Avoiding food packaging

In the fall of 2014, I noticed a lot of my garbage came from food packaging. I don’t like when people pollute my world, so I try to avoid polluting theirs.

I thought of an experiment: to try to go one week without buying any food where I’d have to throw away food packaging. For six months I planned and thought about doing it until one day I realized all the planning and thinking wasn’t getting me anywhere.

I decided to start the week then and there. I knew I wouldn’t die.

It turns out you succeed more when you act instead of planning for six months. You just go to the store, buy food without packaging, and don’t buy food with packaging. You have to buy different than you used to, but when you haven’t lived by your values, living by your values requires change.

I made it two-and-a-half weeks before buying my first food with packaging—no bags, no boxes, no bottles, no rubber bands, no stickers, no packaging. Just as humans lived for 300,000 years before a few decades ago.

In the years since, I’ve kept my waste below 10% of what I used to. As one measure, I have to take out my landfill garbage once or twice a year now. I’m trying to bring it down.

The most important measures for me are that my diet is

  • More delicious than ever
  • Cheaper than ever
  • More convenient than ever
  • More social than ever—that is, people come over for meals more and I know the farmers who grow my food

I also eat more food than ever since most of what I eat has a lot of fiber and not many calories. You can’t beat food being delicious, cheap, convenient, social, and eating to stuffed every meal. I can’t believe I ate different before.

Click the contents to the left to read posts I wrote on avoiding food packaging.

Avoiding food packaging

Something I’ve meant to do as I cut out more prepared foods is to go for a while without buying any food with any packaging. I think it would make an interesting experiment and I’m learning a lot experientially.

I’ve been thinking about how to do it effectively—most consistently, or most something or other.

Tonight I bought some fruits and vegetables at the produce stand down the block, telling the guy three or four times I didn’t need a bag as he kept trying to give me one, I remembered my principle that “I have low standards the first time.” I’d rather try it imperfectly than never get around to something I plan forever.

So I’ll give a shot at buying no food for a week with any packaging and see what happens. Tonight’s broccoli had a rubber band holding the stalks together so I’ll have to start tomorrow. I’ll allow myself to use things I already have. And I’ll allow buying bulk foods when I bring bags with me, which I do anyway. But anything prepackaged is out. I think that means I’ll have to have almost only fruits, vegetables, legumes, and things close to their natural state. I happen to have a bunch of staples like salt, spices, wine, and oil, so my first time won’t be too hard.

I guess I’ll cut out restaurants too. I’ve been bringing lunches of leftovers with me lately so that shouldn’t be too hard either.

Anyway, I’ll let you know how it goes and if I make it.

EDIT: Here are my results:

Avoiding food packaging

In the fall of 2014, I noticed a lot of my garbage came from food packaging. I don’t like when people pollute my world, so I try to avoid polluting theirs.

I thought of an experiment: to try to go one week without buying any food where I’d have to throw away food packaging. For six months I planned and thought about doing it until one day I realized all the planning and thinking wasn’t getting me anywhere.

I decided to start the week then and there. I knew I wouldn’t die.

It turns out you succeed more when you act instead of planning for six months. You just go to the store, buy food without packaging, and don’t buy food with packaging. You have to buy different than you used to, but when you haven’t lived by your values, living by your values requires change.

I made it two-and-a-half weeks before buying my first food with packaging—no bags, no boxes, no bottles, no rubber bands, no stickers, no packaging. Just as humans lived for 300,000 years before a few decades ago.

In the years since, I’ve kept my waste below 10% of what I used to. As one measure, I have to take out my landfill garbage once or twice a year now. I’m trying to bring it down.

The most important measures for me are that my diet is

  • More delicious than ever
  • Cheaper than ever
  • More convenient than ever
  • More social than ever—that is, people come over for meals more and I know the farmers who grow my food

I also eat more food than ever since most of what I eat has a lot of fiber and not many calories. You can’t beat food being delicious, cheap, convenient, social, and eating to stuffed every meal. I can’t believe I ate different before.

Click the contents to the left to read posts I wrote on avoiding food packaging.

Avoiding food packaging

Something I’ve meant to do as I cut out more prepared foods is to go for a while without buying any food with any packaging. I think it would make an interesting experiment and I’m learning a lot experientially.

I’ve been thinking about how to do it effectively—most consistently, or most something or other.

Tonight I bought some fruits and vegetables at the produce stand down the block, telling the guy three or four times I didn’t need a bag as he kept trying to give me one, I remembered my principle that “I have low standards the first time.” I’d rather try it imperfectly than never get around to something I plan forever.

