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Mom Talk: Raising Kids In A Zero Waste Family

Written by Sequoia Vennari

Photography by Beth Kirby, Photographed By Lindsey Whiddon

We’re back with another round of “Mom Talk”, where we invite some incredible mothers, from all walks of life, to share their personal experiences and journeys through motherhood, whether it be struggles, triumphs, or anything in-between—nothing’s off limits when it comes to topics. This week, Sequoia Vennari provides staggering statistics on our planet’s waste and the actions she took to eliminate her own family’s contribution to it. -JKM

In my first year of motherhood I completely lost myself. I was living in a cave and ordering everything on the internet: groceries, toiletries, diapers, cleaning supplies, you name it. With the tap of a finger these things arrived on my porch, wrapped in plastic, then in bubble wrap, then in paper. What caught my attention was the hideous and seemingly endless pile of trash that I was creating. Seeing this visual representation of waste, day after day, left me feeling shameful. Scared even.

How did I get here? How had I ignored my values to the point that I didn’t even recognize my home? I had stopped cooking, stopped going to the farmer’s market, stopped giving a damn, and let internet shopping take over my life. My neighbors’ trash bins looked just like mine—filled to the brim with packaging. I started to imagine how much trash my street was making, then my neighborhood. My state. My country. And, the gravity of our situation set in. Did you know that by year 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than sea life? How about the staggering statistic that one trillion plastic bags are discarded per year? Plastic is only about 70 years old, so we don’t know how long it will take to decompose, but we do know that it will never biodegrade completely. It is estimated that most plastic will take 500 years to break down.

It was only a few months ago that I first heard about zero-waste living. Individuals and families all over the world are making the decision to eliminate household waste. This movement, founded by Bea Johnson (be sure to watch her Ted Talk), aspires to change the linear, single-use economy currently in place to a more circular system that supports and encourages reuseThough I knew it would be hard, I was inspired to give zero-waste a try. I armed myself with a few very important tools, accessed what I already had, and started to make the transition. In the last two months, my family of three has only created a small jar full of trash. Here’s how I did it:

1. I stopped making excuses. I started to bring shopping bags with me every. single. time. In Oakland, where I live, it is illegal to give out plastic bags at the register, but don’t forget plastic produce bags are still everywhere. I purchased some simple cotton produce bags in multiple sizes. Most produce doesn’t require a bag, but if I’m purchasing something like blueberries or small potatoes, I use my reusable bags instead.

2. I learned to say “no straw please.” Straws are used for an average of 20 minutes and can take up to 200 years to decompose. 500 million straws are discarded every day in the United States alone. I happen to really enjoy using straws, so instead of using plastic, I purchased a stainless steel version. It works great, and I can easily take it with me anywhere.

3. I tightened my beverage game. I already had a reusable water bottle, so I started making a point of carrying it with me wherever I go. I bought a barista-friendly, reusable coffee cup from KeepCup, and because I love it so much, I never forget to take it with me.

4. I switched to compostable diapers. As a first-time mom, I wasn’t ready to use cloth diapers, but I made the switch to a compostable diaper service and I couldn’t be happier about it. Once a week they pick up the used diapers and replace them with a compostable package of diapers, wipes, and compost bags. Side note: if you’re a mother that uses cloth diapers (which I hear are quite sophisticated now), you go girl!

5. I shopped in bulk. I’m lucky to live in an area with great bulk options, but it did mean that I had to divorce myself from many of my everyday conveniences. The big one for me was baby food. Marketers designed these easy-to-use baby food pouches that cleverly disguise the packaging from what it actually is: plastic. The solution for me was that in addition to making my own, I started buying baby food in jars that can be recycled, and I swapped out pre-packaged snacks for bulk. For my toddler, I get: cereal, cheddar whales, whole wheat fig bars, and animal crackers. For the house, I buy: rice, beans, dried fruits, nuts, oatmeal, plantain chips, pasta, flour, honey, tea, and spices. There are two ways to do this. I can either fill up my cotton produce bags and transfer them into jars at home with a funnel, or I can bring the jars with me and fill them up directly. If I choose to bring my own jars, I have to take the jars to customer service before shopping to get the “tare” weight. At the register, they remove the tare from the total weight and voilà! Waste free!

I also bring my own jars to the butcher and deli counters. Once you get over the initial fear of looking like a weirdo, it’s simple. I explain to the person helping me that I can’t take any plastic home with me, and they usually understand. Most of the time they actually think it’s pretty cool! At the cheese counter, I ask them to cut a piece from a wheel and put it in the jar for me to avoid unnecessary wrap. The best part of this method has been the surprising relationships it has created. Who knew the butchers would be our new buddies? Most of them know my son’s name, and don’t even ask us about the jars anymore. I love that my son gets to be a part of this process. It is teaching him that food doesn’t just appear or come from a box, but it is also teaching him about human interaction.

6. I detoxed my toiletries. There was no reason to throw away a perfectly good toothbrush or shower pouf, but when the time came to replace them, I chose compostable. Not only are my bamboo toothbrush and natural loofah just as effective, they are so much cuter and won’t outlive me! I also switched to bar soap. I thought that this would be tough for me because I’m a body wash junkie, but there’s something so luxurious about using a beautiful handmade bar of soap that I don’t miss it one bit. I buy shampoo and conditioner in bulk and transfer them to reusable bottles with a pump.

7. I ditched certain stores altogether. When it comes to zero-waste shopping, nothing beats a farmer’s market. I ask for greens with no twist ties, and I bring my own bag for bread. Most vendors will reuse glass containers and egg crates, so if I have any, I return them.

8. I stopped ordering take-out. Food packaging accounted for a huge portion of my household waste. While it certainly takes more effort, I make my own food as much as possible. If I’m not able to cook, I dine-in and I bring my own container for leftovers.

9. I embraced four ingredients. Salt, vinegar, lemon, and baking soda. Other than my dish soap, which I buy in bulk, these are the only things I need to clean my house. YouTube videos are a great help for cleanser recipes, too!

10. believe that less is more. We are running through resources, filling up landfills, annihilating our ocean, and destroying vulnerable countries with our waste—waste that will exist beyond our children’s children’s children. Knowing that we are doing our part to give our child a fighting chance at a better future feels great, but finding the freedom of simplicity has been life-changing.

Not only am I saving about 30% on my shopping expenses, but the space I have intentionally carved out by living zero-waste has given our family more than I could have ever imagined. We go for walks. We pack picnics for the park. We go to the library. We cook meals together. Transitioning to zero-waste came at the perfect time for me. It helped me get out of my cave. It helped me to live my values. And, it helped me find my way back home.

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