When not working with clients, The Practical Sort has been out and about meeting the most fascinating people. Occasionally when I come across women-owned businesses offering complementary services that I believe could benefit my clients in some way, they will be featured in "What's On My Mind Today." Feel free to drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know if you find this series helpful. Let's see who is on deck this month.
A colleague introduced me to Betty Shelley soon after I launched The Practical Sort. I have to admit that while I smugly thought I was walking the environmental walk, Betty taught me that I still have a long way to go. Her disposition and routines are light years ahead of mine. I had the good fortune to partake in her Less Is More Class which I highly recommend. The take-aways have become part of my own daily behaviors. Many of my clients are embracing the tidbits I passed along too.
It never ceases to amaze me how often when I mention her name, people will respond “I know Betty”. If you ever called the Metro Recycling Hotline, you likely have spoken with Betty too. If you have not, here is your chance to meet her and bask in her eco-genius.
There Is No "Away"
The Practical Sort (PS): You were a minimalist well before it became trendy. For you, it is far from a trend, rather an ingrained way of life. Do you consider yourself a minimalist? What does minimalism look like to you?
Betty Shelley (Betty): As you say, I started on this path long before Minimalism came on the scene. Minimalism is about having fewer possessions. What we practice is more about Voluntary Simplicity whose motto is “Live simply so others can simply live”. That means considering the impacts of your choices. To me, Minimalism facilitates taking more control of one’s life. Voluntary Simplicity is about that too, but has a larger scope. For me, it’s about using fewer resources because everything comes from the Earth, and I think about how much is my share of those resources. I also think about where things go because there is no “away”.
We’re also quite frugal which helps us be more in control of our financial resources.
PS: And how does this ideology affect your purchasing decisions?
Betty: One starts with trying to figure out a few things like:
Is this a need or a want?
Can I borrow or rent it instead of owning it?
What will happen to it when I’m done with it: can it be donated, reused, repurposed or will it go to a landfill?
What kind of packaging is it in?
PS: When was it that you started down this road?
Betty: We were in the second Master Recycler class in 1992. We started taking Northwest Earth Institute discussion courses in 1994. (Those courses were pivotal in helping us have a larger understanding of the impacts of our personal choices.
PS: Over time as you become deeper entrenched, have your protocols changed and how?
Betty: Oh yes! We continue to look for more ways to become less dependent on ‘stuff’. We are pretty creative when it comes to repurposing materials. Now that I’m retired, I make more food from scratch, condiments especially. Mayonnaise is one of the latest to be added to the repertoire. It’s a good way to save money and to know exactly what’s in your food.
PS: Did you purge home goods immediately, has it been a slow methodical process, or have you simply altered what you bring in?
Betty: No purging - I’m pretty deliberate about most things. We do “let things go to a new home” when we no longer need them. I just found new homes for our son’s train set, his childhood books and toys; they went to three friends with young children.
PS: What technique do you use to decide what stays or goes?
Betty: Generally it’s about whether or not an item is still used regularly or seasonally. The complicated part for me is making sure that whatever the item is goes to the right place. That means taking things to SCRAP, Community Warehouse, thrift stores, posting on Next Door or Buy Nothing, or if all else fails, to the recyclers. At the moment, I’m investigating selling some 120-year-old family antiques. Our son doesn’t want them and we don’t use them.
PS: Working at Metro, I imagine you saw many changes over the years in how waste is collected and processed. What were the most influential positive and negative evolutions?
Betty: Well, the most negative has been the collapse of the recycling markets recently which happened in large part because people were careless about doing recycling correctly. But perhaps in the long run, better systems will be developed. And perhaps people will think less “downstream” and more “upstream”. I mean they will more seriously consider the packaging, etc., if they need whatever it is, and where their stuff comes from.
The most positive was the growing awareness of the callers. When I first started there in 2001, most calls were simply about “Where’s the dump?”. Over time, people wanted to know more about recycling options, and were disappointed when there were no options for a material. And they became more educated about the other Rs: Reuse, Reduce, Repurpose, Refuse, etc.
PS: This is Portland where “reduce, reuse, recycle” is akin to a religion. Do you think your job at Metro was easier because of our inherent culture?
Betty: Yes, I think it was. When people who were new to the region called, the whole recycling concept was often entirely new to them. But they generally wanted to do it right, and many were very excited to have the opportunity to recycle, and to not have to send everything to the landfill.
PS: Many of my clients wish to be kinder to the environment yet are so busy that prioritizing the effort is difficult? You are a very busy lady especially when you were working at Metro, creating and operating the Reduce Your Waste Project, teaching Less is More Classes, liaising with the Northwest Earth Institute, etc., what is your secret to staying organized and implementing this ethos? Do you find it requires a lot of extra time such as dropping off waste at collection centers?
Betty: I think a lot of any behavior-change is about making choices. We may have a choice about taking plastic bags or not, or about tossing an item versus recycling it. We often don’t realize that we are in charge more than we think we are.
I worked part-time intentionally so I would be able to manage the different parts of my life, which includes doing a lot of cooking! But that keeps us healthier and saves money, so that was very important. For me, the biggest part of being organized is making lists! And I think it’s easy for people to put too much pressure on themselves to do too much at once. Our approach has been like the tortoise - slow but sure - meaning we worked on one facet, then when that was routine, we worked on another. We not only use/buy fewer things, we use less water, energy, chemicals, etc. When you move slower, you can be more intentional and thoughtful about your impacts, impacts that do affect climate. So while I could have had more money working full-time, our life was richer in that we didn’t feel stressed and hectic, and we didn’t have to buy expensive ready-made food or eat out a lot.
