The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

December 29, 2009

Can a “Buy Nothing New” Pledge Help Reduce Plastic Consumption?

The following is a guest post from Katy Wolk-Stanley, author of The Non-Consumer Advocate blog. In keeping with last week’s posts about clutter and stuff, Katy’s post illustrates the relationship between plastic consumption and consumerism. Enjoy!

Katy Wolk-Stanley and her clotheslineMy name is Katy Wolk-Stanley and I am a die-hard member of The Compact, (a worldwide buy nothing new movement) and have been since I joined up in January of 2007. I buy used gifts; I buy used school supplies; Heck, I even buy used sheets.

It may sound like a source of frustration to not be able to walk into a store and quickly grab life’s necessities, but nothing could be farther from the truth. It turns out that much of what I had been grabbing were not necessities, but lots of stuff that were simply wants.

Not buying new has actually freed my life up. Saving not only untold thousands of dollars, but forcing me to make conscious and deliberate decisions about my purchases and how I live my life.

I already considered myself a thrift store aficionado and my house bulged with clutter to prove it. Sure, it was cool clutter, but clutter nonetheless. Cool dishes, cool vintage linens, cool toys, I had it all. Unfortunately I was also buying all the new stuff as well. Combine the two, and something had to give.

A short wire service piece in the local paper in December of 2006 then caught my eye. A small group of San Francisco hipsters had spent the last year buying nothing new and calling themselves “The Compact.” They were shopping thrift stores, bartering and horror of all horrors — simply not buying at all!

“We’re just rarefied middle-class San Francisco greenies having a conversation about consumption and sustainability.”

I went into The Compact telling myself I would give it a month. What if I needed something? What about family birthdays? A month seemed about right, not too intimidating. I could handle a month.

The first year flew by with very few Compact exceptions. We bought a new glass carafe for our coffee maker as well as gifts for home-stay families that my son and husband would be staying with during a class trip to Japan. Besides that, I really can’t think of much else that needed purchasing.

Not only was I saving money, but I was experiencing a increased awareness of how the buy, buy, buy mindset of society was affecting our lives, our wallets and the environment.

I started to make other changes in my life.

I looked around my house and decided to put a full effort into de-cluttering. I donated to Goodwill a whopping 19 times in 2007, sometimes completely filling the mini-van with the excessive belonging that had been invited into my home.

I slowly began making other changes in my life as well. I began hanging my family’s laundry on a clothesline, turned my thermostat to 63 in the winter, (which nobody seemed to notice) mixed up my own laundry detergent and made a concerted effort to minimize my driving.

So what does this have to do with plastic? My increased awareness about sustainable living made me take a long hard look at how plastics have crept into my family’s life. Plastics were storing our foods, the kid’s school lunches and drinks; and replacing what had once been constructed from glass, wood and metal. When one of our wooden chairs broke, we were able to glue it back together. But when our plastic lawn chair broke it was transformed into a huge hunk of garbage.

I now try my very hardest to minimize the plastics that enter my home. I send the kids’ school lunches in stainless steel tiffins, refuse as much plastic food packaging as possible, bring my own reusable bags to the grocery store, (including lightweight produce bags) and have found a local recycler who accepts almost all forms of plastic.

Most of these changes save my family money, but most importantly we’re decreasing our energy consumption, minimizing our plastics usage and living a healthier life. Because The Compact is not about saving money; it’s about sustainability.

Luckily, frugality and sustainability are often one and the same.

Will I ever stop doing The Compact?

Well . . . I’ve actually started buying some new stuff when the big picture outweighs searching out the used. For example, I no longer want to be storing my food in plastic containers. This has meant that in addition to the couple scores of Goodwill Pyrex leftover containers, I splurged on a brand-spanking-new set. But in concordance with my conscious spending mindset, I noted that Pyrex is manufactured in the U.S. using union labor, plus the cardboard packaging was 100% recyclable!

