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The 'Sam' in Samplings

Samara Ballen is a writer, tech enthusiast, animal welfare advocate, environmentalist, and LGBT+ ally from Brooklyn, NY. Beyond  her true passions, she loves fashion and beauty, science, world travel, and hanging out with her rescue pit bull, Allie. Also other cool stuff.

Friendly and open-minded, but vocal and unapologetic, and a totally serious human, Samara started Samplings to provide a window into the lives, challenges, and realities of trans and gender-nonconforming people by publishing honest and engaging original content. 

She also hates writing about herself, which might have been evidenced by the sheer sterility of this bio, had it not obviously been authored by a completely separate and highly regarded individual of notable literary accomplishments, as proven by their exclusive use of the third-person.

Share your thoughts openly in the comments or on social media, as long as love and compassion guide your words. Read and share freely.

No-Compromise Environmentalism: How to Live a Normal Life Without Killing the Planet

No-Compromise Environmentalism: How to Live a Normal Life Without Killing the Planet

A few years back I had an incredibly aggravating epiphany. I realized that by taking advantage of our modern first-world conveniences without considering their ripple effects, I was seriously contributing to the destruction of our planet. As soon as I let that thought surface, it exploded. So much of what I did in my everyday life that I never even thought about was directly at the expense of the environment's wellbeing. I was charging my own convenience on the planet's tab along with billions of other humans, and it quickly became painfully obvious that it was a sum our Earth would never be able to make up for on its own.

At the time I viewed myself as a reasonably conscious and responsible human. After all, I had my very own recycling bin. But like a lot of people, I didn't really think much farther than my own needs about anything I was purchasing. To me that's our biggest problem as a species in regard to the environment. It's so foreign for us to connect the dots of our environmental impact that we don't realize how harmful our disposable lifestyles really are. The vast majority of us don't want the environment to suffer for them. I'm sure most people would say that they love the planet and want it to heal—while drinking from a disposable plastic water bottle and holding a doubled-up shopping bag in the driver's seat of their idling car blasting the A/C with the windows down.

That's not a bad person. Just an unfortunately ignorant one. It was me at one point, but no more.

My epiphany was aggravating because having it left me in a super inconvenient place. I couldn't take anything for granted anymore. Worse, I had to reevaluate all the stuff I did, bought, and accepted as okay. Not wanting to damage the planet for my own benefit meant I actually had to think for myself about everything from how my groceries were packaged to what it entailed to deliver electricity to my house. Then I had to decide if I wanted to allow my existence to come at a net loss to Earth.

If the answer was no, it meant falling out of the mainstream (admittedly not my first time), ignoring happy and attractive messaging from companies I had grown up with, doing some research, changing brands, and sacrificing a bit of convenience. That sucked. But for me, the alternative was unacceptable. So I bit the bullet and did the work, and you know what? It really wasn't that hard. And wow, was it eye-opening. 

If you're still reading, this is the good part. I've taken my self-curated education, filtered out the textbook talk, and left you with useful, do-it-tomorrow takeaways. Here are some major categories you can make some small tweaks in to make a big difference for our planet.


Using Clean Energy

Our energy sources are a huge contributor to the overall health of the planet. Burning coal at power plants and gas in our cars is wreaking havoc on Earth's immune system. The biggest thing you can do here is to go totally renewable. Wait! You're going to be pleasantly surprised!

Early on this pretty much only meant installing ugly and expensive solar panels on your roof, which to the surprise of no one first meant you had to own a roof. Innovations like Tesla's obviously magic Solar Roof have reduced the cost and eliminated the ugly factor, but what can you do if you live in an apartment building or just don't have the cash to invest in a roof upgrade?

Awesomely, utility companies are now starting to partner with clean energy providers so that at your option, you can just about flip a switch and have 100% of your home's energy come from renewable sources like solar farms, hydropower and wind farms. In NYC, ConEdison partners with several companies to make this a reality right now for New Yorkers.

So hop on your electricity provider's website and check out your options. Many of these companies have goals to become 100% renewable within the next few years, so you may be surprised at how painless such an enormous upgrade can be.


Minimizing Waste & Recycling

Call me a nerd (go ahead, do it), but I actually find this one kind of fun. When I moved to Brooklyn in 2015 I decided to make my new home as environmentally neutral as possible. I bought 3 small bins right off the bat. Those, combined with my garbage disposal, an occasional small collection of end-of-life electronics, and some cash-generating second-hand sales meant I could save all of this from landfills and our oceans:

  • Paper products (from paper towels to cardboard boxes)

  • Anything made from plastic, metal or glass

  • Organics (food waste)

  • Electronics

  • Old clothing and linens

Consider those categories against what you use everyday. What's left? Personally, I now have a garbage can the size of a shoe box that's most commonly home to dryer lint, and that I change about once every 10-14 days. It never smells because I don't throw any food waste away. Added bonus: it's small enough that I line it with saved-up plastic shopping bags from absent-minded store visits when I'd unfortunately forgotten my reusable bag.

