Have you ever had the realisation that the views you have and opinions you share are at odds with your own actions. Last year I was part of an event that opened my eyes to that feeling in such a profound way that I implemented a course correction to the way I shop, cook, eat and live.
I attended an event of around 100 investors, technologists and visionaries who dedicate a significant amount of their time and money towards bringing together various forms of technology, funding and ideas to solve some of the greatest challenges humans face caused by the damage we do our environment The event is something I’m proud to be part of and it is such a pleasure to spend a few days with these wonderful people as we discuss ideas and opportunities to help work towards creating a better world.
All of our energy goes into what the event is about and there is little time left to think about how the way we do this is in itself an example of how humans destroy their own environment. As we get to meet old friends and make new ones over breakfast we drink our coffee and eat our pastries. All of which, for convenience (because we are busy people), are supplied by a well known American fast food chain, coffee in plastic lined boxes, donuts and other pastries on plastic trays. Lunch is more of the same. I only eat plant based food and there was little to none of that available because it is not what mainstream suppliers cater for (yet). At the end of the second day as people left I helped to clear up, we used large plastic trash bags to collect all leftover food in plastic trays, plastic plates and utensils and even some full boxes of coffee. It was at this point that the ignominy of what we were doing hit me, and not just me, I think we all felt embarrassed and made a promise to not let this happen next time. For me it was compounded by the lack of plant based food, and the sense of inconvenience I felt I created with my dietary choice. For an event all about minimising human impact on our environment we were doing an appalling job of living by what we preached and were the epitome of the very issue; human beings choosing convenience over efficient use of resources.
What I observed was a reflection of myself and how I lived my life and it became my impetus for my own change. This was on my mind the entire flight home, a flight that consumed an unspecified amount of environment polluting fossil fuel! It highlighted to me how the pursuit of personal convenience and comfort combined with a lack of commitment to make small personal sacrifices can be justified in our minds by believing we are doing good by focusing on the important things’, funding, technology, big ideas and being in the room discussing ‘making the world a better place’.
What played on my mind was the combination of an obscene waste of food, flagrant abuse of single use packaging and no commitment to a plant based diet. The question in my head that I think we should all keep asking is ‘what personal sacrifice, no matter how small or futile it may feel, will I make to reduce my own environmental footprint’, forget offsetting by giving to charity or recycling. Make small inconvenient sacrifices to your own lifestyle. It doesn't matter that the commitment does not appear to ‘move the needle’, big change comes when the insignificant amongst us become the beginning of a movement, and this has to start somewhere.
By the time I arrived home I had made a decision, despite already only consuming plant based food I would further change my diet to reduce my waste and sacrifice convenience. I felt so thankful for my experience over the previous few days and the insight I had been given into how my own actions could be improved.
I love an adventure, especially one where I can discover new things and develop new skills and I felt that what lay ahead would be just that!
First was the research phase, and for this I needed to dig deep, not into the internet, books or library or to reach out to experts, I needed to dig deep into my trash! All the data I needed lay in looking at the waste I was creating. Following the research I would need to look at the way I shopped, how I cooked, how I laundered, personal hygiene and how I would dispose of any waste I ended up creating.
So I spoke to the trash can and this is what it told me; I through away a lot of soy milk cartons, tofu cartons, plastic bags from bread, shampoo bottles, laundry detergent bottles, antiperspirant containers and metal cans.
First step; how I shopped. I investigated one of my biggest crimes; green leaves packaged in plastic bags or worse plastic boxes! Wtf people, how did it come to this! Green leaves should be packaged in, well, green leaves. I made a trip to my local fruit and vegetable store. I live on a mountain (or more of a 1000ft hill) just outside Woodstock, NY. At the bottom of this ‘mountain’ is a small store that sells fruit and vegetables, most of it unpackaged. So this became my new go to. Obviously taking my own bags (Ulster County, NY had just implemented a BYOB law), I would place in my basket all the oranges, apples, ginger, carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, mushrooms etc I could carry. Not one single piece of packaging, it was so fresh and just felt wonderful and actually made me feel quite excited!
