My Climate Practice: Tumbler Composting and Ditching Fast Fashion
My Climate Practice is a series where we talk to the folks using Commons about their climate practice and what a sustainable life looks like for them. Today, we're talking to Katelan Cunningham.
Katelan Cunningham is a writer, backyard gardener, and aspiring composter. She grew up in Texas, and she’s lived in Los Angeles since 2012. A lot of her climate practice is based on preventing waste and getting as much use out of everything as possible. Here are some of her current climate practices:
How do you use Commons as part of your climate practice?
I use Commons to prioritize my climate practice. I like that I can quantify the impact of different actions and know how they'll affect my footprint.
I also get a lot of motivation by seeing all the other folks using the app in the Community tab. It's encouraging to know that I'm not the only one who spent an hour comparing tumbler compost bins.
When did you start composting, and what were your main motivations?
I used to work in the packaging industry, and I was doing a lot of research about compostable plastics. Then I looked into compost drop-offs in my area. I started composting around 2021 with a local organization, LA Compost.
Once I started composting, it felt impossible to throw food in the trash. I’m really passionate about doing what I can to limit food waste, and composting goes hand in hand with that.
How do you compost? At home, through your city, or via drop-off?
For a couple of years, I dropped off my food scraps at one of LA Compost’s weekly drop-off locations. I did that for a couple of years, but recently I got my own bin and Los Angeles started picking up compost curbside, which is fantastic.
So now, I compost all my produce scraps, tea leaves, egg shells, and paper at home in my tumbler bin which I found on OfferUp for half the price.
I put the tougher scraps like meat, dairy, and oil in our curbside green bin for the city to pick up.
What were the challenges of collecting your food waste and composting it?
I have a very small kitchen, so space can be an issue. When I was doing weekly dropoffs, I stored scraps in a plastic ice bin in my freezer, but if I missed a week, I’d start to run out of space.
But now that I compost at home, I just keep a bowl on the counter and every couple of days I dump it right into my tumbler bin.
My scrap bowl is always part of my setup when I’m cooking or even just making tea. It’s always within arm’s reach in my kitchen.
How has composting impacted your life so far?
All of our waste goes someplace. It doesn’t just disappear. What I love about composting is that it’s a visible reminder of that.
When I see the buckets full of food scraps my 2-person household generates every month and start to multiply that by everyone on my block or in my neighborhood — that’s so much waste just coming from my square mile of the world.
I love that I’m taking responsibility for my own waste and watching it evolve slowly into something that I can use to make to grow more food in my small lettuce garden.
When did you start shipping secondhand, and what was your motivation?
I can’t remember a time when at least half of my clothes weren’t from a thrift store.
When I was younger, it was a great way to explore my style on a tight budget, so it was definitely money motivated. I still love finding great deals, but I’m focused on quality first. I look for things that are very well made and have already proved they can last several years.
Before you started shopping more sustainably, how often did you shop for clothes and where did you buy them from?
I’ve bought all my own clothes since I was a teenager. I definitely felt the need to keep up with trends in high school and even throughout some of college. So while I was still thrifting, I was also buying fast fashion at places like Forever 21 and H&M and buying way too much stuff for way too little money.
A t-shirt that cost me $9 had a much higher cost for other people and natural resources in the supply chain. There’s some toll on the humans who made the shirt and the Earthly resources used to make the shirt.
What is your process or approach to intentional shopping?
Around 2017, I read Marie Kondo’s book, and then I went to town on my closet. Maybe it’s cliche at this point, but her perspective really helped me to detach myself from my stuff, while also appreciating it.
After doing that initial purge, I’ve continued to refine my process.
How has your clothing budget changed since you started shopping more sustainably?
Funny enough, I don’t think my annual clothing budget has changed from my fast fashion days. I’m spending the same amount of money on clothes in a year, but I’m just using that money to buy fewer items.
Probably 75% of my clothing purchases are secondhand. I love thrifting, but I’ve also found really great vintage sellers on Instagram and Etsy. I mostly follow them for inspiration, but everyone once in a while, I’ll buy a piece that I love.
What do you look for when you’re buying something new?
