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Sustainable Living is about Progress not Perfection

Sometimes, being kind to yourself is harder than trying to save the planet

I was taught from a young age to strive for perfection. And although I now understand how detrimental that mindset can be, it still whispers unwanted judgment and criticism into my head.

I just got back from a 3-week Europe trip where even though I wanted to be perfect and avoid packaging in all aspects of the trip, I was continually reminded that it wasn’t going to happen. It’s challenging enough trying to minimize waste in our daily lives, but when we are navigating through foreign countries, languages and customs, it can be even trickier.

At the beginning of my trip, several situations arose that were simply out of my control. On the flight to Barcelona, my meal was engulfed in single-use plastic. I tried cancelling the meal ahead of time, but was told that was not an option. So I ate the food, and at the time, the self-induced guilt that came with it.

Before the end of the flight, I returned the unused and unwrapped utensils to the flight attendant since I had brought my own. He happily accepted them, while simultaneously saying that he’d “have to throw them out” even though they had not been used. Seriously? Who invented that rule?

my unused utensils from the flight

The next day, after settling in, I went to the market to get some produce. After placing a few pieces of fruit in front of the cashier, she gestured towards a scale behind me, while rattling off a few sentences in Spanish. My perplexed expression showed that I had no idea what she was saying, so she walked over to the scale, placed my fruit in a plastic bag, and weighed it. As she did this, I presented my reusable bag, stating that I didn’t need a plastic bag. She refused and continued to explain the protocol in Spanish. Why wasn’t the phrase “I don’t want a plastic bag” on my 7th grade Spanish curriculum? Hmmm . . .

With an insurmountable feeling of guilt bubbling from the pit of my stomach, I paid for my goods, placed the plastic bag into my reusable one, and walked out of the market. After a couple more instances like this, I dedicated myself to learning a few Spanish phrases such as “no straw” and “no plastic bag”. Even this came as a challenge, albeit a laughable one. Take it from me: the ‘Google Translate app’ is not a one-size-fits-all solution. And even though it does a pretty good job of understanding the basics, there are definitely local nuances that can get you into trouble.

After sharing my newfound understanding of how to say “no straw” in Spanish on instagram, I was quickly messaged by several locals that the specific translation I was using was actually the term for . . . well . . . a hand-job. Thanks Google! Really appreciate that one! Now I fully understand why the barista at the cafe gave me that strange eyebrow-raise when I asked her to hold off on the hand-job while squeezing my juice. Thank god I’m not one of those people who winks at everyone. That would have just been weird(er).

my enlightening conversation about how not to ask for “no straw” in Spain

Despite the comical moment above, I was really hard on myself during the first few days of the trip. I had unwillingly been responsible for several items of plastic, which I was so good at avoiding when I was at home. But did that make me a bad person? No. Did that mean I wasn’t living sustainably? No. It just meant that some things were out of my control. That’s life. And that’s ok. As long as I tried my best to avoid waste and packaging wherever possible, then that is the essence of sustainable living.

Once I started being a little easier on myself, it was as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. This also opened me up to pursuing all of the ways I could travel sustainably. For instance, Spain had package free popsicles all over the damn place. They also had tons depots for dropping off old clothing, which would either be salvaged, resold, or recycled. And in Berlin, Refill stickers could be found on the doors of local businesses, who would fill up your water bottle for free, thereby avoiding the need for single-use water bottles.

package-free popsicles in Spain

In both countries (Germany and Spain), I was able to find zero waste bulk stores where I could buy items, such as nuts, granola, and olives without packaging. This was a thrill, at least for someone like me who gets a kick out of going to these stores, but I will say that its very important to understand the cost per pound when going to a bulk store. You don’t want to end up like me: walking out of the store, looking at the receipt, saying . . . WTF?!?!?! In both of the bulk stores I went to, I ended up buying something that was way more expensive than I thought. Once I got over the shock, I chalked it up to a learning experience, promising to be more vigilant in the future.

These are what gave me a heart attack after walking out of the bulk store in Berlin. They are dental tablets: a package free alternative to toothpaste. I thought they were super cheap, so I got about 100 of them. Then, as I walked out of the store and looked at my receipt, I realized that I paid 8€ for a month and a half worth of brushing my teeth. Compare this to the cost of making my own tooth powder and thats about 2-3 times the cost. No bueno.

This trip was filled with personal reminders about self-compassion; laughable moments while being lost in translation; and newfound inspiration of what sustainability can look like. It may have started with self-induced guilt, but it ended with acceptance, openness and positivity. And that my friend is #ProgressNotPerfection.


Remember, “don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” 

– Author Unknown

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