Next stop was my local health food store, they have more recently expanded their range of bulk products where you fill a paper bag or use your own containers. It was as if I was following an unfolding zeitgeist as their range of bulk products rapidly expanded over the course of this journey. I would buy everything loose; tea, flour, granola, rice, lentils, sugar, herbs, spices, and coffee. I would use the little pencil provided to write the product number on the paper bag. My favorite was the machine that ground nuts into peanut butter, I didn’t know that was how it was made! Who’d have thought that peanut butter was made from, just peanuts (embarrassingly obvious, but not as bad as the person I heard of recently who thought chocolate milk came from brown cows!)! There was also a ‘fill your own container’ for honey, olive oil, soy sauce etc.
This all made me so happy; the simple things. At the checkout I commented ‘I’m trying to shop like my grandparents used to, and it’s actually really difficult!’. It was, this took quite an effort, cost more and took longer. In fact it reminded me of my childhood. I grew up in a village in the south of Cheshire in the UK. I remember the bakery, the shoe shop (which was also the post office run by Mr and Mrs Smith), the chemist, the greengrocer, the butcher and the deli. All of the shopkeepers running their own store with their name proudly painted on the outside. Very few of the items were packaged or processed. Then there was the sweet shop; jars of candy and even homemade ice cream with a chocolate flake and raspberry sauce, the owner was the local legend and reclusive George Beaman, ‘can I have a quarter of pear drops please George and three pieces of liquorice?’. I digress, however, they are delightful memories of village life, from the echoes of times gone by!
I had totally changed the way I shopped, I would arrive home with my cloth bags full of the most delightful assortment of fresh food in an array of colors, shapes, textures and smells!
I next turned my attention to the way I cooked, I do love cooking and also have an addiction to buying kitchen equipment! I decided to be practical and allow myself a few new items and justified the cost on money saved over time. I also have a ’can do’ attitude and am cursed with the gene that makes my inner voice say ‘well how difficult can it be to do it myself!’
The equipment I decided to buy were an ‘Instant Pot’, high power blender, bread machine and a flour mill. The flour mill was for me a big decision, I pondered over it for months, but it is now my favorite kitchen item!
I learnt how to make soy milk, it took a few attempts, but eventually I nailed it. I purchased a nut bag and 25 lbs of soybeans. I became very used to making soy milk perfecting my recipe, and nine months later I do so every third day. One cup of dried soy beans makes one litre of very tasty, fresh, nutty and healthy soy milk. I have an endless supply of soy milk and all that is required is a small amount of time and effort along with the mindfulness to soak the soybeans overnight.
Next was tofu, this was more difficult to get right, no matter how much I tried, the soy milk I was making would just not curdle, it turns out I’d made soy milk that was curdle resistant and great for coffee! So I switched around the recipe and eventually figured out how to make the most pure, tasty and firm tofu I’ve ever had!
Next stop was bread. Now keep in mind I am trying to balance convenience with a journey towards zero waste and so for now I use a bread machine. I love this thing! I put the ingredients in before I go to bed and wake up to freshly baked bread! And the smell of fresh bread makes for a very pleasant alarm clock!
My journey continued; looking at canned food, I bought dried beans in bulk, kidney, black, navy, pinto etc. I just needed to be a little more organised and plan. I cook the beans in batches in the Instantpot and freeze on trays before placing them in a silicone bag in loose form. It turns out it’s much more convenient to grab a few loose frozen beans from the bag straight into the pot than it is to open a tin!
