Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Celebrating Imperfection: A Zero-Waste Journey

A waaahmbulance, whine, and french cries.

by guest blogger Alex Kosmider

I was a bit floored by Jana's invitation to write as a guest blogger about my experiences with zero waste.  So thanks for the opportunity to share what I know.

Ain't she cute?
My mother’s influence has made aspects of Zero Waste a part of my life for as long as I can remember. She gardens, cans, sews, nags employers to implement recycling programs, and hands out reusable bags at the grocery store. She was president of the PTA at my elementary school and even painted a mural in our cafeteria of children holding hands around Planet Earth (I know--cutest thing ever, right?) She planted my favorite tree at the time (a willow) and organized a school-wide grounds improvement day. When I left the family nest, I already had a sense that nature, and coexisting within it, was important and needed to be protected. (Thanks for that, mom!)
However, my appreciation for considerately sharing our habitat with other species went hand-in-hand with a realization that we humans are seriously screwing with our natural resources. Two books really made me feel the sheer weight of the problem of waste: The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard and Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson. I had always viscerally cringed at single-use plastic and full plates of food thrown away back when I worked as a buffet server. When I moved to Japan, I observed that packaging was abundant yet kept tidily out of sight for the sake of a harmonious environment. I saw the adorable, ice cream truck-like Japanese trash compactors bring trash and recycling “away,” but I knew that “away” doesn’t exist: I mentally envisioned the truckloads dumping into the ground or (in the case of Japan,) lining up at incinerators to send up billows of toxic smoke. Since then, my interest in a zero-waste lifestyle has bordered on obsession. I feel empowered to take control of my own consumption at home. Thus the seeds of my environmental evangelism were planted.
With this knowledge, I try to live in a way that is as zero-waste as I can muster. My relationship with "stuff" is informed strongly by the principles Bea Johnson outlines in her book, which shares some simply-put advice on how to reduce the physical waste in your home  I add this mini-lecture only because this knowledge blew my mind a bit: she adds two more steps to the traditional model of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" that takes the reduction of waste to the next level.
Notice that the "new" concept of refusal is the first and largest part of the pyramid. Kind of a big shift in thinking, huh? Refusal to accept unnecessary packaging or to buy new things (within reason, of course) guides how I use, repair, and re-purpose the things I already own before I look to purchase anything else. And in a country where companies spend literally hundreds of billions of dollars trying to get you TO buy new things, refusal requires some skills that big businesses have spent the last couple of decades getting us to forget, like how to mend, repair, re-purpose, buy used or make do. And with two dogs and a toddler (with one on the way), there are pretty much endless opportunities around my home for repair and reuse. Here are some tricks I've picked up along the way, as well as some local Tucson resources for the tools and know-how.
My daughter atop Lily, her noble scissor-toothed steed, complete with repurposed bucket as battle helmet.
Mending: Lily is my wonderful, sweet, neurotic 70-pound lapdog with a nervous habit of scissor-chewing through fabrics. So I have a bit more experience with this than I ever wanted to have. However, I like that each mend you make gives you the potential to leave your creative mark on that item. Suddenly there is a story behind that article of clothing that the visible mend commemorates. Frankly, though, I derive the most satisfaction from the fact that mending my clothes helps me not to contribute to the problem of the 21 BILLION POUNDS of post-consumer textile waste that Americans produce annually. There are a few techniques I rely on extensively like patching and embroidery.
Aren't these jeans pretty? You don't have to turn your mangled denim jeans into a pond landscape, though. It'd be great to say I did that one myself; my repair jobs are much more mundane, like these shorts, masticated by my dog.
Mending art!
I affectionately refer to them as Frankenshorts, as the mend is clearly visible, since I had no matching thread available.  But don't they just scream, "Let me tell you the story of my shorts!?" Either way, they work just as well as other shorts to enable the important work of toddlers.
Like caring for teddy bears and watching out for “dun-doh!” (thunder!)

A pretty painless mend saved these pajamas, which don't look bad, if you ask me!
Practically unnoticeable, right? Just say, "yes."

