August 16, 2011

The French Way

I have come back to the US and am feeling good.

Stepping away from routine, computer, and interviews while adopting a new life and ZW in another place, has cleared my head. I feel refreshed and zen (I even feel voluptuous with the few pounds gained from my mom's cooking;). I want to feel this way all year round and wonder if my passionate nature makes it at all possible... I make the same resolution every August but always find myself stressing out by mid-September. I can only hope that the yoga classes that Scott gave me for my birthday (Groupon), will aid my goal this time around.

Now enough about my "état d'âme", here is what you really want to know about my ZW experience in France: It was easier than expected.

And here is why:

1- With no more preparation than the jars and totes that I borrowed from my mom, and the bulk bags that I brought with me from CA, I was able to buy most of our groceries from the FARMERS MARKET.

  • The summer makes for fantastic, ripe, tasty produce which I purchased in great abundance. The melons for example are out of this world and their freshness compensate for the heat of the region. The tomatoes, zucchinis, bell peppers, eggplant, peaches, plums are ripened to perfection before being sold at the market, and their taste is incomparable to those I purchase at home. I even saw veganism as a possibility... until I saw the ravioli stand.
  • The farmer's markets, not only sell produce and eggs, but also unpackaged fresh pasta, bread, fish, meat, deli (especially salami), cheese, olives, tapenade, anchovies, anchovie paste (makes me hungry just writing this), capers, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, spices, cookies, and even creme fraiche. Every market is, of course, different, but with a little investigating, one can find "le marché" that best fits ones needs.
  • Jars and cloth bags are very well accepted. The vendors are more than happy to fill a jar in order to save (the cost of) one of their wrappers. Not that I asked, but I was told that other customers occasionally brought their Tupperware to the market.
  • Some stands weigh their produce in tared baskets thus reducing the need for produce bags (I would love for my farmer's market to do that).
2- In the South of France too, bulk is unknown to most and hard to find, but I found a few ORGANIC STORES that carried it. I only used the store to complement my farmers market finds with: Dry staples (bulk flour, sugar, salt, coffee, dry pasta, cereal), a few condiments sold in glass, and packaged hygiene necessities. I could see myself only needing the store for a monthly run, if I lived there. All it would take, is a little investigating and planning.

 The bulk was not very fresh (the oatmeal from one place even "spawned" a swarm of moths into our apartment), but the selection was decent (half a dozen types of cookies for example).
  • The stores I visited did not have bulk bags for sale (paper bags are available), nor had they ever seen anyone use them until I showed up. Tare was therefore not deducted, but I was fine with that.
  •  French people are green more out of financial concerns than environmental ones, at least in the rural area, where I stayed. For that reason, consumption is lower than that in the US, and the plastic bag has been effectively "banned". Grocery stores sell their plastic bags but rarely did I see someone buying one. People simply remember to bring their totes to the store.
  •  I did purchase more recyclables than usual for 2 reasons: (1) I was starting from scratch and did not yet have all my bulk sources figured out; and, (2) Besides alcohol, bulk liquids could not be found in stores. Items that I purchased in plastic included: Shampoo, conditioner, white vinegar and liquid "Savon de Marseille" soap (not as good as castile soap I found out, but I made do with it). Items purchased in cardboard packages: Baking soda, and laundry detergent, in glass: olive oil, mustard, cornichons, and pate. And finally, items purchased in cans: Cod liver ("foie de morue", a family treat).

  • The
    trick when buying at the store is to find out about the: (a) Subtleties of the available products (e.g., an eco dishwasher detergent might hide plastic packaging in a cardboard box); and (b) Recyclability of the available products. In France for example, plastic recyclables are not separated by number #1, #2, we do here, but rather by form (shampoo bottles OK for example). Glass bottles and papers in my village are recycled manually in city containers.

  • I only found toilet paper in the throw-away plastic wrapper and used it to collect meat bones and cheese crusts, meant for the trash where we stayed (city compost not available). Maggots got into it though...and earned me the title of the "crazy American" by my landlord;) (in the US, I would be the "crazy Frenchie";)...
3- In most VILLAGES:

  • SPECIALTY SHOPS sell loose products and welcome cloth bags, if needed. These shops include the bakery (for bread and the occasional breakfast croissants), but also shops where we could buy cookies, candy, chocolate, and soap. Bread, for example, is typically tied in the mid-section by a small piece of paper for transport, but refusing it is completely acceptable.
  • Home harvests are shared amongst NEIGHBORS (tomatoes, zucchini, apples) and usually come presented in a wooden crate. That's what I call an un-refusable freebie;)
4- Along the COUNTRY ROADS:

  • Many signs indicate FARMS or crafters, who are always happy to fill a reusable container or bottle and strike up a conversation about it. This is how we purchased goat milk (a family first, where we had no idea the taste of goat would be so discreet!), cheese and bulk wine. The co-op where I refilled my wine in support of the village where my mom resides, required the purchase of a five-liter plastic jug. At "home", I would transfer the wine into empty flip-top lemonade bottles.
  • And there is always the package-free items of the WILD: Figs, plums, snails, dandelion, and blackberries.
5- OTHER logistics to consider:
  •  I was told that some towns offer city compost, but my mom's does not. The compost available to us was her very successful aerobic bin, which digested fruit and veggie scraps. Due the high lime content in the area's soil, my mom did not allow egg shells in her compost, I simply buried ours.
  •  Some grocery stores sold individual package-free Le Parfait jars. But I also used empty condiment jars for storing or simply stored leftovers in their cooking pot as I often do at home.
  • Upon our departure, I cleaned the whole house with white vinegar and a couple microfiber cloths I had brought along to give to my mom.

If I go back next year, I'll work on reducing our recycling by finding more bulk options (e.g., a place to refill olive oil). Each year, we can only try to be more informed than the last, as we learn our way around the local ZW options. Ultimately, it is a learning process wherever we go, just as it was at home, until we make the discoveries that allow us to automate our ZW efforts.

Here is an overview on how we approach ZW away from home:
  1. Bring a few cloth bags (we use them for snacks on our trip to the travel destination), a tote (maybe use a travel backpack instead?), and a couple of jars (if traveling by car).
  2. Find a local farmer's market or at least the freshest produce available.
  3. Learn about the local recycling program and compost options (dig a hole?).
  4. Find a store that sells bulk, and if bulk isn't available, focus on purchasing glass (great for reuse) or cardboard packaging, both more eco and widely recyclable than plastics.
  5. Be on the lookout for specialty stores and local crafters.
  6. Take advantage of the local foraging opportunities.
Did you discover new ZeroWaste ways this summer?