Along with social justice, I think environmentalism is a critical part of tikkun olam and that is why this Tu B’Shevat I want to introduce you to Zero Waste.
Last year my employer hosted a talk for its employees on the Zero Waste Home. The speaker was Bea Johnson from the blog Zero Waste Home, who is credited with starting the Zero Waste Lifestyle with her successful book, blog, and speaking engagements. The gist of the Zero Waste Movement is to create as little waste as possible and waste means the stuff you can’t recycle or compost. The black bin garbage kind of waste. The stuff that gets taken into landfills.
This talk made quite an impression on me and has increased my awareness of the waste I have accepted into my life. That’s right…waste isn’t necessarily something you create, it is something you allow into your life. Primarily, waste is generated by packaging. I highly invite you to explore Bea’s site where she has tons of tips, but I will summarize the key points and expand on the challenges for the Jewish Home. First is understanding Bea’s 5 Rs which are essential to eliminating waste:
Refuse what you do not need
Reduce what you do need
Reuse what you consume
Recycle what you cannot Refuse, Reduce or Reuse
Rot (Compost) the rest.
…in this order!
The most important R is Refuse and if you can start refusing more, you are pretty much 80% there. Because packaging is the main culprit to waste, this involves refusing to buy products which are packaged. So that means buying in bulk and transporting and storing in your own shissels. But it also means refusing the waste that is passively coming into your home, like junk mail and unwanted gifts. Here are the critical areas to Jewish Life that can be looked at through a Zero Waste lens:
When having a party for one of the many chags on the Jewish calendar, it is tempting to break out the plastic plates, cups, and cutlery but this is a huge waste generator that isn’t that much more convenient than using permanent items. Even if you think you will recycle the plastic, you know what happens…guests toss away things themselves and items are so soiled and disgusting you are hardly likely to dig it out of the trash and clean it in order to recycle it.
What I do is host all parties with regular glassware, cloth napkins, and dinnerware. It might mean a few more cycles of the dishwasher and doing more handwashing, but it saves at least a black bin of garbage, or maybe even two depending on the size of the party. My husband and I have party clean-up down to a science now. Even after 15 or more guests, we can typically turn the house back around to normal in an hour. And the real stuff makes your party look much, much nicer too.
Purim and Hanukkah are the hardest on the Jewish calendar in terms of waste generation. This Purim my mishloach manot will be entirely recyclable or compostable and I’m excited to share that with you later on. Some people avoid physical mishloach manot and do donations instead although whether that adheres to halalcha is debated.
Gift packaging and wrapping are big culprits at Hanukkah so reducing a gifting tradition can be the most effective solution to reducing waste. At the very least, making sure wrapping and packaging, including ribbons and bows, are recyclable or compostable is also forward progress. Fortunately, the tin foil in Hanukkah gelt IS recyclable!
30% of all waste in the U.S. is generated by food packaging. Bea stresses that the best way to eliminate this type of waste is buying in bulk and transporting and storing your food in reusable containers and bags. For example, buying bread from a baker and putting it in a cloth bag, getting the butcher to put your meat directly in a glass jar, etc. Bea goes into a lot of detail on the containers that work for her. Fortunately for the Jewish home, many kosher markets don’t package their vegetables in styrofoam and plastic like many of the main street supermarkets. As for bulk foods (cereals, grains, etc.) you just have to search around for your best source. The kosher markets near me don’t have much in bulk but supermarkets do. The good news is that the labels on the bulk containers will explicitly state the kosher certification, even in a major supermarket.
If you are doing the gift giving, consider consumable gifts with little packaging. Many of my recommended Kosher Hostess Gifts for the Jewish Home can be procured with minimal or only recyclable packaging. You can also choose to decline bringing a gift and instead informing your hostess about your new found interest in Zero Waste. It’s not like anyone hosts a party in order to get a gift, so it won’t be missed. If you are on the receiving end, Bea recommends informing all guests about your Zero Waste policy. I am certainly going to be trying this more often as my request to “not bring anything” is usually ignored by guests. I think they just think I’m being modest or something.
I know since becoming aware of zero waste I’ve had to take a hard look at the way my family lives and how I produce and package Chai & Home products. Although I certainly have a long way to go, awareness has certainly helped. I hope you go to Bea’s site, The Zero Waste Home and especially the Tips section to learn more about waste and consider how you can Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot for Tu B’Shevat and beyond.
Green house, cups, bread, and flowers photos from Unsplash; Die gelt cropped from the original by John Lodder (CC BY 2.0)