Scared of needles or just don't want to deal with it? Iron-on patches often do the trick.  Admittedly I like the idea of not having to rely on an iron and adhesives, but the process can be quick and painless, and sometimes patches just look cool.
Iron-on patches are so hot right now.
I also found in repairing a sofa (also caused by dog chewing) a great stitch that sews up tears quite well.
If your piece has a hole rather than a tear, darning apparently works, but I have never hand-darned.  Instead, I have used a technique similar to that used in this video where a denim mender sews over the same area over and over in many directions until new fabric is created. I was able to prolong the life of my husband's favorite jeans using this method.  The jeans have since passed (may they rest in peace), but I will say that it gives one the satisfaction (I suspect) of a surgeon stitching up a gaping wound, minus the years of schooling and the terrible stress! Or you could just patch it.
I literally "heart" my pants
Don't feel confident enough to do it yourself? Search for a local tailor or seamstress. I have gotten a zipper repaired on a pair of favorite athletic skorts. Fifteen dollars and a lot of procrastination later, I have a functioning wardrobe staple again!
Speaking of procrastination, here is my "to mend" pile. Perhaps I should take my own advice and bring some of these items to a tailor. However, being quite stingy with my money, I am willing to let non-essential stuff sit in a pile until I find the time to repair it. Sustainable? Kind of...
“Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow. You let me pro-craaa-stiiii-naaate!” Pretty sure that’s how the song goes.
Unfortunately, sometimes the damage is not worth repairing and the clothing becomes raw fabric for any number of purposes. This is where I must tread the fine line between sensible storage and packrattery. Much smaller pieces become household rags. Goodwill also accepts rags and other fabric scraps to be recycled (so I trust, anyway) just bring a bag labeled "RAGS."
My Goodwill Rag Bag. Seriously, what's up with my dog?
Repair, non-clothing: This topic can be a bit tricky, and is a bit more out of my comfort zone than clothing-related maladies. Unfortunately, due to wasteful production practices such as planned obsolecence--where companies specifically make an item flimsy or easily breakable so consumers must buy another--many things we have in our homes are specifically designed to be difficult or impossible to repair, or not even worth the cost of repairing. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.
Frankly, the greatest extent of my own successful repairs involve Gorilla Glue and broken ceramics--hat tip to my friend, a potter, for this gold nugget of wisdom. I have to say that Gorilla Glue is fantastic at bonding ceramics together, so much so that they are watertight and therefore remain in everyday use. I have saved bowls, mugs, a salt shaker, some IKEA furniture that I apparently don't know how to assemble correctly, among other things.
Gorilla Glue is amazing.
I would love to start a repair cafe where volunteers can offer their fixing expertise. But I am excited to try the closest thing we have here in Tucson - Xerocraft. It is a workshop that offers classes on woodworking, sewing, laser cutting, welding, and other stuff that is helpful in repairing.
What other repair resources do you know of in Tucson?

Reuse: Here are some things that I've done to reuse--ideas that you could...ahem...reuse.

Bulky and Brush pickup days. (This could probably be a blog post all on its own.) Essentially there is always somewhere in Tucson where households put their Brush and Bulky trash out for collection. Yes, I’m talking dumpster diving, minus the dumpster. If you have a friend with a truck (or another appropriately-sized vehicle that you don't mind getting a little dirty), this is such a gold mine for large items that can be reused with a bit of creativity.

While some of the things that people throw away are genuinely toxic and probably shouldn't have existed in the first place, as Jim Carrey says as The Grinch, "One man's toxic sludge is another man's potpourri." My sentiments exactly. So the last time we had this pickup in our neighborhood, I scored some tires, wood, and stumps for my toddler to play with in our backyard.
Wood boards and a few tires make a fun natural-ish play area for the toddler.

I worked up the guts to ask the homeowner if they would help me load these freshly-cut Palo Verde stumps from her Brush and Bulky pile, as the heavier ones easily exceeded 100 pounds.
This is my bag, baby.
Mesh produce bags. While I try to use my homemade produce/bulk bags whenever possible for groceries, I occasionally succumb to the pull of non-local mandarin oranges that come in plastic mesh bags, which I prefer to a plastic produce bag because many are quite durable and can be made into reusable mesh produce bags  Cool, right? Of course, it does require some knowledge of crochet, but it's easy enough to learn.
"Make do": I have yet to determine what exactly makes certain objects such coveted targets for my dogs, but many things in my home have been diminished to a still-useful-but-not-pretty state via mastication. If the object is still usable, why not continue to use it?
See this half-pen? The important half is still intact, so a quick snip with the scissors prolonged its life. Of course, in an ideal world I would own a refillable fountain pen, but I would hate for my pets to ruin that investment.

And no one really sees these combs, so they remain in our rotation. Perhaps that is obvious, but a Zero-Waste lifestyle embraces this kind of imperfection. A few missing teeth is just a sign that you stand for something, right?
We'll call her nubs.

These suggestions are in no way exhaustive. In fact, they are just the beginning! I am several years into my journey, and frankly I still have a long way to go. But I'm glad to see the desire to mend, repair and reuse (rather than buying new) getting a 21st-century makeover, thanks to people like you who made it all the way through this post!
If you are interested in discussing more ways you can reduce your contribution to the landfill, please, visit my Facebook group, Zero Waste Tucson. We welcome your ideas, questions, and discussion related to reducing packaging, food, and water waste.

Feel free to reuse this post!


  1. Alex,It is a very good article so easy to follow. You caught my attention. Congrat.

  2. Great job, Alex. And with a toddler no less! You are an inspiration!

  3. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.