By Bonnie Pariser
The NY Times ran an article on the 17th about refill shops. (Thank you to all the people who sent it to me. I in fact did not see it on Sunday so I appreciate the heads up!) The last paragraph of the article reminded me that I intended to write about convenience in a newsletter months ago, and this statement rekindled that desire. Here is the statement in case you can't access the article:
“It’s incredible that we, as a society, feel entitled to create garbage that will last forever for something we’re going to use for 90 minutes in aggregate. That is an insane paradigm.”
I am sure we can all agree that using something that is disposible after one or two uses is one of the ways our lives have become more convenient.
My teacher recently challenged us to investigate what we lose for the sake of convenience. Naturally I have been thinking about this, and found that a second part to that question- How do I resort to entitlement and privilege to make things more convenient? If we agree that convience costs us something, does it makes sense if we add entitlement to it, the payment will be higher?
I want to come clean by admitting that I bank at "America's most convenient bank" (as their tag line goes). I can't say for sure its more convinent for all people, but it is right downtown, and that makes it easy for me. I just checked and saw that TD Bank does not win any awards for investing in ethical businesses. They do not make any of the top 15 lists of eithical banks. I recall a friend withdrawing all of her money out of TD bank a while ago for this reason. While I thought that was very courageous of her, I was not willing to go through the effort of following her lead. I figured that since she was wealthy and didn't work she had the time to do this, and so her privilege allowed her the freedom to make an ethical choice. But it was also my privilege that allowed me to not change since I did not feel directly impacted by the investments the bank makes. Actually my privilege allowed me to not even know how TD invests their (my) money.
Do we fail ourselves when we choose convenience? If there is something we truly believe in, but we choose not to do it because it is out of our way, or too hard, or no one else is doing it, how will that sit in our heart? It is a good question to ask ourselves, if we can do so in a non-judgmental way. And the kicker is to not judge all the people who are not doing what we see as right action. We have enough work to do inside this head of ours, foisting our morally correct action on others is just distracting us for cleaning up our own house. This part is not easy, believe me I know that! Do I cringe when I see people buying plastic water bottles by the case? (Which to me is very different than buying one once in a while if you forgot to bring your own.) Did I chastise my husband for bringing home yet another large bottle of Panteen conditioner? (Check the blog for the first part of that fun story). Am I surreptitiously leaving coupons for Eco Loka at houses that I see have plastic buckets of plastic pods in their laundry rooms? Yes, yes yes!! Guilty on all accounts. While these encounters inspire me to keep up the work of telling people about the plastics problem, and providing a possible solution, they also remind me to not be in the place of pointing a finger. Instead, I strive to see where I allow convience to forgo following through with the work it takes to do and be what my heart tells me to do. The foundation of a yoga practice is effort, self study and surrender (yoga sutras chapter 2 verse 1). All of this falls under that. While I would like to point a finger at the USA for being the number 2 country for carbon emissions, I also have to see when I am driving needlessly. Is it because I think my 100-mile trip in the car is going to make a difference in the 5,416 million tons of CO2 that we emit in a year? No. However, it makes a difference to my heart to not just be the one who points, but to be the one who acts.
In the Bhagavad Gita, seeking "right action" is explained by Krishna to Arjuna. Krishna emphasizes that it is not just about knowing what to do (consider how easy life would be if we always knew what to do!) but also when to do it. Krishna is really teaching Arjuna how to be a "right actor". The work we need to do to become a right actor (the one who knows what action is for the highest good and when to do it) is never convenient. And, it never includes the "you should be doing this!" In the beginning of the story we see Arjuna as willing to pay for what he thought was right action with his reputation of being a fearless warrior. By the end of the book Arjuna is willing to place not only his life on the line for right action, but the lives of all the people he loves and respects. We are usually not asked to pay such a high price! Once we start to see the hidden cost of not responding to right action, we might be willing eschew convenience for something that requires a bit more work.
Did you see the article in the NY Times about the guy that tries to exist for one day without using any plastic at all? Not surprisingly, he had to take some extreme actions (like bringing a wooden chair to sit on when using the subway) and had to make many exceptions (like using a plastic Metrocard to get on the subway).
You can click here to read the story, but keep in mind that reading this might be a bit overwhelming. If you are considering using less plastic in your life, an eye to sustainable change is a better idea.
Going plastic-free can require some drastic and uncomfortable lifestyle changes. That level of discomfort can mean those changes might not last. You will need to consider your family, or other people you live with, the culture of your workplace, and your lifestyle in general. Think of it as steering a Celebrity cruise ship. I have never manned the turning thing in a ship like that (really, any kind of ship) but I do know it takes time to make the turn- you just can’t make a sharp turn with a large vessel like that. You need to factor in the current of the water, the current speed you are going, and respect the machinery that you are using.
