Gabi Jankauskas is a Waste-free Mama
Mother to Gaia, 1
Interviewed by: Morgan
Today in the United States the average family is producing four to eight pounds of trash every day—that’s roughly 124 pounds every single week and a whopping 6,448 a year! While it’s easy to think that you alone may not be able to change the trash problem in America, every single small (or large) conscious decision makes a difference. Gabi Jankauskas, also known as @WasteFreeMama, is a mindful mama making the choice every single day to commit to helping the trash problem—and then sharing her innovative tips and tricks on Instagram to empower the rest of us to do the same. Gabi and her husband Taurus are the parents of dirt eating, non-stop smiling, nature loving Gaia, and together as a family they seek to explore the wild and preserve its beauty.
Tell me a bit about yourself. What are your passions? What do you do for work?
Before I had a baby I was working in the humanitarian sector for a disaster response organization, basically chasing disasters and assisting in the clean-up coordination, as well as getting my hands dirty in the demolition and rebuild programs. Due to the inherent risks involved in that type of work, I am unable to continue now that I am a mama of a young bebe. I’m currently scratching my humanitarian itch by working (unpaid) as a mentor with refugees arriving from Syria and Darfur. I help them to find work, learn English, and adapt to life in the United States. I’m studying both Anthropology and Sustainability, and will be graduating in the Spring of 2017. I plan to continue my education further in Humanitarian Aid/Human Rights. I am passionate about environmental sustainability, human rights, social equality, health & nutrition, and the great outdoors (hiking, climbing, running, kayaking, swimming . . . basically anything you do outside is my cup of tea ).
Can you sum up what living a “waste-free” lifestyle means?
By living “waste free” we are not creating any household landfill waste. Instead, we compost, vermipost, or recycle all of the refuse that we create. For anyone that doesn’t know, vermiposting is essentially composting using worms. We have a (recycled) plastic bin in our apartment with about 4,000 red wriggler worms inside, who eat most of our food scraps, junk mail and other paper waste. The end product is an incredibly nutrient-rich organic compost, which we then feed to our houseplants or gift to our neighbors. Since we don’t have access to a yard in order to compost traditionally, we drop off the remainder of our food waste and other compostable items that the worms are not able to digest (such as citrus peels, compostable bamboo toothbrushes and dish brushes) at a local nursery that happily turns it all into sellable compost.
Composting is really important, as our food scraps and paper products are unable to biodegrade in landfills. This is because landfills are actually designed to prevent the biodegradation of our thrown out items in order to prevent our groundwater from becoming contaminated, and to prevent methane gas from being released (among other reasons). When food scraps and paper products are composted in a household or industrial setting, they biodegrade within days or weeks into a usable, nutrient-packed compost.
In order for us to create only recyclable or compostable waste, we are very selective about everything that we purchase. We do our best to only purchase bulk or unpackaged food to avoid the inevitable food-packaging landfill waste. We use reusable containers or jars and cloth bags to collect all of our groceries from the market. When bulk is not an option (this doesn’t happen often), we are very selective about the type of packaging our food items are encased in. We choose to only purchase items in very easily recyclable packaging such as paper, metal or easily recyclable plastics. Just because a package has a recycle symbol on it does not actually mean that it’s recyclable. It’s quite frustrating, actually! The numbers 1-7 found inside of the recycle symbol tell the real story about where that plastic came from, and where it’s headed once your recycling is picked up. We reached out to our local recycling program to figure out which plastics are most likely to be recycled in our city (plastics 1 & 2), and we try our best to only use these. Luckily, these plastics are commonly used for our favorite food, hygiene and household product packaging.
We also purchase all of our household items second hand so that we aren’t introducing any new, unnecessary waste into the waste cycle. We do most of our shopping at local thrift stores or on our surrounding cities’ craigslist pages. Almost all of our furniture, cookware, appliances, clothing, baby items and outdoor gear was purchased secondhand. We do purchase some items brand new such as undergarments, socks, and personal hygiene items. We also purchase our climbing gear (harnesses and ropes) brand new for safety reasons. However, our climbing gym has recycle bins for both! When we do have to purchase something new we make sure that the companies we purchase from are using environmentally sustainable and socially responsible manufacturing processes, that the items are built to last, and that they are 100% recyclable or compostable.
