Paris To Go

Are Zero Waste and Minimalism Practical Today?

Surplus makes people feel safe. We crave abundance, hoarding Facebook and Instagram followers as if they were junk mail or craft supplies. Some consume to save time, feel agency, or as a form of protection. Yet such precautions may have the opposite effect. Just as spreading social capital too thin results in shallower relationships, buying multiples and stocking up for what if events may waste money and resources, undermining the very security we try to create (as Tom Petty says in Crawling Back to You, "Most things I worry about never happen anyway"). Then some people are just greedy. I think we're programmed to get like this, though, because biologically, the impulse is to choose quality. Research suggests a cognitive limit to the number of relationships people can maintain at one time. Reasonably, we can only care for a fixed number of objects as well. 

Socially, economically, and environmentally speaking, there's never been a better time to show where you stand by what you buy- or don't buy- and wear. It's a way to leverage identity and dismantle systemic oppressors (see the price of tampons, Venus razors, women's hair and skincare products, et al. Buy a safety razor, a bar of soap, and a menstrual cup to save money and subvert the patriarchy). Take clothing, for instance. The thin fabrics, lack of linings, and prolific synthetics used in fast fashion are modern marks of disenfranchisement. True, many consumers of fast fashion are chasing trends, but others don't have many alternatives. Sadly, these kinds of clothes are not only manufactured with the blood of abused factory workers, they are often bathed in harsher chemicals, ending up in landfills near consumer homes and polluting water sources near sites of production- all subtler, more pernicious signifiers of social standing. Instead of being complicit in this kind of cultural demarcation, isn't it better to support empowering ethical brands? Or operations that recycle and reclaim existing resources?

Thrifting takes time though, and sourcing ethically produced items can be expensive. Is this a good reason to not shop better? I'm all about minimizing opportunities for human interaction as much as possible, but we can't actually afford to prioritize convenience anymore. Forget Keynes' erroneous prediction of expansive leisure time for a second (I blame smart phones and social networks for this- now people have too many ways to get a hold of you, so you can never get a break from work or school or whatever). Here are some things that are convenient: eating gluten even though you're a celiac, Nazi gassing operations, Ford letting people die because cost benefit analyses revealed that was cheaper than fixing the Pinto's defective fuel system. Here's what's not convenient: whole islands and ecosystems rapidly disappearing, spelling doom for millions of climate refugees and the biomes they depend on.

People like to talk about zero waste as if it's a throwback to the days when women were shackled to their kitchens, scrubbing, canning, and cooking into the wee hours of the night. But zero waste saves me from shopping a lot, taking out the garbage, fussing over myriad beauty products, or maintaining tons of stuff. I don't spend hours or whole days doing laundry because there's not much to do. Lots of people who've never tried zero waste argue this can't be true. Even if it weren't, that's still a weak argument. If your reason for not changing the way you buy or use resources is it's hard, doing the right thing is never easy. Stopping climate change- that's hard. Don't you think sometimes (VERY infrequently, and usually only after I watch Gilmore Girls or something) I just want to microwave a bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese? But I don't, because once you know the right way to live, you can't go back (also, I don't own a microwave). No lifestyle is truly effortless, not even one chock full of storebought hummus and spoonulas. Maybe if those people took time out from analyzing strangers' lives on the internet or presumably micromanaging their families, they would find the time to reduce their environmental impact even slightly.

The level of personal responsibility is different for everyone, depending on circumstances. If you're a struggling single mom with a bunch of kids who works full time (like my mom was), nobody expects you to live like Bea Johnson or Lauren Singer. I certainly don't expect you to not wash your hair or use toilet paper or thrift everything, even if you, too, are a restless soon to be divorcée with an insatiable sweet tooth and the ability to recite any line from Die Hard on cue. The most environmentally conscious people are often those who devote the most thought- which does not imply the most time, and certainly not the most money- to their actions. Every budget can be stretched to cover a few basic reusables, where quality represents a long term investment and often means a saving in the end (obvious examples are safety razors, cloth towels, a plastic free water bottle, or even bamboo toothbrushes). We just need to establish our own scale of values. For years we've been told our role in society is to continually buy and consume "cheap" products, to simply accept what we're offered without questioning where it comes from or how it's made. If we replace, just once in a while, the penchant for quantity with a quest for quality, we might find not only our eco effectiveness maximized, but also the enjoyment and confidence we get from the things we own, however few they may be.

