The Universe Gave Us Garbage (and We Like It!)

Call me silly, but I have this belief that if you want something and you’re meant to have it, all you have to do is “put it out to the Universe” and 99% of the time, you’ll find it. I have done this so many times that I know there’s some truth to it, and from what I’ve seen, other folks find it true too.

I’m a huge fan of Anne-Marie at Zero Waste Chef and always marvel at the things she finds on her walks around the neighborhood. Just the other day, she needed an iron for a class she was teaching and poof! an iron appeared on the sidewalk. A few years back, she found a cast iron dutch oven.

Over the past month, we’ve had a few things on our wish list – things that we didn’t want to buy new but definitely had a use for. The biggest thing on our wish list was canning jars. With all our canning this summer, we ran out of jars! And if you’ve ever priced them in the store, you can’t help but wonder – when did food preservation turn into a hobby?? And an expensive one at that!

For weeks, Angie diligently scoured Marketplace almost every day for a good deal on jars, while also rummaging through the recycling bins on Mondays. This landed us 33 awesome Ball canning jars – most of which had been used as candle holders in a wedding. We paid $10 for 30 and found the other 3. The bonus on these jars was that they still had the candles inside and jute twine wrapped around their tops. We rolled the twine into a ball to use in the garden next summer.

On Saturday, on a whim, we decided to stop at a yard sale on our way home from my mom’s house. It was getting late in the afternoon and we only had $2 in our pocket (and a handful of change in the cup holder of our car) but we thought, what the heck, it can’t hurt to look. Thank goodness we did, because we hit the jar lottery! The lady hosting the sale had 2 boxes of jelly jars, pints, and quarts for $1 a box. She also had a sweet little Fire King 8” pie plate (another item on my wish list) for a quarter.

I can clearly see a pumpkin pie in our future.

When we got home, we found that not only had we had bought 36 canning jars for $2, but some of them were vintage.

Now I realize, the Universe did not provide all these jars free of charge, at least not directly, but I did find the quarter that I used to purchase the pie plate in the parking lot at Aldi that very same day. What the Universe did provide though was the 16 pounds of red, ripe strawberries that we used to make jam in those jars.

We found these in the dumpster, of course, and out of the 16 cartons, only 7 strawberries were bad.

We had a similar score with sweet potatoes a few days before. All of us (my mom included) had been hungry for a sweet potato (being Fall and all) but the Farmer’s Market has been slim on them this year. I’m pretty sure there’s about 20 pounds of sweet potatoes in this photo. Courtesy of the Universe (via the dumpster).

For anyone new here, you may at this point, be appalled, either by the fact that so much good food gets tossed in the dumpster or that we go in after it. Rest assured, we stand firmly with you on the first one and encourage you to read this and this for more info on the second one.

Another item on our wish list was “something to put our indoor planters on”. One afternoon, as I was heading out, I saw a blue-topped console table just sitting by the dumpster in our apartment complex. It was just the right shape and size for our small apartment, so we cleaned it and tightened it up, and now this “garbage” has new life as a plant stand.

And those planters that you see – they are made from milk cartons – from the recycling bin.

This one too.

We found it and another just like it, sitting by recycling. The price tags were still on them and no dirt had ever touched them. (By the way, I had also asked the Universe for a terra cotta pot to try making a grill sometime prior to this find. The grill is still a work in progress.)

Of course, every gift we receive this way is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we are completely grateful to find something that saves us money or provides for a need that we (or others close to us) may have. But on the other hand, it doesn’t go unnoticed that these things were in the trash and if we hadn’t come along, that’s where they would still be. We can’t rescue everything. Even with our mini army of fellow dumpster divers, tons and tons of good stuff goes to landfill every single day.

Though I do encourage you to try asking the Universe for things you might need, the bigger thing that I want to encourage you to do today is to be a good steward of our environment and a helping hand to others. Buy only what you need. Donate your unwanted items to a non-profit thrift store or homeless shelter. Our shelter even takes food that is still in date and hasn’t been opened (and fresh produce from the garden). Check with friends, family, and neighbors before tossing something out, post it for free on Marketplace or FreeCycle, or in a pinch, sit in by the curb with a sign that says free (or course, if no one picks it up, please remove it in a timely fashion).

And if you want something – particularly things that are prone to being trashed, like furniture, household goods, plastic totes, containers, flower pots, and more – don’t be afraid to do a little curbside shopping first before hitting the retail stores.

Better Me, Better World: Year in Review

Tomorrow starts a brand new year, with 365 exciting opportunities to do something you’ve never done before. How cool is that?? I know I’m pretty happy about it. I’m happy to start something new but I’m also happy to post the results of our year long Better Me, Better World project. We had two goals this year – to live simply and strive toward zero food waste. Here’s how we did on both:


Better Me Goal: Live simply. Prove that we can live a happy, healthy, and prosperous life with less.

Yard Sale Puzzles

Last January, we set a budget and for the most part, we stuck to it. There were some splurges along the way, mostly at yard sales and the Farmer’s Market, but we had no extravagant expenditures. Even when I had to get a new cell phone, I bought one that was two generations old and on sale. Our vacations were cheap. Our fun dates out were frugal. Our fun days staying in were also filled with cheap activities – knitting, coloring, putting together yard-sale puzzles, watching free documentaries, and reading. This year, we read 52 books between the two of us.

