Ah: January. Everyone has long since busted out their puffy jackets—”long padding” as it is referred to here in Korea—and despite people in Muju telling me this is a very weird, snow-less winter, I am still perpetually cold.
January is also the time of year when everyone is focused on being their best selves. It is a little comical, considering you can decide in May or August to start changing your life; however, the less cyclical side of me can’t hate people for grasping at an excuse to improve themselves. I, too, like the proverbial clean slate of a new year, and I like to take the opportunity to reflect on where I’m at and set new goals. Among the typical health- and fitness-related goals I have set, I decided that in 2020 I wanted to incorporate specific goals focused on a comparatively newer interest of mine: living simply.
Living abroad has, in many ways, forced me to live with less. I moved first to Thailand for 6 months and then to Korea for a year, each time with only a (admittedly very full) backpack. My possessions are few and utilitarian in nature, with serious thought put into what I need versus what I want when it comes to buying. This lifestyle necessitates prioritizing experiences over things. I would not necessarily call myself a minimalist, but over time I have adopted many aspects of a minimalist mindset and applied them to how I live, both abroad and at home.
With that in mind, in recent months I have become more interested in the ways living simply—minimally—connects with living a sustainable, zero waste life and, even more specifically, the impacts that doing so has on the environment. Because I am a nerd, becoming more interested has meant reading… a lot: about ways to go zero waste; about the negative impacts of a consumerist lifestyle (both on the environment and our minds); about the benefits of living sustainably.
What all of my research has taught me is twofold: it is easy to get overwhelmed in this space, and I have a lot more to learn. One thing that was initially a source of confusion for me, and I think is the case for many others, is that on its face the concept of zero waste sounds wholly unattainable—and in today’s society, it is. That fact alone can be pretty discouraging, causing one to abandon any forward progress and just resume life as usual.
But the key thing to understand is that the idea of zero waste is not literally ZERO; it’s striving to live with less, to be content with what you have, and to make efforts to minimize the negative impacts of your lifestyle. When thinking about zero waste as a spectrum, rather than a binary, this lifestyle starts to seem more inviting. Understood in this way, zero waste sounds a lot like minimalism: being content with less. When done successfully, living zero waste or being a minimalist is not about reaching some ultimate extreme level—producing no waste and owning no possessions, respectively—but rather adopting mindsets and habits in a way that improves your life and the life of the planet.
Applying zero waste habits through a minimalist eye has the added benefit of keeping you focused on the point: living sustainably. Companies have picked up on zero waste trends, and market their products as ‘green’ and sustainable. Even if the claim is true, the most sustainable, zero waste, and minimalist thing you can do is make do with what you already have rather than buy more stuff.
Truth: a bamboo toothbrush is (mostly) compostable and therefore better for the environment than your plastic toothbrush. Lie: throwing out the perfectly functional plastic toothbrush you got at the dentist last week in favor of a new, eco-friendly bamboo brush means you are saving the planet. When it is time for a new toothbrush, consider bamboo. Until then: be content with what you have.
My 2020 Goal
Lengthy preface behind us, let me get back to my goal: in 2020 I am challenging myself to adopt one new zero waste lifestyle habit/change a month. My hope is that in taking it slowly, developing one habit in a way that is sustainable, rather than jumping in all at once (and then proceeding to give up), will culminate in a more holistic approach in reducing my impact on the environment.
I am also in a unique position considering that in the next twelve months I will: live in Korea; travel to Japan (other destinations TBD); and move home to Portland. Focusing each month on habits that I can continue to apply to my life regardless of where I live or am traveling to poses an added challenge.
Coupled with adopting new habits, I am challenging myself to share my goals, progress, and what I’m learning (through this blog, for one) in the hopes of starting a conversation and possibly even inspiring others to take a look at their own habits and the impacts they have. It is a little intimidating to share this personal journey, since I am (1) no expert, (2) still learning, and (3) changing every day, but I believe that part of the importance of taking small steps in encouraging others to take them with you. It’s simple math! Many people taking small steps is more impactful than one person achieving the fictional final level of zero waste. I have developed the opinion that this stuff does not have to be intimidating, and, in fact, it can be fun; additionally, we do not have to be doing things perfectly to make a difference.
With that, I invite you to join in: follow along on my journey; adopt a new habit or two to simplify your own life; take the initiative to learn a little more about your impact on the world, and adjust accordingly.
January: Food Waste
For me, January’s focus is going to be on minimizing my own personal production of food waste. This might not sound like it has anything to do with simple living, but stay with me. The world wastes a staggering one third of the food produced for consumption every year. Think about that for a second. While a lot is lost in production (another huge problem), in industrialized countries like the United States more than 40% of those losses happen at the retail and consumer level (like food spoilage and dumping leftovers).
By taking the time to buy and consume food intentionally, I am refocusing on an oft overlooked, incredible joy of life: food! For one: more frequent, small grocery trips buying only what I need results in purchasing more perishable, healthy, whole foods—less processing and less packaging, not to mention better variety and quality! A huge tenant of my simple living lifestyle is appreciation; focusing on reducing my production of food waste offers an opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation for the food available to me every day.
Let the year of simple living commence.
P.S. This month I will be reading American Wasteland by Johnathan Bloom to learn more about America’s food waste problem and what can be done about it. Below are a few other resources I would recommend if you are interested in adopting a more simple/sustainable/zero waste lifestyle:
- The Year of Less by Cait Flanders, on confronting the desire to consume more and appreciating what you have;
- Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, for ideas on reducing the amount of waste you produce;
- Meet the Frugalwoods by Elizabeth Willard Thames, on how living simply can change your life;
- Give a Sh*t by Ashlee Piper, for a humorous, non-preachy guide to living consciously with both minimalism and sustainability in mind;
- Unwasted: The Podcast by Imperfect Foods, to get inspired by interviews with food personalities focused on making a positive impact.