My spouse and I just moved from Ithaca, NY to St. Paul, MN. I had known leading up to our move to Ithaca that it was a hippy Mecca, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn about the forward-thinking resources in the Twin Cities.
- At least one community garden
This one is pretty obvious, but if your town doesn’t have a community garden I highly recommend one. A community garden is a great place for apartment, condo, townhouse, and city dwellers to grow some of their own food. Plots vary in size. Small plots tend to be about 10×10 ft., but our local community garden offers 15×20 ft. plots. We are sharing one with my parents-in-law this season, and I will report back on our progress. Community gardens aren’t just a great resource for gardeners. Many community gardens set aside a few plots to grow donations for a local food pantry, or facilitate donations of garden crops from individual plot holders.
- A seed library
The Riverview Library in St. Paul has a seed library that is staffed with volunteers for a few hours a week during the growing season. It’s basically a filing cabinet with small drawers of seeds that is subsidized by the Growing West Side program. Some seeds are new, but others are donated from community members either from extra seeds that have been bought or saved. I love it so much. It pains me to buy an entire seed packet with hundreds of seeds when I only want 20 or less. I’ve been donating extra purchased seeds to the library, and plan to save some seeds for them this summer.
The library stocks both food and flower seeds. The number of different varieties available per crop varies with the ease of saving seeds. The dry bean drawer, for example, is packed. You can take up to three varieties of seeds per visit, and I confess to going multiple times.
- Community compost
When we moved from a house in Ithaca to an apartment in St. Paul, I was very sad thinking about all of the compost that would be going to waste when I no longer had a compost bin. I needn’t have worried! We live down the road from one of the county’s compost drop-off locations. We were able to pick up a small, free compost bin for our kitchen and a starter supply of compostable bags. Not only is this a great resource for people living in more dense housing, but the county also makes finished compost and mulch available for pick-up at certain locations for free. Our local community garden gets a truck load of compost delivered from the county each season. While I miss pre-composting our food scraps by feeding them to our chickens, our food scraps won’t be wasted in a garbage dump.
I’ve been asked why it matters if people compost; after all, food scraps are biodegradable unlike plastics. The problem lies in the way that we consolidate waste in landfills. Landfills are full of a slurry of toxic and non-toxic materials, to the point where they are required to be lined to prevent the leaching of toxic compounds into the underlying soil and water table. While your banana peels will break down in a landfill, they will be contaminated by the rest of the waste. Rather than being used to grow other plants, food scraps that enter landfills just add to the mass of contaminated waste.
- Tool library
I was introduced to the concept of a tool library in the Twin Cities. It’s a brilliant concept. Rather than buying a specific tool that you may never use again for a bit of maintenance or a project, you can borrow it from the tool library. An added bonus is that you never need to store all of those extra tools. The library also includes a shared workshop space with larger tools like drill presses and table saws. Tools can be checked out for one week. Membership is only $55 a year, which is dirt cheap if you do a lot of projects (or in our case recently downsized significantly when we moved halfway across the country). They have everything from small hand tools (hammers, clamps, utility knives, pliers, etc.) to garden tools (from trowels to hedge trimmers and lawn mowers), to carpet cleaners and tile saws. We have two local branches, and reciprocal borrowing privileges at both.
- Several re-stores
We’ve all heard of reduce, reuse, and recycle, but in Ithaca I was also introduced to the concept of re-buying. This includes thrift stores like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, but in a lot of cases streamlines the process. I appreciate it when stores specialize in a particular type of used good, and do good quality control on products coming in. Sometimes you can get something essentially brand new, but for much less. One thing that has always troubled me is what people do with all of their gently-worn children’s clothes and equipment. A baby can grow out of clothes in a matter of a few short months! I know that in the absence of hand-me-downs people tend to donate them or sell them at yard sales, but people trying to buy them have to wade through a lot of stained, torn, or heavily worn clothes. Stores like Mama Goose in Ithaca take a lot of work out of the process by only buying gently-used clothing and equipment, while employing impeccable organization. I visited the store when looking for plain onesies to paint at a baby shower. I came up empty (they all already had decorations), but I did buy a ridiculously cute baby skirt anyway. Adults can also get into the action at stores like Trader K’s or Plato’s Closet. I really miss Trader K’s. The men’s section could be stinky, but the women’s section was awesome.
There is so much more to re-buying than just clothing. One of the things I enjoyed about Ithaca was its high per capita density of used bookstores. We also had a Re-Use Store, which is similar to a Habitat for Humanity Re-Store in terms of the materials sold (primarily building materials), but they also had a collection of kitchen wares, computer equipment, and furniture. The same shopping area also had a re-use store for gently-used sports equipment, but I never visited because I don’t play any sports. By far, my favorite re-use experience is Sew Green in Ithaca. They collect unused or leftover sewing and textile craft materials and re-sell them at great prices. I really wish that St. Paul had one, although they have something similar. Art Scraps sells materials for arts and crafts projects, but without the emphasis on textile crafts. Finally, the Textile Center’s Annual Garage Sale, which is a huge, one weekend only version of Sew Green, happens each April in St. Paul.
This post gives the entirely accurate impression that I am a cheap-skate. That’s just how I roll. However, even if you weren’t born frugal, re-stores help divert hundreds of tons of materials from landfills every year. Many things that might otherwise just be thrown out can be used or repurposed by someone else. Beyond the waste problem, there are many situations where it is much better to buy something that already exists rather than spending resources such as energy, clean water, and natural resources to make something brand new.