
Ever gone to a workshop and come home with folders, printouts of PowerPoint presentations, pads, plastic sunglasses — and a bag to hold it all? Better to leave what you’ll never look at again on the presenters’ tables than have to throw it away at home.
The less stuff we buy, the less stuff we bring home, the less stuff there is to dispose of later on.
That doesn’t mean we need to do without the stuff we really need. But we’ll have a lot less garbage if we ask ourselves before every purchase (or every offer) if we really do need it, how long will it last and how will we dispose of it when we’re done with it.
And if we do need it, can we get it used? Can we share one with a neighbor?
Don’t take or buy more than you need.
Food waste can be reduced by rightsizing your shopping, your cooking, your serving size. And by correctly storing and using leftovers — freezing meal portions for later, repurposing leftovers into new meals — and then composting what’s left.
Try to choose items with the least amount of packaging, otherwise you’re just buying for the trash.
That means buying in bulk when you can, bringing your own bags or containers, and switching to bar shampoo and conditioner to skip the plastic bottle.
Be creative. The backs of school papers can be used for notes or message pads. We’re still playing Boggle on the backs of school worksheets more than a year after the last kid graduated high school.
Use your emptied jars for storage instead of buying storage containers. Cut up towels for wiping up spills instead of using paper towels. A colleague saved the plastic encased name tags he got at meetings and conferences for his family to hold their fishing licenses — they even had pins to attach them to clothing or strings to wear around your neck.
My sister bends old forks into wall hooks. My daughter braided old T-shirts into floor snakes to block cold air from coming into her apartment door.
And those plastic Chinese takeout containers? Great for cheese storage or leftovers and, after they get holes in them, starting seedlings.
We all know the market for recyclables is struggling at best, disappearing at worst. Turns out it’s not the magic trick to make all our trash disappear. So recycle, of course, but make sure everything you put in the recycling bin really is recyclable. And that it’s clean. And that you’ve tried first to reuse or find a new use for whatever it is.
It’s last on the list for a reason.
Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on Sept. 1. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.