Dependence on disposables, or should the government impose a plastic tax?

Israel’s new government is about to cancel two consumer taxes the previous government has put in place: a tax on disposable plastic tableware and a tax on sugary drinks (which also go out onto supermarket shelves in plastic bottles). Many people see this recent move as pandering to the Israeli ultra-Orthodox population and have a lot of things to say about those nutty religious fanatics who can’t bother to wash their dishes.

I’ve often said that large families have a huge environmentally friendly potential. Modest lifestyles, a limited amount of car and airplane travel, and lots of using hand-me-downs make religious families with many kids a lot less wasteful than many families with just one or two kids who burn up gas like there’s no tomorrow and order huge boxfuls of cheap stuff from Shein that’s going to end up in the landfill after a couple of wears.

Basically, I believe there are two elements that keep most large families in Israel from becoming truly environmentally friendly: time and brain-space.

I know what it’s like when you have a bunch of kids come indoors from playing, look into the sink, and discover it’s still full of last night’s dishes. Then you desperately reach for the stack of disposable plates and cups on the upper shelf, promising yourself you won’t procrastinate with dishwashing next time (or, in my case in the past, telling yourself you’ll have to wash those dishes the moment the running water supply resumes!)

Sidenote: As far as I know, most Haredi families in Israel don’t use a dishwasher. One reason is Jewish dietary restrictions: most strictly observant families would use the dishwasher either for meat or for dairy dishes, which would still leave them with huge amounts of kitchenware to wash by hand. Another reason is that the initial investment would seem daunting to many large families on a shoestring budget. And, finally, a dishwasher takes up space, and many Haredi families live in cramped apartments with tiny kitchens.

Another thing is brain-space or, if you prefer, lack of awareness. Ultra-Orthodox schools and society rarely emphasize environmental studies (although I definitely believe they should). Some even disparagingly call caring about the environment “the secular religion” and go on a tangent, saying that people “worship” the environment instead of caring about the “really important things”, like helping people in need. Of course, it’s a false narrative that often covers up one simple truth: when you have five kids under six, it’s hard to care about anything but day-to-day survival. You do what you need to do to keep your head above the water, even if it creates bigger landfills – which is ultimately one reason I chose not to cloth-diaper. I do try to improve and make more environmentally friendly choices, though.

A friend who lived in the U.S. for a few years told me that in her opinion, the Israeli reliance on disposables is unprecedented in the developed world. I think it’s a shame, especially since, in my opinion, disposables don’t really save as much work as people think.

First, you need to remember to buy them, and then you panic if you don’t. And sometimes you end up running out to the store just because you’ve run out of plastic dishes and you haven’t geared up with a “real” dish set for the guests that just arrived at your doorstep.

Also, since plastic kitchenware (especially the cheap kind most Haredi families use) tips over, tears, and breaks easily, it will create more spills and messes when children use it. And finally, disposables clog up your garbage can so you need to empty it more often.

Plus disposable kitchenware is just plain yucky. Food both looks and feels so much nicer when served in glass or crockery.

The second tax that is now being revoked involves sugary drinks. My feelings about this one are more mixed. On the one hand, I don’t believe in a condescending, paternalistic attitude that tries to teach people what’s good for them by punishing unhealthy food choices through their wallet. I also have great faith in a free market. My suggestion is that, instead of revoking the tax, it’s time to roll it to the bottled drink manufacturers who destroy public health with their sugar-loaded offerings.

Finally, we should all remember that the consumer’s power is in our hands. Whatever taxes the government imposes or cancels, we can all choose to make an informed decision about what we eat, drink, or use in our kitchens. We can all take responsibility for our food and consumption habits and work towards making our own private household healthier and more environmentally friendly.

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One handy little tip to keep clutter at bay

I love a bit of shopping as much as the next person – especially if it’s thrif shopping. In fact, it’s thrilling to know you’ve scored and got a quality item for a fraction of the price. I have a pair of knee-high genuine leather boots, which I got for about $20 in a second-hand store and wear almost every day, every winter.

But here’s the problem with shopping, even and especially when you get a great deal: we all have limited space on our shelves and in our closets, and no one wants their house to look like something that belongs in an episode of Hoarders.

Cue a simple but effective rule I’ve been implementing lately for purchases that aren’t absolutely necessary: one goes in, one comes out.

Here’s how I do this: if I consider buying a pair of shoes for myself or my kids, I challenge myself to go over all our shoes and part with at least one pair. It can be something that doesn’t fit anymore or just something that hasn’t been worn in a while.