I realised that this change required me to better plan my time how I prepared. If you forget to soak the soybeans you have to wait ten hours until you have milk, you can't just pop to the shop. But that is a good thing! It forces you to connect more with what is around you, encourages mindfulness and reduces all those little trips to the store which in turn saves you money. I started shopping once a week at two local stores for most of my needs. Okay, I have to admit I still ‘sin’ there are a few packaged goods that I get from the supermarket, they are tinned baked beans, tempeh, vegan sausage (I won't mention the brand but oh they are so good!). We are all on a journey and I need to work on these things next. I tried to make tempeh once, it became very moldy and smelt like an animal had died. I admit, I gave up on that one for now, I will be back though!
I get so much pleasure from processes such as making soy milk, knowing that every drop of milk I consume flowed through my fingers and from the smell of the bread and all the meals I now cook from scratch. My goal is to cook everything I eat from an ingredient that was grown rather than processed together with other unnecessary ingredients. I make sauces, creams, pastries, cakes, cookies, tahini, hummus, tortilla etc. I know not everyone has the time, but I value the time I spend doing this, it makes me very happy, I know what my food is made from and have a respect for all of it.
I moved my attention to my personal hygiene, not that I was unclean or smelly, it was all about the disgraceful consumption of packaged goods. I switched to laundry detergent packaged in a cardboard box, shampoo in the form of a bar of soap packaged in paper, and deodorant in a push up cardboard tube. It turns out that my hair and clothes are perfectly fine without using a conditioner, and my armpits are not smelly through no longer using aluminium based antiperspirants. No one has complained, and I still have the misfortune of another bus passenger choosing the empty seat next to me on the long journey to the city! Many of these changes require a little patience and getting used too, but humans are adaptable.
Finally, looking at waste disposal, I decided to make the effort to compost. I had tried this the year before, I took an old large trash container from the garage and drilled holes in it, placed it at the bottom of the garden and filled it with any food waste I created. This was all fine until a neighbourhood bear discovered it and tossed it around the garden! The bear, the raccoons and I are still working on this and are debating where is the best place to put this thing so as not to become the local source of fresh food for our furry friends! There is no trash collection to our house, we have to take a trip to the dump, the amount of trash we now have has significantly reduced, a majority of which is recycled. It's such a small amount we keep it in the garage and go to the town dump every six months or so.
I have learnt so much on this adventure and yet realise there is much more that I can do. I also recognize that not everyone is able to shop like this, has the equipment or time, however, most of us that can don’t, as I hadn't for years. This was my commitment; to make a series of small inconvenient changes that might make an insignificant positive impact on the environment. Real change comes from the sum of all these small sacrifices. However, it turns out that none of this is a sacrifice at all, it brings me immense pleasure to eat fresh food, it has improved my health, saved me money, created mindfulness and I don't have to put the bins out on a cold Tuesday morning just to prevent the bear digging through it during the night. I truly believe our future can and will look more like the past than the present and this is the beginning of my journey going back there.
I began this journey around September of 2019, by early this year (2020) I was in full flow and had a well stocked pantry, developed a range of cooking skills with most of the equipment I needed in place. In February of this year the impending impact of a global pandemic became clear when I saw empty store shelves in Italy on TV. My first thought was flour! So I bought a kitchen flour mill and 100 lbs of wheat berries. I purchased soft winter white wheat berries, hard spring red wheat berries and durum wheat berries along with four jars of yeast. I totally upped my bread game; bread rolls, baguettes and tortillas. I’ve been working on my pasta skills too, milling durum wheat into 00 semolina flour, making pasta dough and into fresh chewy spaghetti.
Due to COVID-19 most of what I bought loose sadly now has to come packaged, but I buy in large amounts and only shop for these items every few months.
I had no idea that when I changed my diet to reduce my waste that I would accidentally build a resilience to the impending apocalypse!
Throughout my life I've always found that when I make the sacrifice to follow the difficult less trodden path that I stumble across rewards more fruitful than I could ever have predicted. I hope I never go back to the way I shopped or cooked. I feel closer to my grandparents (even though they are no longer with us) and the memories of the old way of life I experienced in the Cheshire village I grew up in.