When I’m thrifting, I’m usually looking at quality and fabric. I tend to go for less stretchy fabrics because synthetic fibers that add stretch are made of plastic which can degrade more quickly than natural fibers, so they don’t last as long.
I look for stains, rips, or holes, but to be honest, that isn’t usually an issue. Even if it is, if I really love something, I can repair it!
Has your style changed at all since you tried to start thrifting?
It’s made me more open to trying new styles, or styles that are new to me. Shopping for used clothes opens you up to decades of styles instead of just what’s trending in stores.
How do you avoid feeling the pressure to buy items when they’re on sale or on-trend?
The first step for me was unsubscribing from all emails that were selling things. It’s like I would get these sale goggles. I’d stock up my cart with things because they were cheap.
I’d usually end up forgetting about the cart and never check out, but I still spent time looking through all the items, considering cost, and picking colors. There wasn’t even a serotonin factor. If anything, I felt worse because I was just wasting time asking myself things like, “Do I need this thing? I should get it because it’s so cheap, right?”
But now that I’ve unsubscribed from sales emails, my life is honestly better. It was very liberating. I feel like I’m more in control. If I decide I want something like a summer dress, I take my time finding something I really like. I don’t feel like I need to buy this thing right now because it’s on sale.
Since you’ve started shopping more sustainably, how many pieces do you think you buy a year? (or month if that’s easier)?
It may average out to one or two pieces a month. I go months without buying anything, but then I may buy a few items once a season.
Do you ever sell your clothes?
Sometimes I sell on Depop, but honestly, if I want to pass something on, I usually give it away in my local Buy Nothing group. I love my neighborhood group. Everyone is just so generous with each other. So if I have something I think my neighbors would like, I try to keep it local.
Skipping a Flight
What are your usual annual flight habits? How often do you fly, and for what occasions?
I live in California, but most of my family is in Texas and Maryland. So I travel to each place once a year, and I usually take another trip or two for something like a vacation or a wedding.
What was your motivation for skipping a flight?
I started working at Commons in January 2023, and I needed to make a trip from LA to their offices in Oakland for a week. I was motivated to take the train because they offered the option and encouraged me to do it!
Tell us more about the trip you were skipping a flight for (if you’re comfortable with it!) What was the nature of the trip? Where were you going to and traveling from?
The train to Oakland takes much longer than the plane, so it was great that Commons let me travel during a work day. I could take the train and save lots of emissions, but I didn’t have to worry about losing a day of my weekend on travel.
What made this trip a good contender for ground transportation instead of flying?
With my phone as a hotspot, I could easily work on the train. I only lost reception briefly a few times on an 11-hour route.
It's also nice that the train takes you right into the city because the station was only a 5-minute drive to my Airbnb.
How did you go about skipping a flight? What options did you consider, and why did you choose the one you went with?
I have a very romantic notion of trains which was totally fulfilled by the Pacific Starlight Amtrak route up the coast from LA to Oakland. (The last stop is Seattle.) I’ve always wanted to that train, and I’ll definitely be doing it again.
Just like with flights, there are different platforms to buy train tickets through. I just googled “train from LA to Oakland” and found the right day and time for the Amtrak and booked my ticket. Super easy, and only around $50.
How did you feel taking the train versus how you feel when you fly? Did you miss anything about flying?
I love a lot of things about flying. I love people-watching at airports, watching the planes through giant windows, and all the food options.
But, since I only travel with a carry-on, I hate having to put all of my toiletries into little containers and bags. And the stress of getting through the security line in time to make it to my gate.
Also, when I get off a plane, I usually feel really stiff and dried out. But on the train, you can walk around as much as you want, get snacks, and have great views.
What were the challenges to taking ground transportation for this trip? How did you address them?
The biggest challenge was having time to take the train. The route took over 11 hours. But it didn’t feel that long. I worked most of the time with a background of some great views. And for the last couple of hours, I ate dinner and watched a movie on my laptop. I’m already planning my next train trip!
What climate practice are you excited to start in the future?
I love gardening, but I don't have a yard. I've been slowly scaling up my pot and planter setup, and within the next couple years, I'd love to grow all my own lettuce and have a few other veggies that I can grow consistently.