This actually works great, because:

a) I put stuff in order as I go through it

b) I keep the house from being overrun by surplus items (does stuff breed when I’m not looking, or what?)

c) As I go over our things, I usually find more than one item we can do without, so it usually ends up being “one goes in, two or more go out”

These days, I apply this rule to pretty much anything: clothing, toys, books. With items that get used up, like art supplies and yarn, I adjust the rule to “finish one, then buy another”.

So that’s my current strategy. Rather than do one big seasonal declutter, just keep clutter from accumulating as much as you can.

How I got over my plastic tablecloth addiction

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

I’ve always considered myself a fairly eco-conscious person. I line dried, hand washed, repurposed, and tried to minimize the use of disposables. With one exception: plastic tablecloths for the Shabbat table.

I sort of felt I gamed the system when I spread out that transparent rustling sheet of plastic over my table. I didn’t need to worry about spills. Cleanup was a breeze. And I could still see my pretty cloth tablecloth through the plastic.

No, I didn’t feel too good about myself when it was time to shove that giant wad of plastic into the trash can. But I told myself, “You do enough laundry. You have tiny kids. You’re just surviving.” It was that word, “surviving”, which I used to justify a lot of lack of effort in many areas.

I could, of course, put on reusable waxed tablecloths, but there are limitations to cleaning on the Shabbat. For example, you can’t clean with a cloth and then wring it.

Then, one day, we switched to buying a long plastic roll rather than individual pre-cut pieces to save money. The problem is, you need to cut your plastic cover before the Shabbat, and if you forget to do that, too bad.

One such time, I nearly threw a fit when I realized that I’ll need to use cloth tablecloths and wash them. We lived in an area where we’d regularly get stuck without electricity or running water for days. But I still couldn’t help noticing how much nicer it was to eat without touching plastic with our hands and elbows.

I still wasn’t ready to give up on plastic table covers because of the aforementioned patchy utilities. There were many times when I delayed washing the dishes and was stuck with a full sink for three days. But when we moved, I no longer had to obsess about getting every load of laundry or stack of dishes done as soon as possible.

Then I started ghostwriting for one eco blog, which really got me more aware of how harmful plastic actually is and how important it is to minimize its use. I decided to lay my Shabbat cloth with no cover.

All in all, I needed three cloths for the three Shabbat meals. They took about half a load in the washer. And there was not a single stain, despite multiple spills of oil, wine, and tomato sauce.

For over a year now, I haven’t looked back. I just took my three favorite tablecloths off the line. They are perfectly clean and smell delicious – and they are ready to go on the table tomorrow night.

What to do when everything gets expensive

Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

This sure has been a crazy summer so far. Between tons of work and lots of projects around the house, I also try to do fun stuff with the kids and work on my own projects (specifically the upcoming sixth and final volume of Frozen World). And, by and by, I watch everything get more (and more, and MORE) expensive.

I mean literally everything. Electricity, food, public transportation, gas. I know it’s like that all around the world. Though I had taken on extra clients and more work, it’s not enough to compensate for the absolutely outrageous costs of living (and by living, I literally mean just that: a roof over your head, food to eat, keep the lights on).

Sometimes, I feel like shaking a fist at Global Economy and saying, “You ain’t getting my hard-earned money!”

Luckily, I have lived through Shoestring Budget Bootcamp which involved zero income, young kids, and limited access to basic facilities. I figure that, for many of us, it’s time to get back to basics and tighten those belts.

It starts with nonessentials. While I have argued that being too frugal can actually keep you stuck in poverty, when retailers and service providers are literally trying to rob you, it’s time to examine what you can live without. I believe in the consumer’s power. If we buy less, prices will drop, or corporations will go out of business.

My favorite way to cut discretionary expenses is to avoid going into stores. I know that all my willpower fails when I face a great deal on craft supplies, so I just dodge the temptation. Same goes for online stores (sorry, Woolstack!).

You can also save on:

Food: Cut the prepackaged foods and go with what’s basic, cheap, and healthy. Mix meat with beans and rice to stretch it. Try growing your own vegetables, stock up on long-keeping goods when you expect prices to rise, and consider keeping some chickens if your local regulations allow it.

Electricity: This one is tough. We live in Israel, and summers are hot. However, I try to be extra mindful of any AC units working needlessly (this usually involves peeking into any room my kids have exited). There are also long stretches in the afternoon when it’s not that hot outside anymore but the house radiates accumulated heat. Spending these hours out of doors helps cut electricity costs.

Transportation: We now pay an arm and a leg for gas, and local public transportation is undergoing a “reform” which essentially means you pay more unless your whole family uses buses and trains often enough to justify a monthly plan (spoiler: few kids do). So we’re falling back more and more on the old-fashioned form of transportation called walking. I try to merge several errands in one trip to save both time and money.

