Zero Waste Moving

Zero Impact Goals has been silent for the past few weeks, and I’m sorry about that.

I’ve just moved from Tokyo, Japan back to my childhood home in Massachusetts, USA  after three years of living and working in Tokyo. This has been a huge adjustment for me, not just because of the move itself, but also because I have had to confront all of the stuff I have accumulated over the past three years.

My problem with Minimalism

When I set out to create this blog, I never considered myself a minimalist, despite how often the minimalist and environmentalist communities overlap. To me, minimalism was always associated with the tastefully bare designs of MUJI or a slightly scaled up Ikea, but always inescapably tied to some form of consumerism. I saw minimalism as a design aesthetic, rather than a lifestyle. And I wasn’t interested in the hypocrisy of purchasing stuff to give the impression that I had less stuff, you know?

“I saw minimalism as a design aesthetic, rather than a lifestyle.”

Through my experience moving out of my Tokyo apartment, however, I had my minimalist epiphany. Despite what Pinterest or Instagram had led me to believe, minimalism is less about the beautiful natural wood and plain white porcelain aesthetics, (duh!) and more about being intentional about what material things you bring into your life, choosing them for their usefulness in your particular lifestyle, and not because it’s the latest thing.

Confronting the mess

The thing about moving is, it sucks. Hard. This is no less true for my tiny Tokyo apartment. In the three years I had lived in this 21 meter squared space, you would not believe the amount of stuff I had accumulated. In my misguided attempt to make it feel like home I thought filling it with my stuff would do the trick. So when it came to the end of my time in Japan, I found myself dealing with a seemingly infinite amount of clothes, shoes, spices, dishes, hobby thingamajigs, furniture, and on and on. Minimalism suddenly made sense to me. Luckily for me, and perhaps for us all, moving offers us a chance to wipe the slate clean. The task then simplified to figuring out whether I could give any of my stuff away to someone who would use it, and if so, to whom.

Trying to Reuse in Japan

My goal for trying to sell or give away things rather than just throw them out was to extend the lifespan of each item, and hopefully prevent it from languishing in a landfill when there was someone who would get additional use from it. However, in selling/giving away nearly all of my earthly possessions, I discovered an unforeseen difficulty; Japanese people, in general, do not like to purchase or own secondhand items. This shocked me, especially because of the reputation Japan has for being such an environmentally-friendly country and the rise of thrift-store fashion in trendy places like Harajuku. I have heard all sorts of reasons for this squeamishness, everything from Shinto theology to superstition to materialism, and I will not attempt to guess why this is true. Nevertheless, I had the hardest time trying to sell or give away anything to recycle shops in Tokyo. One particularly egregious example is of a secondhand furniture company, who tried to charge me $100 for them to dispose of (not re-sell!) a basically new couch simply because it was not an import brand. I ended up giving most things away to friends or other westerners in Japan who weren’t put off by secondhand goods.

Back in the land of Capitalism

So, spoiler altert- I eventually made it back to the old US of A. I’ve been here for about two weeks now, and although I’m still adjusting to both the time zone and the reverse culture shock, I have been able to keep my possessions to a minimum (so far) and have added some sustainable habits, such as composting, to my routine here that I was unable to do in Japan. Hopefully now that I’m back I’ll be able to post more regular updates to this blog, so please keep checking back. I will speak to you soon!

One Week of Waste

Japan has a reputation for being an extremely eco-conscious country. Living in the capital, Tokyo, should make it easy for me to lead a sustainable lifestyle, right? Well, not so much.

I started off this week with the goal of trying to reduce my consumption of single use products as much as possible, and quickly found that it was going to be harder than I thought.

Day 1 – Friday

I started tracking my garbage on a Friday because that’s when burnable garbage, the most common type of trash I generate, is collected. In Japan, we (add link to bunbetsu post)separate our garbage into a lot of different categories to ensure that everything is recycled properly. With all of last week’s garbage out for pickup, I can have a clean slate.

I had the day off today, so I used the day to finish up some projects I have been working on lately. For dinner I made some curry, and to give you an idea of just how much waste is a byproduct of the food industry in Japan, I took a photo of the standard plastic packaging used for fresh produce here.

