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Chelsea Zero Waste Coalition: sustainability in coronavirus times

Courtesy photo. Washing daily harvest from 2019.

By Chelsea Zero Waste Coalition member Megan Trenary

Megan Trenary studied medical anthropology at the University of Michigan and later went on to become a nurse and lactation consultant. She has lived in Chelsea since 2012, loves to garden, and has two composting-savvy kids. 

Resourcefulness and sustainable living are often born of necessity on an individual level.

If the Coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything at this point, every individual’s choices can have an impact on one’s family, friends, and greater community. 

Living sustainably supports a more balanced ecosystem, which we as humans depend on. Any imbalance impacts our food supply, food costs, safety, and property values, just to name a few.

There is even a relationship between the Earth’s ecosystem and pandemic viruses. The relationship is complex, and not always fully understood. If you would like to learn more, I would recommend reading The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett (see link to an expert review).

My grandparents were children during the Great Depression and thus were raised to be resourceful. They did well for themselves and rose from poverty to the upper middle class. While they did enjoy frivolities, they were good at saving. As I look back on how they lived, I can see how their formative years made them grateful for the things that they had as adults.

My grandfather was a lifelong gardener, my grandmother cooked simple meals and did not believe in wasting food, and they volunteered for Meals on Wheels late into retirement. If need be, they could have done without and they always tried to help others who were less fortunate.

Humans are incredibly adaptable. One individual can experience a myriad of life changes and nearly forget what their own life standards were from one year to the next. We all have our stories; it would be insulting to try and compare one person to the next.

However, I will try and use the example of car ownership to make a point.

Let’s say you do not own a car and do not have the resources to do so. In this case, you would greatly value public transportation. Down the road, you come into a functioning vehicle. You do not care what it looks like or what model it is, you only care if it gets you to work on time.

You have now been able to get to a better job and have the resources to have a nicer car. Your standards change. You get the nicer car, but then you lose your job. You cannot make your car payments and have to go back to public transportation.

You are probably pretty disappointed. But you used to be grateful for having bus access. What changed? Just your standards. Your expectations for comfort, image, and convenience. It probably won’t take long before you are content with the bus again.

Can one individual with more resources be comfortable living as if they had less resources? Would you ever consider taking the bus just to save gas even though you have a car? If you have the ability to pay for a cleaning service, does that mean that you are incapable of cleaning for yourself?

Of course not.

Just because you have the ability to throw as much trash in the dump as you desire, does that mean you are incapable of composting your food scraps or sorting your recyclables? No.

Courtesy photo. A bee feeds on an early food source.

You could always go to the hardware store and buy a bag full of ready-made compost. But what if you just made it yourself with what you were going to throw away anyway? How hard would that really be?

It takes the following ingredients that you typically send to the curb: non-meat or dairy food scraps, raked leaves, and maybe some grass clippings. The ground worms find it and do the rest.

With proper set up, you can have a smell-free, home grown pile of “black gold” ready for your personal veggie patch. It requires less work than raking or bagging everything for the curb and then driving to the store, loading, transporting, and redistributing the same end product back to your garden. It is certainly a lot cheaper.

We are all feeling the impact of the Coronavirus. I have been repeating the mantra “I can only control what I can control” to maintain a sense of calm and to find productive ways to spend the time at home. It turns out many of the things that I can control benefit both my family and a healthy ecosystem.

In the grand scheme, by adapting to this new normal by being more resourceful, I am also doing my part to help the planet find its equilibrium. 

Here are a few timely suggestions for simplifying your life in the time of COVID-19:

Toilet paper: This seems to be a hot commodity. I have to admit, for all of my “greening” efforts, I have not yet lost the need for it. But when the resource is scarce…maybe, just maybe, we could consider a bidet?

Apparently bidet sales are soaring in the face of the toilet paper crisis. (As Toilet Paper Flies off Shelves, Bidet Sales Go Boom-Boom)

Paper towel: I hardly ever use it. It is reserved for cleaning up biohazard-level messes like vomit, blood, or stool. Luckily, we rarely deal with that.

We use towels and rags with the appropriate solution for everyday surface cleaning. One rag is designated for each area. If the rag can’t be rinsed out properly and hung to dry, then it is put in a laundry pile reserved for dirty rags. That laundry load is then washed on a hot and heavy cycle.

If necessary, I will use disinfecting bleach in that laundry load. Short on rags? Old towels, t-shirts, and bed sheets are great for cleaning muddy paws and boot prints or for cutting up as rags.

Trash bag liners: I don’t know if these are in short supply because we stopped using them. For a while we re-used our plastic grocery bags, but since we have mostly transitioned to reusable shopping bags in lieu of plastic bags, we stopped lining our trash cans all together.

