A Live Below the Line Follow Up: Let’s Talk Waste

il_570xN.448429408_rh29“I will definitely not participate again next year.” Each year this phrase flies from my mouth within the final days of my Live Below the Line challenge. Fatigue and hunger have a way of dampening my exuberant enthusiasm for changing the world and I assure myself that this is the last time I go five days with limited choice and calories. This year was no exception. However, in the 2 months since the challenge has ended I’ve realized that Live Below the Line has value that stretches beyond those 5 days. Of course, Live Below the Line is valuable to the various charities who raise funds to continue their poverty ending work. Canadian participants of the challenge raised nearly $150,000 that will go towards ending extreme poverty. And in turn, this is hugely valuable to the international community and to those people who are working hard to lift themselves out of poverty.

But I’ve also realized that this challenge impacts me in deeply personal ways. Every time I Live Below the Line I’m encouraged by the show of support from family and friends. I’m always a little surprised that so many people care so deeply about this issue. And this reminds me that I am making a difference and that my actions not only impact people on the other side of the world, but also impact those closest to me. And with that comes the challenge to do more.

If I’m perfectly honest I can become somewhat lackadaisical in my actions towards ending extreme poverty. Living Below the Line serves as an annual reminder to redouble my efforts and take stock of my current habits. Live Below the Line is kind of like New Year’s Day as I look back to see the positive changes I’ve made, but also resolve to do better moving forward.

This year the challenge made me more aware of how much food we throw away. Since moving to Calgary our schedules are less consistent. Even though we usually go to the grocery store every couple of days, which in theory should cut back on waste, I still find that we end up throwing away items that have been forgotten about at the back of the fridge. Often I plan to eat the leftovers from last night’s dinner, but am called away to work at the last minute and either forget about them or know I’ll have no time to heat them up so I leave them in the fridge only to throw them away the following week.

And I’m not alone. A 2012 study revealed that Canadians waste roughly $27 billion worth of food every year. You might think that this comes largely from the strict food rules that restaurants and supermarkets must adhere to, but think again. Just over half of that food waste comes from Canadian homes when people like myself throw their leftovers and rotting produce in the garbage and compost. This staggering waste puts pressure on food producers world wide, but it also poses a risk to the environment as rotting food in landfills significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

I’ve decided to take 3 steps to decrease the amount of food we throw away and the amount of waste we produce.

1) We’re aiming to become more mindful of what we purchase and when we will eat it. For us that will require planning ahead a bit better than we have been and may even mean pre-planning our meals for the work week. Although common wisdom says more trips to the grocery store will equal less waste, I think we may try less trips and work with what we’ve got. By planning ahead we can take a realistic look at when we’ll actually eat those leftovers. Buying adequate freezer containers will also help us to waste less as we can pop things in the freezer for those times when life moves more quickly than our planning and we’re unable to eat as planned.

2) Growing our own garden. One of the perks of living in a home with even the tiniest backyard is the ability to grow our own produce. One of the most frequently thrown away items in our house is lettuce and spinach. We decided to grow our own greens to cut back on our waste and packaging. We’ve planted a variety of foods with varying germination periods so that we receive the instant gratification from our efforts with foods like lettuce and berries, but also enjoy the fruits of our labour well into the winter months with potatoes and beets. Our garden is small, but in this small way we’re doing our part to decrease the pressure on the world food system.

3) Composting. Compost is certainly not a substitute for simply not throwing away our food and only purchasing what we will actually eat and use. However, there are times when we produce food waste that cannot be easily used, such as banana and avocado peels. In this case we thought it would be fantastic to compost. Not only is it better for the environment, but it will provide us with nutrient dense soil to use in our garden and plants around the house. In our small and temporary home we decided it would be best to compost in a small container using worms. We ordered a half pound of red wigglers from Green Calgary and they now live happily in a small container in our garage slowly but surely working their way through our waste.

My commitment to decreasing the amount of food we throw away was strengthened by this video from Sustainable Table.

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Will Your Holidays Have Value?

I was at Walmart last weekend. Normally, I stay away from Walmart, but my parents were visiting the big city and needed to pick up a few things. So I was at Walmart, wheeling the big blue cart through the cluttered aisles of cheaply priced and cheaply made products on a Sunday afternoon with my parents, my husband, and a lot of other people. Everyone was pulling those cheaply priced and cheaply made products off the shelves. Some people heaped those products in their carts. Most people seemed frantic to check off their Christmas list before the end of November.

I don’t remember exactly when the overwhelming feeling of sadness washed over me. But I felt sad as we snaked our way through the clothing section with rows and rows of monotonous clothes. I saw a rack of purple and pink dresses all cut in the same style. Having done my fair share of bargain shopping I guessed that the cut of those dresses was likely not very flattering and the stitching was likely not very sturdy. I wondered how long those dresses would last before they ended up in the bin or in a bag headed for Value Village.

I also thought about the people who made those clothes. In my mind I watched as a woman of Asian ethnicity hunched over a sewing machine with her hands moving dextrously. This woman was either starting or finishing a 10-12 hour day and, despite that amount of time, wouldn’t earn enough to comfortably feed her family. The clothing she and countless others stitch everyday is valued more than the labour and lives of those who stitch them and that’s not saying very much.

I felt sad when we wheeled through the holiday section. Garish gift bags hung in long rows, huge bags big enough to fit two small children inside. Boxes of cheaply made decorations in bright colours lined the aisles. I knew that in just over a month most of these bright colours would be shoved into a black garbage bag. I longed to see something of quality, something worth holding onto. A hand painted wooden ornament. Or reusable cloth wrapping ‘paper’ in place of those gift bags.

I felt sad as we waited in the long line at the checkout. So many people out shopping on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Everyone looked miserable. One woman kept bringing out one of those oversized gift bags at a time and holding it up to show her aging mother. Her mother looked so weary, sitting on her walker, and responding to her daughter quietly, in a language I didn’t understand. I wondered if she really cared which elf design would greet the receiver of her holiday shopping.

I felt heavy with sadness. When, I wondered, did we all became so content with so much less? Over the past number of months I’ve started to ask myself when we became so disengaged from the objects and items that we surround ourselves with everyday. When did we stop caring about where our clothes come from and how well they are made? When did we stop caring or even knowing where our food comes from and how it is grown and processed? When did we stop paying attention to the things that make up the world around us? When did we start accepting the fact that the things we buy are hurting people around the world, the planet, and ourselves? When did we become okay with this? Seriously, when?

I almost started pleading with people. ‘Please don’t buy that throw. That throw is one of the same hundreds of other throws on the shelf, made by someone who likely didn’t get paid fairly for their work, and will likely wear out or rip far too soon after you’ve bought it. That throw has no value.’ Or ‘please don’t buy that box of chocolates. The cocoa for those chocolates was likely picked by slaves, some of whom might even be children. Is that the message you want to share this Christmas? I care about you so have some chocolate that was processed by children who missed out on weeks of school? Please pick the chocolates with the Fairtrade label instead. They will likely taste better, which increases the value for you, but also adds value to the wider world by helping those who grow and harvest cocoa in the developing world.’

I feel a deep longing to see more products on our shelves and more businesses that add value to the world. I’m so tired of this race to the bottom where companies look for the cheapest way to make their products and we look for the cheapest price point at which to buy them. I long to surround myself with things that are valuable. Food that is nutrient dense and free of pesticides. Products that will last a long time so that I do not need to keep buying more. Items that were made by people who earn a fair wage for their labour. I’ve reached my limit and my ability to understand why we are so content to fill our baskets, our homes, our planet, our lives, and eventually our landfills with things that have no value.