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Day 2 – Saturday

Saturday was more of a chill day- I spent it doing some chores around the house. One thing that I’ve really come to like about Japan is how everyone hang-dries their laundry. Well, it’s handy in the summer, but in the winter it can take a full day to dry.

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I have been on a bit of a spending freeze lately, trying to save up some money for when my sister visits me in a few weeks, which is actually helping me to cut down on the amount of waste I’m producing because I have to be really intentional about the things I buy.

Day 3 – Sunday

Another chill day on Sunday. The weather has been fluctuating a bunch lately and I find that tends to make me feel kind of lethargic. A day of self-pampering at home was just what I needed to get ready for the work week. Check out the post I wrote about some of the spa products you can make with ingredients you have around your home when it comes out sometime next week.

Day 4 – Monday

Back to work today. I usually pack lunch, but sometimes when I forget or don’t have enough time in the mornings I buy lunch from the convenience store, which means a lot of packaging. One thing about Japanese workplaces that makes it pretty hard to achieve a zero waste lifestyle is the custom of giving small gifts of food (all individually wrapped) whenever someone travels, or even just when people feel like it. My office at the school where I teach on Mondays and Wednesdays is particularly close, so I’m constantly fending off little gifts of food. Today though, I was given one of those chocolate-covered ice cream popsicles, and couldn’t pass it up.

Day 5 – Tuesday

I was at a different office on Tuesday, and actually didn’t have too much actual work to do. I used the day to work on some upcoming posts for Zero Impact Goals, which I should be rolling out soon. After work I met up with some friends for a birthday celebration at an all-you-can-eat kushiage restaurant.

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Kushiage is basically little morsels of fried food on a bamboo skewer, and you can easily eat between 20-50 skewers in a meal. As you can imagine, this generates a lot of waste per person, even though bamboo is both sustainable and biodegradable, as well as readily abundant here in Japan. In Shinjuku, where the restaurant is, used bamboo skewers are sorted into the “burnable waste” category, and are incinerated in one of the many waste treatment plants in the city. For those of you interested in this sort of thing, I will explain more about the waste disposal process in Tokyo in a later post.

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Day 6 – Wednesday

Wednesday was kind of a hectic day at the school where I teach English. Aside from the normal 2 hour block class I teach on Wednesday mornings, I was also asked to join a class for first years at the last minute. Working in a school, I am constantly reminded of how much paper is used on a daily, even hourly, basis just to keep things running as usual. Everything here is largely still paper-based, which came as quite a shock to me, given Japan’s reputation for being such a tech-savvy country. But in fact, even though a lot of new technology is produced here, Japan is an aging country with a population of elderly late technology adopters, so sadly going paper-free in favor of digital is still out of reach for now.

Day 7 – Thursday

We have reached the end of the week! It has been a really interesting experience to collect my garbage for a week, forcing me to think actively about how much waste I was generating. I learned some lessons along the way too; first and foremost is that straws are the bane of my existence. Those insidious tubes are everywhere, and multiple times over the course of the week, I found myself suddenly “coming to” with a straw in my mouth and realizing I had overlooked it again. Even restaurants that were very supportive when I explained my zero waste ambitions often slipped up by including a straw in their drinks.

Another lesson I learned is that just a little effort on my part can decrease the amount of waste I’m producing. In Japan, only certain types of plastic can be recycled, and even if it can be recycled, it must be incinerated if there is any food on it. It may seem obvious, but taking the extra 30 seconds to rinse out plastic containers is one of the easiest things you can do to reduce waste.

Similarly, I got better about carrying a reusable bottle with me at all times or just not buying a drink if I had forgotten my bottle. Summers in Japan can be brutally hot, so carrying a water bottle in my bag has become a necessity. Unfortunately I’m still using one made of PCTG (BPA-free) while I search for a good-quality glass or stainless steel one, but hey, Zero Impact Goals is about the baby steps.

So, onto the main event! What does my One Week of Waste look like? Check it out:

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This is all the garbage I generated in just one week. Definitely not as bad as it could have been, but I see some areas where I could make some serious improvements. One thing you may notice is the amount of tissues I go through in a week…kind of gross. I had the misfortune of catching a slight summer cold which left me sneezing and sniffling constantly. Obviously switching to a handkerchief would be a less wasteful option, but I can’t seem to get over the ick factor yet. If you have any suggestions for hygenic alternatives to single-use tissues, please let me know!