Many people still need to clean their trash bin out after removing the bag anyway. Of course, since we stopped throwing food waste (re: composting) and saturated paper waste (re: switched to rags) into the trash, we don’t actually need to wipe the bin down very often. We just dump the dry trash directly into the orange bag. Bonus. We produce so little trash that this process is very infrequent, and we only need to keep small trash bins in the kitchen and bathrooms.

Bottles of hand sanitizer: Use bar soap (less packaging) and warm water at home. Wash for at least 20 seconds. Good old soap and water is more effective at cleaning your hands anyway. (Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings | Handwashing)

Fresh, healthy food: There is data that the virus can live on a variety of surfaces for an extended period of time (Data). Some people are saying you should even be cleaning the packaging of your groceries (Doctors weigh in on people cleaning groceries). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could make a healthy salad without going to the store?

When the food supply was impacted during the World Wars families were encouraged to start “Victory Gardens” as a way to stay healthy and support the war effort (America’s Patriotic Victory Gardens). What a great idea. Salad greens are remarkably easy to grow, and this is a great time to start a garden. Even if you do not have a yard, you can plant some seeds in a container. Chelsea Farmers Supply has all the necessary supplies, will remain open, and can arrange the details with you over the phone (Chelsea Farmers Supply). You might also consider accessing fresh food directly from small, local farms. The Chelsea Farmers Market and the Local Food Summit are compiling a list of farmers who are taking on-line orders (Local Food Summit).

This is probably a good time to mention that we all need to stop spraying our yards to kill things like dandelions, which are edible (Value of Dandelions). Dandelions:

1) Kids love them

2) They are an early source of pollen for bees. Why that’s important: News Article: Declining bee populations pose threat to global food security and nutrition

3) Dandelion greens are nutritious and go well on a salad. (Dandelion Recipe & Nutrition)

4) We could all use more color and less chemicals in our lives.

Cooking: Learn how to get back to basics with whole foods and simple ingredients. If you have certain staples in your pantry you can make many healthy meals from scratch without stressing about what prepackaged foods were available at the store. This was not my strong suit until I was forced to adapt to life with Celiac disease. At first, I felt dependent on expensive prepacked specialty foods until I learned to cook with whole foods. If I could do it, you can, too.

Breadmaking: It is a lost art for many. I still have it on my to-do list of skills to learn since my gluten free bread is so expensive. A friend shared the following links for sourdough bread:  Sourdough Starter, Feeding and Maintaining Your Sourdough Starter

Meal Planning: Planning meals ahead of time will help you to avoid multiple runs to the grocery store and can also save you money and time. Always go to the store with a list and a plan. Give AnyList a try. And please do not hoard food; we are all in this together.

Cooperative Shopping: If you and your friends have multiple stores to go to, why don’t you split up the task so that each person only has to go to one store? You can drop the groceries off at their door and have them Venmo you the money (Venmo – Share Payments). Work together to avoid unnecessary exposure to the virus and save time and gas in the process.

Feminine and Infant Hygiene: Reusable products are commonly used but less often spoken about. They will save you money and reduce a significant amount of landfill waste. And yes, they are healthy alternatives. 

Women: There are many useful options out there sitting on the shelves of your everyday stores. If you go on-line you can find even more options. Switching to another method can be intimidating but you will not regret trying. Do your research and talk to some friends; trust me. A starting point: Saalt Menstrual Cups | Period Care Simplified, The DivaCup – A Better Period Experience | Easy To Use Menstrual Cup, Cloth Pads – Frequently Asked Questions about GladRags, The Best Period Underwear for 2020

Infants: Cloth diapering was the only option up until recent history. Disposables are wonderful, but if you can’t access them, try cloth. They can be an investment depending on the method you choose, but over time you save a lot of money.

There is no shortage of information on Pinterest if you would like to learn more, and it does not take long to master. I had two kids in cloth diapers at one point and even my husband and mom were happy with the process. Simple cloth diapers, fancy cloth diapers

Wipes: These can also be made of cloth. Soak them in a gentle solution of soap and water, and then throw them into the wash with the diapers.

These are strange and uncertain times. We will all adapt as needed, but we can also make the choice to proactively change our ways. We can make the choice to live sustainably, regardless of our circumstances, because everyone’s health depends on it.

If you have another suggestion that you would like to share, please do so in the comments section or join the Chelsea Zero Waste Coalition.

Our next meeting will be virtual on April 7 at 7 p.m. More details to come.

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2 thoughts on “Chelsea Zero Waste Coalition: sustainability in coronavirus times”

  1. Megan, this is a very informative article. Good job! In it you referred to practices during the depression. We learned many of them as children and then to changed to “convenient” ones. As I look at some of the shortages we have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a good time to recall many of them: reusing aluminum foil, making rags from unusable clothes, making cleansing/disinfecting solutions, etc. These are called “green options” now but are the same things are elders used to save money and to make do with what they had. I hope we all remember in them for the post-pandemic days!

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