So I’ll give a shot at buying no food for a week with any packaging and see what happens. Tonight’s broccoli had a rubber band holding the stalks together so I’ll have to start tomorrow. I’ll allow myself to use things I already have. And I’ll allow buying bulk foods when I bring bags with me, which I do anyway. But anything prepackaged is out. I think that means I’ll have to have almost only fruits, vegetables, legumes, and things close to their natural state. I happen to have a bunch of staples like salt, spices, wine, and oil, so my first time won’t be too hard.

I guess I’ll cut out restaurants too. I’ve been bringing lunches of leftovers with me lately so that shouldn’t be too hard either.

Anyway, I’ll let you know how it goes and if I make it.

EDIT: Here are my results:

Avoiding food packaging

In the fall of 2014, I noticed a lot of my garbage came from food packaging. I don’t like when people pollute my world, so I try to avoid polluting theirs.

I thought of an experiment: to try to go one week without buying any food where I’d have to throw away food packaging. For six months I planned and thought about doing it until one day I realized all the planning and thinking wasn’t getting me anywhere.

I decided to start the week then and there. I knew I wouldn’t die.

It turns out you succeed more when you act instead of planning for six months. You just go to the store, buy food without packaging, and don’t buy food with packaging. You have to buy different than you used to, but when you haven’t lived by your values, living by your values requires change.

I made it two-and-a-half weeks before buying my first food with packaging—no bags, no boxes, no bottles, no rubber bands, no stickers, no packaging. Just as humans lived for 300,000 years before a few decades ago.

In the years since, I’ve kept my waste below 10% of what I used to. As one measure, I have to take out my landfill garbage once or twice a year now. I’m trying to bring it down.

The most important measures for me are that my diet is

  • More delicious than ever
  • Cheaper than ever
  • More convenient than ever
  • More social than ever—that is, people come over for meals more and I know the farmers who grow my food

I also eat more food than ever since most of what I eat has a lot of fiber and not many calories. You can’t beat food being delicious, cheap, convenient, social, and eating to stuffed every meal. I can’t believe I ate different before.

Click the contents to the left to read posts I wrote on avoiding food packaging.

More than a year since I emptied my garbage

More delicious, more convenient, more social, more food, more satisfaction, less money, less preparation time, more joy.

How?

Avoiding packaging.

Avoiding packing by at least 90% has reduced my garbage to where I empty it less than once per year.

Me holding a year of garbage

Me holding a year of garbage

Think you can’t do it?

I’m not special. Anyone can do the same.

It took a while to transition—going from emptying garbage weekly to biweekly, to monthly, and so on to annually. It was hard, not impossible, and it improved my life at every step, same as it will with you. I’m aiming for biannually next time.

I empty recycling 2 or 3 times per year, since it pollutes too, nearly as much as landfill garbage.

Reducing consumption reduces pollution a lot more.

And it tastes better, saves money, saves time, and connects me with friends, family, and farmers more.

EDIT: While many respond by saying they feel inspired and find ways to accelerate their waste reduction path, many respond with how they have family, have to travel, or whatever makes them special snowflakes, uniquely helpless. Obviously, I made things work for my life not anyone else’s, so others would make things work for their lives, or you for yours.

Bea Johnson’s videos, her page, and conversation on my podcast show a family of four producing less garbage than I do. She became a role model for me, though I only learned about her after making this video.

EDIT 2: I didn’t empty the garbage that day. I ended up emptying it in September, about 16 months after starting the load.

Here’s the video:

Today is June 14. I still haven’t emptied the garbage since I haven’t had much to add to the bag.

Here’s the opposite of the video:

Plastic on the beach

Independence from garbage, even on my body

July 4th, Independence Day is about freedom.

Usually political freedom. I’m posting today on personal freedom.

Last month I posted a video on how more than a year’s worth of garbage fit in a canvas bag. I made two videos that day—one with my shirt off to show the result to my body of avoiding garbage. I held off on posting the shirtless one to stay more conservative given my corporate clients.

But today is a day about freedom. I’m claiming mine. It also happens to mark the 13th month since emptied the trash bag. The bag is still not full.

As you’ll hear me say in the video, I used to feel ashamed as a chubby kid and would wear a shirt to the beach or swimming pool to cover myself. Today I’m posting about the freedom from that shame.

Fitness came not from deprivation or sacrifice but from stopping following others values—mainly packaged food and its marketers. Fruit and vegetables from the farm aren’t packaged, nor or nuts, grains, legumes, and so on I buy in bulk.

You know leadership and the environment are important to me. I increasingly see putting garbage on earth and on body similar. The choice to consume manufactured products that cover each with unwanted stuff feels similar, at least to me, and the freedom that stopping consuming stuff that creates that waste is as liberating and rewarding in both domains.

Everyone can decide for themselves what they consider beautiful. For me, I’m now close to what is most beautiful for me. If you differ, great! I celebrate that we have different values and I hope you do too.

