On Thursday Channing and I leave for our vacation on the French Riviera. I’ll be continuing the No Stuff Experiment there—only food and wine expenses for this traveler*—and then I’ll write a series of two or three wrap-up posts in January. For now, let me leave you with a handful of year-end tidbits that didn’t quite make the cut for full-length blog posts.

First, I must confess that I did a little pre-vacation clothes shopping—at consignment shops, of course. In mid-October, Channing announced that he would not be wearing jeans while we were overseas; I looked at my wardrobe the next day and panicked. (For the record, I think this ridiculous proclamation had everything to do with our recent viewing of the first four seasons of Mad Men, an AMC series with an extremely well-dressed cast. Oh, the dangers of television: it can turn keeping up with the Joneses into keeping up with a fictional 1960s advertising genius and his numerous pocket handkerchiefs.) I had been meaning to hit the used clothing circuit in hopes of picking up a few basics that would help me streamline my wardrobe, so now I decided to look for pieces that I could wear for both work and vacation (think comfortable clothes in neutral colors). Long story short, I spent some time at Chic Envy, the new consignment boutique at Fairfax Corner, and then made the rounds at the vintage shops in Alexandria. I ended up with a couple skirts, a cocktail dress (for office holiday parties and Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners), and a couple blazers to dress up slacks or jeans.**

Second, to continue my kitchen disposables saga, earlier this month I ran out of plastic wrap and freezer bags. These are two disposables I don’t use a ton of unless I’m displaying baked goods on platters (rather than storing them in Pyrex), transporting food to parties on platters, or freezing stuff (in this case, cookies). The plastic wrap problem isn’t too dire. We have a roll of Glad Press’n Seal under the sink that I’ve been using as a plastic wrap alternative—although the stuff kind of freaks me out. Glad’s website says the seal is made with “the primary [FDA-approved] ingredients typically found in chewing gum” and assures customers that Glad products do not contain phthalates or BPA. I remain skeptical and avoid letting food in contact with the sticky side of the wrap. Oh, I’ve also been reusing the last couple pieces of regular plastic wrap like crazy. And when those scraps aren’t big enough and the Press’n Seal won’t do, I find creative solutions: I took cookies to the office potluck in a shirt box lined with festive tissue paper. Party guests took home cookies in gift bags from our stash from holidays past.

The freezer bags were more of a problem. I wanted to freeze a several dozen cookies over the course of the month and didn’t have enough Pyrex containers to hold them all. So, I took a few bags from Mom’s gigantic resealable bag stash. The woman has an entire kitchen drawer devoted to Ziplocs of various sizes and weights, plus another shelf full of them in the basement. As grateful as I am for Mom’s stockpile (the cookies froze beautifully), it seems a little excessive, no?

Third, I started a post on Freeganism last month, but I haven’t been able to finish it—in part because I wanted to go on a dumpster dive and write about the experience. I keep checking out the dumpsters behind Whole Foods whenever I’m at Plaza America, and there appears to be loads of good stuff out there, but I can’t bring myself to start rummaging. For one thing, all the dumpster-diving tip websites suggest wearing rubber gloves, which I do not own and cannot buy. For another, they suggest going at night with a buddy, and I have been unable to convince Channing that helping me dig through trash is an activity worth his time.

In any case, the primary reason the Freeganism post has not seen the light of day is I can’t write it without making Freegans sound like moochers or freeloaders. They aren’t moochers; they’re resourceful. Freeganism is exciting, terrifying, daring, and maybe a little bit gross. You can read up on Freegans and their philosophy here, here, and here.

Finally, I have started to brainstorm my next blog project, The Rosy Skillet. It’ll be about good meals and the stories they inspire (and how to host a dinner party for sixteen when you have only eight plates in the cupboard). I hope to have the first installment written by March 2012.

Happy holidays, everyone! Thanks so much for reading my musings this year!

*Plus plane and train tickets and hotel stays, but we’ve paid for that stuff already.

**For every item I added to my wardrobe during those trips, I put at least one item (and often two or three) in the donate pile.

