Pursuing Zero Waste

Lessons We Are Still Learning

I can hardly believe that January 2017 marks the beginning of our family’s fourth year of pursuing Zero Waste by living with less. Looking back over the previous three years I am proud of how far we have come, but I continue to encounter important lessons along the way.

Our approach to lessons/changes has always been to deal with them as they arise.   Any other way would simply be too overwhelming. For us, the learning curve was fast, with most of the lessons emerging in the first 18 months. During this time I looked to other Zero Wasters for insight, and I often benefited from their experience. Thankfully, I now understand that Zero Waste is very personal.  It has to be.  Each family has different needs, and each municipality, city, province or state has different climates, access to resources and support.  I have also realized that the “Zero Waste” name is an aspirational goal, an idealistic concept, that is more about progress than perfection.

It is not a religion. I repeat… it is not a religion.

I don’t think I’m a fanatic when it comes to Zero Waste, but this past Christmas taught me that I can be overly restrictive in how I go about things.  Instead of being mindful of my Christmas gift purchases, I was focused on finding something—anything!—suitable and getting my shopping done early.  In the end, my rushing conspired to teach me lessons about thoughtfulness and extravagance, two things that were not in the forefront of my thinking as I shopped.

A little background before I continue.  

Like many families, we exchange gifts.  But consistent with Zero Waste, we favour buying second-hand.  And in regard to our kids, we try to give experiences in place of “things.” We also do not wrap gifts in the traditional way; instead, we opt to use handmade gift sacks. Overall, we are trying to be mindful not to be excessive with decorations, activities, food, or the number of gifts we give. Adopting these changes has proven to be a blessing as it reduces stress, freeing up time and energy to focus on what is truly important during the holidays: the people in your life.  

BUT! My desire to get my shopping out of the way and my worry of not finding decent second-hand gifts led me to rush the process. Late November, early December, I was addicted to Kijiji and Varagesale looking for age-appropriate items that seemed trendy. By the end of the first week of December, my errands were complete; I was quite proud of myself as I felt I now had the rest of the month to relax and enjoy the festive season.

The first lesson, thoughtfulness, came as I was wandering a Christmas Market with a friend mid-December. Being overly focused on buying second-hand, shopping at the Christmas Market hadn’t occurred to me; yet it was the ideal venue to hunt for the perfect gift. I found myself disheartened that I had completed my shopping; anything I bought here would be superfluous. This really hit home when my friend spotted a sweet gift for her daughter. In a little store, we found handmade cloth mice, about four inches tall, adorned in individual outfits and accessories. Each mouse came with a unique mouse house made out of upcycled match and cigar boxes which were lovingly painted and filled with handmade pillows and blankets. THIS was the perfect gift for my daughter, a three-year-old filled with imagination. I could just picture her tucking her mouse into bed before I tucked her in. My need to buy second-hand caused me to rush, settling for a generic plastic toy. I missed the opportunity to buy an unpackaged, handmade toy that was not only beautiful but special.  

The second lesson, extravagance, came on Christmas morning. We decided to give the children physical gifts from Santa and an experience from us. The experience we settled on was an overnight stay at Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls. Now, we did feel that this gift was extravagant. Great Wolf Lodge is expensive. We justified it by telling ourselves, “It’s Christmas!” and,”We’re only living in Toronto for a year, so if not now, when?” and, “It’s an experience worth paying for.”  For anyone unfamiliar with Great Wolf Lodge, it’s a North American hotel chain that features a massive indoor water park, themed rooms, and a multitude of activities geared for children of all ages. After rave reviews from friends, we decided this would be a great experience to give.

About ten days before Christmas our kids were playing in our bedroom, and they found their stocking stuffers – DOH! My stockings, as a child consisted of chocolate and candies, any needed necessities such as socks, underwear, toothbrushes, a comic book or magazine and sometimes a small toy. Naturally, my children’s stockings are similar, filled with bulk chocolate, socks, new bamboo toothbrushes, and an unwrapped second-hand toy. For my son, I found a well worn-in baseball glove and for my daughter, two My Little Ponies in perfect condition. I wasn’t sure what to do with these gifts, as they were intended to be from Santa. After some thought, we decided to give the baseball glove and My Little Ponies from us as small gifts, in adition to Great Wolf Lodge. In all honesty, I was relieved that they were receiving something small from us as I was not sure they would understand that their “real” gift was coming at a later date.

I bet you know where this is headed, right?

Back to Christmas morning! As I am sure you have guessed, our kids were thrilled with the gifts from us, my daughter in particular. The My Little Ponies were one of her favorite gifts. We didn’t even get around to telling them about Great Wolf Lodge, and subsequently, we tried to cancel our reservation, which wasn’t possible. So instead we have postponed our stay to later this year, perhaps as a birthday gift. A pricey lesson to learn! The baseball glove and the My Little Ponies cost less than 12 dollars combined, but because I failed to recognize that they were enough we ended up spending close to 40 times that amount. Yup, you read that right!

In the future, I hope I remember to slow down and not panic when it comes to gift giving.  Second-hand is great, but so is a local handmade, package-free gift.  I also can work on something that I didn’t even realize was a problem.  I have been compensating for the fact that I give second-hand by giving more.  I haven’t fully grasped why, either.  No doubt, other lessons are awaiting my attention: such as my fear of my children facing judgment (not that they will, in reality) for our family’s lifestyle.  I need to give them the tools (thoughtfulness, in particular), instead of more stuff, to deal with those situations.

“May no gift be too small to give, nor too simple to receive, which is wrapped in thoughtfulness and tied with love.” L.O. Baird

Mice images: Mileg