Sarah Robertson-Barnes is engaged in an ongoing, pitched — and, really, kind of funny — battle with her five- and seven-year-old sons about (wait for it) granola bars.
The kids are devotees of the sweet and crunchy snacks, but their mom is equally, if not more, devoted to a low-waste lifestyle, one that has her family producing as little waste — especially plastic waste — as possible. And granola bars, which come individually wrapped in plastic, inside a cardboard box, don’t fit into that picture.
“So I make homemade granola bars. I make cookie balls, protein balls — all kinds of snacks to mitigate the loss of granola bars. And my kids still act as though I’m thwarting their life’s purpose by denying them granola bars. They’re constantly asking for them. They tell me that all of the other kids have them. And if they can get their hands on a granola bar while we’re out, they’ll take it.”
Of course, granola bars are just a tiny part of Sarah’s quest to live as #lowwaste and #plasticfree as possible, a journey she documents honestly and candidly in her gorgeous Instagram feed, @popcorn.ceiling.life.
She started the account in July 2017, around the same time as she decided to participate in Plastic Free July, a movement to get people to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics in July and beyond. She’d been trying to cut down on plastics for a while, especially after struggling with infertility and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Discovering an entire online community of people who thought similarly was a game changer.
“I discovered the #zerowaste hashtag and people like Wasteland Rebel, and it blew my mind. I felt like, ‘I’ve finally found my people.’ Here were the folks who were interested in the same things I was, who were doing all the things I wanted to do — like making my own cleaning products — but didn’t know how.”
The pleasure in finding community bolstered Sarah, 38, to travel from her home in Aurora, Ontario, to attend a Zero Waste Toronto meeting — “a big stretch for an introvert like me. But everybody was lovely. Many of the women — it was mostly women at the meeting — have become good friends. It’s made me feel a lot less weird.”
The past year has been quietly transformative for Sarah, her husband, Brad, and their two boys, Malcolm and Henry. “Our spending habits have really changed, for example,” says Sarah. “We’ve started to focus on not only the ‘Three Rs’ of reduce, reuse, recycle but also refuse and repurpose. We’ve cut down on drive-through and restaurant meals. We’re buying far less packaged food, which means that we’re cooking more often. We’re vegetarian, and I’m starting to eliminate dairy. This year, we’ve bought significantly less clothing. We’ve been focusing on minimizing our possessions to the point where we’re considering moving to a smaller home.”
Is Sarah’s real life as beautiful as her photos? She laughs: hardly. “Two places in my house get good light: the dining room, and the bathroom. So a lot of the time, my white backdrop is my bathtub. I don’t spend 45 minutes styling a photo — there are often kids screaming in the background. I’ll occasionally post a ‘behind-the-scenes’ shot with Lego strewn everywhere.”
And that, really, is the point: life is messy and imperfect, and it can be too easy to get caught up in the trap of perfectionism. It’s a topic Sarah has struggled with. “There was a time when I was stressed out about #lowwaste all the time. I’d constantly be thinking about what we could and couldn’t buy. We go to a restaurant, and a plastic straw would arrive in a drink, and the whole day would be ruined.”
She’s exaggerating, but the year has been a learning experience in letting go. “I’m not sure exactly how, but I’ve started being able to move past that perfectionism. We can’t control everything. So it’s about giving yourself the grace to realize that we don’t live in a circular economy. We live in a linear economy, and you have to give yourself permission to be in this world,” even with its occasional plastic straw or single-use cup.
It’s also an opportunity to be mindful about parenting. Take birthday parties:
“I used to feel a lot of pressure to have a theme, and to go out and get Transformers plates and cups, even though I felt bad about doing it. But I came to the conclusion my kid doesn’t really care. And so for Henry’s seventh birthday, we had the party at home. And we used real plates and cups and napkins. And the kids didn’t notice.”
Henry did care, though, about goodie bags. “That was a sticking point for him,” says Sarah. “So we sat down and talked about it: what can we do that’s not going to create trash?” Sarah suggested giving out plants. Henry shot down that idea. They finally settled on candy: they went to Bulk Barn, Henry picked out some sweets, and they handed them out in jam jars instead of plastic bags.
And then, of course, there’s the perennial issue of the granola bars. Of course, as Sarah points out, “it’s not really about the granola bars. It’s about our job as parents to frame the world for kids in terms of our values and what’s important to us. And reducing trash is important to me, so we are sticking to the no-granola-bar rule.”
On the other hand, Sarah and Brad also value raising independent kids who are capable of making considered choices.
“So, when we’re out of the house, and someone offers them a granola bar or a pre-packaged snack, they can choose whether or not to take it. And most of the time, they do — I mean, they’re little kids. But if I try to control everything they do, I’m not teaching them how to make their own decisions.”
SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines,and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.
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