By Squamish resident Erica Kuepfer
The Big Idea
My husband and I have a tradition for this time of year: we plan vacations with our kids who are two and five and consider what we want to achieve in the coming year. It is a time of ideas flying in all directions. A time filled with possibility.
This year’s big idea started with the desire to swap our garbage tote for a smaller size. It really got going, though, after watching a documentary about people who live off-grid. These people were so intimate with the resources they consumed. They had to account for and take responsibility for everything going in and out – power, water, and waste. They understood scarcity and limits. Despite of this (or because of it), they were also confident, resourceful, capable, and content. It was inspiring.
The idea seemed to come out of nowhere: maybe we could get rid of our garbage tote altogether. At the very least, we could try.
I consider us to be a pretty typical family. We care about the environment and do our best to consume consciously and sustainably. We recycle. We have a backyard compost and a small veggie garden. We try to buy organic. We usually consider our purchases carefully. We also drive two cars and rarely bike to get anywhere. I have a habit of leaving all the lights on when I go out. And if I’m honest about recycling, I don’t know exactly what belongs in the bin and what doesn’t and haven’t really bothered to find out.
I dove right in to the task of eliminating our garbage and reducing our recycling. It became clear almost immediately that to stop trash from going into our bins, we first needed to stop trash from coming into our house.
Adventures in Grocery Shopping
I started with food products – a huge waste producer – by going on an investigative grocery shop. Shopping mostly as usual, I did my best to make choices with less packaging while taking note of which products cannot easily be swapped, or which ones could be swapped with a little more planning.
The next week I tried to plan meals without packaging. There was a dip in my enthusiasm at this point when I realized the extent of the packaging used in the recipes I usually cook. So instead, I eliminated the most offensive meals and focussed on those with minimal packaging that I could recycle.
I also continued my investigation by visiting all of the local grocery stores and kept discovering new ways to eliminate packaging. This is what I learned:
Produce is an easy switch
Most items or close substitutes are available with only minor packaging (twist ties, elastics, stickers, etc.). The spinach I bought in a bunch instead of a giant plastic box was actually fresher and stayed that way longer. I bring my own reusable bags to group like items, or don’t bother with them at all.
Unfortunately, low packaging often means choosing conventional over organic. I hope that the Farmer’s Market has a better selection of unpackaged organic produce when it starts again. In the meantime, I plan to check out Nutrient Dense Farms’ weekly stand in Brackendale to see what they have on offer.
A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share with a local producer like Nutrient Dense Farms or Artisan Farm is another possibility during the growing season. A weekly produce assortment is typically delivered in a returnable tote. For some, growing veggies is an option and can result in a marked decrease in produce purchased even with a small plot. The Squamish Seed Library at the Squamish Library is a great spot for seeds when only a few are needed.
We also forage for food when the time is right. Picking directly from a tree, bush, or plant in a neighbour’s yard or in the wild is a simple way to avoid packaging. It’s important to be able to correctly identify food plants, harvest sustainably, and to remember that foraging is not allowed in most BC Parks.
Many basic dry goods are an easy switch, too
The bulk section is not just nuts and dry beans! Save On Foods has a wide variety of items from pasta, spices, and soup mixes; to baking ingredients; to snack foods, candy, and chocolate. Nesters also recently expanded their bulk section. Many baked goods are also available in bulk at grocery stores and local bakeries often sell naked bread. Reusable produce bags are handy again here and I bring a notepad to write down the bin numbers to tell the cashier.
There are also local buying groups (or create your own!) that organize direct purchases from bulk suppliers if you have the storage space and the stomach to eat through large quantities of some items. The Squamish Waldorf School places a bulk order a few times a year with Jiva Organics. Bulk bags can also be split with others to reduce packaging. Just make sure the quantity is not so large that it ends up as another item for the trash.
Meat and deli items can also go in BYO containers
Meat has been a challenge. We try to buy humane and/or organic meat, which, at a first glance, seems to be impossible to get locally without unrecyclable packaging. Buying directly from a local producer doesn’t help as they are bound by restrictive legal requirements when processing. I will be continuing to investigate this one to try to find a solution.
In the meantime, grocers that pack their own meat will set some aside to go in your own container if you call ahead. I have also tried taking whatever they happen to be packing at the moment. This second option works best at Nesters, where they also sell unpackaged sustainably caught seafood.
Many people trying to achieve zero waste simply eliminate meat from their diet. Simple is relative, though, and cutting meat from the menu is not an option for us right now. We will be reducing our meat consumption and doing our best to limit packaging for the purchases we do make, which has environmental benefits beyond zero waste.
I had high hopes for cheese as the deli workers at Save On Foods and the Independent Grocer were both happy to cut pieces off a large block for me to put into my own container. My dreams were shattered, though, as I watched them remove a large piece of cling wrap from the block to cut my order, presumably rewrapping what was left afterwards. The best solution I can see here is to buy a whole block and share it with your friends.
