Ten Small Steps to Sustainability: My family’s plan to make the earth cleaner

By Carol Ungar

My Holocaust survivor mother used to say that in America (or any other first-world country) a person could “live from the garbage.” She was right.

We are literally drowning in trash. It’s a global problem with huge ramifications for the environment and public health. Sure, there are solutions, such as recycling and transforming waste into usable forms of energy. Some are already in effect, but many are years away. Until these things develop, the best we can do is to minimize our own waste. We call this “histapkus,” buying what we need rather than what we want, reusing what we have, fixing things when they break, choosing non-disposable options and, whenever possible, purchasing second-hand.

While I have not contracted my family’s detritus into a jam jar or match box, I have carved out a path to waste reduction. What follows is a list of things I’ve done. I hope this will inspire you to do the same or better.

  1. I kissed my beloved paper towels goodbye. Sure they are convenient, but they are also non-recyclable. Their manufacturing process gobbles up a shocking 110 million trees and 130 billion gallons of water annually! While the cheapest and most eco-friendly replacement are good old-fashioned shmattes, I treated myself to a pack of bar mop towels—rough terry cloth squares used in restaurants. They are reusable—just throw them in the washing machine and they’re great.
  2. This was a hard one. I haven’t quite gotten there, but I’m trying to say goodbye to aluminum foil pans. Here’s another statistic to knock your socks off! Each year we throw away enough foil to build a fleet of aircraft! While soda cans are recyclable, foil trays containing food residue are not.
    Rather than adopting my mother’s solution—washing and reusing—though that is a frugal and green choice, I’ve switched over to Pyrex. They are microwaveable, freezable, oven- and dishwasher-safe, and they look good, even on the Shabbos table. (If I’m too tired or cooking for a crowd I will use foil. The first thing I need to sustain is my mental health!)
  3. I am weaning myself off of paper and plastic dishes. Instead, I’m looking for eco-friendly alternatives made of bamboo and sugarcane fiber. The reason? They are biodegradable. They won’t end up in landfills releasing toxic by-products, and they are compostable. Another nice thing about them: they don’t empty the forest. Bamboo grows back very quickly. The only downside: They don’t come in the same range of pretty colors and patterns, but I think it’s worth it. And I have scrapped the plastic tablecloth covers as well. Sure they are convenient, and nothing beats rolling them up, full of plastic dishes and cutlery, and dumping them in the trash, but that generates trash and, frankly, they don’t have a classy look. Instead I cover my Shabbos table with a reusable stain-resistant water-repellent tablecloth. It’s white brocade, non-iron and has an elegant look. Who says that eco-friendly needs to be ugly?


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