Josh without garbage

With the shirt

Incidentally, here’s the version of the video with a shirt that I put on my podcast

052: Emptying my garbage for the first time in over a year (transcript)

Hello. Today’s June 4, 2018. On June 4, 2017 one year ago was the last day that I emptied my garbage. This is going to be the day that I take my garbage down the hall and empty it. Now, this is one year’s worth of garbage to a lot of people. They describe this just like they say that this is like very little garbage. To me, it’s a lot. But let me put ит in context first. Over here on my countertop is a bowl where I keep my compost and so the vegetable stuff, the scraps go here and when the compost fills I put it into this bag here which I keep in the freezer. And when this gets full I take it to the farmer’s market. This bag is from like four or five years old. People get new bags every time they go. For holding my compost, it takes me a long time to finish using a bag. The paper recycling goes here. So this is also a lot. This is probably… I empty my paper recycling maybe two or three times a year. I did not get that back. I don’t shop at Trader Joe’s. It’s so much garbage. You know the way we have not a lot of stuff is to not acquire a lot of stuff. Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods – total wastelands, almost total waistlines, if you don’t get packaged food. In here I have my… This is the metal and plastic recycling. Also, a box that I got from downstairs from my building. This is probably six months’ worth of bottles and stuff.

A lot of people think, “Recycling, if it’s recycled that means I’m not wasting stuff.” I hope you’ve seen the images of the mountains of what would be recycled stuff that we ship off to third world countries and pay them to take. It’s reduce… If you can’t reduce, then reuse. If you can’t reuse, then recycle. If total waste is like smoking cigarettes, then recycling is like smoking filtered cigarettes. It’s basically the same thing. It’s not close to not getting the stuff in the first place. When I first started avoiding packaging it took me like two weeks to fill this up. Then after a little practice it took two months and then after a little more practice now it’s up to about a year. To me this looks like a lot of garbage. I was born into a polluted world. I don’t like that it’s a polluted world. I don’t want to pollute it more for others. This plastic is still going to be around for 400 years, that longer than the United States. I have to buy fresh vegetables, fresh fruit punch, a bunch of [unintelligible] here, some radishes. I’ve got some rhubarb and some spring onion or garlic. In here is some lentils. That’s where I eat now. I eat almost every meal completely stuffed because it’s all… It fills you up really. It’s so much fiber and it’s not a lot of calories. And so I eat as much as I can. It’s all the most delicious that I’ve ever eaten and that’s what this is really about.

Yes, it’s probably very healthy. Yes, it’s probably… It definitely pollutes less. The big thing is it’s delicious. I’ve never eaten more delicious, spending less money, more convenient and I’m eating more volume of food. I’m more satisfied than I’ve ever been. When I was a kid growing up I couldn’t stop myself from eating ice cream and from eating pretzels and chips. I just don’t eat that stuff anymore. Because the wet stuff goes in here I don’t need a plastic bag. People come over and they bring stuff, they bring packaging with them and I get their garbage so there’s a fair amount of garbage in here that’s not mine. I think I forgot, this is the garbage from my bathroom. So I want to point out this is not just my kitchen garbage. This is all the garbage that I produce in the house. A lot of people they say stuff like I don’t produce that much garbage compared to people around me. If you’re comparing yourself to other Americans and how much you pollute, this is about the lowest bar possible to compare yourself with. Americans produce more garbage than virtually any humans have ever lived ever since the dawn of humanity. I recommend setting a higher bar for yourself. My goal is to take a lot longer than a year to fill this for this cycle. It’s more freedom, it’s more delicious, it’s less pollution. So I hope this makes an impression on others. My goal is to produce a lot less of this and have more freedom in my life. This is a natural easy thing to not pollute that much. It took a little time. It was hard at the beginning but that quickly it became simple, it quickly became natural.

Buying no food with packaging, eighteen days and counting

Two-and-a-half weeks ago I decided to avoid buying any food with packaging for a week. I’m on eighteen days and counting.

I didn’t try to come up with a perfect rule because trying for perfection kept making me delay trying. I settled on the rule that I wouldn’t buy food that had any packaging or get food at a restaurant. I’d figure out on the fly what to do in border cases. I allowed myself to use food I already had.

Discoveries

It hasn’t been as hard as I thought.

I’m eating a lot more fruits and vegetables than usual.

I’m also cooking a lot more beans and peas from dry.

Instead of buying a lot of produce at once, I’m buying enough for a couple days.

Some things are harder to get, like bread.

I find I’m socializing more, or maybe I’m noticing it because cooking all the time means cooking more, and when people are over and I cook, they end up eating what would have been my leftovers. I would have thought I’d socialize less because people often socialize around food.

