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Just What IS Sustainable?

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sus·tain·a·ble
maintaining ecological balance: exploiting natural resources without destroying the ecological balance of an area

Well, that sounds like a nice idea, now, doesn’t it? Here in America (and in many other parts of the world, to be sure) we are no longer living a sustainable life. Native cultures did it, and did it well. They utilized the resources they had on hand in their region. They wasted nothing. They cared for the earth as a provider. Us? We suck at sustainability.

Unfortunately, we can’t just decide to go back to being sustainable. There’s too much to undo. What we can do is start from here. From where each of us is right now. Each one of us will tackle the idea of sustainability differently. Consider these the guiding light in our joint efforts to make a difference in the world. Stepping stones to a more self-reliant lifestyle, if you will.

  • Do it yourself. This covers so much, but is so important. Quite simple: We need to stop depending so much on other people for our needs. One example is food. If we get all of our groceries at the local supermarket, we’re entirely dependent upon the food manufacturers, the delivery people, and the grocers. What if something happens and supplies can’t get to the store? If we grow our own food—or at least some of it—we’re less dependent on all of those cogs working perfectly, plus we can avoid the chemicals and poisons that are often used on conventional fruits and vegetables. And of course, we’re being more environmentally friendly because the effort it takes to get a radish from your garden to your table is much, much less that it takes to get a radish to your table via the grocery store.
  • Limit the amount of waste we generate. This means avoiding products that are packaged in those god-awful hard to open hard plastic cases. But it also means saying no to shopping bags at every store you frequent – not just the grocery store. It means buying products in bulk or larger quantities to eliminate single serve or small packages. And it means eating the food we bring home – all of it. According to one study, American households waste 14% of their food purchases and the average family of four tosses out $590 per year, just in meat, fruits, vegetables, and grain products that perish before they’re eaten.
  • Reduce plastic use. Certainly, this falls under the previous goal of limiting waste, but plastic waste deserves special mention. Plastic is a petroleum product. Severely limiting the disposable plastic we use reduces our dependence on fossil fuels. Sometimes the thought of recycling helps us to justify a plastic purchase, but in truth, plastic is labor intensive to recycle. It needs to be sorted by hand and once it is, it often has to travel substantial distances using even more fuel to reach a processing facility.
  • Eat local. For me, this means producing and preserving as much of my own food as possible. Second to that, I’ll frequent my local farmers markets and seek out locally produced items at the supermarket when possible.
  • Repurpose. Recycling is great, but what if we can get more use out of an item before we recycle it? Why not use that egg carton to plant seedlings or the oatmeal container as a drum for your child?
  • Limit new purchases. Every new item on store shelves required energy for its production as well as distribution. If you don’t live close to the manufacturing facility, you can bet the item you’re coveting has spent some serious time on a ship, plane, or truck (or a combination thereof). It’s something I’m particularly aware of living on an island but it applies to all of us. Seek out second hand shops, garage sales, freecycle, and Craigslist. If you’re not taking advantage of these outlets, it’s time to start! Another benefit to buying second-hand items like clothing and linens is that they’re much less likely to harbor the formaldehyde vapors found on newly manufactured products.
  • Make healthier choices. So many of us have come to love the taste of processed foods. We crave things like chips and crackers. We covet candy bars and ice cream. Sure, they taste good. But is this real food? Instead of giving in to a trip to the store for the processed foods that are calling our names, let’s try to eat what’s available in our gardens or pantry. It’s better for us and avoiding those packaged foods is better for the planet.

What about you? What defines a more sustainable life for you?

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

7 comments… add one
  • Sheryl K Feb 23, 2011, 2:26 am

    I love all your ideas. We really have to make a conscious effort to be more green…but after a while, it becomes second nature and I feel so good knowing that I am making less waste. Love your eggshell idea – thanks!

  • Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart Feb 23, 2011, 12:09 am

    One big thing I do to use less energy is hang my laundry on lines, rather than use the dryer. I’m lucky to live in a rural area without covenants forbidding clothes lines, and we have an unfinished basement with clothes lines I can use when the weather is too cold and wet to hang laundry outside.

    I also have a small greenhouse so that I can grow herbs and veggies at home. The growing season at our altitude is so short, it’s the best option. I do not grow in the winter, though, because I wonder about having to heat the greenhouse offsetting any benefits.

    • Kris Bordessa Feb 23, 2011, 2:36 am

      Roxanne, do you wear your clothes “crunchy” from the line?

    • Joanne Betcher May 15, 2015, 1:46 am

      I too hang my cloths after I wash them, and have found after many years of saving on electric, that it makes for less friction hanging them and they have less wear and tear. Makes sense.. they smell fresher too!

  • MyKidsEatSquid Feb 23, 2011, 6:10 pm

    I love your ideas too. This reminds me about how my mom always used to hang our clothes out. At first she got some complaints from neighbors until she pointed out that our laundry line predate our neighborhood. That was years ago, now I think (hope) there wouldn’t be such a fuss. I’m looking forward to reading more!

  • Alisa Bowman Feb 23, 2011, 8:00 pm

    I look forward to reading along and getting better at all of this through your insights!

  • [email protected] Food. Stories. Feb 27, 2011, 9:49 am

    Wonderful introduction to sustainability! And it’s a nice resolution to say “we can start from here.” Guilt over past waste can be overwhelming, but if we can mentally wipe the slate clean and be conscientious moving forward, there’s still a big difference to be made.

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