What has been the most difficult challenge you have faced so far in transitioning to a waste-free lifestyle?
The most difficult challenge we initially faced was purchasing all of our food without creating food-packaging waste. I spent a lot of time exploring our local bulk shops and bulk sections, trying to find everything that we needed. When I was unable to find something in bulk, I would either try to make it myself, find it in 100% recyclable packaging, find an alternative, or just live without it. I definitely spent a lot of time in the beginning trying to figure out what worked best for us, without depriving us nutritionally. There was also some trial-and-error when selecting which container or bag worked best for collecting each type of food, and then also what worked best for storing it once we made it home. For example, using a cloth bag to purchase loose vegetables such as kale, cilantro, or carrots works great, but if you put them into your refrigerator in that same bag, they will wilt within a day or so. I figured out that you can instead store those vegetables in a glass jar with a little bit of water in the bottom, and they will stay fresh just as long as they would inside a plastic produce bag! So simple. There was definitely a learning curve that was challenging to work through, but now I know exactly what we need, exactly where I can find it at the best price, and the best way to store it to prevent it from spoiling early.
Have you noticed that living this lifestyle helps cut down on costs?
Oh yes, definitely! We save quite a bit of money by shopping for our food in bulk, but we honestly save most of our money because we no longer shop impulsively. We only buy what we absolutely need, and we research our options in depth before we buy anything. We have also saved thousands of dollars by purchasing our baby and outdoor gear second hand, instead of purchasing it all brand new.
What is the greatest benefit of living this lifestyle?
Besides the environmental benefits of consuming less, the greatest benefit is likely on my conscience. I’ve learned that the less stuff I have, the less stress I have. I also don’t have this guilt weighing over me every time that I throw something away. However, there are many other benefits to this lifestyle besides that! We don’t spend our time shopping for disposable items time and time again, which leaves us with so much more time to get outside together. We also have this deep connection with all of our belongings. We have far less than we used to, but we have spent our time seeking out timeless items made from natural materials, that we plan to keep for a lifetime. My mind isn’t burdened with “I need this and this and this” anymore, because I know that we don’t actually need anything, besides what we already have. We go out for one weekly grocery shopping trip together as a family, and that’s it! When we need something other than what we can find on our grocery trip, I normally coordinate a craigslist pick-up when my husband is on his way home from work. We all three really despise shopping, so we are all very happy to be spending our time doing something more meaningful, instead.
“I’ve learned that the less stuff I have, the less stress I have.”
What kind of advice can you offer to someone who is interested in taking steps towards a waste free lifestyle?
I think the first important step is to clear your life from all of the clutter. Minimize every aspect: from clothes and food, to toiletries and home furnishings. If you don’t absolutely need it, donate or sell it! Also, utilize the resources that you have (like google, and me!). It’s unlikely that you are the first person to run into whatever issue is stopping you in your tracks.
The most important advice that I could give anyone working towards a waste-free lifestyle is to take special care that you aren’t depriving yourself (or your family) of the things that make you happy and healthy. In the beginning I went through some personal ups-and-downs because I wasn’t getting the things that made me mentally and physically happy—I was trying to go cold-turkey zero waste (I always have to be at 0 or 100, something I have been working on!). The switch should be a very long, slow process of finding the things that you love without packaging.
I understand that most people won’t be willing or able to make the sacrifices needed to become “zero” waste, but everyone is capable of making small changes in the way that they shop to easily minimize the amount of waste that they are creating. For example, choose to purchase unpackaged produce vs. the produce found in plastic netting, use a reusable water bottle and coffee cup, or bring your own container to restaurants for leftovers. Be conscious of how long that plastic straw is going to stay in the ground, just so that you can have your morning coffee (or better yet, invest in a glass or stainless steel straw!).
“I understand that most people won’t be willing or able to make the sacrifices needed to become “zero” waste, but everyone is capable of making small changes in the way that they shop to easily minimize the amount of waste that they are creating.”
Why is it important to you that your kids have a connection with the outdoors?
Beyond the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual benefits that kids obtain through spending time outside, I also hope that by fostering Gaia’s connection with the outdoors she will gain a sense of responsibility for the planet’s well-being. There are many things that I hope to accomplish as a parent, and up there with instilling kindness in Gaia, I also hope to instill an awareness of the impact her actions and decisions have on our planet.