There’s a lot of free food around me, usually at meetings, mostly hard to eat when I won’t use the paper plates, plastic cups, plastic forks, and napkins. But since I bring plastic bags for shopping almost every day and a metal spoon to eat my packed lunch, I find I can eat it anyway. Only now I notice how much people throw out. Free food means a big pile of garbage that I’m coming to find disgusting.

People seem intrigued by the idea.

My produce vendor is used to me not accepting bags and we’ve made a game of it since even when he knows I won’t take it, he reflexively offers me bags. This culture is crazy. I also returned the rubber bands from the day before I started, so maybe I’m nineteen days in or more.

I think I’m eating pretty healthy. I can feel yet more fat disappear from my abs. Feeling the skin becoming thinner there creates confidence and security in an area I think most people feel insecure.

Ready-to-eat food isn’t that much more convenient than having lots of produce around.

Pictures

Here’s a typical result from shopping over the past eighteen days, which I do about every two or three days. I had to take off the rubber band from the broccoli, which the vendor said he could reuse. He displayed the cherries in a plastic bag. I poured them into my bag and left the bag with him, which he said he could reuse. I believe him because the display bag was for grapes, so I think he was already reusing it.

The plastic container is soaking chick peas for cooking in the rice cooker / vegetable steamer / miracle appliance. I’m used to having dry beans, split peas, chick peas, and other legumes soaking all the time so I can cook them and have them ready in about an hour.

It helps to have a bulk food store a couple blocks away. I bring old plastic bags to refill. The plastic bag holding the fruits and vegetables is left over from before. I’ve reused it countless times.

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Here is my breakfast every day, not just during this trial: oats, chia seeds, chopped fruit, and nuts. I happened to have a bag of flax seed powder someone left with me from before the experiment so I finished it. I had chia seeds from before (actually, about five pounds of them from a sale), so I switched back to them.

The apples come with a sticker on them, which you could call packaging. That’s the one thing I didn’t avoid. I read they’re edible, though, so maybe they don’t count.

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The results of another trip, both to the bulk food store and the produce vendor. I buy a lot of nuts. Usually I only get unsalted but on a whim I got some salted, which is why two bags.

The bottle was from the olive oil I finished. The bulk food store has bulk olive oil, so I refilled my old bottle.

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Another trip to the produce vendor. Okra seems to be in season. I’m eating tons of the slimy stuff.

The bowl in the upper-right corner that you see in nearly every picture is my compost bowl for trimmings. It’s there all the time. When it fills, I empty it into a bag in the freezer. When that fills, the next Saturday I take it to the people who collect it Saturday mornings in Abington Square, about a ten-minute walk from home.

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The plastic container on the left has peanut butter, which I refill at the bulk food store. I’m going through a lot of peanut butter.

The jar had heirloom tomato puree from the Community Supported Agriculture farm I bought a season of produce from. I already had it from before this trial. The bowl of vegetables was what was left from a school event I went to. When it ended they were getting rid of what people didn’t eat. Since I brought plastic bags for shopping that day, they thanked me for filling up my bags with vegetables. I couldn’t believe everyone left the healthiest, best food.

The bread was this Scandinavian healthy bread I still had in my fridge from before the trial. It tastes delicious toasted with peanut butter. I thought I would miss it, but I haven’t missed it that much.

DSC08290

Here are some chickpeas left over from one evening I packed for lunch one day. It’s mainly chick peas, olive oil, salt, cayenne pepper cooked together, then I squeeze lemon in when I eat it. They sell roughly the same thing for $4 but in a container half the size. This was part of a batch about ten times bigger with ingredients that cost me probably about a dollar.

This experiment, though, showed me more than the cost difference. The pollution difference is crazy. Ten of those little containers is a lot of garbage. When you use that packaging, you’re helping create “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the world we live in.” I am too, and this experiment is helping me see how to decrease that.

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Here are the bags full of the produce from the school event I mentioned two pictures ago. Purple cauliflower!

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On the left is my usual oat, chia, fruit, and nut breakfast. On the right is some steamed spinach I packed as part of lunch that day.

The pecans in front don’t go into my cereal. They taste too good to mix so I pick them out to eat separately.

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Another lunch. This one was split pea soup. I had some pita bread left over so I crumbled that into the plastic container when I ate lunch. I also nearly always pack nuts to snack on, which is in the plastic bag.

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I mentioned the heirloom tomato puree. I decided to make a vegetable soup with it, with broccoli and cauliflower and such.

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More vegetables from another event where people didn’t finish the crudite, but I had a bag to take them home with. I steamed them and ate them with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

I would have thought people would look at me funny taking vegetables home, but I got the opposite. They kept telling me they wished they ate more vegetables. I’m thinking, “They’re right here! I’m taking them because you didn’t eat them.”

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Another lunch. Split pea soup and nuts.