It might surprise you to know that I am still using my dish soap and shampoo from Costco. I bought it a long time ago in as big a vessel as I could find (to cut down on smaller bottle use). I was so incredibly excited when 2 weeks ago we finally got through the last large bottle of shampoo! Finally I could fill it at Eco Loka. Then, something happened that I honestly never saw coming- my son ordered more of the same shampoo. He saw we were out, and in an unprecedented move, he replenished our shampoo stock. I thanked him, and then explained to him we would not be buying new stuff in plastic anymore. (Why he was surprised at that, I am not sure. He was after all the person who schlepped all the bulk liquid products onto a table for me and helped me install the pumps.) Ok, whatever, at least one more now on board. I took the now empty bottle and washed it out, figuring I would bring it to the store for someone else to use. Then it disappeared. In near panic I asked my husband what happened to the bottle. “I put it in the recycling” he told me gleefully. When I looked at him with a mixture of disbelief, surprise and apparently something else, he told me he would fish it out of the tub ASAP. Again, I did not open the refill store in secret- my whole family was watching and helping… but somehow the idea of keeping new plastic out of the house, and reusing current plastic didn’t quite sink in.
I am not completely innocent either of course. I went in person to the restaurant that my son had been ordering from for months. I was happy to know I would not need the plastic containers they send the take-out in. I had no idea that they would bring the food to the table in plastic containers and give out plastic water bottles. Sigh. Can I bring my own plates to the restaurant next time and ask them to use that for my food? I am not sure. I know I can bring my own cutlery and water bottle. Of course I can also just not go, but I would like to support this guy who is new in business and working like crazy, taking orders, cooking and serving (which is most likely why he is using plastic to serve- it is a one man show there). And on top of all of that, the food is really good.
We are all starting somewhere. Most likely we started not thinking much about all the plastic that has been worming its way into our lives. Then we might start to make choices at the store, choosing things sold in glass or paper over plastic. Then we might start to say “no” to certain items and find other things we can use that do not create plastic waste.
You can check this blog for a list of ways to either get started or continue in your plastic-less lifestyle. Do what you can and what will last, not what feels very extreme and what your family will not get onboard with. Take your time and be kind to yourself. That kindness you extend to yourself will result in kindness to the earth and everything that lives on it.
A big part of my yoga practice has been self-study, the aspect of yoga that requires us to investigate our own habits, inclinations, and recurring behaviors.
One of my favorite teaching stories inspires self-study: There was once a man who blamed a neighbor for ruining his rose bushes, believing that the neighbor drove into them every morning when he set out for work. Over time, the man got so worked up about his neighbor, it became almost unbearable — until one day he suddenly realized it had been his car all along. The man’s own careless driving had ruined the roses.
We’ve all had the “aha” experience of recognizing in ourselves things that annoy us so much when others do them. That’s what makes self-study so valuable. It teaches us humility, patience, and acceptance — of ourselves as well as others.
The decision to open a refill store suggested a self-study challenge, which was to see how much single-use plastic I discard in a week. I started this last week. Instead of throwing the plastics away or tossing them into the recycling bin, I put them it in a (reusable) shopping bag. I couldn't collect everything (too messy or I was far from my shopping bag), and probably missed collecting about a third of what I used. Still, what I had saved was a revelation. Naturally, I tried not to veer from my usual usage during my challenge… but that is one of the things that happens when you begin to observe yourself — things do change. Of course, change is part of the plan.
On the eve of the Third Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, then-President George H. W. Bush is reported to have said, “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” Though it may have felt like the last word on the matter for Bush, time has shown that a significant number of American’s didn’t agree. And more and more disagree every day.
People are complex, aren’t we? We all feel there are things in our lives that are not up for negotiation, and many really aren’t. But often enough we come to learn we are able to change things we imagined were non-negotiable. That’s particularly true when self-observation allows us to recognize another way. I may never give up that spontaneous paper cup of chai when out with friends, but I can remember to take my travel mug when I deliberately head for the coffee shop. Or maybe I just say no thank you to the plastic lid which is something I don’t usually do when I don’t have my travel mug.
So how am I doing now? Well, it’s a work in progress. I am happy to share that I won't have to buy shampoo and conditioner in those plastic containers anymore. Ditto for laundry detergent. Still, there is still the occasional plastic bottle and sandwich bag. What I know for sure is that if I took this picture last year the bag would be much fuller.
So, back to the self-study challenge. Part One: If you want to join me, for one week collect the plastics you would otherwise have thrown away (or recycled). If it’s clean and you’re local, I’ll take it and put it to good use. Some will become part of a community installation we are going to create in front of Eco Loka at 23 Race Street. Snap a photo and send it to me, and we can arrange a drop-off of your salvaged plastic at the stordio (my combo word for store and studio). Part Two: At the end of six months, repeat the challenge then take another photo and compare the results. We’ll collect and display the pairs of photos at the stordio so we can see the impact of our collective efforts.
This isn't a contest, of course. It’s just an opportunity for self-study, a way of observing our habits to see whether we’re able to change ones we otherwise might imagine are not negotiable.
I hope you’ll join us.