Each year, Earth Overshoot Day marks the date by which humanity has consumed all the resources that the planet can regenerate in one year. In 2021, Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 29. That left us nothing to live on from August to December, which means we borrowed against the future. This year, we’ll borrow again. We’re in the red. Our account is overdue. The bill collectors won’t stop calling. You get the idea.
In early March of 2020, I arrived at my mom’s condo in Canada with a carry-on bag packed with one pair of pants, five pairs each of underwear and socks, a few t-shirts, a toothbrush, a kombucha SCOBY and my sourdough starter. I also had my laptop and phone of course.
I had planned my trip back in January. By late February, I wondered if I should travel but hadn’t seen my mom for almost two years. By the time I was to return to California in mid-March, the state had issued stay-at-home orders and Ontario declared a state of emergency. Air Canada grounded flights and the US-Canada border closed. I stayed in Ontario for almost four months.
My mom has very few tools to cook with and none of the fancy tools I use in California to bake sourdough bread, such as my:
Grain mills (one mechanical, one electric)
Digital scale for measuring the flour, water and salt
Large wooden butcher block to form the boules on
Banneton baskets for proofing the boules
Lame for scoring the proofed boules
Le Creuset Dutch oven for baking the bread
The price of this equipment easily adds up to $500, not including the beautiful vintage wooden electric grain mill, which a neighbor gave me.
Fortunately, a few years before my trip, I had written up the volume measurements for sourdough bread for readers who don’t own scales and I followed those. I baked with store-bought flour only (zero freshly ground), formed boules on my mom’s countertop, proofed boules in towel-lined bowls dusted with flour, scored the tops with a knife that I was able to somewhat sharpen and baked the loaves on a flimsy cookie sheet.
I baked some of the best sourdough loaves I’ve ever made.
Alternatives to buying new stuff
My extended vacation in Canada, without all my stuff, taught me an important lesson: I can do without a lot of material objects (and also, I think I might make a good backpacker).
When you want to buy something, wait
In a 2017 New York Times article that Ann Patchett wrote about her year of no shopping, she offered this advice:
In March I wished I had a Fitbit, the new one that looked like a bracelet and didn’t need to be connected to a smartphone. For four days I really wanted a Fitbit. And then — poof! — I didn’t want one. I remember my parents trying to teach me this lesson when I was a child: If you want something, wait awhile. Chances are the feeling will pass.
And if the feeling doesn’t pass, sometimes, if you wait long enough, what you need simply turns up. It’s that whole ask the Universe thing. This happens to me on a regular basis. Once, while sitting outside the library, researching cookbook photos before I wrote mine, I texted my daughter pictures of some beautiful photos in a Food 52 ice cream cookbook. “I want to buy an ice cream maker after I graduate,” she texted back. (She would soon finish her undergrad.)
On my ride home, within an hour, I found a like-new Cuisinart ice cream maker sitting on the curb, set out with a bunch of other nice stuff. I put it on the back of my bike and rushed home to plug it in and find out if it worked. It did.
Not long ago, two of my friends, Halnya and Rachael, each wanted new-to-them sewing machines. They mentioned this within their circle of friends and each soon found what they wanted. Halnya bought a secondhand serger for much less than she would have paid retail and Rachael received not one, but two free sewing machines!
If you don’t already belong to a Buy Nothing group, consider joining one. Not only can you request things you want and need, you’ll also find takers for the stuff you want to unload. Ask for or give away stuff on Nextdoor as well.
If you need an item for a short time only, try to borrow it. Looking for entertainment? Hit the library. I do still buy books (I won’t give up books!) but I also borrow books. Our library also has a fantastic selection of DVDs.
Watching DVDs consumes less energy than streaming video—you power only your TV and DVD player. Streaming consumes much more energy. In fact, streaming for an hour generates emissions equivalent to driving a car about a quarter-mile and the Internet as a whole generates emissions on par with the airline industry. But please don’t feel guilty for watching Squid Game! Who could blame you?! Netflix has helped many of us retain our sanity during lockdowns. The company acknowledges it must reduce its impact and has made a commitment to do so.
But if you do borrow DVDs from the library, you’ll probably spend less time browsing for something good to watch.
When you need something immediately
Perhaps you don’t have time to wait until your desired item magically appears. If you need to wear black pants every day for your new job, you need to find black pants for your new job. Although thrift shops, such as Goodwill, have received a lot of trash during the pandemic, they’ve experienced a boom in quality donations as well. You may find your black pants there.
Dumpster dive for stuff
If I need something, I don’t expect to ride around the neighborhood and find that exact item sitting on the curb calling out to me. But as I ride around, I do look out for useful items and regularly find them. At this point, thrift store shopping feels extravagant. Items my family or I have found on the street include:
Le Parfait jars
Pyrex glass dishes
Wooden wine crates
A vintage Griswold cast-iron popover/muffin pan
An antique treadle sewing machine and cabinet
A 1960s era working Singer sewing machine
Two like-new Ethan Allen dining chairs
A 60” flat-screen TV, still in the box from Costco (this I left behind)
(Go here to see more stuff I’ve found on the street.)