I don’t think I will ever stop being part of The Compact, as my life has greatly bettered and my bank account has mysteriously plumped. And the plastics? Don’t miss them a whit!

What more could a girl ask for?

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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13 years ago

really good stuff–i love the buy-used/packaging-free lifestyle, which my girlfriend and i have been living since November of last year. All our foods are fresh, I’ve learned to cook and make all the basic ingredients we need (easy when vegan), and everything we buy is thought through and pursued with the thrill of the hunt. The qualities of our lives seem to have increased dramatically as a result. So good to hear about other people on the same journey or considering trying it.

13 years ago

I’m not quite this dedicated–you are an inspiration! But I have made a solemn vow to purchase only consumable items and think long and hard about buying anything new over the last year. This has resulted in fewer purchases of things I’ve regretted buying. Besides saving a lot of money and leaving a smaller footprint, I find myself more content overall, too. I’ve been giving consumable gifts, too–like tea or good chocolates, nice lip balms or soy candles (all made locally!) which supports the local economy and doesn’t add clutter to anyone’s shelves at home.
Quality over quantity has been my motto for ages.
Great post.

Mary Kay
13 years ago

Fabulous post!! Thanks!

Katy Wolk-Stanley
13 years ago

Thanks for all the nice words. I really do hate plastic and make a concerted effort to keep it from entering my house, but I’m always amazed by how fast our “plastics recycling” bin gets filled up. Food packaging is my downfall, even though I bring my own reusable bags for produce.

I gave only second hand gifts and was able to avoid that mountain of Christmas morning packaging crap, which helped.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

13 years ago

Thanks for the great guest post Katy!

I also read the article about the “original Compact” group a few years back, though I have to admit I did not try it. I try to live as simple as possible, with no more space or things than one person needs (though I’m sure I have more clothes and cooking implements than a single person needs…).

I have often found that my grandmother is an excellent model for how to live “sustainably” though she would never call it that. She grew up at time when things were made to last and taken care of and had maintained that mentality for her whole life despite the rise of consumer culture all around her.

Thanks for providing a strong example to those of us trying to improve!

13 years ago


I love this post. It really makes you think! I still have a long way to go with using less plastic however, I have been recycling for about 10 years now (plastic, paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum). Keep the awesome post coming.

13 years ago

Good idea. I’ve been trying not to buy new for awhile now which has been excellent since the past year I’ve been living on pretty much solely a student allowance (which in NZ is didly-squat, talk about bare-neccessities only!). I’m a regular browser at op shops like the Sallie army store etc.

This year I’ve decided to try and keep my new’s year’s resolution and only have one for 2010. Inspired by you Beth actually. I’m going to try and ditch new plastic from my life.

13 years ago

Hey Beth, though you live in Berkeley, you might qualify as a “San Francisco hipster”, no? : )

Thinking more about getting stuff that isn’t needed, have people read the classic book “The Theory of the Leisure Class” by Veblen – written around 1900, I believe. He claimed that indulgence in useless things was a sign of affluence and that it was a badge of pride among the idle rich to have all kinds of things they hardly, if ever, used. The message was “I am so wealthy that I need not work and still can have all these things”

Since that time, luxury has definitely moved downscale by way of easy credit (until recently) and the purchase of huge homes with far more space than can be used is a perfect example of putting on an appearance unrelated to need.

Just read that one in four mortgages are underwater (more is owed than the house is worth). Perhaps frugality will be on a roll, though forced rather than consciously chosen as Katy has done.

13 years ago

I think this is so dead on. I think Amazon’s effort to reduce packaging is a great first step and so many things have a second life. I am a big garage sale fan, and have bought lots of new stuff from garage sales (does that violate the compact?)

What also amazes me is how long things last, how much of what we replace is utility and how much is fashion. I am using the same tupperware that I had in college over 20 years ago.

used still can mean functional. old games are still fun. scrabble, monopoly, backgammon, etc.