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Here are the bags I stick in my bag in the morning when I expect to shop that day. They add about an ounce of weight, take up almost no space, and take a few seconds to prepare. The bottle on the right is because the bulk food place sells dish soap, which I ran out of so I refilled there.

By the way, if you get plastic bags and tell yourself you use them all up, you’re lying to yourself. You get probably ten or a hundred times more bags than you need. I avoid getting them every chance I can and I’m swimming in them from when friends leave them when they bring stuff (probably convincing themselves that since they gave me their garbage to carry a few bottles of beer that they aren’t polluting but they didn’t have to get the bag in the first place).

People, you don’t need the bags.

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On the left, I’m cooking split pea soup. It gets frothy for some reason. Usually I add ginger and carrots. On the right, I’m steaming broccoli. You can also see the big bag of chia seeds behind. I have four bags like that from the sale I mentioned above.

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Another view of the broccoli and split pea soup.

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Here’s that bread I mentioned having had already from before the no packaging trial, which I used up and haven’t replaced. Also peanut butter. The vegan turkey salad is a pre-made product I make open-face sandwiches with that was left over from before the trial and that I also didn’t replace.

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Another view of the same things. I should mention that the peanut butter comes out of a container that grinds peanuts. You can see them going into the grinder so you know it’s one ingredient. The oil doesn’t separate like prepackaged peanut butter. I like this stuff more, plus I reuse the same containers.

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Here’s a bag of dry split peas in a bag I had left over.

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Split peas cooking another time from above. This particular evening two friends came over and I shared almost all of it with them, meaning I had to cook more times, but they were happy. One of them brought beer, so I had a bottle of beer. Since he paid for it and brought it over, I didn’t count it as my buying it.

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Another lunch. This time nuts in the bag for snacks. Beans cooked from dry in the container. They don’t look great but they taste great. It’s easy to make them taste great by putting in more olive oil when they cook. And salt.

I ran out of salt the other day, by the way. The bulk food store sells salt, but it’s so fancy-pants Himalayan special stuff I might get regular salt in a salt grinder, which I don’t have, as the purchase that includes packaging, though I might count a grinder as a tool, not packaging.

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Same things.

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Well, there’s a sample of what I’ve eaten.

I should mention I feel as productive as ever in this time. I’m writing about a lot of cooking, but it doesn’t take much time. Plus the fresh ingredients have more flavor than prepared stuff. If it seems like a lot, it’s only because I’m writing about two-and-a-half weeks of it in one post.

Meanwhile, eating at restaurants takes time too. I’ve long been surprised to find that eating out takes more effort than shopping, cooking, and cleaning. It doesn’t seem worth it.

I’m not sure when I’ll stop the experiment. The longer I go without packaged or restaurant foods, the easier it gets and the more it feels like buying packaged food will feel like defeat. Still, I know it will happen at some point.

Bought first food with packaging after 2.5 weeks

I’ve been avoiding buying food with any packaging. I started April 20. I updated my progress with pictures in “Buying no food with packaging, eighteen days and counting“.

Saturday evening I bought some onions in one of those net bags. Onions make you cry. Today I’m scheduled to get a shipment of vegetables from my farm share and that comes in a box so the experiment would have ended today had I not bought the onions in the bag. Still, I could have bought loose onions to avoid polluting the plastic bag.

Onions

In the meantime I’ve

  • Produced almost no trash or recycling
  • Eaten a higher ratio of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes than ever
    • Probably fiber too, in particular
  • Spent as little on food as I can remember
  • Spent less time preparing food than usual
  • Talked to my produce vendor guy
  • Shared my plan with friends and colleagues, who all supported the experiment
  • Got a bunch of free fruits and vegetables that people didn’t eat at events
  • And more…

After finding eating closer to the source easier than I expected, I expect I’ll eat that way more in the long term.

I recommend trying the experiment yourself. What do you have to lose?

Good luck!

EDIT: Here’s a story a friend wrote about “Berlin duo launch a supermarket with no packaging.” I’m glad to see a community already doing what I’m experimenting with and the media reporting it. Humans lived for hundreds of thousands of years without packaging. I’m sure we can keep doing it, even if it’s more profitable to refine and package.

Leadership and the Environment Podcast episode #3: Freedom, empathy, garbage, and compost

How much waste do you create that others have to deal with?

The environment involves more than global warming. As my Inc. piece reported recently, we’re producing enough waste that an island in the middle of the Pacific, with no inhabitants and thousands of miles from any city, is covered with plastic and other waste, most of it needless garbage:

East Beach Henderson island

East Beach Henderson island

I don’t know what to call that amount and kind of garbage: sickening? Insane? Irresponsible? Typical of our lifestyle?

Here’s how remote the island is:

Pitcairn Islands

The polluted beach pictured above is shown in red

Maybe a couple pieces of that garbage came from you! … or me.