Your city may not allow this type of curbside dumping or your neighbors may be more sensible than to throw out such high-quality items.
Take care of the stuff you have
Make your stuff last longer. Hang your laundry up to dry either on a clothesline outside or on racks inside. You’ll pay less for electricity and your clothes will last much longer. Season your cast iron pans. Don’t leave your knives sitting in the bottom of the sink where they can rust (and cut you).
Repair your broken stuff
We obsess over the wrong metrics. A national fixation with productivity relegates still-useful items to overburdened landfills because we feel we’d waste our precious time repairing a broken widget when we can simply buy an inexpensive replacement. If we took into account the true cost of this linear consumption—the millions spent on building landfills; the leachate or methane emissions these discarded items generate in the landfill; the pollution generated by the extraction of virgin materials to create the replacement item; manufacturing emissions; shipping emissions and so on—that new widget becomes prohibitively expensive.
Picking up a sewing needle, screwdriver or saw to repair a broken item is a small act of small rebellion against our throwaway culture.
Search for repair tutorials
If you don’t know how to mend your item, search online for directions.
YouTube. Whatever you need to repair, you’ll find a video with instructions.
iFixit. Find guides to repair all the things, ask questions in the forum, read the latest news on the progress of right to repair laws and much more.
Instructables. Find all kinds of projects, like this spaceship chicken coop, but also tutorials on repairing items.
Patagonia Worn Wear. Watch videos or read guides on repairing clothing.
“How to darn a sock.” From the website The Spruce, this tutorial provides step-by-step guidance to mend holes in your socks.
Borrow tools from tool libraries to fix your stuff
If you’re fortunate enough to live in a city with a tool lending library, take advantage of it when you need to repair something around your home. You don’t want to buy a jigsaw and scrounge out storage space for it if you’ll use it only once or twice. Search here for a tool lending library near you.
Or borrow a tool to give it a test run before deciding whether or not to buy it. I’m currently cooking on a portable induction cooktop I borrowed from my library. Cooking with gas emits pollution similar to the kinds that come out of a car’s tailpipe (see Day 12 for more). I’m really enjoying cooking with the induction cooktop and hope our gas consumption decreases a noticeable amount on our bill over the three weeks I have this.
Pay someone to fix your stuff
You need not do everything yourself. Farm out your repairs if you can!
I bought my current pair of Birkenstocks in 2015 from European Cobblery and have had them repaired at the shop three times since then (I wear them almost every day). First, the cobbler replaced the heels’ soles (maybe I literally drag my feet...). Later, I had the entire sole replaced. I’ve had the corks replaced once. Having my Birks repaired is not inexpensive but it does cost less than buying new ones and I've supported a local business and kept items out of landfill. After the repairs, the sandals always look like new.
If your city, like many, no longer has a cobbler in town, you can buy new parts for Birkenstocks from the company (and several other vendors) and repair your shoes yourself. You’ll find many videos on YouTube showing Birks repairs.
Take your broken items to a repair cafe for fixing
Repair cafes help build community and resiliency while giving useful items a second life and keeping them out of landfills. Rather than dropping your item off and returning to pick it up at a later date, in a repair cafe, you sit with the volunteer repairing it, you explain the problem, you learn a bit about the repair process and you have a social interaction.
Search here for a repair cafe near you. Some repair cafes that shut down due to Covid have not yet resumed. But please keep an eye out for their return!
If your city doesn’t have a repair café and you’d like to start one, read Repair Revolution: How Fixers Are Transforming Our Throwaway Culture, written by John Wackman, founder of the first repair cafe in New York, and Elizabeth Knight, a community sustainability activist and organizer. This well-researched, wise and inspiring book outlines the history of the repair movement and provides readers with the practical nuts and bolts for launching and operating successful repair cafés in their own communities.
We are better off when we see our own community in the midst of cooperation, creativity, and downright decency, in a place where goals are achieved and positive outcomes are realized. — John Wackman and Elizabeth Knight
What is your all-time best secondhand find?
This fall my water kettle broke. I went to the second hand shop and found one for €9, it a Breville and in perfect condition. The woman who brought it in (that morning) mentioned that she just didnt need two. A few weeks back I also bought a pair of brand new New Balance shoes for €4 in a second hand shop. Second hand shopping has been my main method of making a home since relocating over a year and a half ago, I love it.
When we bought our first house in Seattle, a 1924 craftsman fixer-upper, I really wanted a classic camel-back couch for the living room. But, after all the house repairs, we couldn't afford a new one. My husband mentioned to his co-workers that we were looking for a couch (without sharing the details) and one of them showed him a picture of one she was giving away - it was the exact camel-back couch I wanted, complete with claw feet, and even in the rich maroon color I'd hoped for. Serendipity!