Junk inside your stockings?

Empty red Christmas stocking hanging on a door

Photo: Creative Commons

 

I’ll never forget my first Christmas in Australia. We were invited to celebrate the event with our former host family (this is long before Airbnb was invented), this lovely interracial young couple (Korea meets Australia) with two gorgeous small children. The Australian grandparents joined the party too. Apart from celebrating Christmas in broad daylight, the party was not dissimilar to our Brazilian Christmas soiree—overeating and drinking, music and family. But then it came the time to open the gifts. Grandpa had the presents in a gigantic red sack and he could not tie the ends of the bag together, the gifts were overflowing, I was left wondering if more guests were coming considering the number of presents. He started distributing the gifts, most of which were for the children. The first couple of beautifully wrapped toys made the kids jump with excitement but the more gifts they opened the less they cheered. You could tell that the first gifts were carefully selected, age-appropriate, but the rest were just ‘stocking fillers’, an expression I had never heard until that day.

My head kept turning to the clock on the wall, the gift giving was becoming too long and boring and the pile of worthless junk tucked beside the Christmas tree was getting taller by the minute. By the time the last gift was distributed the children were more interested in what was showing on TV.

Back then, climate change was not a mainstream topic of discussion but I could not help thinking of the waste that millions of Australian households were creating that day and how they were nurturing a throwaway generation.

At that time it was clear to me that, by comparison, the Brazilian Christmas was very much a celebration of hope, love and piece rather than a purely consumeristic event but I was forced to change my mind when I went back to my country of birth for Christmas in 2005.  My city, Recife, had been invaded by stores selling cheap goods manufactured in sweatshops in other third world countries. Now, everyone had access to crap they could afford and this was reflected in the Christmas giving that year. I guess our Christmas principles weren’t so different after all, the festive Brazilian people just didn’t have easy access to an oversupply of things they didn’t need.

Fast forward 18 years from my first Ozzie Christmas and now we are all talking about climate change and the impact of our consumeristic society in the environment. But it doesn’t feel like we are matching our words with actions. I recently saw statistics showing that each Australian family contributes enough rubbish each year to fill a three-bedroom house from floor to ceiling. I think that Christmas alone is responsible for filling up the whole lounge room.

There are truckloads of reasons why society has evolved into such a remarkable waste producing machine and one of them is because we now can afford to buy more things and these things last less. It’s a vicious cycle and of course, this has an impact on the planet.

So it really surprises me when I see that the idea of filling up Christmas stockings continues as strong as ever. Don’t kids (and adults) receive enough gifts already? Do we really need to top up the Christmas gift giving extravaganza with more?

To make piece with our compulsion to buy, lots of websites are now promoting environmentally friendly, zero-waste stocking fillers. But this defeats the purpose, if we are combating excess, we don’t need fillers. We need substantial changes to our behaviours, we need to realise that Christmas giving doesn’t have to mean excessive buying. Giving makes us happy, but we can replace needless stuff with other ways to give like giving our time, offering a helping hand, being there when our friends need. That’s the true Christmas spirit, in Australia and elsewhere.

2 adults, 2 kids, loads of rubbish

Waste-produced

How much rubbish does your family produce in a week?


As soon as the garbage man drives away with our detritus most of us think it’s no longer our problem. Out of sight out of mind. But all that garbage, along with the waste created to produce it, is simply put in a big hole in the ground, or it’s first burned in an incinerator and then dumped in a landfill. Both ways produce a lot of pollution—the materials and food scraps that fill these landfills breakdown and eventually release methane and other toxic substances that pollute, kill animals or destroy their habitat and damage the environment in many other ways.

And man, we produce a lot of garbage! I wanted to measure how much waste my family produced in a week but within four days the 55 litre container was overflowing. Mind you, this container doesn’t include our food waste and I’ve been reciting the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle mantra for a while, I’m quite conscious of what goes in my shopping trolley. So, even with sustainability in mind, I’m still creating a lot of pollution.

