We've come through a year that changed our lives more than any of us could've imagined: When a pandemic impacted millions of lives, unemployment soared, small businesses struggled, and our lives retreated to the four walls of our homes.
And what of the impact on the earth? A year when black-footed penguins took over the empty streets of Cape Town, South Africa, and people in India saw the Himalayas from their roofs for the first time from over 100 miles away, and birdsong was louder (and prettier) than ever was also a year of food shortages, natural disasters, and increased plastic pollution.
At home, the past year — and its ensuing restrictions — challenged a lot of our own resolutions to live more thoughtfully. Reducing dependence on online shopping became harder in a lockdown; increased takeouts became our way to support local restaurants; canceled citywide programs made composting a challenge; refill schemes and reusable cups were halted; and many, many bottles of sanitizer and cleaners were purchased. On the flip side: Food shortages forced us to think through food supply chains in new ways, a shrinking world made connecting with neighbors ever more important, and cooking more thoughtfully meant examining food waste closely. I've discovered things I can totally live without, and that truly I have more than enough clothes, enough to give away through my local Buy Nothing group.
Through it all, one thing's become clear — we're more keen than ever to make a difference and help shape our world. In that spirit, here are the little-big lessons that the past year — one nobody could've predicted — has taught us about how we live, shop, and eat. From batch-cooking to beekeeping to bulk buying, here are the tips we're excited about sharing. From our homes to yours.
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Food and food storage
"I've always cooked dinners, but we also ate out often — and that changed when the pandemic hit. I had to reteach myself how to batch-cook, freeze meals, and use storage solutions for those meals that could be used over and over. I switched my entire food storage system over from almost all plastic to glass containers and jars, and picked up a fantastic book called "Seriously Good Freezer Meals" by Karrie Truman, which has a whole chapter on supplies you'll need, how to scale recipes up or down, a guide for freezer times of different ingredients, and a bunch more useful stuff." — Kaleigh Embree, customer care specialist
"We've been putting in the effort to decrease consumption of single-serving snack packs, which is so much easier when you work from home — no more grab-and-go packs of nuts, cheese and crackers, and yogurt. My mom does have to go into work, but we now buy them in bulk and I make her little snack boxes in reusable containers for her to take in. And oh, this isn't to do with food, but we've started beekeeping! We have our boxes in the back of the garden, and my mom always reminds me to go out and say hi to the bees 'because they need my love, too.'" — Cara Vaccaro, assistant manager, email
"I've been incorporating more and more food 'scraps' into my day-to-day cooking, trying to immediately use as much of the vegetable or fruit or food product as I can. We keep our compost in the freezer, so even if we earmark veg roots and ends for stock, it adds to the freezer mess (more than a few pints of ice cream have been harmed in the process). This small shift has resulted in a lot of broccoli stalk pesto, dried tangerine peels for tea, sweet potato skin 'chips,' coffee-ground-spiked chocolatey baked goods, the list goes on . . ." — Brinda Ayer, director of content
"This year I've committed to eating all my leftovers before cooking something new. I used to shove dinner dregs and recipe tests into containers and forget all about them at the back of the fridge — until they had to be tossed. Now, I make sure to keep them in the easy-to-see front of the fridge, so I can grab them when I poke around for lunch or a snack. It's tricky because I don't always want leftover frittata for lunch if I've had it for dinner, so I've made a habit of giving myself a '3-day-or-else' rule so there are always some options available." — Rebecca Firkser, assigning editor
"Something I learned while attempting not to go to stores this past year was that I could really live without the convenience of plastic wrap, baggies, and excess aluminum foil. I grew up using lots of plastic and it was a hard habit to break. I definitely found myself clinging to the safety of . . . Cling Wrap. Faced with an empty box of it though, I turned to my reusable containers and DIYed bees wrap, and haven't looked back since." — Caroline Mullen, assistant editor, Home52
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"Package Free Shop allows you to control the quantity and frequency of subscriptions, so I've started ordering dish soap, shampoo, conditioner, and dog shampoo (!) for 4 to 6 months at a time, so I never look into the cabinet to find I'm missing something, and they're shipped less often, and use less packaging." — Coral Lee, podcast producer
"I no longer use body washes. Instead, I use bar soap (I personally love an oatmeal or black soap) and lather my loofah with the bar before using it. It does exactly the same job, but I don't end up with a plastic bottle I need to recycle." — Elisa Ramos, director, product development
"I can't say enough good things about switching to compostable sponge cloths. It's drastically cut down on my paper towel consumption, and was especially useful when paper towels were sold out everywhere! Now I use these to clean spills and stains all over my home." — Shannon Muldoon, director, Studio52
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"My best pandemic find was discovering my neighborhood's Buy Nothing Facebook Group. I hate creating waste, and was so happy to find a group where people will give away nearly anything for free. Anytime I have something I've outgrown or that doesn't work for me, I'll post to the group and find someone interested in it. My best example was giving away an opened bottle of skincare serum! I was thrilled that someone got some use out of something that would have gone in the trash." — Larissa Sanz, brand manager, Five Two
"A tradition my husband and I started this year: 'What's for dinner Wednesday?' aka takeout night. It's such a treat to get halfway through the week and have a gooey slice of pizza or steamy bowl of ramen to encourage you forward. The only catch is that this has resulted in a lot of takeout containers. But we save them! And we use them for anything we can think of, from marinating tofu to handing off baked-good gifts to loved ones. I'll never need to buy a container again." — Emma Laperruque, food editor
"I am trying as best I can to buy only pre-loved clothes from online resellers or vintage retailers, as opposed to buying brand-new items (and on the rare occasion that I do buy new, I aim to buy from outlets that have made their own sustainability commitments)." — Rebecca Firkser, assigning editor
"I've started using a lot more cleaning concentrates and refills and filling up reusable glass spray bottles to limit my plastic purchasing. I'm also reusing water bottles as ice packs — just freeze them and then you can use them and refill them!" — Lauren Jensen, senior product manager
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Recycling and composting
"I was devastated when New York cut its composting project, so I turned up the dial with broth and committed to not buying any from the store. I love always having a chicken or veggie stock on hand, made from whatever I've been cooking that week." — Liz Andrew, senior retoucher
"Being home all the time, with more grocery packaging to process, made me much more conscious of local recycling standards — and a recent John Oliver segment on 'wishcycling' really drove it home. A lot of the things I thought were recyclable (like egg cartons and black takeout containers and those clunky plastic clamshells wrapping salad greens and berries from the grocery store) aren't at the moment, in part because there's no market for them. Seeing single-use plastic going in the garbage made me really appreciate the rare stores (like Good Eggs in the Bay Area) that sell produce either fully nude or in compostable bags. Luckily, googling my county's recycling rules takes all of two minutes, so I can check every time I forget." — Kristen Miglore, founding editor & creative director, Genius
"Preparing for a move, my husband and I have sought out our local recycling center (The Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, aka CHaRM) and make appointments to drop things off every weekend. It's become a weekly tradition we look forward to. And recently, I've started saving those flimsy plastic produce bags you put your produce in when shopping at the grocery store. Now I reuse them to gather scraps while I'm chopping, slicing, and peeling dinner, and it makes the process much more enjoyable and less messy." — Kelsey Burrow, head of PR