30 Ways to have fun without leaving a trace

To help the planet, this month I challenged myself to do at least one activity a day that’s fun, but is not based on material consumption. My goal was to see if I could satisfy my consumer desires for leisure and entertainment without consuming material goods. My only rule was that each activity had to be different.

For this challenge, I allowed myself to use pre-existing goods, so long as their use did not incur any additional consumption. For example, going for a bike ride was okay, but a leisurely drive was not. Why? Driving a car consumes fuel, a material good that’s in liquid form. The bike ride, assuming you own or borrow the bike, doesn’t require you to consume anything new.

Here are some observations from my experiences this month.

The Best Things in Life are Free

There’s no doubt that material-based consumption can be fun. We’ve all experienced the rush that comes with buying a new gadget, toy or outfit. However, this effect is often short-lived, and can even be followed by a sense of regret after making a purchase (“buyer’s remorse”), particularly if the item is expensive or extravagant.

In contrast, non-material sources of entertainment focus on acquiring experiences rather than “stuff.” For example, one of my activities this month was to attend a free concert (as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival); another was to take part in a local street fair (Greek Days); while another was to hike to a waterfall (Cypress Falls). These experiences don’t need to break the bank. In fact, with the exception of a $5 donation to visit an art gallery, all my activities this month were free. It’s difficult to have buyer’s remorse when you haven’t spent a dime.

Also, many of my activities this month involved music, art, culture and nature. Unlike more consumptive activities like shopping, these experiences can produce a deeper, more positive impact on your overall well-being and quality of life. The net effect is you can derive more lasting satisfaction and value from the money that you do spend. Simply put, you can be richer – both financially and in terms of quality of life – by accumulating experiences rather than material goods.

Play Like a Kid

Want to see how much fun you can have without relying on the crutch of material consumption? Spend an afternoon playing with a kid. [If you don’t have one of your own, offer to look after a friend’s tyke for a few hours.]

One day this month, I took my friend’s son on a walkabout in my neighbourhood. We didn’t have a set plan or destination; I simply told him our mission was to have an adventure, and then tapped into the active imagination of a five-year old. During our two-hour trek, we explored alleyways, walked along an abandoned railway track, talked with a homeless person, ran through a water fountain, played tag in a playground, and then raced down the sidewalk in a junked stroller. It’s easy to get caught up in the hectic routine of life. Looking at the world through the eyes of a child can help remind us that life is one big sandbox. Have fun with it.

Is Zero Footprint Realistic?

One day this month, I decided to spend a leisurely morning reading the newspaper at a local café (admittedly this might not be the most fun for everybody, but for me it’s pure bliss). To stay true to the challenge, I made sure the paper was second-hand and returned it for others to read once I was finished. No net increase in material consumption, job done. Or is it?

I asked myself: is this activity truly void of material consumption? After all, I had consumed a coffee while enjoying the paper. And the coffee shop did have to purchase the newspaper in the first place – if its customers didn’t read the papers, surely it wouldn’t offer them. So aren’t I complicit in this consumption? And what about all the other materials and fuels needed to operate the café? Does my time spent on the premise make me accountable for a (very small) portion of this consumption, as well as the associated impacts to the planet?

This got me thinking about all the bookstores, libraries, galleries and concert venues I visited this month. True, I did not directly consume any material goods during these visits, but the supporting facilities still require significant amounts of materials and energy to provide the experiences that I enjoyed. If you broaden the scope to consider all the material goods (and fuels) needed to provide these experiences, leaving no trace may be a stretch. Still, this challenge proved that fun doesn’t need to be synonymous with a highly material lifestyle.

My activities to have more fun performed in June, 2013
My activities to have more fun performed in June, 2013

Challenge Six: Fun without the footprint

The yellow No. 2 pencil – it’s been an institution in the classroom for centuries. Most of us have used dozens of them in our lifetime. In fact, picturing one may provoke memories of math tests or notebook doodles from your grade school days. But have you ever considered the environmental impact of the simple wooden pencil?

The base materials used to make a pencil are simple enough: wood, graphite, rubber and aluminum. The wood used in most pencils is harvested from Incense-cedar forests, while the rubber in the eraser comes from rubber plantations in the tropics. While cedar and rubber trees are renewable resources, the rate and methods used to harvest them can cause deforestation, loss of biodiversity, pollution and other environmental impacts (particularly if virgin old-growth or tropical forests are displaced).

Mining graphite and bauxite (which contains aluminum ore) from the Earth causes significant habitat destruction, air pollution and soil contamination. If open-pit mining is used, the environmental impacts are even worse. The processes used to transform raw bauxite into aluminum also contribute to air pollution and global climate change.

These raw materials are shipped to sawmills and factories where they are transformed into the final product that ends up in your local office supply store. All of the steps in this production process use energy and resources, and produce waste and emissions that further burden the environment. The impacts of transporting these materials to factories, and shipping the final product to retailers, also need to be factored into the full environmental cost of a pencil.

Of course, the environmental impact of using a single No. 2 is negligible. It wouldn’t even comprise the baby toe in your personal ecological footprint. So, there’s no need to get a guilty conscience next time you use a pencil to work on a crossword puzzle.

The rub, however, is the sheer number of pencils consumed worldwide. Roughly 15-20 billion pencils are made each year in order to satisfy consumer demand. That’s a lot of wood, graphite, rubber and aluminum. Needless to say, the total bill to the planet is steep.

As the human population increases and as the world’s economies grow, so does our species’ total appetite for consumer goods and their constituent materials. Here lies the problem from an environmental perspective. While most goods we consume are relatively benign individually, they can wreak havoc on the planet collectively. This is true for the pencil as it is for countless other material goods. For example, China alone uses approximately 80 billion disposable chopsticks per year, a habit that’s responsible for the destruction of approximately 20 million trees every year.

So, what can a consumer do to tackle this challenge? One option is to choose eco-friendly versions of the goods you consume. For example, buy pencils made from recyclable materials, or perhaps use a mechanical pencil. However, these options are not without environmental consequence. The use of recyclable material still requires energy and generates waste and emissions, while the processes to create the plastic in mechanical pencils use oil and produce emissions and chemical by-products. In fact, it’s not entirely clear whether using a reusable mechanical pencil is more environmentally friendly than wooden pencils.

Another idea is to look for alternative, non-material ways to satisfy your consumer desires. The premise is that people demand most material goods for the services they provide, not for the materials themselves (gold bars aside). Consumers don’t want the wood, graphite, rubber and aluminum in a pencil, they want the services those materials provide, like communication, entertainment and self-expression.

Satisfying your consumer desires doesn’t have to mean more material consumption. If they can be better met in non-material ways, then both you and the planet can benefit. The other day, for instance, I did an online crossword puzzle for the first time. I was struck by how much easier and more enjoyable it was to change the words and cross-reference clues online compared to print. In short, I got more satisfaction without the need for paper and pencil.

This got me thinking – how else could I satisfy my consumer desires without the need for material consumption? And would doing so benefit me in other ways? I decided to use this month’s challenge to explore these questions. To keep things manageable, I will focus on one specific consumer desire: to have fun. So, my challenge for June is to do at least one activity a day that is fun but without the material footprint.