Waste not, want not

Earth-friendly living starts at home.

My family’s attempts to lessen our impact on the earth remind me of driving a car with a manual transmission for the first time: When you finally take your foot off the clutch, the car lurches forward with a screech, then stalls. Eventually you get the hang of that third pedal and start to enjoy the ride. We, too, have alternately leaped forward (often with a screech) and stalled as we make our way toward a more harmonious, environmentally conscious way of life.

Early on my husband and I coasted. We recycled our recyclables, used cloth napkins instead of paper, and walked whenever possible. We had fun wrapping presents with whatever was at hand: a sock, a scarf, a pillowcase. Sometimes we would use a piece of fabric to wrap a gift, telling the child whose birthday it was that the wrapping was really a cape. And because our children were too young to have an opinion, we never bought those prepared lunches that are wrapped in plastic and encased in a cardboard box.

10 ways Catholic families can save the earth
32. Buy different napkin rings (at the secondhand store, of course) for everyone in the family and use cloth napkins.

33. Use cloth grocery bags.

34. Walk or bike instead of drive whenever possible. (It’s more often than you think.)

35. Buy organic food, especially milk, if you can afford it.

36. Eat less meat and more fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains.

37. Compost your garbage.

38. Use a rain barrel to collect water for your garden.

39. Reduce your use of small plastic storage bags (and reuse the ones you do). Use reusable storage containers instead.

40. Just try buying secondhand clothes.

41. Read books and magazines devoted to sustainable living for inspiration, motivation, and encouragement.

My first great leap occurred nearly 10 years ago, when we were attending a conference at a university. We ate our meals in a self-serve cafeteria, which my children loved because they could choose not only what to eat but how much. I was appalled as they thoughtlessly dumped their half-full plates into the garbage can. How could they be so oblivious to the waste? How could they not care?

Since then I’ve looked for opportunities to help them understand that food doesn’t just come from the grocery store. We shop at the farmer’s market, visit an orchard in the summer and fall, and grow raspberries and tomatoes in our backyard. I’ve also tried, with limited success, to interest my children in cooking so they will understand the time and effort it takes to bake a cake or assemble lasagna.

Another time I was hand-washing a shirt and thinking about a book called Peace Is Every Step (Bantam) by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in which he writes that sunshine, rain, and soil are present in every tangerine. I was wondering if there was any sunshine in my rayon shirt when another thought struck me: “Who made this shirt?” I looked at the label: “Made in China.”

I pictured a young girl I had heard about on National Public Radio who was forced to leave her home and move to the city to make a living. Now she works in dense, unhealthy conditions elbow to elbow with girls from other farms and villages, as they all sew clothes for 15 hours a day for people in the West. I felt a deep sense of regret for my complicity in an economy that makes this sort of arrangement not only possible but inevitable. I promised to take very good care of the shirt.

New to me
Taking extra care with my clothes only worked for a while. Eventually I realized I had to take the next step: to buy (with very few exceptions) only secondhand clothing for myself. In the beginning our children went along with my plan, but now that they are getting older, used clothes have become a harder sell. I still suggest the resale shop first whenever something is wanted or needed, then if we can’t find it there, I usually give in and go to a regular store. But I grouse all the way.

As for my husband and me, our enthusiasm for secondhand merchandise has expanded into many other areas of our household. We’ve bought plates, glasses, blankets, tablecloths and napkins, furniture, and books from resale shops. I’ve had several jackets re-lined, we had our couch re-upholstered instead of buying a new one, and we’ve come to revere our local shoe repair man, a short, stocky Russian with thick fingers who can restore just about anything—from shoes and purses to luggage—to almost-new condition.

Our secondhand economy is continuously sustained by something my husband, who works in manufacturing, once told me: “When you buy something—anything—it causes someone in marketing to tell someone in production to make another one just like it.” That thought runs through my head every time I pick up a cute mug from the coffee shop or a stuffed animal my daughter would love. Then I put the thing back on the shelf.

Environmental action in our family sputters to a halt every August and December when it’s time to buy school supplies and Christmas presents. All efforts to reuse and recycle during these two months unfailingly meet with overwhelming resistance.

Last Christmas, for example, we were discussing what to buy a niece who loves a certain brand of clothing, of which my daughter owns several pieces she has outgrown. “Why don’t we give her your shirts?” I suggested hopefully. Everyone, including my husband, looked shocked: “Not for Christmas!” I deferred to their adamant veto.

Silent witness
Sometimes I fret. Will our children ever understand how consumerism hurts the planet and its people? They are concrete thinkers. It’s hard for them to imagine landfills and power plants they’ve never seen. Even though we tell them that cars pollute and plastic doesn’t break down for 10,000 years, they can’t actually see these things, so their motivation to conserve resources is low. I have to admit that my speeches, no matter how satisfying they are to deliver, have not been effective.

One day my eyes fell on one of the photo-postcards a friend occasionally sends us. They always come unexpectedly, with no note, so we simply enjoy the beauty of the picture. The silent witness of the tree on this particular postcard somehow reminded me of my father, a person of deep faith who has always been a source of mystery and wonder to me.

The photograph and the memory of my father merged, and I realized I would not have been nearly so fascinated with his faith life if he had talked about it all the time, if he had narrated his life of service and prayer for us all to notice and appreciate. Instead he acted and prayed from his Christ center without a word about it to any of us. My brothers and sisters and I observed and absorbed and wondered and were fascinated by him until the day he died.

I have my answer: If my children ask me what I’m doing as I take a moment to pray an apology for the pollution I’m about to cause with my car, or why I’ve become a passionate saver of water, or why a cheap new anything holds no appeal to me, fine—I’ll tell them again. If not, I’ll trust that the spirit of God is moving in their lives as it continues to move in mine.

Ann O’Connor is director of religious education at St. Gertrude Parish in Chicago and the author of The Twelve Unbreakable Principles of Parenting (ACTA, 2006).

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