The Consumerism Wake-Up Call


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I started seriously thinking about my carbon footprint in the summer of 2018. I was particularly concerned about my trash footprint, perhaps after my apartment complex implemented a comically unnecessary service called Trash Butler. This meant we received "free" black plastic garbage bins (seriously, they just dropped them off in front of our doors overnight) so that we could leave our trash out as often as nightly on weekdays. A service team would then whisk away our refuse at night and out of our sight. We would no longer have to walk to the dumpster, and could sink deeper in our ignorant bliss. They also charged us $25 a month for this service, but that's a whole 'nother rant.

My parents, immigrants from different countries, worked extremely hard to give my sisters and I every opportunity for an easy life. We had all the necessities and then some. I grew up on countless colorful commercials pushing sugar and flashy, plastic toys. I didn't always get what I wanted, but I had more than I needed. And so you can see how I, along with so many others in my generation, have fallen into the toxic routine of overexerting ourselves at work (oftentimes crawling uphill through the work week with bloody fingernails, or wading through a pool of tears) —then crashing hard and rewarding ourselves with material indulgences, like takeout and Amazon shopping sprees.

the trash has to come from somewhere

When I first began researching ways to reduce my waste, I felt extremely overwhelmed and anxiety-ridden. I had finally opened my eyes to the amount of trash I produced on a weekly basis. Josh and I weren't generating a bag a day, but we were generating a couple of full bags a week. I started to wonder where it came from. The existence of Trash Butler made me even more upset. Was it normal to produce that much trash?

I felt like I was standing at the bottom of a mountain. A mountain of trash. Luckily, Ann Arbor gets it. We have city-wide compost and lots of thrift stores. We even have a recycling center that processes styrofoam, plastics, motor oil, and more for a $3 entry fee per car. I recognize my privilege in that sense. I'm doing the best I can with the environment I'm in (ok, maybe a little less than my best). Your best efforts may look different. But the important thing is that we are all trying.

However big or small you start, you'll probably end up learning and growing a lot. You might feel like giving up when things don't go according to plan, or you realize you haven't been doing things in the most optimal way. Needless to say, after I found out about the recycling center, I started obsessively hoarding styrofoam and plastic bags to drop off. Right now as I type this, we have bags and bags of styrofoam sitting in our garage and basement. We might need more than one trip to take it over. At one point, I realized that all the insanity of scrubbing sauce-covered styrofoam clamshells and sorting plastic packaging could be mitigated if I simply avoided the behaviors that put me in possession of those things in the first place.

bringing mindfulness to consumerism

And that, my friends, was the wake-up call. Consumerism was at the root of this problem. I wouldn't have to spend so much effort on recycling and disposing of things responsibly if I simply didn't buy all this stuff in the first place. So, I'm working on that now and will likely be working on it for a while. It's especially hard for me because I've always loved to buy new things and try new hobbies. And it's even harder because we are bombarded with ads on social media and television. I still shop, except now I'm more mindful about everything I buy after doing a few no-spend months and some reflection. These are a few of the questions I ask myself before I purchase anything new for myself or my home:

  1. Do I have a place for it?
  2. What does the packaging look like, and how do I dispose of it?
  3. Will it get used?
  4. How will I dispose of it if it breaks?
  5. Where will I donate this if I don't want it anymore?
  6. Also these days: where was it sourced? But that's a conversation for another post.

I try to apply some or all of those questions whenever I buy anything. If I'm ordering takeout for dinner, I might ask myself what sort of packaging they use and might opt to order from somewhere else because they don't use styrofoam. I want to make it clear that I'm far from perfect. I still buy stuff from Amazon (though less than I used to) knowing full well I'm going to throw the bubble-lined plastic bag into the trash instead of saving it to recycle at the recycling center because seriously, we have way too much to take there at this point. But writing that down just now makes me want to start saving them again, so maybe I will. See? Self-reflection is great.

Asking yourself these questions is a good way of collecting data on your habits and making gradual shifts towards better choices. It's okay to make purchases without having thought of the answers to these questions and it's okay to go ahead with purchases if have thought about it but don't actually know the answer to those questions, but I think it's important that we at least care. Not every purchase is going to be a "good" one. But here we start small and keep going. Even if you just ask yourself one of those questions each time you make a purchase, that's starting to build better mindfulness around shopping. Self-awareness is key.

if you know you grow

© if you know you grow 2023.