Urban Couple Cultivates a Make-It-Yourself Mindset

Providence residents Erin Umstead and Danny Kirschner have embraced the idea of living more sustainably and responsibly. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News photos)

Providence residents Erin Umstead and Danny Kirschner have embraced the idea of living more sustainably and responsibly. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News photos)

Reducing waste and lessening consumption play important role in their lifestyle

By JUDEE BURR/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Erin Umstead and Danny Kirschner make their own toothpaste. The couple also avoids buying products with lots of plastic packaging, eats vegetarian meals and keeps a compost bin in the backyard.

“Toothpaste is really easy,” Umstead said, with an encouraging grin. “It’s just coconut oil, baking soda and peppermint oil. For laundry detergent, we use borax, washing soda and Fels-Naptha. That does come packaged, but the washing soda and the borax come in a cardboard box. So, that’s easily recyclable. We just make it in bulk and it does the job.”

Finding ways to make instead of buy, opt for items in the bulk section of the store and avoid single-use products are part of Umstead and Kirschner’s plan to make their environmental footprints a little smaller. They are part of a growing “zero-waste” movement — a call for new patterns of production, consumption and disposal that create a closed loop of reusing materials, reducing disposables and sending what’s left to be reused again through recycling or composting facilities.

This reimagining of the waste stream is spreading from cities such as San Francisco, which has called for zero waste by 2020 — it currently diverts 80 percent of its waste from the landfill — to a Rhode Island bill that would ban plastic bags, Styrofoam and single-serve plastic water bottles.

For Umstead and Kirschner, it started with meat and plastic.

“It’s been a really long journey,” Umstead said. She was raised in a socially conscious home — as a kid, she remembers her parents buying organic food and recycling, and she attended an alternative school started by her dad in Maryland.

“I think I was barefoot a lot,” the 29-year-old said with a laugh.

But it wasn’t until she experimented with new ways of eating and consuming that a waste-conscious lifestyle stuck. Umstead started avoiding unnecessary chemicals in her cosmetic products, and began to notice when layers of single-use plastic coated her purchases. She went vegan for a year, switched to vegetarianism, and now is experimenting with cutting sugar, soy and caffeine from her diet.

“I was vegan for a year and I just started diving into things,” she said.

Both Umstead and Kirschner remember a pivotal moment on a trip to San Francisco when a smiling Hare Krishna woman gave them a book about vegetarianism. Something about that book, “The Higher Taste,” and its description of the food system clicked for them. They started eating less meat, and their changing eating habits reinforced their desire to avoid packaging.

“The first thing we tried to do was reduce our plastic packaging, which, curiously, made us eat a lot fresher stuff,” Kirschner said. “You can’t get anything that’s been sitting around for a while that’s not wrapped in plastic. ... It was more of an experiment — can we?”

Kirschner wasn’t always so aware of the impacts of his consumption choices. He remembered looking skeptically at animal-rights activists and environmentalists while in business school at the University of Georgia.

“People would try to shock you, people like PETA, people with pictures of pigs and chickens in cages. I never really bought into it,” he said. He recalled teasing his friends for their earth-minded eating habits.

“I remember, my brother was vegetarian for a while, and I just made fun of him for a year straight about it,” the 30-year-old said. “I’d just try to give him Chick-fil-A sandwiches. I had one other friend who wouldn’t eat pork ... same thing, I’d try to give her bacon.”

They changed their eating and cooking habits to avoid packaging.

They changed their eating and cooking habits to avoid packaging.

But something changed. Plastic started to bother him. After reading “The Higher Taste,” the negative impacts of meat consumption bothered him, too. Umstead and Kirschner went vegetarian. Kirschner also decided to spend a year, 2013, without single-use plastic, and Umstead joined him for the journey. They created a blog to share their triumphs, such as making their own shampoo, and the challenges they faced — for instance, how to go to a music festival without using plastic cups.

After being together for more than three years, tackling these challenges together has increased their resolve. They cook together, they use the same homemade toothpaste, and when Umstead became concerned about synthetic fibers polluting the marine environment, Kirschner listened.

“We keep each other in check,” Umstead said.

The ways they eat and brush their teeth are as much about zero waste as recycling and composting. Being vegetarian reduces water use and greenhouse-gas emissions associated with their food. Buying secondhand clothes means new resources need not be wasted. The couple proudly displays their homemade yogurt and almond milk in jars, explaining that it’s often easier to make their own foods and products at home than it is to try and buy similar items not wrapped in plastic.

“The thinking is that any process that produces waste is not an optimal process,” Kirschner said. “So our culture of throwing everything away is really broken. Every time we throw something away we are wasting those resources, which many times were very difficult to procure in the first place.”

The couple’s lifestyle has their friends intrigued. Both laughed and looked skeptical when asked whether friends have taken on any of their habits, but Kirschner does believe every interaction and conversation about zero waste can plant a seed.

“I’ve noticed so many times someone will make a comment, maybe it will be making fun of me about something, but then a week later, they’ll mention to me, ‘I just went to the supermarket and I realized everything is packaged in plastic and it’s so crazy,’” he said.

Their families were an easier sell.

“I’ve always supported it because we raised both of our kids to live connected to the earth,” said Umstead’s mother, Diane, on the subject of her daughter’s zero-waste practices. “I was not surprised that she applied her passion and dedication to that subject .. I’ve become an evangelizer.”

Diane, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., has switched from plastic containers to glass, avoids single-use plastic bags, and has watched the amount of trash she produces shrink. Umstead’s father also is taking larger-scale action with environmental groups such as 350.org and the Sierra Club.

Umstead and Kirschner encourage people to take on one project to start — like trying to make your own almond milk or bringing a reusable bag to the store. As it did for them, a single step can spin into broader lifestyle changes.

“It’s kind of an empowering thing,” Kirschner said. “So many people are like, we can’t change, climate change is already happening, we might as well ride it until we see what happens ... but if you want to be empowered, you can change your diet, you can change what you purchase.”

Umstead noted that even big lifestyle changes become easy after you develop good habits and change your mindset.

“I think once you just say, ‘I’m not going to go down that aisle, I’m not even going to look at that stuff,’ then you forget about it,” she said. “And you start thinking of ways you can.”