You may remember that one of my goals for this year was simply to have less and use less, in every area of life — because I believe “less” is better for the environment, better for the poor, and better for me. One recent way in which I explored the attempt to have “less” was by taking a week-long Anti-Plastic Challenge, which made me much more aware of how much disposable plastic junk comes into my hands every day.
Being on the sort of mailing lists I’m on, the other day I got an email about “Waste-Free School Lunches.” It included a challenge to try to reduce the amount of plastic and other packaging that gets thrown out in our kids’ school lunches, which was already a concern for me (don’t get me started on the actual FOOD they throw out…) It also included a link to a site offering the “Laptop Lunch System” for sale.
I looked at the link, though “Ah that’s pretty cool,” and didn’t give it a lot more thought till the next day when I walked into my local Chapters and there was a table display of these very same Laptop Lunchboxes.
I will admit, I was seduced. Both my kids have perfectly adequate lunchboxes, but these little zipped-up insulated darlings with the segmented covered box inside to carry different kinds of food without needing the ubiquitous plastic bags or whatever … yes, they called to me. They looked so pretty! And so good! And so green!!
Catherine wrote a great blog post about this for Earth Day — how our desire to be “greener,” to be better caretakers of the earth and tread more lightly upon it, so quickly and easily gets co-opted into a kind of “green consumerism” where we’re still spending more money on more products — it’s just that now they’re “green” products.
I pride myself in many ways on being relatively free of the consumerism bug. I don’t like to shop for clothes or shoes and get by with as few as I can reasonably own and make them last as long as possible. I don’t find shopping in itself an entertaining activity and I rarely indulge in “retail therapy,” so it’s easy for me to be smug about consumerism. But of course I can be targeted by marketing just as easily as the next shoe-shopping gal … just find a product that fits the image I want to present to the world. Which was, essentially, the exact appeal of the Laptop Lunchbox.
Now, I’m not dissing the well-meaning folks who developed this product. Obviously a lot of thought and good intentions have gone into it and there are a lot of people for whom this might be just the thing they need. But even as I stood in Chapters looking and coveting, I wondered what the advantages really were over using our existing lunchboxes. If we made more of an effort to use our multi-sized reusable plastic containers instead of disposable bags, wouldn’t that be pretty much the same thing? (If your objection to plastic is based on the belief that it’s intrinsically bad because it’s leaching some kind of chemicals into your food, the LL system won’t help with that because all the food is still in plastic sub-containers). Of course, we have a problem with the kids remembering to bring back reusable lunch containers — but all the compartments of the LL system can come out individually, so any or all of them might eventually get left at school, so that doesn’t put us any further ahead.
There was no price tag anywhere on the Laptop Lunchbox table, so I took two of them (the pretty pink! And the gorgeous electric blue!) to the checkout to see what the damage was. They were $39.95 each. That would be $80.00 for two new lunchboxes (each including a little booklet explaining how to make waste-free lunches — which, when you think about it, is very waste-producing because if you have three kids, do you need three booklets?) Suddenly economics and environmentalism were marching hand in hand: the cheaper choice was the more environmentally friendly choice. Make do with what we already have, instead of buying the trendy new “green” product.
My best example in this area has to be my parents. My parents would certainly not self-identify as environmentalists; my dad even has the nerve to openly express skepticism about global warming. I doubt they spend much time thinking about the most environmentally friendly choice when they go shopping. But they are both children of the Depression, and they are the masters of making do and using something till it literally cannot be used anymore.
I, for example, am cooking to this day on the stove they bought when they got married in 1962. They are using the brand-new, upgraded stove they got when they bought the house in 1972. Jason recently convinced me to buy a new cooler for camping and going up in the country, because ours had a crack in it and “after all, we’ve been using it since we got it as a wedding present 13 years ago.” Hardly impressive when you consider my parents are still going up to the country with a red METAL cooler that I’m pretty sure is older than me.
When I was a child we were the last people I knew — probably the last people in St. John’s — to get colour TV, because the old black and white was working just fine. (For at least two years, “working just fine” meant that a letterbox-style strip of black at the top and bottom of the screen grew wider and wider until we were watching a narrow band of black-and-white television that took up about two inches across the middle of the screen).
I don’t mean to imply that my parents are cheap — in fact, they are in some ways very free with their money. They travel; they love to eat out; they are very generous in their giving to church and charity. But they have simply never bought in to the idea of a disposable consumer culture, the belief that you need a new thing just because your old thing is old. (This may also explain why they’ve been married for 46 years, come to think of it).
No matter how hotly I pursue goals of environmentally-friendly sustainability, I’ll be hard-pressed to match my parents’ everyday level of sustainabililty. If everyone had their attitude, there’d be a lot less stuff in landfills (though we might all be watching TV in three-inch strips).
So I left the two Laptop Lunchboxes at the check-out at Chapters and went home with a plan to be more conscious of how much packaging we use and waste in the kids’ lunches, to use more reusable containers in their existing lunchboxes and follow up on getting those containers home and washed out so they can actually be reused. Again, the Laptop Lunchbox does look like a really attractive product and if you think it’s actually something you need, go for it. But I need to remind myself to keep taking a minute — not just with lunchboxes, but with everything — to think about whether I really do need a new thing, or whether the old thing can just keep chugging along.