I guess for me the issue is that I’ve focused on recycling more than everything else. Recycling is the easiest part as it requires minimal change in routines and habits. It does have its benefits, recycling reduces the amount garbage on the planet—and  consequently the pollution it generates—but for various reasons, recycling alone isn’t enough to make a considerable impact on the environment . Firstly, for you to produce one bin of household garbage, the extraction-production-distribution process has already filled up 70 garbage bins—so your bin sitting in the kerb is just the tip of the iceberg. To compound the problem, each year we are increasing our consuming and offsetting even more the benefits of recycling. Another issue is that some products simply cannot be recycled—think items like rubber tires, Styrofoam, plastic, fiberglass and metals.

Treating and re-processing our waste can only make a difference to a point. What we really need to do is to reduce the amount of waste we produce. This means we have to avoid over-consumption, something very hard to achieve because in the developed world where we have a lifestyle that supports consuming more than what we need (if everyone adopted my lifestyle for example it would require 3.5 planet Earths to provide the resources—according to WWF, take the quiz—I’m horrified with my results!).

Changing a lifestyle is hard, we are creatures of routine. We are not used to using products (clothes, shoes, gadgets, toys, decoration items, cars, etc, etc) until they completely wear out instead of buying newer, more fashionable items. We buy more food than we need to eat (think obesity crisis), we buy by impulse without really considering if we need it (think mindless retail therapy). To change our consumption habits we need to develop awareness that there is a problem and the motivation to want to make a difference.

In the last two years I’ve grown interested in learning more about the harmful effects of human activity on the environment. But I’ve been on this planet for four decades, why have I taken so long? After all, scientists and activists have been talking about it for ages. I guess like most of us, I was just too focused on my routines and didn’t really stop to consider the impact of my actions on the planet. I believe everyone has their lightbulb moment when they realise there is a real issue and that they can part of the solution. Thankfully it’s not too late to start taking action yet.

If you care and want to make a difference to the environment by reducing your consumption, here are a few ideas for beginners like me:

  • Start by measuring your impact. In this way you will learn how to make the most effective changes to your lifestyle. See calculator.
  • Think before you buy. Are you making an emotional purchase or do you really need the item?
  • Buy products (including food items) with the least amount of packaging.
  • Fix things whenever possible. For instance, my son just cut a hole in this school pants. Ordinarily I would turn this item into a wipe cloth and buy a new one ($30 won’t break the bank). But with my new mindset I will get it repaired for $15.
  • Use your consumer power. Reject food and goods produced in an unsustainable manner. Your habits can propel  companies to listen and change their practices.
  • Raise awareness. The lifestyle changes we make as individuals are critical, but we need mainstream participation. Use social media to share the word, add your voice to online campaigns and support high-level policy change.

I hope that one day it will take much longer for my family to fill up a 55 litre bin with garbage.

Sick in bed wondering why eat healthy

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I haven’t had a cold or flu for 22 months. I know it has been this long because last time I got sick it was so bad I had to call the paramedics. Much to my surprise this winter the flu came for a visit again and and I’ve been bedridden for two days already. I’ve been eating so well, I thought my immune system was strong enough to attack the bad guys and keep me healthy. I follow a good diet overall and I have abstained from processed sugar, dairy and gluten for three weeks. I’ve been eating primarily fruit and veggies, whole grains that don’t contain gluten, nuts and a little bit of meat. And yet, I’m lying under the blankets with a box of tissues. Why bother with a heathy diet? I know that a diet is no guarantee of a disease free life. So why am I restricting my life from all the tasty, high-calorie food if I don’t even want to loose weight?

The problem is that lately I’ve been hungry for information about two topics, health and the environment. These two ingredients are dangerous, you come across recipes that can cook up a storm in your brain. Now I know enough to make me uncomfortable about some of my purchasing choices. Ignorance is bliss.

Here is a brief summary of why I’ve cut back on junk or processed food:

For better health – refined and processed sugar and grains are striped of their vitamin, minerals and fiber. So when we eat processed food we are generally eating empty calories. These foods have a high glycemic index which means that they lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels and eating them is linked to increased risk of many diseases. Processed food also attacks your digestive system and gut health destroying good bacteria. Modern medicine knows that gut microbes influence digestion, allergies, and metabolism. Some research even show how our bacterial ecosystem is helps regulate how we think and feel.

You can find a comprehensive list of refined carbs and sugar here.