Above: Handknit alpaca sweater, hat, and mittens. Madewell t-shirt, American Apparel ribbed dress, Levi's wedgie jeans and shorts, all thrifted. Thrifted H&M lace up shirt, American Apparel ponte foil tank dress, American Apparel crop top and high waist skirt. Thrifted Longchamp bag. Thrifted Louis Vuitton and Brooks Brothers coats, American Apparel Ryder dress. Navy, grey, and black dresses, secondhand Dior. Secondhand Louis Vuitton wool skirt, pants, and v-neck merino sweater. Thrifted Reformation Edison, Piper, and Axel tops. Thrifted cotton moto jacket, Etoile Isabel Marant Tom shirt, and merino turtleneck (all pieces but one are at least 96% natural fibers- I handwash the ones with small synthetic percentages and water indoor plants with the water). Thrifted Stuart Weitzman patent leather ankle boots, Ferragamo shoes, Louboutin Simples, Nike Dunk Sky Hi's, and Flyknit Air Force 1's. Not pictured: Handknit wool hat, mittens, and socks- recycled wool, A Wool Story; three pairs Swedish Stockings (tights, nude, and black), vintage pure wool socks from my grandpa. When I left Paris it was in a hurry and I couldn't take all my stuff with me, including some of my beloved pieces and some things that were in the laundry, so if something is missing- that's why

Paris to Go

How to Start Water Only Hair Washing

I'm getting so conceited about my hair. It's my favorite accessory. I'd rather let my ears freeze off like one of Doug E. Doug's cornrows in Cool Runnings than put a hat over my curls this winter. My life has become a never ending Tresemmé commercial, a series of Cher inspired hair tosses- like, I think I flip my hair more than I blink these days. Lately I even try to steer completely unrelated conversations towards the topic of water only. It doesn't matter if we're talking about shampoo or intersectional feminism or the distribution of permafrost in Kamchatka's western slopes. Water only hair washing applies to all of it!

Think about the way nature works. Everything from the surface of a leaf to feathers, guillemot eggs, butterfly wings, the scales of a fish, and the skin of a whale is self cleaning. Other structures utilize various organisms to remove contaminants or allow droplet flow in a non-exploitative, non-toxic, non-polluting way- take mycoremediation, for instance, or hydrocarbon chewing microbes. And sorry to get all Germaine Greer on you but shampoo and pore strips and foaming cleansers are seriously tools of the patriarchy. You don't need all of those products, and you don't need to spend so much time caring for hair and skin. Water only makes hair less frizzy and more manageable without silicones, parabens, or possible carcinogens, such as cocamide DEA. It also lets skin heal and repair itself naturally.

I went cold turkey with water only, but I had been using natural products (like mayonnaise or baking soda and ACV) for quite some time beforehand. To get started from scratch, wash with gram flour, bar soap, or one egg yolk first (for my face, I just let water drip on it in the shower and scrubbed with a washcloth afterwards). I don't recommend buying clarifying shampoo just for this purpose- nor do I advocate using harsh baking soda and vinegar, which ruined my hair. Thereafter, wash with water one to three times a week, brushing with a wooden or sisal / agave brush or comb beforehand, to remove dust and other contaminants manually. In the shower or in a basin or bucket, soak your hair completely and massage thoroughly, paying special attention to the top back of your scalp, where buildup frequently occurs. Work the sebum down the hair shaft as you go. In the beginning, you will need to dry massage your scalp daily, perhaps even twice a day, and regularly brush to break up dusty or waxy patches and help move oils to the ends.

You want to try and stretch out the time between washings as much as possible, so you may initially need to apply oils, such as jojoba or coconut, in your hair and on scalp for extra moisture, or use cornstarch / cocoa powder as dry shampoo to look presentable. Try avoiding this as much as possible, since oil strips oil and dry shampoos can make hair harder to clean. If you really have a problem with frizz, wear a secondhand / recycled / peace silk scarf to smooth things out, and use rag or pin curl methods to style. Water is enough to make hair smell clean, like nothing at all, but if you're self conscious about it, soak some citrus peels in vodka, or mix essential oils in a spray bottle with water, and mist hair between washes. After a workout, rinsing your hair is sufficient to remove sweat, just tie hair up to get it off your neck first (duh). For troubleshooting, click here. Click here for tips on transitioning to water only in a corporate environment. For my face, I wash it once a day, in the evening, with a washcloth, using oil to remove my eye makeup only- the rest comes off using a hemp washcloth alone (I like hemp because of it's antimicrobial and gentle scrubbing properties). I've had this routine since the beginning, and I saw results for my cystic acne in less than a month. If you have hard water, you have to use distilled or rain water, depending on where you live. Like, if you live in Arizona, rainwater is fine, but if you live in Paris, forget it. I used about a liter of distilled water on my hair once a week when I lived there, and my hair is NOT Asian- it's super thick, and actually eats ponytail holders.