Second-hand: I love hand-me-downs and thrift stores. You can find excellent quality clothes, furniture, and household items for a fraction of the cost. Of course, it’s a matter of luck and it’s not as convenient as hopping online and just ordering whatever you need.

Entertainment: Luckily, no one has yet tried to make us pay for walks, local hikes, hanging out with friends, making dinner a picnic, or borrowing extra books from the library.

I’d love to hear how everyone is coping with the rising prices and what strategies you have adopted to live well during tough times.

Happy Passover (my least favorite holiday)

Pure loveliness

At this time of the year, I always wish I had the means to reach whomever set up the counterproductive tradition of combining the Passover chametz hunt with spring cleaning. That, and the founders of the waaaaaay overboard chumrot (unnecessarily tricky practices) like covering all the kitchen surfaces. Hello, aluminum foil, how nice to see you – NOT.

I’d file a collective lawsuit against them or something. Because when I toll the accumulated stress, chaos, frustration, exhaustion, and pangs of hunger of hundreds of thousands of Jewish children unable to get a proper meal in a disordered pre-Passover home, the mental damage is just unimaginable.

Jezreel Valley in spring

If my children grow up and decide to part ways with Jewish tradition, I’m laying the charge at Passover’s door. Yes, it’s that bad. I envy the rich people with holiday homes they can use just during this week.

But, on the up side, this year I managed to lower the level of insanity a tiny bit. I left ALL the bookcases and closets alone (other people in this house who are unhappy about it can roll up their sleeves and get busy – I never told them not to), and in the week before the holiday, I peeled off my scrubbing gloves and went with the kids on a hike through the woods.

Such lovely weather. So many different kinds of vegetation, especially lush after a generously rainy winter. This most beautiful time of the year, totally wasted on cleaning.

Chickens on a stroll

And here is just a random pic of the backyard flock roaming while I was cleaning out their coop. The rooster just showed up out of the blue over a week ago. Isn’t he a handsome boy?

The art of affordable living

I often think that the most helpful thing for staying financially afloat is not cutting a few dollars here and there – not clipping some coupons, or saving on electricity, or squeezing out the last bit of toothpaste – but what I call the art of affordable living; an attitude that helps countless people with moderate to low incomes live well and stay out of debt.

It’s genuinely preferring a nature walk to a shopping mall; homemade gifts to the latest order from Amazon; restored old furniture to an IKEA assembly; a quiet get-together on the beach with a few friends to a glitzy event. It’s the satisfaction of being able to step back and say, “I don’t really need that much.”

It has always amazed me, during our house moves, how well the family has coped with 90% of the clothes and utensils packed away for weeks. 10% of our belongings were quite enough to keep us dressed, fed, and entertained. There were moments, while I unpacked, when I wished I could just chuck some boxes away unopened (don’t worry, I never did that. I love my books, yarn, and fluffy pajamas too much).

At this time, I also feel that the habits of simplicity are serving me and my family amazingly well. Lockdowns, restrictions, green passes, and the rest of the paraphernalia the past two years have brought are a lot easier to take when your happiness doesn’t hinge on eating out, going to live shows, or staying in hotels.

I’ll just finish with a great quote from here:

“Living a simple life means there is no need to chase the extra buck. You don’t need the cash to buy the bigger living space to put all your stuff in that you would need more money to buy. Instead, you see that you can live on less and get rid of stuff to create more space.”

COVID and Food Security

After a rather lengthier silence than I had planned, I have a new post up on Mother Earth News. Like some of my previous posts, this one, too, explores food security in the pandemic era.

“Most authoritative sources agree: food prices are rising, and the trend isn’t likely to stop anytime soon. Many of the reasons have to do with the pandemic in some way or other, including production and supply chain disruptions, increased shipping costs, and the dollar’s deprecation.”

Key insights from the post:

~ In years to come, we will likely pay for our convenience in outsourcing most of our food production

~ Prices are only going to climb higher and higher in the foreseeable future

~ The next months and years will try our resilience and ability to get by on less and less

I know that if someone had told me two years ago, “you’ll walk into a grocery store two years later and you’ll see such and such prices on fruit, vegetables, and basic staples”, I’d probably think it was a joke. Filling a supermarket cart is turning more and more expensive.

There is no better time than now to learn sustainability skills, stockpile, grow some of your own food, and explore still-affordable meal options. To make and mend clothes and furniture, swap goods, and develop strong community ties that make every crisis easier.

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