The picture is better for other deli items such as lunch meats. When I presented my mason jars to the woman at the deli at Nesters she said “Tell your friends to bring their jars, too!” Every other deli I approached was similarly accommodating. I was especially ecstatic to find an olive and pickle bar at the Independent Grocer and the Green Olive Market downtown on Cleveland.
Many packages can be refilled
We are so lucky here in Squamish to have lots of options for refilling containers! In addition to milk in bottles at the grocery store, there are Lucas Teas; eggs from Stony Mountain Farm; growlers of beer from Backcountry Brewing or A-Frame Brewing; Spark Kombucha and Squamish Water Kefir on tap at Nesters; and Be Clean Naturally for cleaning, personal care products, and more. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I am excited to discover what else is available.
One bonus with refilling is it often means buying local. Buying directly from a local producer allows you to ask questions about how materials used to make the product are packaged as well as their production process in general. They also tend to be very interested in talking about how they can accommodate their customers and the challenges faced in reducing waste.
When I visit Vancouver, I will also be stopping in at The Soap Dispensary on Main Street and Nada Grocery, a full service zero waste grocery store opening soon at Broadway and Fraser, for other liquid food refills such as oils, vinegar, and sauces.
Can’t find it without a package? Make it yourself!
There are many items that are next to impossible to find without packaging. Put on your “Waste Goggles” next time you walk through the centre aisles in the grocery store. You will likely be shocked to see the extent of the packaging. This doesn’t mean you have to go without.
In the past few weeks I have found a whole pile of foods are easy to make yourself. Bread, butter, yogurt, granola, hummus, nut / seed butters, mustard and other condiments, stock / broth, crackers, tortillas, bread crumbs, and sprouts, to name a few. When produce is plentiful, I plan to make apple sauce, frozen berries, jam, salsa, tomato paste, and dried tomatoes. Then there is the world of homemade cleaning products (so cheap and easy!) and personal care items.
“But the time!” you say. True, true, these things take time, but the satisfaction of becoming more self-reliant, as well as the taste of homemade food, and the often significant cost savings are big benefits to consider. Some of the things listed above take less than fifteen minutes to make.
I also include my kids in food preparation. When I told my daughters we were going to make butter, my eldest said, “You can make butter?” Sharing the experience of making our own food has been a fantastic bonding opportunity and an invaluable life lesson – for me as well as them.
In addition to food, there are a whole pile of single use throw away items in the typical kitchen. Various plastic bags, paper towels and napkins, muffin cups – the list goes on. When I took a close look, I started to realize that I was literally living in a pile of garbage. I had and an entire drawer devoted to throw away plastic zipper bags, cling wrap, and straws, with another collection of single use party cups, plates, and cutlery squirrelled away in the basement. All of these items can be eliminated or replaced with reusable options.
These past couple of weeks have been an eye opener. I learned that packaging is much more ubiquitous than I imagined and that a huge pile of it is not recyclable. I also learned that organic food isn’t necessarily sustainable food. Neither is package free if it is not produced and shipped sustainably or if you make special trips in your car across town or further to get it.
Although I have been focussed on packaging, when you consider all of the raw materials, energy, water, and other resources that go into creating, shipping, and landfilling or recycling each product, the tally of waste is staggering. Efforts to eliminate end user packaging are only a start, but by starting, I have gained a better understanding of the bigger issues and have begun to see possibilities for change. One idea is to talk to food suppliers about how they can help customers avoid packaging and how they can reduce their waste behind the scenes.
There have been multiple surprise benefits as well. I have gotten to know all sorts of new people in the community as I connect with the people who are providing my food. Every one of them has been engaging and helpful. I have seen an immediate impact in my garbage and recycling bins with a large reduction in just a week, just by changing my purchasing habits. My grocery bill has dropped dramatically. And maybe the biggest surprise is how peaceful and calm my kitchen is becoming as I get rid of the visual clutter of disposable packaging covered in logos.
It is a fun challenge to see how I can come up with creative new ways to do more with less and I am feeling more empowered as I take charge of the waste I produce and the food I make for my family. We are eating better than ever with a smaller assortment of simpler ingredients. I know that my kids are watching and I am modelling positive behaviours about food, responsibility, and gratitude.
The deeper we go into zero waste, the more I realize there is to learn. That is what it is all about for us, though. It is not about attaining perfection, but becoming more conscious about what we consume and how we dispose of our waste.
I hope you will join me and share the wins and challenges of your journey to reduce waste with me. As part of this project, I am working on a detailed map of local businesses that will support your zero waste efforts. Follow along on the Squamish CAN Facebook page, or on the blog section of the Squamish CAN website.
References & Additional Info:
Off Grid Documentary (available for free through the Library on Indieflix):
District of Squamish Waste Statistics and Zero Waste tips:
Carney’s Recycling Best Practices and what goes where:
The Squamish Library has a selection of books about reducing waste in the home. My two favourites are:
Johnson, Bea. Zero Waste Home. New York: Scribner, 2013.
Korst, Amy. The Zero Waste Lifestyle. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2012.