Testosterone levels can affect sebum production, so I recommend eating plantbased if you decide to go water only. Sebum isn't as bad as L'oreal likes us to think- overwashing and stripping hair or skin of sebum makes it dry and disrupts a protective layer known as the acid mantle, a layer of oil and sweat with a slightly acidic pH, which protects us from potential infections, chemical irritants, pollution particles, etc. We need it to protect and maintain the skin’s integrity. Excessive cleansing or astringents degrade our skin's barrier of protection against the environment, further aggravating skin problems like dandruff, acne, and so on. My acne heals so much quicker now that I'm not putting benzoyl peroxide or prescription drugs on it, along with toner, lotion, eye creams, etc. Instead of hydrating externally (I still use olive or coconut oil under my eyes sometimes), drink at least 3L of water a day, eat lots of good fats, and lay off the sugar and alcohol. Dark circles will lessen, wrinkles will plump out, and skin will overall be smoother, healthier looking, clearer- I saw results in two weeks (but I keep forgetting to drink water lately so it's back to my usual haggard appearance).

In April (or March, I forget) it will be two years since I started water only and my hair appears thicker, shinier, naturally more curly, darker for whatever reason, and I lose less of it. I used to have to clean a chunk out of the drain after every shower, always put handfuls of it in the compost, and brushed it off clothing more than my angora cats' fur. "This can't be possible, but, is your hair longer than when I saw you last?" asked my environmental activist friend and ecohero Tori, who'd seen me two days earlier. Actually I think she was right- it does grow faster, sans shark infested Viviscal. My skin is a million times better (I still use soap and coconut or olive oil on my body) and it takes me no time to get ready in the morning, which is great since I'm lazy. I know this because I often let my phone die instead of reaching over in bed to get the charger.

Paris to Go


I'm not in Paris anymore. I don't know if that was clear. I'm getting divorced and therefore need to be in the US six months, specifically Cleveland, which I once left with no intention of ever coming back. I haven't been writing because it's not something I really want to talk about and also because I literally can't. Where once there was an opulent and lush mind palace now rests the ashes of my already middling creativity, ignited into a desolate, airless void of a Wernicke's area, shuttered and boarded up, with no signs of visible life, not unlike the Burning River itself. I can't even muster up the words to reply to emails or comments anymore, I'm painfully uninspired. Even the mindnumbingly boring daily commute from glorious, leafy Invalides to Quai des Grands Augustins everyday- down Rue de Babylone, past Le Bon Marché, Square Boucicaut, and that café that charges 17 euro for Orangina- seems positively stimulating now. I miss the man living outside Jardin Catherine Laboure who threw beer cans at me when I gave him Ticket Resto. I miss sitting on the balcony with my cats, casually conversing with ravers hanging out the window across the street; walking from Barbes to Grand Train or Maison Bon for cookies; wheeling my wicker cart around Pigalle, filling it up with packageless produce from Causses; and sneaking into apartment buildings just to take pictures of the courtyards. It feels weird telling my friends, "I'll be there in ten minutes, I'm leaving my place now," and actually showing up on time, as promised, when at home I couldn't make it down Avenue Trudaine without being roped into at least three pleasant conversations with neighbors. I never realized how attached I was to Paris. I routinely rag on self proclaimed francophiles, deriding that subset of books instructing hapless Americans on dressing / dieting like the French (especially How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are, which reads like a geisha manual for white girls). But I loved that city more than I ever, or probably will ever, love any guy, which is the truest and simplest explanation for my failed relationship. I understand what Rihanna meant when she said she found love in a hopeless place, minus the love part- emphasis on "hopeless" and "place."

So here's what I've been up to lately: missing Paris, daydreaming, getting fat, forgetting what little French I knew, wishing I was dead, thinking about nothing, wondering why I was born in Cleveland, bitterly contemplating how much my life failures mirror Rory's in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. I'm not looking for sympathy. People in Cleveland treat me like gold, even kids I went to school with who should probably hate me since I used to charge money to sit at my lunch table. For one thing, a three in Paris is a ten in Cleveland. I pay for nothing. When I walk down the aisles of the grocery store, other shoppers move out of my path and apologize. Not a day goes by without someone telling me I'm skinny- context is key, I guess. Thrift stores here are full of treasures like Reformation tops, black wool Louis Vuitton pants, cropped merino turtlenecks, and patent Stuart Weitzman ankle boots, all of which I added to the nucleus of my minimalist wardrobe. Against the somberness of these new-to-me pieces, I finally realized how ridiculous it was for me to think I could wear anything that wasn't neutral or Dior, so I sold my purple Kate Spade coat and claimed a navy cashmere Brooks Brothers boys' coat (which my mom thrifted and my brother outgrew years ago) as my own. Now my wardrobe reflects the darkness of my current mood. I like to think of it this way: my clothing says, yes, I've cried into a donut recently, and I'm technically a mole person, but I'm a mole person who wears Louis Vuitton and was a delegate at Asia's first ever zero waste event last year. 

