4 reasons why I don’t “DIY” (not everything, at least)

Make your own toothpaste! Cook everything from scratch! Mend your own clothes! Learn a new skill so you can do ____ by yourself!

Even if you are someone who is just dipping their toes into the the zero waste/low waste/low carbon lifestyle, one thing you’ll learn quickly is that this movement is big on the idea of “self sufficiency”. To reduce the questionable ingredients and unnecessary packaging that products come with and to reduce waste overall, we are often told to DIY.

Don’t get me wrong, I really love the intentions behind the DIY culture – from people building their own homes, growing food, to making jewelry, condiments, and cleaning supplies – it can often save money, create more meanings and connections to the “stuff” we own, and reduce our reliance on consumerism…all great things! But over the years as I’ve been consciously reducing my own environmental footprint, I’ve also learned instances where DIY is not a good idea (for me at least), and I want to share some of these experiences.

1. Some things just aren’t meant to be done by yourself

Similar to how some home reno projects can go wrong, I’ve learned that personally – I just prefer purchasing certain items because they work better.

For example, I’ve made my own all-purpose cleaner with liquid castile soap before, and it made me sneeze every time I sprayed it! The very popular recipes with white vinegar also don’t really work for me – the vinegary smell bothers me, and we have a stone kitchen counter that can be corroded with acid. Likewise, I’ve made liquid laundry detergent before, and it turned into a lumpy glob. So? Now I buy an all-purpose cleaning concentrate that just needs to be diluted and a commercially-made laundry powder, and it saves me a LOT of headache. The point is: some things just aren’t meant to be homemade (at least by me), and forcing myself to keep trying with new recipes and ingredients or skills I don’t have is not a smart way to use natural resources or my time/money.

“bUT BacK iN tHe dAY hUMaNs aLwAYS mADe eVeRYTHing!” – say the people who make their own sunscreen. Yes that is true, but back in the day people also butchered their own animals, hand washed their clothes by the river, and didn’t know sunscreen or skin cancer is a thing so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

2. Knowing how doesn’t make it practical

Sometimes, even when a formula works, the amount of time and effort it takes makes a project impractical. Last year, I learned to make tofu at home, which was amazing and fun and delicious, but in the end I’ve decided that it’s not something I can take on regularly. Let me explain. To make tofu, you need to –

  • buy dried soybeans
  • soak them overnight
  • blend the hydrated soybeans with water
  • strain out just the liquid
  • boil the liquid (this is how you make soymilk)
  • let it cool
  • mix it with a coagulant so the whey and curds separate (similar to making cheese)
  • gently wrangle the curds into a mold
  • press with weight until desired texture

Sounds like a lot of work, right? That’s not the end of it! After making tofu, you now have a sink-ful of equipment to wash, and you can’t make this in large batches. (You can freeze tofu but frozen tofu has a very specific spongy texture.) Plus, what will you do with the soybean pulp so you don’t waste it?

After eating every meal made with soybean pulp for 3 days (soybean muffins for breakfast, soybean pancakes for lunch, and soy pulp mac & “cheese” for dinner), I learned that homemade tofu is not something I can tackle on a regular basis.

3. DIY can sometimes be more wasteful

After I posted a story on Instagram showing how I made tofu, I received lots of messages from people excited to make their own tofu because they want to avoid the unrecycable plastic packaging that tofu is usually sold in. Sadly, I had to remind folks that even when you are making things at home, it’s very difficult to be completely packaging-free. The bulk soybeans and the coagulant I bought online both came in packaging, including some that can’t be recycled.

Here is another example. I made dairy-free butter once (all the lactose-intolerant audience in the crowd, raise your hand!), and here is a visual for what it looks like to buy vs make my own.

Depending on how each ingredient is packaged (salt, nutritional yeast, turmeric, vegetable oil, coconut oil, and dairy-free milk), I may have actually created more packaging to dispose of by making my own. In addition, because there is no preservative in most homemade recipes (remember not all preservatives are “bad!”), I had to finish this DIY vegan butter much faster in order to avoid waste.

4. It absolves the real culprits of guilt

To many people in the zero waste circle, DIY is a proverbial middle finger to the system. “We don’t like what you put in your product”, “I hate the excessive plastic packaging”, therefore I make everything by myself – “I opt out!”

The problem with this mentality is that not only is it not practical for the vast majority of people (how many people do you know can manage to make everything at home, have the skills and access to the right equipment and ingredients, and test numerous recipes and formulas along the way?), it absolves the real culprits – the corporations that overlook the environmental impact of their products, their packaging, and their shipping, the lawmakers who fail to regulate these industries, and an entire industrial system built on the exploitations of labor and natural resources.

While many of us could use more skill building and a stronger sense of self-reliance, DIY-ing everything as a way to “retreat” from a broken system is not the ultimate way forward. This is easily understood by everyone for some environmental issues; for example, almost nobody blames themselves for air pollution just because they use electricity – generated through burning fossil fuels – and decide to make their own renewable energy generator. Yet when we see the excessive amount of plastic packaging piling up in our trash can, we somehow internalize it as a personal failing and try to come up with individual-based solutions to problems that are created by industries and can only be solved at the systems level.

If that sounds like you – a guilt-ridden environmental enthusiast trying to DIY your way through all our problems – I hope this post gives you some food for thought, and inspires you to channel your guilt and energy towards calling out corporations and demanding actions from your representatives. And of course, when you are tired and stressed from all of that, you can always make a face mask and a bath bomb for a relaxing soak in the tub – because when you want to, DIY – just for fun – is always there.