Frugal living allowed us to save $7,166 toward retirement, travel, and emergencies. Our net pay from my job was $29,778.72 this year. We received another $3,557.32 from side hustles, gifts, and proceeds from our decluttering efforts. While I know saving 22% of one’s income is something to be proud of, I still feel conflicted when it comes to money. This is something I plan to work on in 2019.

Another of our Better Me goals was to eat a mostly plant-based diet, with no more than 10% of meals containing meat. I’m pleased to say that only 8.8% of the meals we consumed in 2018 contained meat. We had a total of 322 completely meatless days. As the year went on, we made a few other adjustments to our diet. We started taking a harder look at ingredients and buying more organic, non-GMO products when possible. (Our rule of thumb on fresh produce is that saving a fruit or veggie from becoming waste trumps where it comes from. In other words, dumpster finds don’t have to be organic or non-GMO.)

Hiking in Lafayette, TN

We (or rather I) attempted to be more active. Angie already does some sort of stretchy resistance band/jumping around the room routine 2-3 mornings per week. My thoughts are with her, but my body is usually sitting at my desk. To trick me into exercising, Angie would often tell me that we were going to walk to the dumpster or the thrift store or go to the park for a picnic (followed by a walk). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being outdoors. I enjoy hiking and paddling (both of which we did this year) but if you call it exercise, my brain refuses to allow my body to participate. If you call it play, we’re all in though. And if you call it yard work or gardening, I will stay outside all day – hauling compost or raking leaves or pruning plants – until my muscles are as sore as any athlete. With that being said, we did try to take more walks this year. I’m not sure how far we walked/hiked though. We were up to 110 miles at the beginning of August when my fake Fitbit died. I have yet to replace it.

Self-score: A-

I always think there’s room for improvement when it comes to living more simply. There were times this year that we used our wallet instead of our brain to solve a problem and in every single one of those cases, the problem got worse. For example, we spent $160 on 2 pair of barefoot running shoes because we read that it was a “more natural” way to walk and would reduce stress on our feet. Within just a few weeks, I went from sore, tired feet after a long walk to full-blown plantar fasciitis. It was awful! Then there was the matter of the folding kayaks. We thought owning a kayak again would get us out on the water more often. The first time I tried to fold my origami kayak, I nearly passed out from heat exhaustion. It took 4 people 30 minutes of wrestling with plastic to get it set up, only to have it collapse inward in the water. We ended up selling both pair of shoes and both kayaks at a slight loss. The better path would have been the $25 super comfortable hiking boots I ultimately bought on sale at Academy and renting a kayak for the afternoon.


Better World Goal: Zero-food-waste. Prove that one couple can have an impact in reducing global food waste.

Volunteering with SoSA

When we first set this goal, our plan was to simply continue our food rescue efforts (aka dumpster diving) at the grocery next door, possibly interviewing other dumpster divers and talking with management about their food waste policies, but their remodel in the spring shut down the store for 3 months and for a while thereafter, it seemed as if the amount of food being tossed out was improving. Not to be deterred, we opted to go in a different direction and help reduce food waste through volunteer work. In April, we worked with Compost Nashville to direct food waste into its proper receptacle at VegFest. From May through July, we worked with Society of St. Andrew to glean the Nashville Farmer’s Market after market day. Through our efforts, we rescued and donated 133 pounds of produce to our charity of choice, the Nashville Rescue Mission. Overall, SoSA volunteers gleaned 11,520 pounds of food from farmers’ markets in Tennessee during the 2018 summer and fall season.

Throughout the year, we did keep an eye on the dumpster next door. Our total dumpster haul for the year was 348.11 pounds. The majority of this was comprised of fresh produce, breads, and 3 spiral-sliced hams. We shared our finds with 10 individuals. A few non-perishable items were placed in the Blessing Box, a brand-new free pantry outside of the Baptist church down the street.

We also had the opportunity to talk with a few key folks in our community about food waste this year. During Grit, Grace, Grub, a culinary scavenger hunt hosted by our city’s Chamber of Commerce, we spoke at length to the manager of one of the local chain restaurants involved. She was impressed with our project and even brainstormed a few ideas with us on how she could reduce food waste. Our biggest success though was when we were contacted by the executive chef of a full-service 76-suite independent living (55+) community that was just opening an hour north of us. His board wanted buffet style meals served 3 times a day and as a new facility, he was concerned about the potential for food waste, since full occupancy could take at least a year to achieve. He had been told that donating cooked food was illegal and he wanted to know what his options were for reducing food waste. We talked to him about the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996 and he presented our information to his board. The facility now donates their food overages to the local homeless shelter and battered women’s shelter.

At home, we continued to plan our meals and source local foods first and reduced-to-clear items second. We scored well with both, and with our tiny garden, which produced cowpeas, squash, tomatoes, blackberries, snack peppers, jalapenos, radishes, cilantro, and green beans this year.

We also increased our composting efforts, adding a new finishing composter (made completely out of rescued materials) for year-round composting. In total, we turned 115 gallons of food and yard scraps into dirt for the garden. Though we did not have a zero-waste year, we did manage to reduce our food waste to only 15.73 pounds for the year (for our family of two). About ¼ of this waste came from a problem with our refrigerator/freezer door that defrosted several items before we knew it. Maintenance replaced the fridge and we salvaged what we could, but I was afraid to eat the meatless meatballs and bay scallops after they had been thawed.

Self-score: A

I think we could have done a little better on our food waste but I’m not going to complain too much about having less than 8 pounds of waste apiece. (The average American wastes 250 pounds of food per year.)

How was your year? Did you reach or exceed your goals?