We both contributed to a system that helped produce it.

In any case, I can’t take responsibility for your behavior, but I can take responsibility for mine. My podcast video today shows the results of my waste habits. I plan to waste less, but I’ve cut my waste down a lot from before.

EDIT: On June 18 I emptied my metal and plastic recycling. I’ll record the next time I empty it too, since I consider recycling closer to landfill garbage than to not consuming something at all. Just because you can reuse aluminum doesn’t mean using it so you can eat a few tomatoes is clean.

Eating at restaurants seems weirder the more healthily I eat. Same with pre-prepared food.

I can’t believe the changes in how I see food my last two changes in food habit created. And I can’t believe how easy and cheap the changes were.

The changes were to buy a farm share, where I pick up fresh vegetables from a drop-off place near me each week, and the other was my two-and-a-half-week experiment not buying food where I had to throw away packaging after.

Each farm share shipment has enough vegetables for side dishes for a family for a week. Since I’m one person, I have to eat vegetables as main dishes every day to keep up with all these vegetables. I don’t have space for pasta, bread, and other filler. I was worried about not knowing what to do with the vegetables, but any vegetable with olive oil, garlic, onions, salt, and pepper as a last resort is pretty good.

Since the no-packaged-food experiment showed how easy cooking from raw and unpackaged is, I keep a constant supply of beans, nuts, sweet potatoes, and things like that on hand.

Today’s lunch, for example: Mung beans cooked with fresh thyme (I had to look up what the herb was called. It just came with the farm share and smelled amazing), olive oil, salt, and some hot sauce. On the side I had some fresh kohlrabi that I marinated in kimchi sauce. Total preparation time: about ten minutes—less time than it would take to walk to a restaurant. I put the beans to soak overnight, put them in the rice cooker / vegetable steamer / miracle appliance with the oil, thyme, and salt when I woke up so they cooked while I showered and did my morning burpees, and then packed them. Almost no work, nearly free, healthy, delicious, and convenient. And very little to throw away.

Restaurants

I ordered a burrito a little while ago without rice at my favorite Mexican restaurant. I asked them to put extra vegetables in, but they said they couldn’t because it was against their policy. I also got it without the shell. So they brought me half a plate of vegetables with some melted cheese. That’s what I’m making every day today but I’m not paying over ten dollars for it, it takes less time, the vegetables are healthier, and they taste better too.

The more I look at restaurant food, the more I see filler—bread, pasta, fries, ice in the drinks, etc. They usually work on decor and presentation, but I care about the food’s taste, nutritional value, and, if those are sufficient, quantity. Those criteria conflict with a restaurant’s profit, though. They want to sell alcohol and desserts most. They don’t want to give quantity on vegetables so they give it on filler. I don’t want quantity on foods I don’t want.

I know everyone knows this already, but these habit changes make me see it more viscerally.

Aren’t the two main points of a restaurant to give you better food than you could make yourself and less work? Fresh vegetables all the time beats most restaurants.

A friend took me to the Four Seasons restaurant. He was paying so cost didn’t matter. I’ll grant that the salad and main course were delicious and more delicate and creative than what I can do, but not life-changingly so. And the desserts were just sugar. Don’t get me wrong. If you invite me, I’ll go to a restaurant like that, but few restaurants are like that. Most detract from the deliciousness of the plants they’re starting with.

American Cuisine Has 2 Rules and I Found Them

American cuisine has two simple rules governing it, I found.

You often have to step outside a system to see it with fresh eyes. First, I’ll describe that process.

Stepping outside the system

We’ve seen pictures of plastic choking once-pristine beaches and wilderness. One day three years ago I looked down at my kitchen’s garbage and saw that most of my garbage came from food packaging.

Plastic on the beach

This is Hawaii today. I decided to reduce my contribution as much as I could.

I decided to try to go a week without buying any packaged food. Despite not knowing how I would do it, I went two-and-a-half weeks without any. In the three years since, I use maybe 5% of the packaging I used to and I’ve emptied my garbage maybe five or six times. Recycling maybe ten times.

If I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.

Now there’s no going back to all those boxes, cans, bags, rubber bands, stickers, bottles, and so on. My diet relies almost entirely on fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, and, from the bulk food section, nuts, spices, and whole grains that I bring home in reusable containers.

Now I consider the change among the best things I’ve done in my life. It revealed more about flavors, textures, health, pollution, taste, and more about food.

Most of all, my diet is more delicious, costs less, is more convenient, and is more social since I host guests more and have met the farmers growing most of my vegetables and fruit.

Look at those vegetables!

American cuisine

By American cuisine, I don’t mean home-cooked from scratch. I do mean nearly every restaurant and home-cooked from packaged, which in this country is nearly all comfort food.