4 reasons why I don't "DIY" (not everything, at least)


16 responses to “4 reasons why I don’t “DIY” (not everything, at least)”

  1. Claire Avatar

    Love this Yue! I feel much the same way and have started DIYing things that are truly easier for me while not feeling the guilt or need to push myself to DIY everything. I think a lot of us concerned in sustainability could use this reminder on why the movement doesn’t fall on our DIY-ing shoulders and to feel okay letting go of [some] of the need to do it all.

    1. Yue Avatar

      Really great to hear that you are able to look at it that way Claire! I think this post is as much a reminder to everyone else as a “note to self.” I am definitely someone who gets stressed and goes to pin a bunch of recipes to make all the things. As if that was going to solve all my problems 😛

  2. Microvist Tobias Avatar

    Really good pragmatic advice. It’s certainly interesting to see posts on how to make things from scratch and can be a fun one off endeavours.

    I think putting more focus around the things you enjoy helps prioritise when DIY is a good choice. I like gardening and the outdoors so I tend to build, up-cycle & repair more things in my shed for the garden rather than for the house.

    I enjoy cooking and try to get fairly ethical stuff (local, fair trade etc.) but not enough to make everything from scratch on a regular basis. For others though making tofu from scratch each week may be right up their street.

    1. Yue Avatar

      That’s such a great way to put it – do what you enjoy, whether it’s DIY tofu or gardening 🙂

  3. Brittany Avatar

    Yes to all of this! I actually enjoy DIYing some things but I have to acknowledge when it leads to a lot more waste and my own limits (as someone struggling with chronic illness, I have to choose where I spend my energy). Besides, I like fluoride in my toothpaste, appropriate preservatives preventing mold and bacteria growing in my products, and FDA-approved sunscreen in a tube where it’s not being exposed to light and air. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    1. Yue Avatar

      omg 1000 yes to fluoride in toothpaste! That’s the biggest reason why I don’t make my own toothpaste! *dentists around the world breath a big sigh of relief*

      1. Brittany Avatar

        Absolutely! I’ve always had great teeth but I spent maybe a year using a toothpaste without fluoride in the name of sustainability, and ended up with a cavity (which obviously cost me money and pain). Needless to say, I decided fluoride free wasn’t for me.

      2. Yue Avatar

        eek. sorry to hear that. Even DIY aside, I get so annoyed seeing most “natural” or “low waste” toothpaste brands not having fluoride in it…why can’t we have both sustainability and, you know, SCIENCE?

        Good for you for setting boundaries! The zero waste world is full of ableist ideas and judgements, and it must be so difficult for people dealing with chronic illnesses!

    2. Paige Marie Avatar

      this is my big gripe trying to find a plastic-free toothpaste! Most of the ones with aluminum tubes or those toothpaste bits are always touting that they’re “fluoride free.” What’s wrong with fluoride?! It’s not like I’m eating spoonfuls of toothpaste, I’m just brushing my teeth and rinsing!

  4. amradcliffe Avatar

    The idea that people in the past made everything by hand is a little misleading. While there was less mechanization, it was rare throughout history for one person to make every product and item they used all by themselves. People had specialized trades, which is why we have all those trade-based last names (Baker, Smith, Miller, Cooper, Fletcher, etc.) AND they made things in groups (barn raisings and Korean kimchi parties come to mind). Households were also bigger, so tasks could be distributed between more people. The American individualist mindset makes us feel we *should* be hyper-independent and do everything alone, but as you’ve said, it’s just not practical. For a successful sustainability movement, we’ll have to accept our inter-connectedness, not just with the earth but with other people.

    Thanks for reminding us to let ourselves off the hook a little! I’ve definitely succumbed to the DIY everything mindset, and it can be exhausting.

    1. Yue Avatar

      So true – that’s an important nuance so often lost in that argument. Your comment also made me think that “people in the past” just did not get to live such lavish lives as we do today! While typing this, I looked down at my smoothie that had bananas, spinach, peanut butter and oat milk – which certainly would not have been possible in the dead of the winter in New England ages ago!

  5. anexactinglife Avatar

    Great post! Almost 10 years ago I went through a patch of eating all “real food,” home cooked. It took me 3 hours a day, not including the time to eat and wash dishes. On top of a fulltime job. Not sustainable 🙂

    1. Yue Avatar

      Totally get it! I was raised by my grandparents and grew up on “real food”, and remember a huuuuge part of their day was just cooking, cooking and more cooking!

  6. Sustainability Journal | Jan 2021 – Sensible Sustainability Avatar

    […] I’m just really struggling with cleaning products lately (as you might have guessed from my last post). The dish soap I got at our refill store a few months ago isn’t good at cutting through […]

  7. Paige Marie Avatar

    These are always my thoughts reading any “X tips to go waste-free!” type book. Not every chemical is bad! Some of the DIY suggestions are so wildly impractical. One book I read suggested just making your own baby food so you don’t have to buy packaged ones. I guess it must be manageable for some people, but I can’t imagine there are a lot of parents of young babies out there who have the time and energy to make their own baby food.

    1. Yue Avatar

      Glad to hear this resonates with you! Yes I was just flipping through one of these books and had the exact same thoughts. I guess if your “thing” is just to make baby food, it could be manageable, but I have a hard time imagining someone who is able to make ALL the things!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s