Clothes and electronics are awesome, because you can actually make a few bucks keeping them out of landfills. There are literally dozens of online companies that will buy even decade-old and broken tech, including old DVDs and video games. Tomorrow I'm sending my old Xbox 360 and its game library to a company called Decluttr for $130, and they're covering shipping.

Lightbulbs, batteries, old cables, and smaller accessories probably won't be sellable, but recycling them is just as impactful and important.

Do one last load of laundry with all your unwanted textiles and bring your in-tact clothing to a local thrift shop to walk out with cash. Take linens and damaged articles to a local textiles recycling point. In NYC there are dozens of weekly drop-offs in popular areas, and your old items have a chance of being repurposed for a good cause.

No garbage disposal? Even better. Composting is a solid step higher on the human-Earth harmony pyramid, and you can even compost inside your apartment. Check Amazon for some good options.

Our oceans are rapidly being filled with our plastic waste, and electronics have toxic chemicals and materials that seep into the ground if piled onto landfills, so take care with these categories especially.

So what do you do if your building or community doesn't offer recycling for certain waste categories? Easy! Just collect your waste in separated cardboard boxes or reusable containers (never purpose-made plastic bags), and every few weeks, take them over to a local drop-off point. They're surprisingly numerous and accessible, and the 30-60 minutes you spend on the errand will win you serious Planet Points™️.


Green Cleaning Products

Did you know there are non-toxic, enviro-friendly (I'm tired of typing the full word) alternatives for almost every kind of cleaning thingy? My absolute faves are Method, Ecover and Seventh Generation. Between the three, all my soaps, detergents, scrubbers and washy goop (legitimate product category) are harmless. It took me a bit to bridge the gap between cartoon fish and real life, but that line from Finding Nemo has real-world implications: "All drains lead to the ocean." If you're filling your washing machine with bleach and hard chemicals, it's going to wind up suffocating our coral reefs and marine life.

Ecover is my go-to brand for dishwasher detergent, but they make other products.

Ecover is my go-to brand for dishwasher detergent, but they make other products.

Method specializes in all kinds of soaps, detergents and cleaners.

Method specializes in all kinds of soaps, detergents and cleaners.

Seventh Generation makes a ton of different recycled and eco-friendly home goods.

Seventh Generation makes a ton of different recycled and eco-friendly home goods.

Amazingly, with just a bit more effort, brilliant chemists with their heads on straight have been able to create formulas for green alternatives to just about everything we rely on, that don't destroy the planet.


Friendly Household Goods

  • Bar soap

  • Recycled paper towels, toilet paper, tissues and dryer sheets

  • Recycled aluminum foil

  • Glass food storage containers

  • Vegan & cruelty free makeup and skincare products

  • A single box of plastic zipper bags

  • Brita filter & SurviMate water bottle

This stuff has enabled me to drive my daily environmental impact down to the floor, not to mention cut my spending down—and I'm sure I'm forgetting a thing or two. Oh companies, your disgusting false body image ideals and needless product development worked for so long, but I bid you a surprisingly easy adieu.

Do you know how much bar soap costs compared to bottled body wash on a per-shower basis? Pennies, I tell you. Pennies. You can buy a 6-pack of Tom's (*cruelty free*) bar soap with raw shea butter for the price of a single bottle of that chemically-laced fragrance gel. Plus they come in thin wrappers instead of a plastic bottle.

Literally every disposable item I still buy is now entirely recycled. It tends to either cost a bit more (aluminum foil) or be a little less cloud-like (paper towels and tissues), but IMO, negligibly so. My toilet paper might not feel like a cashmere blanket on my nether regions, but it's still plenty soft and strong—not even close to what we deal with in most public facilities. Using recycled goods substantially reduces the demand for deforestation I'm responsible for and minimizes the amount of bleach seeping into our water supply (my paper towels are proudly brown).

If you do the smallest amount of research, you'll find tons of leading beauty brands that are committed to not torturing animals so we can look pretty. My go-to short list right now includes:

  • Hourglass

  • Anastasia Beverly Hills

  • Urban Decay

  • Smashbox

  • Kat Von D

  • Milk

  • Tarte

  • Drunk Elephant

  • Huda Beauty (go for her Desert Dusk eyeshadow palette)

But there are tons more, and it's also not always totally straightforward. Check this awesome resource out for everything at Sephora that makes the cut:

Ethical Elephant constantly updates their lists, which also include one of 100% vegan makeup and skincare brands (not limited to Sephora)

Ethical Elephant constantly updates their lists, which also include one of 100% vegan makeup and skincare brands (not limited to Sephora)

Okay this is not a makeup post! Moving on!

For your zipper food storage bags, turn them inside out, wash them, and leave them for a day on your drying mat. Good as new.

Especially if you live in NYC, {tap water + Brita filter = perfect god-quality hydration fluid}. Pour that into a SurviMate water bottle and believe me, what you're drinking is cleaner than any pre-bottled water you can buy while killing the environment with its packaging. I'm absolutely loving this SurviMate bottle. It's like a portable Brita on steroids. Meant for travelers in unpredictable scenarios, you can literally fill it up with hose water at a festival and not worry about it. Check it out on Amazon.

