My family asked last night—now that the challenge is over, can we use paper towels again? Ummm…sorry, but no. They will be in the house, but out of sight and reach. I am reversing the old system, and making it easier to reach for a reusable cloth than a disposable one. This experience has clarified for me that the environment around us has a huge impact on what we do—and for change to happen, we have to create the conditions to make it more likely.
Technically, I didn’t succeed in my challenge. While I never got a paper towel and used it at home, when we got to a rental ski house with friends where there were NO dish towels, I did use the paper ones when needed, along with paper coffee filters. I was sparing, but gave in just the same. What I thought would be the hard part of the challenge, Christmas without wrapping paper, proved easy. My reusable felt gift bags from last year ended up getting filled and given three different times. (No one minded that the Santas had lost a few eyes and limbs in the transition!) I bought no wrapping materials and saved bags I was given. So now, with everything packed away, I’m completely set up for next Christmas to be paper-free too!
The interesting side-effect of the experiment has been that it seemed to encourage other changes in my life. Suddenly I’m going to the gym regularly and getting more sleep. Forced to use only my planner as paper, I am now using it again to stay organized. It’s like having to reinvent how I did some things ended up loosening up everything, and I got shaken out of my ruts. Some changes I made were a real improvement, too—I challenge anyone to make a better cup of coffee than my French press followed by a quick pour through a handmade cloth filter. (Bit of a learning curve there, though—one day I realized my husband had used my filter to wipe up the counter!)
I’ve definitely been inspired by my fellow participants’ challenges. I’ve been ordering vegetarian at restaurants, cutting down on cooking meat by adding beans or more vegetables, and getting religious about reusable produce bags and limiting plastic packaging. I’ve become more aware of overusing tech. I appreciate my good fortune in being able to get out and walk my dog in the outdoors every day. I haven’t gotten back to meditation yet, but that may be my next challenge. And I’ve been amazed to see how far along toward sustainable living some other participants have already gotten. It’s very encouraging to see what it possible—and even enjoyable:-)
As challenging and empowering as it has been to make changes in my home, in a world of billions of homes, change is going to have to happen on a massive scale. At the ski lodge, I watched in shock as tray after tray of mixed paper, plastic, and wasted food got dumped into massive trash cans. And the system was set up to work this way. Paper towels are not the biggest problem we face—but they are a good symbol of our throwaway mindset. We thoughtlessly and wastefully create messy situations (taking “matter out of place,” h/t Randi), then use more unnecessary resources (packed in more unnecessary plastic) to mop it up, bag it (in plastic, again!), and throw it away out of our sight, where we can ignore our responsibility for it and avoid thinking about how it will likely never return to where it belongs. It seems like an impossibly entrenched problem, but I’m convinced people can be trained by their environments. If McDonald’s can train an entire nation to bus its own tables, as it did in the U.S. in the seventies, there’s no reason we can’t set up a new system to unlearn our throwaway lifestyle.
I’ve been a willing party to this massive profligacy my whole life without any real awareness. I’m not sure what my role might be to help change it from now on, but I intend to stop wasting another key resource—my own energy—and use it to make a difference. One less paper towel, one less hamburger, one more letter to request different packaging at a time—they are a beginning. But there are so many possibilities. Maybe try to get a cChallenge going at a local school for Earth Day? A green product cooperative? We’ll see. But I’m not going back.