'; Kimberly Steere | Christmas cCHALLENGE
I live in the US in a suburb of Boston with my husband, son, and little dog. I did my own plastic diet last year and I've cut way down. Now it's time to get systems in place to replace all the paper waste--and break my paper towel habit!
My challenge
Paper diet

Day +2: Not Going Back

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.


Day 18:

I’m a few days behind on posting—under the wheel of Christmas!


So far, I’m not sure I’ve had much of a ripple effect, just little changes. I’ve changed my kitchen habits and switched to local bottled milk, talked with a number of people, my son takes cloth napkins in his school lunch, I’m going to switch to a local garbage company that picks up food, yard, and paper waste separately to compost… I hope the man I spoke with then emailed will end up doing a cChallenge with his own local sustainability group. My challenge has tended to be more on a personal level so far—trying to change within my household.


The system question ties in for me with the relationships question from a few days ago. I have a greater sense of my complicity in going along with systems that are designed to waste without really thinking about it—right down to my own home. And since we are used to doing things certain ways, change is disruptive and sometimes disappointing to people we care about. Every year I ask to scale down Christmas, Doing it unilaterally would mean giving less than we get, which feels very uncomfortable. So I don’t really do it. This year, I have again bought more gifts than I had wanted to—afraid of disappointing people. I am focusing on not using wrapping paper, buying gifts that will be used, and cutting down on shipping ,etc., but I’m sure the environmental costs of producing the gifts will far outstrip any gains made. 


I have felt other things slipping back lately, too. Yesterday, when I went back to the fish counter to get fresh fish dropped into my container like I did last time, it was a different guy at the counter, who refused to do it and said it was a health code violation! I had promised my family fish chowder. I let him wrap it in paper. Sigh. Wasting resources—codified and enforceable. I will plan to speak with a manager and see if there is a way around it.


It’s hard to ask others to make sacrifices when the system is already entrenched. I often think about travel soccer teams. I swear the carbon footprint of travel sports in America exceeds that of many small nations. The problem is, the system is in place, and they have the money to hire the best coaches and put together teams for high level competition. If I protest by refusing to participate, I am sacrificing my own son’s interests not just in playing soccer, but also in bonding with his friends and making friends from other towns. Carpooling helps mitigate the damage, but I am still perpetuating the system. Unless we create a whole separate system—how do we move things in a different direction?


I haven’t yet figured out how I can work effectively in helping bring large-scale change. I’ve been getting more interested in the true costs of products—especially packaging and manufacturing. How do we factor in the complex of invisible costs—whether carbon footprints, plastic pollution, use of nonrenewable resources, disposal/recycling costs, water and air contamination…? How do we change our system to give businesses incentives for minimizing environmental impacts, and to hold ourselves accountable for our consumption (without putting the biggest burden on lower income people)? I would love to help find ways of making the prices of our products and their packaging reflect their actual costs to people and the planet. I haven’t looked deeply into it yet—does anyone know of organizations that are doing good work in this area? Or good resources for information?

Day 13:

After reading in Inger’s post that only 1% of our gifts are in use after Christmas, I decided to be more careful in choosing gifts. I tried to bundle shipments and see if I could find other ways to make the gifts resonate…

I found two items that could work for a whole bunch of recipients, which saved me a lot of time (and pressure!). Local gifts would be ideal, but it could actually be more efficient to get a number shipped all at once and avoid driving around looking for things. Hard to know… One idea was beautiful socks from Bombas. Someone had requested these socks. Who can’t use beautiful socks? Since I was going to have some shipped anyway, I made them the main gift for someone else in the family who needed socks, and then ordered pairs for other family members to complete their gifts. It will all come in one shipment, and, even better, the company will donate one pair to a homeless person for every pair purchased. A win all around.


The other gift I decided on was more expensive than I would have liked. Patagonia sells ultra fine mesh bags called Guppy Friend bags that you use when you wash fleece to catch the micro plastics and keep them out of the water supply. This is a problem I have been thinking about for a long time, so I decided to make that my gift to my sisters-in-law when we all exchange gifts, and also to two friends who have birthdays coming up. All will come in one shipment, the environment will get a gift, too, and we will probably have a discussion at Christmas. I was happy with that, and then I received a little gift myself. I read one of the first reviews on the site, where someone suggested that the company should make a micro mesh bag part of the pocket in each fleece garment sold so that the item could be stuffed into its own pocket and washed without releasing plastics into the water. What a brilliant idea, and one which could actually happen once the price to manufacture the mesh goes down. It gave me a moment of faith that people can actually find solutions if we all pool our ingenuity and make sustainable living a common goal. I needed that.