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(Or At Least for Several More Years)

The other day I read a short article about the projected 2012 release of the iPad 3. This new iteration of the iPad sounds pretty fabulous: sleeker design, better graphics, wireless charging and data transfer technology, etc. I thought to myself, “Hey, I’ll be buying things next year; maybe it’s time for an upgrade.”

Then I remembered my green values—and this short video on electronic waste by Annie Leonard.

Not only does Apple release newer, faster, better versions of its iPods, iPhones, and iPads with astonishing frequency, but it also makes these devices somewhat difficult to maintain. A month ago I took my iPod Mini to the recycler because I couldn’t figure out how to change the battery, which (as most of you probably realize) is sealed inside seemingly impenetrable casing. To be honest, I didn’t even think of replacing the battery until I started researching this post. I’m just that accustomed to the idea that consumer electronics are meant to be replaced, not repaired. Shame on me.

You see, folks, I have grown up in a country where planned obsolescence is the norm. Consumer electronics manufacturers design products or time product updates so that consumers continually spend money on their wares. This strategy is a big problem because most TVs, personal computers, tablets, cell phones, music players, and e-readers are full of various hazardous chemicals, such as lead, PVC, mercury, arsenic, and flame retardants, which have been linked to reproductive disorders and several cancers.* The more gadgets we buy, the more of these chemicals we introduce into our homes and offices—and the more e-waste we create by replacing our obsolete machines.

Twenty-five million tons of e-waste is generated every year. More often than not, this waste is dumped or burned, so in the disposal process all those toxins are released into our air, soil, and waterways. “Well, I recycle my old electronics,” you say. When you choose an electronics recycling program, make sure you do your research. About 70 to 80 percent of the waste given to e-cyclers is shipped overseas, where workers mine the machines for precious metals and then burn the rest. To ensure that your old gadgets are disposed of properly, choose a recycler certified by e-Stewards or conduct your own investigation using this list of questions.

In addition to the problems of toxins and disposal, we must consider the resources consumed as manufacturers create new machines to replace the obsolete ones. As The Daily Green put it, “Our insatiable appetite for stuff drives carbon emissions and pollution.” According to the Product Policy Institute (PPI), the provision and use of products and packaging accounts for 44 percent of U.S. global warming emissions (this statistic covers all consumer goods, not just electronics). The bulk of these emissions occur during the production phase, from materials extraction to manufacturing. PPI concludes that reducing consumption—by repairing broken items, going without, or steering clear of whatever hot new product is making your own stuff look outdated (you do not need that iPhone 5!)—offers the largest opportunity to combat global warming. Well, isn’t that interesting.

On that note, it turns out that a quick Internet search would’ve illuminated the process of changing my iPod Mini battery for myself. Had I known that five years ago, when the thing mysteriously stopped working, I may still be rocking a cute, pink, 4GB antique (or maybe the battery wasn’t the problem?). I will keep this in mind when my replacement iPod (which, at four years old, is still going strong) and my iPad start getting wonky on me.

I don’t mean to single out Apple as the only company—or consumer electronics as the only industry—that indulges in planned obsolescence. The practice has been around since the 1930s, and even light bulb manufacturers do it (see item 9). I don’t think any of our light bulbs have burned out this year (although Channing may have replaced them on the sly), but I have experienced planned obsolescence in the fashion arena. Recall that post in the spring about my urge to update my wardrobe with some newer styles. And then there’s Channing’s continual search for a fast and shiny new car and a bigger TV.

Still, with the constant barrage of updates to computer operating systems, phone networks, gaming systems, and sundry gadgetry, it’s hard not to isolate the electronics industry as an egregious offender. Once again, I’ll close with the moral “Think before you buy.”

Unless otherwise cited, facts are from Annie Leonard’s The Story of Electronics. If you have ten minutes to spare, please consider watching this video and sharing it with your friends.

For (excellent) tips on repairing various household items, see The Daily Green. While there you might also check out this list of things you didn’t know you could rent.

*Apple and other companies have started monitoring and reducing the amount of toxins in their products, as my friend Sarah pointed out in a comment on an earlier post. See this link.

