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.
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