Day 10: A Series of Unfortunate Events…

After carefully making and decorating a Dala Horse cake for a party with no paper use of any kind, I found myself a few hours later next to the buffet table holding not just a red paper napkin but also a paper plate! I had picked them up like a mindless sheep. Earlier in the week, at an event I was helping to organize, I had allowed the use of the usual paper cups and napkins left over from the previous year. I had wanted to find a set of buffet plates that I could donate to be used for events, but it turned out the building didn’t have a dishwasher, so I abandoned the idea. At another get-together I avoid the paper by grazing carefully, but was handed a disposable plastic cup of wine, which would at least be recycled… Even the tables at a nice Chinese restaurant we went to were set with paper napkins. The failures here all have a common thread–serving food to large groups and a convention of using disposable goods.


In the controlled environment of my home, I can agonize over one piece of parchment paper and dig up old dish towels to clean up with, but out in the real world, events everywhere are filling up giant garbage bag after garbage bag with plates, napkins, cups and plastic utensils, all mixed in with wasted food. It must make mountains of landfills every holiday Season. Just think of this huge nation and how many holiday parties there are. People are often apologetic for using disposables, but it seems reasonable in the individual case—how many people have plates, glasses, and cloth napkins to serve 75? Not to mention the means to easily contain then wash them after use… With cheap paper products available all around, no charges for excess garbage, and other people doing the same thing, there’s simply not much incentive to do it otherwise, even though the eventual sea of waste is gargantuan. 



It’s pretty clear that for now, the system is set up to do things this way. How could it change? Compostable goods? That’s still a lot of consumption. Or what if disposable goods became more expensive, so businesses that rent out dishes and linens would become profitable? I’m not sure what the best path out of this would be. Have other countries found ways to address it?



I certainly didn’t make a stand anywhere–should I have been more adamant and principled? I did talk with people. I spoke with library management about trying to avoid the paper goods for the party. And I did end up discussing my challenge with both hostesses. In one case, another guest who was talking with us is thinking of having his organization do a cChallenge. So, something. One small step at a time, I guess, but it’s depressing that in this huge nation it’s completely the norm to make decisions that seem reasonable on an individual level without thinking of what happens when that gets magnified a million times…

Day 7:

I’m beginning to understand the importance of zero tolerance in all this. For my meeting this morning, instead of defaulting to a bakery pastry in a box, I toted leftover ginger cookies and grapes I had and brought a little tray to set them out. People loved it–almost none left. I also had to print up agendas in a rush before heading off. Had to spend precious minutes digging up 12 pieces of paper with one side still blank! I wouldn’t have taken the time if I were just casually trying to “cut back.” The discipline of this challenge kicks me out of autopilot, and in America, autopilot is usually whatever is quickest and easiest, regardless of the waste. It’s too easy to become reflexively lazy in the name of efficiency, which never takes into account the unseen costs.

Day 4:

Still no paper towels, napkins, or coffee filters used. Days two and three and the morning of four have made me feel like I am a servant of different  masters–and eco consciousness and germophobia often have conventional solutions at cross purposes, so I have to find the third way. I realized that disposable paper towels and other paper had been allowing me to be very casual about creating messy situations, because I could easily just sop or clean something up then toss it into the garbage without thinking and everything was nice and hygienic. I am trying to solve problems now before they occur, like containing kitchen activities mostly to one tray, which I can easily rinse in the sink. Transporting fish from the store would normally involve plastic-coated butcher paper, but bringing my standard 9×13 baking pan to the store was perfect! (And the butcher loved it!) It didn’t seem reasonable to avoid the tissue paper they use for the scale to weigh the fish:-(. The near enemy in avoiding paper could be using substitutes that are worse–more plastic isn’t going to help anyone, so only sustainable alternatives where at all possible. And reusable cloths require water to clean, so I’m using more of that, though trying to be mindful.

Cleaning out the dog’s food dish is a problem, because I don’t like to use shared dish cloths for that. I’ve turned to rice cakes and leftover bread ends as scrubbers! (Is half a rice cake better than a paper towel?) Planning ahead helps for that too–now the last thing I do before I clean the sink at night is clean out two dog dishes for the next day. Not only can I use a little leftover food to scrub, but they can dry in the air overnight–and I don’t have to deal with cleaning them when I feed Watson!

I’m looking forward to things becoming more automatic, like keeping track of which cloth is for which purpose. Things take longer now, for sure, though they seem like they could be quicker in the long run… Onward!

Day 2:

One day down and the paper towels are safely hidden in the back of a closet. Success–even during cookie making, though cleanup was a little harder. I don’t have my system down yet. Also made my own coffee filter out of a freebie organic produce bag. (It worked!) Need to figure out where to dry the reusable cloths so they’re not festooning the kitchen. I told my mother and sisters about the challenge–they thought it sounded hard!