If you home-cook from scratch, the rules may not apply to you. Americans overwhelmingly eat out or heat prepared food, so you’re in a small minority.

Rule 1: Healthy doesn’t taste good so you have to cover it up

Rarely will you find unadulterated healthy ingredients at a restaurant or prepared food in America.

Instead you will find them “fixed” in some way

  • Covered with a sweet sauce
  • Covered with an oily sauce
  • Covered with a salty sauce
  • Fried or deep fried
  • Breaded
  • Sugared or salted
  • Served with a dip
  • Etc

The main result of Rule 1 is sugar, salt, and fat covering up vegetable flavors.

The irony is that after foregoing Ben & Jerry’s for a couple weeks, apples taste sweeter than ice cream used to, since all sugar in ice cream saturates your taste buds. At least that was my experience.

Rule 2: Give quantity, implying value for their money

Americans want to see they’re getting what they paid for, which they measure in quantity, not quality.

What adds quantity cheaper than grains?

Where are the vegetables?!?

Nothing, so the result is serving the once-healthy, now sweetened, salted, or greased main ingredient with mounds of

  • Bread
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Potatoes
  • Quinoa
  • Etc

How to Americanize any food

To make an American version of any food, simply apply these two rules. In practice, that means adding sugar, salt, and fat to the central ingredients, then serving it with a lot of filler.

I wish I knew of counter-examples but they are rare — maybe 1% of American food as served or prepared.

How do you justify polluting?

A friend commented on my experiment not to buy food where I’d have to throw away wrapping after, “Avoiding food packaging” and “Buying no food with packaging, eighteen days and counting.” I started doing it mainly to pollute less. He said “You know, the difference you’ll make on the world is less than a billionth of a percent?”

That’s how he justified whatever behavior he does that pollutes.

I responded, “I care about what I’m responsible for.

I don’t take responsibility for anyone else’s behavior, nor was I criticizing his. He has his values and he lives by them. I try not to impose my values on others. But I take responsibility for my actions and their results on others. To me, it’s a matter of integrity. I live in a world polluted by billions of people before me and I will leave behind a world affected by me. I don’t like the pollution I was born into and I want to be responsible for as little pollution to others, even after I die.

It turns out the experiment led me to change my behavior more than I expected, eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking at home a lot more. The change improved my life a lot. Eating is a big part of life. I can’t believe I waited this long to make this change.

I find holding yourself accountable tends to improve one’s life.

Recycling doesn't pollute much less than throwing stuff away

Throwing things away so they’ll end up in landfills pollutes. No two ways about it. Not using something in the first place doesn’t pollute. Recycling feels like it’s roughly in the middle. If you only have two comparisons and no objective scale, how else can you compare something in the middle but roughly in the middle.

Since I wanted to feel better about myself, I probably thought of recycling as closer to not using something in the first place. Reusing polluted even less. Here’s how I thought of the pollution scale of throwing things out:

garbage scale before

This belief fit the phrase “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” They all seemed better than throwing something away and mostly related to each other.

You can pollute a lot less than recycling

Years ago I started composting, where you decompose plant waste like apple stems and peach pits to make more fertile soil with. Composting reduced my garbage and changed my perspective. It seemed less polluting than even reusing, which still ends up with something in a landfill. Moreover, it changed my picture of the pollution scale.

April’s experiment not buying food where I would have to throw away packaging after got me to cut down my garbage by maybe 75%. I take weeks to fill a garbage bag now.

I’ve only opened one can of food since then. I’ve started to look at cans as weird ways to store food, asking myself why I pay for people to dig aluminum ore out of the ground and melt it—what do you think aluminum’s melting temperature is?—just so I can have a few beans. Cooking dry beans takes energy, as does life, but less than melting aluminum. Then after you use the can, recycling it means melting it again.

Now I have more points on the scale. In this light, recycling looks a lot more like throwing stuff away. Here’s my new scale:

garbage scale after

I recommend trying a week of not buying any food with packaging to throw away. Even if you don’t make the week, I predict you’ll learn more about foods, eat healthier, save money, and find more tasty food. What do you have to lose?

Restaurants make "entertainment for your mouth," designed for profit, not health. Same with packaged food.

The more I cook from whole vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and so on, the more skeptically I look at companies that prepare food.

Restaurants and packaged foods are designed to entertain your mouth, not to sustain you. If the people behind them have to sacrifice your health for their profit, they’ll do it.

Increasingly I see them as seeking profit at the expense of my health, since what makes the most profit from them is rarely the healthiest food. Whole foods retaining all their fiber spoil fast, probably because they are healthy for other forms of life besides us, like bacteria that break them down, and fiber-removed foods are less healthy for all forms of life.