I hope this unceasing malaise will subside once I stop being so self centered and remember how privileged I am and how many people face bigger and more serious problems through no fault of their own (see climate refugees, fast fashion factory workers). Barring that, maple sugaring season starts up again in February. Nothing cheers me up more than using fuel efficient reverse osmosis to process fresh syrup. Since leaving Paris, I traveled to China, Istanbul, Portugal, London, Marrakech, Toronto, Boston, and Arizona, consulting on sustainability and permaculture projects, visiting zero waste sites, and generally trying to figure out who I am apart from my husband. The highlight was Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti, a failed sustainable community of the future, which one Instagram user aptly described as "Beautiful and deeply unsettling, like Kourtney Kardashian's birth video." I loved the friendly people, cypress trees (non native, but whatever), and upcycled hippie meets hipster vibe. Resident cats let themselves into my room in the Sky Suite every night- a huge comfort- and the vegan food in the cafeteria was delicious. They are close to zero waste in that they compost or recycle everything, provide only reusables, and hope to be completely solar powered and self sufficient in the near future- right now they are at about 10% renewable energy. Set on a nature preserve designed to fight urban sprawl with minimal land impact, it was not uncommon to see ringtails or javelinas on the trails, zipping around cactus-chewing cows. Hiking the Grand Canyon, discovering Sedona's red rocks, and driving through various microclimates to Biosphere 2, Flagstaff, and Native American reservations (I rented an electric car- Arizona has so many charging stations!) made me realize what a varied and ecologically captivating country the United States is, something I took for granted when I lived here. Standing at the edge of the South Rim with my mason jar in hand, drinking in sweeping vistas and snowy mesas, I hadn't felt so proud to be from America since ABC made The Bachelor available On Demand. I'm also working with a professor from my alma mater at an assisted living facility (the residents play with my hair constantly; I find it soothing), and volunteering on a community program for underprivileged children from the projects, in the hopes that staying busy and productive will keep me from spiraling wildly out of control. I'm supposed to go to London, New York, Singapore, and Indonesia again for (sustainability related) work this year too so I'm paying a carbon tax to offset my deepseated environmental guilt.


One thing keeping me afloat, providing continuity and beauty in an otherwise soulcrushing period (apart from loving, supportive family and friends), is zero waste. For me, zero waste symbolizes freedom. It helped me gain independence from corporations and marketers telling me what to do or how I should live, it helped me adjust to a new country and a new language, and I hope it will help during this transition. Especially now that I have no money, it's been crucial- not buying a lot, shopping secondhand, eating unprocessed plant based foods, and utilizing reusables / water only / bulk soaps and oils instead of having to buy paper towels, plastic wrap, packaged meals, or tons of beauty products allows me to maintain a high quality of life without blowing my drastically reduced budget. It gives a quiet sense of satisfaction to clean without the use of expensive industrial chemicals, or float from place to place with minimal physical baggage, even when toxic emotional burdens seem overwhelming at times. The next few months will be so complicated, making the simplicity that comes from living zero waste even more critical. I like having less to worry about. There's something meditative about pouring dry ingredients into mason jars, baking vegan from scratch, or handwashing clothes as I wear them, like my grandmothers did nightly (I now handwash and airdry almost exclusively. If you are a childless person who doesn't have enough time to do laundry every day, try deleting Pinterest or Facebook from your phone and I guarantee you will find the time. Interestingly, experts say we now have less leisure time than ever, despite the proliferation of convenience products entombed in non biodegradable plastics). 

I originally thought I would go back to Paris as soon as these six months are over. It's my home, and I feel I belong more there than I do in Cleveland, which always sort of made me feel like a factory farmed fish. But Cleveland is kind of like quicksand. Stay there too long, and a high tide can sweep over and you'll be stuck. Maybe the close proximity to my family, or ready access to cheap vegan and gluten free pizza, will keep me here indefinitely. Next time you hear from me, I might be driving a minivan, brandishing a Costco card from a (secondhand) Coach keyring. Who knows. For now, I will take things one day at a time, clutching my mason jar, cloth napkins, netted produce bags and EcoLunchbox with the implacable attachment Linus had for his blanket. I don't have control over much right now- not my circumstances, nor climate change- so these little steps, the last things tying me to my old life in Paris, are the first glimmers of hope I have for a fresh start. 

Paris to Go