The Planet – processed food contains chemicals, involves energy-intensive production processes and all that packaging typically ends up in a landfill. In Australia our consumer appetite for packaged food means that each of us produce 200Kg of packaging per year. That includes all those chocolate foil wrappers, take-away containers, biscuit trays, etc. Collectively we throw 19 million tones of packaging in the bin. But the moment you cut back on processed carbs and sugar you start eating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains and naturally consuming less packaged food.

So I’m adjusting my diet. I’m not quite there yet. I’ll continue researching and learning and sharing. Eating healthy is not as hard as I thought it was. And if a sweet-tooth like me can do it, anyone can. I haven’t noticed any changes to my body or mind yet, but I do feel that my actions are more aligned with my principles and that I’m making a difference, even if minimal, to the planet. The way we eat does have an impact in our ecological footprint. As for my health, at least I didn’t have to call the ambulance. 

date-coconut-cacao

Health snack: date, coconut and cacao balls, recipe below

How about you? Do you think your diet is making a difference to your health or the environment?

Disclosure: Dairy got in my list because I’m lactose intolerant but often eat foods containing lactose (e.g biscuits).

I got a few emails asking for the recipe of the photo so here is my little recipe for the sweets pictured | Also in Portuguese for my Brazilian friends:
1 cup of dates | 1 x de tâmaras
3/4 cup of shredded dissected coconut | 3/4 x the coco ralado (dissecado ou fresco)
1/4 cup of cocoa powder for rolling | 1/4 x de po de cacau para enrolar

Step 1: Place dates in a medium bowl and cover with water. Stand for 1 hour. Drain and discard seeds. | Coloque as tâmaras num recipiente com agua por 1 hora, tire o excesso da agua e retire os caroços

Step 2: Process dates and shredded coconut until mixture comes together | passe as tâmaras e o coco no processador ate ficar uma pasta

Step 3: put cocoa in a shallow dish, roll level teaspoon of mixture into small balls and roll them in the cocoa power | coloque o cacao num prato raso, enrole a mistura como brigareido e passe no cacau

Baked shirts – giving mother Earth a hand on mother’s day

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It’s mother’s day and I woke up in a fever of domestic enthusiasm. I put buttons on school shirts (a project that I’ve procrastinated for months!) and I cut two bags of old clothes into small squares to use as cleaning cloths. We had breakfast out but when we got home I made lunch, homemade pesto with basil from my backyard and baked Anzac biscuits. And as the biscuits were in the oven, why not use the radiant heat to dry the school uniforms (it was drizzling outside)?  I felt like a domestic Goddess, so much was accomplished but the best of all I felt like I was acknowledging the planet that sustains and nurtures us.

Going back to the shirts ‘baking’ by the oven – did you realise that the clothes dryer is one of the largest energy user  in the house? If you asked me that a year ago, I wouldn’t have a clue. I wasn’t an environmentally minded individual but this started to change when I read the book The Great Disruption by writer and sustainability advisor, Paul Gilding. The book argues that human activity is growing beyond Earth’s capacity and that our insatiable consumption and waste is leading us to an ecological crisis.

Since I’ve read the book, I’ve been looking for ways to reduce my family’s carbon footprint. It hasn’t been easy and I haven’t made a lot of progress but there are a few things that I’m doing that I think are a move in the right direction:

  • Not buying a clothes dryer (in fact, I’ve never owned one)
  • Stopped buying individually packed biscuits for the lunchboxes
  • Plastic ziplock snack bags have been banned in my household (still have some as I’ve recycled the last ones I had)
  • Baking more snacks for the lunchboxes (and if raining using the oven heat to dry clothes!)
  • Making the effort to take fabric bags to the supermarket – I used to forget them all the time
  • Not buying winter clothes this year. I’ve just revisited my closet and honestly my jacket is still is good condition, and so are my jumpers
  • Reduced my family’s meat consumption: in addition to animal cruelty, animal farming requires massive amounts of land, food, energy, and water
  • Reducing my consumption in general.

Other things I would like to do and hope to implement shortly: take my own containers to take-away shops, buy more of my groceries in bulk, from local farmers and fair trade  and use my own reusable cup for coffee – Australians throw away 1 billion disposable coffee cups per year!

The way we eat, consume and use energy has a huge impact on the planet so we all have an ethical responsibility to do our bit not to inflict too much ecological damage. Happy mother’s day planet Earth – I hope many of sons and daughters are lightening their load on you.