My mental models about restaurants and sellers of packaged food have changed the more I see them selling what entertains—sugar, fat, fiber-less—not healthy. Also pretty decor. And learning that sit-down restaurants are as unhealthy as fast food restaurants confirms my suspicion.

I may have overstated myself a bit, but I don’t think too much. I still like going to restaurants. They are entertaining—for your eyes and nose too. But the more I get whole foods fresh from the farm and cook, the more I prefer what I make and the more I look at their stuff like a Trojan horse that pollutes too much.

Meanwhile, again, the results are that I’m

  • Eating as much volume of food as ever (I love eating!)
  • Saving money
  • Saving time
  • Enjoying more flavor
  • Getting more definition on my abs

and other benefits. Enjoying life is what this is all about.

Less food packaging = more food variety

The set of packaged and unpackaged food is greater than the set of only unpackaged food.

You would think that restricting your diet to avoid packaged food would lower its variety.

I have found, to the contrary, that avoiding packaged food has increased the variety of food I eat.

When companies choose to package food, they seem to choose to make it homogeneous too.

If you want a varied diet, I recommend going to the basics of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and unpackaged stuff. You already know it’s healthier. It’s also cheaper and, with practice, more convenient. If you think it’s inconvenient, that sounds like a lack of skill. The most effective way to develop your skill is to practice. Next time you shop, try buying only foods where you won’t throw away or recycle anything.

Why can't you stop polluting?

I get that everyone has their eating habits and it’s hard to meet them all.

Even so, the message I send people about not bringing garbage to my place when I invite them over gives the option of bringing nothing:

By the way, no need to bring anything, but if you do, I’m avoiding packaging, so please don’t bring anything packaged — no bags, bottles, rubber bands, etc. That usually means fresh fruit or vegetables carried in bags you brought to the store, but as I said, nothing is fine. Here’s some background: Avoiding Food Packaging, plus links within.

I’m trying to reduce this outcome: Scientists Find Most Trashed Spot on Earth: A Once-Pristine Paradise.

So far, not one person has come over without garbage. Every visitor has brought bags, boxes, etc. They didn’t have to bring anything!

I guess at least they bring less garbage than people who don’t get the message. Today someone came over with a bottle of water. When she left, I saw that she left the empty bottle at my place. A podcaster thanked me for doing his show by mailing me a box of brownies through a commercial service—a quadruple whammy since I avoid eggs, I avoid fiber-removed food like sugar, I avoid packaged food (each brownie was individually wrapped), and I avoid polluting packaging.

Friends bring plastic bags, bottles, and so on. It’s mindless. But the plastic will be around for centuries or more. One piece here or there wouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s fundamental to our society. Biodegradable things at least wouldn’t hurt others as much, but it’s mostly plastic. Recyclable doesn’t mean no waste and is usually a far cry from reducing consumption.

How can we change our culture to stop valuing garbage so much?

Trying to solve everything before doing anything leads to nothing done

The principle that trying to solve everything before doing anything leads to getting nothing done, applies broadly. It came up recently in reducing pollution, so I’ll illustrate it there.

A friend said he wants to go to a zero waste lifestyle and asked me what I do about toothpaste.

Now there are households out there that throw out less than a pound of garbage per year. Most Americans produce more per day. I imagine he throws out less than the average American, but I hope my readers don’t consider Americans useful comparisons for waste—nearly the lowest bar of all populations.

Lauren Singer fits years of garbage into one jar.

Lauren Singer fits years of garbage into the jar she’s holding. She developed that skill through practice.

It’s easier to talk, analyze, plan, debate, and philosophize than act so most people find ways to avoid acting. Latching onto some side issue and analyzing, talking, debating, etc about it works for most. It did for me for six months before I started avoiding packaged food.

All that planning felt like progress even though I wasn’t doing anything that made a difference.

In my friend’s case, a toothpaste tube is not the only thing he can work on. He’ll have to figure out how to avoid causing that waste to reach zero, but he’ll take longer if it keeps him from what he can do now. Doing what you can now will develop the skills, experiences, and beliefs to solve what you can’t yet.

Solving what they could when they could is how every expert became an expert. Inaction keeps everyone else from growth.

My response to my friend:

Trying to solve everything before doing anything leads to getting nothing done.

If solving toothpaste isn’t obvious, work on what you can do now.

Even if other things seem small—avoiding what food packaging you can, driving less, turning off the water while brushing or shaving, etc—you develop skills, beliefs, and experiences that enable big changes that now seem beyond your abilities.

It’s like lifting weights or starting companies.

Lifting weights that are heavy for you, no matter how light for an experienced weightlifter, enables you to lift heavier weights later. Starting a small venture, even on the scale of a lemonade stand, enables you to start bigger ventures later.

Not only does starting small works, everyone who got big started that way too.

Practicing it with reducing waste is an effective place to start, but you can do it anywhere.

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