We like to think

that we’re somehow above advertising. Smart consumers, we are. We don’t buy things just because the TV tells us to.

And maybe we don’t. It seems like most of the ads on my TV, whenever I turn it on, are for things that I don’t purchase, or don’t purchase spontaneously. Car insurance. Baby diapers. Kid’s toys. Medications of various kinds. Cheap beer. Fast food. Department or chain stores that I try to avoid.

On the other hand, I was lazily scanning our fridge-door grocery list this morning as I poured coffee. My attention was really elsewhere. Until I spotted “Egg McMuffins” on the list. What? Nobody here eats ham. My double take proved that what it actually said was “E. muffins.” That being English muffins. Being skeptical of eggs from fast food places even when I was a young thing who still ate such means that I have never eaten an Egg McMuffin. I have, on the other hand, gone through a few English Muffin phases, even making them myself for a while.

Yet still, there in my subconscious, the advertisement for a food product that I have never eaten is what fills in the gaps.

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The Next Stage

Last January, we made a fairly thorough pass through the house, getting rid of surplus stuff. This year, we’re going through again. If I haven’t used it since last year, it’s going. Plus, I’m making the commitment to scan what seems like eight million personal papers and get rid of the originals. (With a CD backup stored with my computer less  in-laws, who have never misplaced anything, ever.) 

As I finish certain rooms, especially rooms like the kitchen and the bathroom, I’m realizing that we’re moving on to the next stage. 

I’m saying one of two things. Either: “I’m not getting rid of that until we actually downsize” or “I need to use this up and then don’t replace it.” The former is mostly about furniture and bulky kitchen items. Since we may not move to a smaller space for a few years, I don’t see any point in just rattling around in a half empty house. The latter is obviously about consumable goods–pajamas that aren’t quite rags, cleaning products (why do I own Pledge wipes?), an entire bag full of sample-sized beauty products, notebooks, etc. 

I suppose that “don’t replace it” is the maintenance stage of minimalism. (Not that I think we’re really minimalists.) It’s about refusing to bring new things in. I suspect that it’s much harder than pushing the old things out. I’m sentimental about very few of my belongings and find decluttering quite easy. It’s the perfect cycle of modern consumption, though–throw away the old thing, then, sooner or later, replace it with a new “better” thing. Bea Johnson of The Zero Waste Home calls “refusing” the most important of the Rs, and, given the reflexive habits of American consumers, I do suspect it’s also the hardest. We obviously don’t shop a great deal, but I mean things like turning down free samples, reconsidering how many clothes are really necessary, and not buying “quick fix” cleaning products. 

It’s definitely going to be interesting. 

Bulk

I’ve been reading a lot about Zero Waste these days. (Highly recommended: Edward Humes’ Garbology.) Every zero-waster worth their salt will tell you that buying in bulk is the answer. No more packaging! No waste! Reuse your own container!

It’s great; don’t get me wrong.

But, you have to think. 

The line in the sand that I see drawn a good deal between regular thrifty people and true believers in zero waste is liquids. Liquid products like soap, shampoo, and oils can be very hard to find in bulk. Going out of your way to get bulk soap is some kind of zero waste rite of passage.

I ran across this mythical beast in the wild the other day–the bulk soap dispenser. And it was a commercial gallon-sized, or maybe slightly larger, container of Dr. Bronners. How much waste does it save, exactly, to buy bulk soap from a two gallon bottle, instead of walking around the corner and buying the (readily accessible, no special trips required) one gallon version on the shelf?

Example two: I watched, with my own two eyes, the employees of my local Whole Foods filling the maple syrup dispenser. And what were they using? The half gallon of store-brand syrup in a plastic jug that I could buy off the shelf. Again, how much waste is being saved? How much of it is just being handled by someone else, passing the buck out of your house (and, I might add, your careful recycling)?

Especially if you live in an area where stores frown upon reusable containers, you need to think about the packaging it took to get something into the bulk dispenser and weigh your options. Driving two hours to pump my liquid soap and shampoo from a big plastic bottle into a little glass one, instead of just buying the big plastic bottle myself, is hardly saving the world.

Falling in Love with the Public Library

When I was a kid, I adored my small town library. It might have been a thousand square feet, and by the time I went to college I had read a significant portion of their books.

In graduate school I became an academic library snob. (I’ll confess now that I still can’t navigate the Dewey Decimal system with a quarter of my Library of Congress proficiency.) When I graduated and lost my access, I felt pretty bereft, but I was also going through a difficult phase with books.

Lately I’ve come back around to the public library, partly because my library has really awesome services. When we moved here, I went to my closest branch, where I had the same kind of disappointment I always have with public libraries–I tend to read off-the-beaten-path, and it just doesn’t make sense for the library to keep a lot of those books. I realized, though, that I can instantly download e-books, where the selection is pretty decent. I can place holds for those e-books if somebody else has the library’s copy. (I’m looking at you, person who won’t finish the Miss Marple book I’m waiting on.) I can download audio books and “borrow” electronic music. I can also, with one click, request books from the main branch, which is hard to get to in person, and the library will e-mail me when they arrive.

If you stopped going to your local library because they never have what you want, it may be time to start looking again.

As for me, I’m going to keep a running tally this year of books I got from the library instead of purchasing. At the end of the year, I’m going to add up the money I saved and donate a percentage to the library.