Last week, I found myself sitting on the floor in Down to Earth in Kahului, which was a new experience for me. I was pumping liquid peppermint soap into a previously-used Dr. Bronner’s bottle.
It’s with some shame that I’ll admit that this was my first time refilling a bottle from the bulk products. I’ve always recycled–I learned from my mom, who recycles everything from tea wrappers to pickle jars. But I know that recycling isn’t good enough. Like many of my fellow Maui residents, I care about my footprint, but sometimes that’s all I do. I notice (and hate) when I’m using a plastic fork, I dabble in volunteering for beach cleanups and I haven’t used a plastic water bottle in years, thanks to the mass popularization of first Nalgene bottles and now Hydroflasks. But I know I can do more.
There’s this idea in the back of everyone’s head that the government will enact policies that will save us all, but the truth is that collective thought and behavior down here in the real world are supposed to influences action at the top. Single-use products have got to go if we are going to try to salvage our island, and that means a shift in the way we do things.
Buy from the Bulk Bins
Refilling my soap, shampoo and conditioner bottles was a little awkward at first, but it was actually very simple. You can bring your own containers to most stores, like Mana Foods, that sell bulk goods like soap, beans and rice. Any kind of container works. Jars work well for dry food, and previously-used squeeze bottles for liquid products. On the way in, stop at the counter and have an employee put in on the check-out scale to get the tare weight–that is, the weight of the empty container so you’re only paying for the weight of the goods itself. They’ll write it on the container, and subtract that number from the weight when you check out so you’re only buying the product, not the cost of the weight of the container. If you don’t care about paying a little extra for the container, just go for it. This goes for bringing your own salad bar and prepared food container, too.
Say No to Single-Use Plastic products
It’s okay to start with just a fork, or a coffee cup. Business owners and employees are typically fine with this request. Baristas at coffee shops don’t even blink when you bring your own cup. With trepidation, I brought a glass container to a food truck recently, but the owners were friendly about it, then the tourist behind me in line wanted to know what I was doing, which sparked a good conversation about Maui’s trash problem.
Stop buying crap
Anyone who’s had to move realizes that junk piles up, and sometimes it’s just easier to throw it all away and start over. But what if you stopped buying those things in the first place? Cheap plastic toys eventually end up as trash, since they break easily. When it comes to gifts, people usually don’t need more stuff–they need you to spend time with them. This has the added benefit of saving you money.
Shop at farmers markets
Farmers markets are a great alternative to big box stores, since few things are wrapped in plastic (like the last cucumbers I bought at Costco, which were individually wrapped in plastic, the again wrapped in plastic–yikes) and most of the products are local. Bring your own carry bag and you’re good to go. Bonus is the essential feeling of community you get when you know the person who grows your tomatoes.
Buy used stuff
Shopping at thrift stores and donating your unused or old things to thrift stores is another high-impact way of reducing landfill fodder. Manufacturing and shipping clothing takes a big toll on the environment, and lots of clothing ends up in landfills. Though Savers is closed, we still have Goodwill. Even cheaper and better are the numerous church thrift stores around Maui: St. Joseph in Makawao, St. Anthony in Wailuku and Kula Hospital are a few. Clothing swaps are another good way to give and get clothing, and they’re free. Keep your eye out for other kinds of local sales–I bought all all my bowls and plates at UH Maui College’s student pottery sale, which are way more interesting and meaningful than anything bought at Walmart.
Composing is another high-impact activity to save space in our landfill. The amount of food Americans throw away is mind-blowing. A compost isn’t hard to set up in the backyard. You can buy one, but we made one out of pallets. And as a bonus, you’ll eventually have good soil.
Support local Initiatives
There are several local businesses and people putting grassroots energy behind these efforts. The Huliau Foundation runs zero-waste events, diverting thousands of pounds of trash from some of Maui’s public events. Lani Galetto’s Bee Akamai creates beeswax products like Eco Wraps that replace saran wrap and ziplock bags. Kamalani Pahukoa sells Pono Pa‘ina reusable bamboo utensil sets that are meant to replace single-use plastics. “We’re the most isolated islands in the world,” Pahukoa said. “Our kuleana to promote sustainable and zero waste living begins by eliminating single-use plastic in our islands.” If the cost of these feels prohibitive, start small.
Recycling helps, but don’t rely on it
Recycling is “endangered practice,” says UH Maui College professor Tim Botkin. Most plastic isn’t recycled, and plastic can only be recycled a few times before it has to be thrown away. Glass and aluminum can be recycled endlessly, but plastic is far more ubiquitous and harms beaches and marine life. We also have no remanufacturing plants on Maui, which means we have to ship all of our recycling to China, which for obvious reasons isn’t a sustainable solution. Recycling isn’t compulsory here, so we rely on people making good choices, which they often don’t, because they often aren’t convenient.
Photo: Darris Hurst