About a year ago it occurred to me that I’d become somewhat complacent in my journey toward living lighter on this planet, our one and only shared home. Indeed, as they say, there’s no Planet B! I’d transitioned to plant-based eating, and because this is thought to be the single most effective way we as individuals can reduce our environmental impact (e.g. here), I figured my work was done. But was it?

I started questioning my commitment to the environment, which is degrading before our eyes at a very alarming rate. I knew there were additional enviro-friendly steps I could take if I only chose to. I realised I had no good reason to stop the journey forward. “Ugg” was my thought. More effort, and more uncomfortable change ahead.

But then two thoughts came to my mind which proved very helpful. The first was that most things in life that are important and that we value require effort and sacrifice. Think of our education, our career or raising kids. The second was that I knew from past experience that my sense of happiness, purpose and fulfillment would remain intact despite any and all further steps to aid planet earth. Sure it can be inconvenient, and sure I might forgo some creature comforts, but my life would go on. Not only would my life go on, but I knew I would feel a heightened sense of accomplishment and pride because my actions would be more closely aligned with my values.

I think of the changes that ensued as ‘tweaks’. Nothing revolutionary, but movement in a positive direction. I knew that I could set the stage for long-term success by starting slowly and gradually layering on new strategies. I thought of them as experiments and tried to be curious about the outcomes. I didn’t know how they’d go, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. With that, here’s what I tried in the food and beverage realm, and how it went.

Experiment #1: Embrace The Reusable Mug

We’ve all heard about the sheer volume of single-use disposable coffee cups being doled out these days. I purchase coffee on-the-go a couple times a week, and wanted to explore using a reusable mug for it. My first step was to find a mug that I liked, was functional and easy enough to clean. I lucked out with one of Klean Kanteen’s insulated stainless steel travel mugs. The size is just right for me, and the purple colour I chose gives me a lift. The game changer is the café cap, which is designed to keep the coffee hot but also sippable. It seems my mug’s no longer available, but here’s the new version.

The second step was to take it for a test run. Would it be awkward to have this mug filled at my fave coffee shops? Would it ruin the experience that I so enjoyed? Well it turns out the process is pretty slick. I found coffee spots big and small willing to accommodate me and my mug. And most places even give a small discount. I actually think bringing our reusable mugs for coffee or tea will become the new norm, just like bringing reusable shopping bags to the grocery store has.

The two inconveniences have been cleaning it after I use it, and ensuring I have it with me when I want to pick up a drink. Both of these are easily enough overcome with a little extra planning and attention. From my perspective it’s been totally worth the extra effort!

Experiment #2: Blend For The Win-Win

I was disturbed by reports like this one of recycling brokers dumping in landfills stuff they were contracted to recycle. Another concern about recycling is that it takes resources to do it. Further, many items we put in our blue bin (like those coffee cups on my city’s list of recylables) likely can’t even be recycled. Recalling the wisdom of the “3 Rs” (reduce, reuse, recycle) I decided to try to focus a bit more on reducing instead of recycling. My first idea was to try to make, instead of buy, plant-based milk in order to skip the cartons.

Enter my blender! I splurged on a high-speed Vitamix a few years ago and it’s been one of my favourite purchases ever. To reduce the price a bit and to rock the “reuse”, you can buy these beauties certified reconditioned (see here). But really we can use any decent blender to make plant-based milk (I started with the Oster Beehive).

I’d been making amazing cashew cream for my coffee, and love that it requires no straining. It’s less work and we don’t lose any nutrition because we’re not removing any pulp. So my first step was to find the best ratio of raw cashews to water for a milk-like consistency. After a bit of trial and error, I found that a blend of 125 mL of raw cashews and 1 litre of water was just right.

The inconvenience factor here is the advance planning required to have raw cashews on hand and ideally soaking them before blending. I actually purchased some cartons of milk to have on hand for when I missed the boat, but I haven’t needed them yet. On the few occasions we ran out of milk, we just got around it till I could blend up some more. The added bonus of making our own milk is that it costs about a third of the price, assuming I buy the raw cashews at Costco. That was the second “win”!

Experiment #3: Prepare For The Produce

Five plus years ago I purchased three mesh produce bags at a cool little market I used to frequent in Toronto. And then I never used them. I’ve always minimized my use of plastic produce bags, but the fact of the matter was that I did still use them. After hearing news about all the harm our excessive plastic use is causing our planet, I faced the fact that I could do better, and it would start with those mesh bags.

Remember when it was thought a bit strange to bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store? Considering how far we’ve come as a society in this regard, I knew getting into the habit of bringing and using my mesh bags was highly feasible. Just like my travel mug, I just needed to give this change a bit of attention. Indeed, this switch was no big deal at all. Whenever I unpack groceries, I put the mesh bags back into the shopping bags and put them into my car for the next time. Done.

Experiment #4: Keep Those Mason Jars Moving

I think mason jars are just great! They’re inexpensive (especially at thrift stores), dishwasher safe, leak-proof, long lasting, the glass doesn’t interact with the food like plastic can, and they seal perfectly to keep things fresh. I have a lovely array of sizes, and have many in use at any given time. Last year they received a new calling in the form of bulk food shopping.

I knew that Bulk Barn started a Reusable Container Program, but I hadn’t yet jumped on board. To be honest, I had concerns about bulk food being less fresh than packaged. And yet I was buying some bulk food there and using those dreaded plastic bags when I did so! How would my trusty mason jars work with the reusable container program? I was going to find out.

It was a little frustrating at first: upon arrival at the store my jars kept getting rejected because the cashier would find signs of residue on them (such as where water had pooled and dried on them). So I started double-checking my jars before heading to the store, and that did the trick.

The inconvenience factor here (aside from getting in the habit of bringing jars) is that the cashier has to tare the jars before I start filling them. If there’s a line-up, this extra step can certainly eat up time. On the plus-side, Bulk Barn started on a routine basis offering discounts specifically for people bringing their own containers. And I as got into the swing of things, I started becoming less concerned about the food freshness…did it really matter if my dried coconut, cranberries or lentils were super fresh? Was there even a discernable difference? Likely not. And so I now buy some items in bulk that I used to buy pre-packaged in plastic in the grocery store. I still don’t buy foods in bulk that are known to quickly deteriorate in nutritional quality, such as nuts and seeds.

I’m excited about the future of zero waste and bulk buying opportunities. I know it’s going to really take off, and there are going to be lots of fabulous options. A case in point is a store I visited while in Victoria, BC last year that sells, among many other things, bulk coffee, condiments, vegan cheese and crackers!

And So It Continues

This past year of trying to do routine things in new ways for the good of the planet reminded me of something I think I’d kind of forgotten. And that is my capacity for change. We all possess it. When the thought of making a change seems daunting, it may help to be crystal clear about the connection between the change we want to make and what we truly value in life. Perhaps that’s Mother Earth, a relationship, our livelihood, an athletic pursuit, or something else. Once we identify it, we can then let that motivate us along the path to change.

With that, I must be on my way…I have a few new experiments to get started!