PS: In honor of Earth Day a reader is inspired to either start on a path to become more eco-minded or step up their current eco-efforts, what 3 suggestions would you recommend to ease their way into this transition to avoid overwhelm and increase chances of sustaining the commitment?
Betty: Well, I don’t think those are mutually exclusive, and being stressed, overwhelmed and guilty doesn’t help someone move forward. As I’ve said, we have been deliberate about our efforts. I tell folks in my classes to choose one thing that they can do to reduce their waste. Part of the homework is to examine your garbage sack to see what’s in it that might be avoided, then make that change.
Our first change was to stop using paper napkins. We switched to cloth napkins (which just get washed weekly with the regular laundry) which eliminated throwing away the paper ones (it helps to reflect on what the item represents, in this case trees, manufacturing chemicals and energy, etc.). After the napkins, we moved on to other materials and practices, like taking our own bags to the store, and shopping in the bulk section of the grocery store. I have looked at the journey as a creative and empowering game! I feel far more in control of my choices. How cool is that!
PS: Here is a Catch-22 that presents a challenge for many organizers and their clientele as you are likely aware. Some clients admirably embrace reuse habits. Their homes and particularly storage areas have become cluttered and filled to capacity. They have difficulty releasing things for fear that might need it some day or they have intentions to repair or repurpose yet rarely do. Do you have sage advice for balancing the desire to implement these ‘R’s without falling prey to chaos?
Betty: If you are holding onto items because you don’t know how to properly dispose them, then call Metro for their advice. Realistically assess how often and what types of items you repurpose or reuse, and let that be your guide whether you should continue to hold on. Consider it a gift to someone else who will put it to good use right away like the Dreaming Zebra Foundation. Dreaming Zebra Foundation, a non-profit organization, supports creative endeavors by providing children and young adults with art and music supplies.
PS: Do you have a spring cleaning ritual?
Betty: I target the kitchen, washing cupboard fronts, taking stuff off shelves and washing them. Dust and vacuum areas that may not normally get cleaned.
PS: When I first met you, you confessed a vice that despite the changes you have made in your life, this is one you have been reluctant to release. Do you mind sharing what that is and do you feel it is beneficial to allow ourselves to splurge to avoid feeling deprived or resentful transitioning to “less”?
Betty: Ha ha! You’re referring to the corn chips bags in our brown paper garbage sack (which had 5 months worth of dry waste in it). While we don’t buy them often (calories!), I doubt I will make them myself so we do have those non-recyclable bags occasionally. In my opinion, don’t be too hard on yourself, do what you can. Every little change, every little effort counts.
PS: How has your life changed for the better or for the worse since you embarked on this journey? Why?
Betty: It’s all better! I’m living my values - no cognitive dissonance. It’s better because we are reducing our impacts on the planet. As I’ve mentioned, we feel more in charge of our lives and decisions because of the knowledge we have. We don’t have to own the latest, most popular “toys” which means we are also not burdened with the expense to purchase, maintain and eventually, replace them with the next version. We have more time for friends and relationships. There’s a breathing space. And it’s very creative.
PS: Any other additional thoughts you wish to share with the readers?
Betty: I’d love for you to share the story about what you thought I would be like when we first met ! It illustrates that one doesn’t have to look alternative to have this life and these values.
PS: Betty is never going to let The Practical Sort live this one down. I was awaiting her arrival at a local coffee shop expecting a hip, dread-locked, tie-dyed Bohemian sort. Take a look at the sophisticated woman in the photo, you can imagine I looked right past her. Environmentalists come in all races, shapes, sizes, genders, ages and some even live on the west side of Portland!
Betty: Betty and I have been on a workshops and presentations spree around the region. Keep a lookout for announcements including a hands-on workshop for clearing your physical and emotional clutter in honor of Earth Day and spring cleaning rituals at the Women's Emotional Intelligence Meet Up on Saturday, April 21 at 2:30 pm at the West Hills Unitarian Church on SW Oleson Road in Portland and another at the Storables Pearl location at 10:00 am on May 12. Watch for upcoming information for a registration link for the Storables event. We will be sharing a boatload of practical easy to implement tips on how you can simplify your life so that your busy schedule will allow time for earthcare as well as nurturing your personal home.
If you are struggling for ways to create the home or global environment you desire, contact ThePracticalSort.com to get the journey started. I can help you organize your things and time so will have more motivation and emotional capacity to get things done. Be comfortable, be productive, be organized.
More About Betty Shelley
Betty Shelley and her husband, Jon, have produced just one 32-gallon can of garbage per year since 2006 (the longest stretch is 19 months). She finds waste reduction to be a creative, empowering way to reduce her impact on the planet’s climate and resources. She offers “Less is More” classes on reducing resource waste in the Portland area (ReduceYourWasteProject.com). Betty and Jon were featured in The Oregonian in 2013 and in numerous other publications.
Betty is a Master Recycler and a former Recycling Information Specialist for Metro Regional Government in Portland, Oregon. For Metro, she was often featured on AM/Northwest, addressing Reducing, Reusing and Recycling. She has also been interviewed for the Portland Sustainability Podcast and The Portland Cool Podcast.
A member of Northwest Earth Institute since 1994, she has served on the curriculum committee for most of the discussion courses. Betty was honored with the NW Earth Institute Founders Award in 2013, recognizing her vast contributions to both Northwest Earth Institute and sustainability education and practice more broadly.
“I love the impact simplicity has had on my life. I feel empowered.”