How to tell if your lifestyle is harmful to the Earth

Online shopping, eating out-of-season foods, and cross-country road trips all have something in common. Can you tell what it is? Each behavior requires something (your stuff, your food, you) to travel long distances, most likely with the help of a gas-fueled combustion engine. Of course, sometimes these behaviors can’t be avoided, but by knowing your carbon footprint, it becomes easier to choose eco-friendly options or offset your carbon emissions in other ways when you can.

What is a carbon footprint?

Your carbon footprint is a calculation (in metric tons) of all of the carbon dioxide emissions you have directly or indirectly caused based on factors like energy usage, fossil-fuel or renewable energy, diet, etc.

Each choice that you make during the course of your day has the potential to add to or subtract from your carbon footprint, but in the urban, developed lifestyle that many of us lead, sometimes the effects are less straightforward than you’d think.

Take this situation for example:

Today for lunch I was deciding whether to pack a vegetarian salad made from leftovers in my fridge or buy a salmon-topped salmon from a cafe. I decided to go with the vegetarian salad and started building it, but I began to realize that nearly all of the ingredients had been shipped in from all over the planet! Here is the recipe I used (for a great salad, even if it wasn’t carbon-neutral)

A yummy salad with roasted winter vegetables

  • Shredded kale (California, 2,587mi)
  • Roasted butternut squash (Local, 4.5mi)
  • Roasted beets (Local, 4.5mi)
  • Goat cheese (DC, 481mi)
  • Cooked barley (Iowa, 1,045mi)
  • Bottled raspberry vinaigrette dressing (California, 2,687)

To top it all off, I found out that the salmon salad I would have bought at the cafe is made from all local ingredients, and even the salmon, which would have a higher carbon rating because it’s meat (meaning you have to include another layer in your calculations for the prey consumed by the animal you are eating), was sustainably farmed by a local business.

I guess the lesson here is that no matter what you do, there’s no way to be perfect. But, I think it’s important to think about these things in the first place, because making small choices for the good of the environment is a good habit for us all to get into.

(For anyone who wants to take a crack at calculating your carbon footprint, try it out here and let me know how it goes!)

Let the journey begin!

You may notice that journeys are a recurring motif on this blog. That’s for a good reason. Not only does it represent exploration and new destinations, but also a long, somewhat arduous process. Even though I love traveling to new places, these days we can simply hop in a car, bus, train or plane (all while trying not to cringe at your carbon footprint expanding) and get from point A to point B with comparatively little effort. The figurative “journey” to sustainable living, however, is just as much about the process as it is about the destination.

Growing up in the 21st century, we have gotten used to what I like to call Instant Gratification Culture. The internet is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used in any number of positive ways, but there is no denying that having access to unlimited information in the palm of our hands has changed the way we live, for better or for worse. In fact, it’s not just the internet. The fad diet craze started taking off in the mid-1990s, when people started wanting results now. Our society has been shifting in this direction for decades, even centuries (if you count the whole horse-drawn cart to automobile shift, which I do). Humans strive for efficiency- and why not? Our time is short, we reason, and time is money. While the dubious wisdom of measuring the value of our time in currency is a subject for a different post, the sentiment is something I can get behind.

“Time is money.”

Translation: do something valuable with your time.

Value-added time is, in my opinion, a supremely worthy goal. The best part about it is that value is an inherently subjective measure, so only you can decide which activities are worthy of your time. Spent all day alone in your room playing video games but hit a new high score? Boom, value added. It’s all about being intentional with your time and actively choosing each activity you pursue because of the value it adds to your life vs. the time you spend on it. And “valuable” things are not always huge undertakings. Your time can be just as valuable when you use it on a split-second decision as when you use it on a weeks-long project. Similarly, when it comes to living a sustainable lifestyle, small intentional choices made every day can be just as beneficial as a sudden and massive overhaul of your entire life. This idea is the fundamental basis behind my Zero Impact Goals philosophy- every time you make an environmentally-friendly choice or form a sustainable habit, that is value-added time and progress towards your goal, no matter if it was 5 seconds or 5 years in the making.