A No Stuff Christmas

December 9, 2011

I started avoiding the shopping mall at Christmas three years ago, shortly after completing my first Voluntary Simplicity group in the summer of 2008. I had always enjoyed the mall during the holidays—the hustle and bustle, the seasonal décor, the shoppers’ enthusiasm—but buying a bunch of stuff from chain retail outlets no longer seemed to jibe with my values. Plus, that summer I had acquired my very own sewing machine and two good pattern books. It was time to put my skills as a seamstress to use.

I’ve made many, many Christmas gifts in the years since—lap quilts, aprons, smocks, coasters, scarves, shawls, handbags—but as rewarding as it is to shape raw fabric or a ball of yarn into something useful, taking on a bunch of craft projects at the end of the year can make December extremely stressful. So this year, with Channing’s support, I’ve devised a different strategy:

1.   Give experiences. This Christmas everyone on my “shopping” list is getting a gift card for some experience or another: a meal at a good restaurant, a day at the spa, or a museum membership, for example. All but two of the cards/certificates I’ve bought are for small businesses (even the little guys allow you to buy gift cards on their websites or over the phone). Not only does this approach avoid cluttering a loved one’s home, but it also saves me a boatload on postage and time. I finished my shopping a week ago having made no trips to the mall or the post office. What’s more, for the first time in our six Christmases together, Channing and I have pooled our resources: we’re giving nearly everyone on our mutual list one gift from the two of us—meaning we’ve been able to give folks tours, trips, meals, and memberships that we wouldn’t have been able to afford on our own. I have to say I’m pretty stoked about some of the gifts we dreamed up this season—maybe because I would take a nice restaurant meal or a guided tour of anything over a new pair of jeans any day (I just hope our family feels the same way!).

2.   Bake cookies. Without those trips to the mall and post office, I’ve freed up my time for baking. And nothing puts me in the holiday spirit quite like cranking up the Christmas tunes, pulling out my stand mixer, and making an organized mess of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. I tend to overdo it with the holiday cookies—I’m currently six batches into a fourteen-cookie dance card—but I know baking isn’t everyone’s thing. May I suggest, though, that you schedule some time to bake with family and friends this year. Baking cookies with my mom every Christmas is a ritual I don’t plan to give up anytime soon. Not only is cooking with Mom fun, but we also end up with plenty of extras for giving away as impromptu gifts for colleagues, party hosts, and neighbors.

3.   Host a party (or two). No time like the holidays to schedule QT with friends and family. Since Channing and I will be out of town on Christmas Day (see item 4), we have planned special celebrations with our families over the next two weeks. Unlike the usual Christmastime festivities, these dinners will be quiet affairs, during which we can actually enjoy one another’s company without the usual gift-exchange hullabaloo. Plus, next weekend we’re hosting friends who live locally for a big festive dinner. We’ve opted out of Christmas cards this year (because I’m not buying cards or supplies to make cards), so we thought a party would be a great alternative way to spread holiday cheer to our nearest and dearest. To prepare for the dinner, I plan to spend several hours in the kitchen, but if cooking isn’t your thing, you can still invite friends and family over for a merry catered meal or wholesome potluck.

4. Take a Christmas vacation. Channing has been talking about spending Christmas out of town for at least two years, and now, using our honeymoon as an excuse, we’re going for it. On December 22, we’re flying to Nice to spend the holidays in the French Riviera. Sure, traveling overseas is not the simplest option for avoiding holiday-season insanity. It’s expensive. It requires a lot of planning. Jetting across the Atlantic is not exactly environmentally friendly. But the trip has forced us to reconsider how we give gifts (see item 1) and what is most important to us this time of year (see item 3)—lessons we hope to recall when we plan for future Christmases.

At thirty-one, I have not spent a Christmas away from my family until now. Pretty crazy. But breaking traditions every once in a while is a good thing, I think (especially when palm trees are involved, right?). In addition to prompting us to reevaluate how we celebrate, I’m hoping this trip will provide some perspective—so that in the coming years we don’t become complacent or take for granted this annual occasion for feasting and family time.