This is how I spent my day, but it’s not unusual. It’s fairly typical of how we live these days, and I wanted to give a baseline of how life is at Chez Tracey before the Plastic Purge begins. Note my regal attire, left, as I hold my royal scepter and show off my tiara. It’s not easy being the Queen of Green, you know.
Outside (photo): I’m in our vegetable garden, which I’ve grown every year except the handful of years I lived in apartments in San Francisco and elsewhere. But even on my apartment balcony in Concord, a jillion years ago, I grew tomatoes, herbs and strawberries. What can I say? I’m a farmgirl at heart. Behind me in the photo are two compost bins, both from Freecycle, because I have that much going on with my green waste. We don’t put much into the green bin on trash day unless it’s big branches; we compost everything else (or feed it to the chickens). I also have a separate spot where I compost the cat litter in winter (far from any food or recreation — outside the fence, if you must know.) If you didn’t know this already, animal waste is a major source of greenhouse gasses, and the clay cat litter is a BAD environmental choice; the U.S. Geological Survey that 2.14 million tons of clay is strip-mined each year for kitty litter. Start using wheat chaff or shredded newspapers, because that clay litter is bad news.
Back to the photo: I’m standing on mulch that we got for free when a neighbor had a tree chopped down. The raised beds are made from scrap lumber and found wood — one is a former dresser and another is made from a broken park bench — both creative reuses that kept stuff out of landfill. The round vegetable planters are former wine barrels — a Craigslist find. The stepping stones were scavenged, a few at a time. I think even the clothes I’m wearing in the photo are second-hand. Because why not? We rarely buy new here, partly because we (I mean our family as well as the Western world) already have more stuff (that we don’t even use) than we could possibly need in five lifetimes. We continue to work on downsizing and simplifying, and the upcoming Plastic Purge is part of that goal.
So: my Green Day.
After the cats and chickens are fed, watered and let out to roam the yard, I make coffee — trying to judge how much we’ll reasonably drink in one day. Leftover coffee gets poured into a container and used as hair rinse (try it if you’re a brunette; it helps cover gray naturally); I also freeze it as ice cubes during summer to use in iced coffee. After making a pot, I turn off/unplug the maker and pour the fresh coffee into a Thermos pitcher, which keeps it hot but not acid and bitter all day. Saves energy, and the coffee doesn’t get gross from reheating. I found the Thermos at the Portland Goodwill for $1. If there is any leftover or funky coffee any other time, I pour it on the compost. By the way, a few years ago I bought a copper mesh coffee filter and use it every day. I have not purchased another package of coffee filters in four years. I bought the filter at Lucky and it cost about $9, a great “green” purchase.
If it’s a work or school day, I make lunches, but I have not used plastic wrap, baggies, paper napkins, paper towels or lunch bags for many years. I do use waxed paper (compostable) and I make great use of Tupperware and other reusable containers (yes, these are plastic). I put real spoons, forks and cloth napkins in everyone’s lunches. You think your kid will forget and throw the spoon away? Maybe once or twice (buy a couple of thrift-store spoons til they get with the program). As with any new scheme, it takes a little while to get used to. Mistakes happen. But in the long run, it’s a more sound ecological practice to use and reuse your own silverware and napkins and Tuppers than it is to throw away a plastic bag or fork or a paper towel after one use.
I work at home so I don’t have a commuting cost — how green is that? My usual day includes household chores like laundry — which I try to wash early in the day so I can hang the clothes to dry. If it’s later in the day, I’ll just set the basket of damp stuff aside til morning; I might hang wet clothes on our small indoor drying rack or put them on hangers to air dry inside.
Since we air-dry on the line, that means ironing. Dry cleaning uses lots of harmful chemicals, plus the plastic bags, so I use this service only for silk, tuxedo shirts or delicate eveningwear or maybe a vintage dress. Ironing is a commitment of one or two hours a week for shirts, pants, and other odds and ends. I don’t iron our cloth napkins — it just isn’t that important to us. And that goes for sheets, too.
Since I’m at home during the day, I’m able to cook from scratch — dry beans, bread, cookies, soups and stews — these have no extra packaging or processing, better for our health and the planet. I spend a portion of most days in the garden pulling weeds, watering or other yard chores — this keeps it organic, since I don’t use Round-up or fuel-powered machines like a Weed-whacker. I compost or feed to the chickens whatever I pull up, weed-wise. Dandelions are a delicious treat for the hennies. Plus, any slugs or snails are literally dead meat when I find them — chickens make very short work of the poor little mollusks.
I have many errands to run every week — my shopping routine is much more like hunting and gathering, and I find it serves us best if I do it myself in the car. I make a meticulous list, take a snack or lunch and my own water or coffee, music for the car, and plenty of cloth bags. I shop locally and in bulk if possible, and I keep my mileage/gas to 25 miles or fewer per week. I also go on my errands in a circular route so that I am not backtracking, and will often park in a central location and walk to several stops. My errands include the grocery store, shops for bulk buys, the bank, the post office and the library. These are not shopping trips for pleasure, although I find it very satisfying as I provide for my family. But shopping as a hobby is not sustainable in any possible way, and is terrible for our household budget, besides. We are much more financially secure since we eliminated recreational shopping from our lives.
In the afternoon, after the massive erranding, the putting away of provisions, the checking in on the finances, and the completing of work-related writing and research, I chill out with a glass of homemade sun-tea (zero calories, zero energy, and costs about 5 cents a gallon to make). I knit or crochet (usually with rescued yarn), read books from the library (free) or magazines from the Friends of the Library magazine exchange (free). When the Boy gets home from school (he walks or rides his skateboard, since he has those two healthy legs and school is just a mile away), he has a snack, does homework and plays some video games with friends (his limit is one hour a day, 2 hours a day in summer).
Between then and bedtime, there are more animal chores (collect eggs, put chickens back in the coop with fresh water, hose down patio after chickens visited and pooped), plus dinner to cook, dishes to wash, and usually a mountain of laundry to fold. Some nights there’s kung fu or a baseball game to go to, or a movie we want to watch together. My daughters and Mr. Husband get home from work via the ferry and Bart or the bus. We eat dinner together as a family (proven to improve healthy, welfare and the state of the world as we know it) and I turn in early — 9 pm, so I can read some more before sleep.
Is that much different from your life? In what ways could you greenify? I could ride my bike more — many of those errands can be done on a bike. That’s on my list, and so is exercising more — by walking or biking. And I’ve got to stop Mr. Husband from bringing home another plastic bag, after forgetting the reusable one.
How green is your valley, anyway?
Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning journalist, author, and blogger. She is the author of six books: three novels, one poetry collection, and two women's history. She was the Poet Laureate of Alameda, California, in 2014-17. She's also the conservatrix of The Doris Diaries, the diaries of her great-aunt Doris Bailey Murphy. She has a BA in journalism from San Francisco State University, and MA in Early 20th C. British Literature from Cal State Hayward. Julia's articles have appeared on Salon, Thrillist, Paste, Scary Mommy, Narratively, Yahoo News, Your Tango, and Sweatpants & Coffee. Her articles have also run in Redbook, Woman's Day, Country Living, House Beautiful, Town & Country, the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Magazine, Quill, and MadeLocal. She was the founding editor of weekly Alameda Sun and literary zine Red Hills Review. Her poetry has been in The East Bay Literary review, Postcard Poems, Americus Review, Cicada, Tiferet Review, and many others. Julia has been recognized several times by the San Francisco, East Bay and Peninsula Press Clubs as well as the California Newspaper Association for her blogging since 2003.