Circling the Mall

I had to take my car in for major repairs last week. This required driving my husband from the mechanic to his job, and then killing time all day until I could go pick him up. We didn’t know for several hours that the repairs were as extensive as they turned out to be, or I could have wound up somewhere besides an anonymous strip mall. As it was, I found myself needing to recreationally shop. The very largest of big-box stores were open before 9AM; nothing else was.

As I meandered the aisles of Big Box Store That Shall Remain Nameless, I was increasingly depressed. I didn’t need anything. I didn’t even want anything. Everything that I looked at on the shelf basically jumped up and down proclaiming itself to be junk. And not only junk, but junk made at high human and environmental cost. In the end, I bought a new LED lightbulb to replace our lone holdout incandescent and a tube of Arnica gel. I don’t know how much I needed either of those things, but it was just weird.

Afterwards, I sat in my car, drinking the coffee I’d brought from home. It was a delicate math–“How long can I sit here before parking lot security comes to get me?” When I felt like I was pushing the envelope, I went down to the next store. It turns out, there’s nowhere to sit in the suburbs.

Two days later I found myself at that glorious American Mecca, the Indoor Shopping Mall. It was Saturday, and we’d gotten delayed until the place was packed. We bought two things that could just as easily have been purchased online–a computer cable and a dress shirt for my husband–but the shirt needed to be tried on and it seemed silly to ship things that I could buy after a ten minute drive.

There was an element of pointless torture in all of this. At the same time, though, I think it’s valuable to not completely displace oneself from consumer culture. I could have ordered my lightbulb and my arnica gel and my computer cable from Amazon.com, and they would have been here in two days. I wouldn’t have needed to brave the horror that is a busy Apple store on a Saturday. It’s kidding yourself, though, to say that by purchasing things online you aren’t participating in the Saturday mall crush or helping to build that strip of suburban big-box stores. It’s just a secondary distancing from the uncomfortable parts.

I would never dare to suggest that you go to the mall regularly. After all, the danger of recreational shopping is that you buy things you don’t need, and one does value sanity. But, I think it’s a worthwhile insight to drop in from time to time.

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And the other question:

The other thing that we should be asking ourselves, as people who are easily outraged by deforestation/extinction/the virtual enslavement of developing nations/the oppression of the poor in our own country:

How am I complicit in that? 

Because we are.

The Question That Haunts Me

It isn’t a big thing. There are big questions, of course, and small ones. But mostly, this one:

Why do we (I) often let ourselves (myself) live so far from our own values?

I know a family who considers themselves to be devout Christians. Church three times a week, homeschooling, all that. And the Dad drives a Mercedes Benz sports car. I want to jump up and down and scream–what do they even preach in your church?

But I don’t, because I do the same things. I justify my consumer excesses because, compared to a lot of women, they aren’t that bad. I haven’t bought a pair of shoes in a year. I never eat fast food. I rarely buy chocolate. I still buy, buy, buy, though, even while my ideologies lean toward the minimalist and the environmentally-conscious.

I’m not good at separating need from want about the small things. Do I need the fancy beeswax-infused alternative-plastic-wrap I ordered last week? How about the fourth kind of sunscreen I’ve tried this year? Stress-relieving bubble bath? A new blouse, because they were on sale and my nice clothes are getting old? That bottle of perfume that I’ve been eyeing for the last six months? A new tube of lipstick, in this season’s color?  The stuff I threw in with my hair product, to justify the price of shipping?

I think I need a new question for shopping. Need/want obviously doesn’t work well for me–I’m an over thinker; I can talk myself in and out of anything. How about Is this the way I want to live? 

Recycling

Today I took off an acre of recycling. Okay, maybe not quite that much.

We don’t have curbside, and the city closed the U-Sort recycling drop. Now you have to go during business hours or on Saturday to the (admittedly, very nice) city-run facility. We procrastinate about this until we literally have no where else to stick the junk mail.

Fortuitously, I remembered that my last trip was March 8, right before we went on vacation. Today is the 23rd of April, which makes it a few days over six weeks since we went.

At the very nice city-run facility, they expect you to presort everything. To make this easier, I get some of our groceries in paper bags. It’s not perfect, but we just do not have room to store six different kinds of recycling bins.

Today’s paper bag tally, for six weeks:

1–with just a small layer of clear glass. We keep and reuse a lot of our glass jars.
1–completely full of colored glass
3–filled with plastic, none of which was crushed, including several gallon and half-gallon milk containers. (Milk in glass does not exist here.)
1–halfway filled with aluminum cans
1–less than half filled with bimetal cans

There was also a lot of paper/cardboard, but because it was multiple partial bags I didn’t count it. Maybe five bags of broken-down boxes, magazines (most of which have not been renewed for this year), and junk mail.

It’s obviously the three filled with plastic that I’m the most interested in reducing before I go to the recycling facility again.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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.

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.