While the SurviMate is unfortunately (hard, BPA-free) plastic, it will be the last plastic bottle you buy.

While the SurviMate is unfortunately (hard, BPA-free) plastic, it will be the last plastic bottle you buy.

Two filters in one make this bottle even more effective than a Brita filter.

Two filters in one make this bottle even more effective than a Brita filter.


Buying New is Old News

This may be more of a stretch for some than others, but I've recently become obsessed with buying clothes second-hand at some of the trendy thrift shops in my neighborhood. First of all, I've never seen more of a diverse and interesting selection of gorgeous fashion items in one spot, inch for inch. I can also get half a season's wardrobe for the price of a few brand new items, and that doesn't even mean high-fashion brands are out of the question. My favorite new articles for spring or whatever you call this madness have all been second-hand gems.

Mentally tack on the price of a nice dry cleaning for each item while shopping, and you can walk away with cuter/cooler/more unique clothes (and shoes and accessories!) than you'd find at Bloomingdales or the Americana for a fraction of the price, all without driving up demand for new manufacturing. Win/win/win loves!


Efficient Lighting

This one's easy but most people get it wrong and therefore, get the wrong idea. LEDs are definitely the way to go, and nowadays you can find them in every shape, size, and most importantly, color temperature. Best of all, going efficient doesn't have to mean mean turning your living room atmosphere into a cafeteria or doctor's office. That is if you know what you're doing. Most people don't know how to gauge LED temp, so we attribute high-efficiency lighting with white blaring awfulness. But there's a numerical value on every lightbulb that you can use to get the best of both worlds.

When shopping for LED replacements for your light fixtures, look for bulbs in the 2700-3000K range (K stands for Kelvin). The higher you go, the whiter your light. Believe me, you don't want a 5000K bulb in your bedside table lamp. Or anywhere you want to feel sane for that matter.

LEDs will cut your electricity usage down to a fraction of what you'd draw with traditional bulbs, and each bulb may very well last as long as you stay in your house. They cost more up front, but pay for themselves rapidly.


Helpful Habits

There are a bunch of little things you can do in your daily life to seriously limit your environmental death toll (sorry?). 

Using reusable bags
Buy some! You can even find reusable bags made from recycled plastic! Leave at least one in the car, roll one up with a rubber band and stuff it into your purse, and never take another disposable bag from a store again. This one has an impact/inconvenience ratio of about a bazillion.

Avoiding styrofoam
Styrofoam is a modern day plague. It doesn't biodegrade and cannot be recycled, so it's pretty much the worst thing ever. If you're taking leftovers home from a restaurant and they hand you a styrofoam container to transfer them into, you'll be doing more for the good of nature to leave the food behind. And tell them why! The more people that start to be vocal about environmental consciousness, the faster businesses will adapt to meet that new demand. That's when the real change happens.

Eliminating unnecessary waste in everything you do
One of the first things I started doing on my mission to make the planet green again was cut out all plastic utensils, straws, cups and plates. No more, not even for delivery. Seamless/GrubHub special instructions: "Just the food please. No napkins, utensils, or extra sauce needed. Thank you!"

One step further: when you're at a restaurant, skip the straw. It's one less piece of plastic for a fish, dolphin or wale to encounter.

Tell your cashier up front that you don't need a receipt so that if their system gives them the option they can prevent it from printing.

If you did forget your reusable bag at the store, lift up your shopping bag to gauge its weight. All cashiers seem to have had universal training to double bag everything. 70% of the time I wind up sliding out the full bag and leaving an empty one behind.

Reducing and reuseing napkins
Start taking notice of how many napkins you use during a meal. At a restaurant with napkin dispensers, how many do you pull for yourself? If you were incentivized to use as few as possible, could you get that number down? When I took notice of my own habits, I was quickly able to reduce my use to one.

Now, I actually fold up my partially used paper towel after eating, leave it by the sink and use the clean sides to wipe up kitchen messes later in the day. 

Using less electricity and water
How quickly we jump to turn on the A/C the first time the temperature hits 70º, or the heat as soon as it falls below 60º. Nobody expects you to forego climate control entirely, but in the spring/summer, start by opening a window. Fresh air is better than freon anyway. On the flip side, throw on a comfy sweater or curl up with a soft blanket before jumping to burn fuel for the heater.

As for lighting, I am definitely a culprit of leaving lights on in rooms I'm not in. But when I think about knocking down my electrical bill, all of a sudden I'm like Terry Crews in Everybody Hates Chris. "That's eleven cents worth of lights!"

Score Points!

If you're anything like me, once you become aware of just how harmful so much of what we're accustomed to is to the environment, you'll feel compelled to do something about it. Just take baby steps at first. In no way did I universally overhaul my lifestyle in a single shot. It took years to get from "blind consumer" to "conscious Earth inhabitant," and I'm still learning and changing every day.

When you're setting out, make a game of your new Earth-friendly initiatives. Did you use just a single napkin during a meal instead of your usual three? Point! Did you bring a reusable bag to the store and prevent a plastic one from entering the world? Point! Did you shut your car off outside your friend's house while you waited for them to come out? Point! Did you spoon with your dog under a blanket to delay turning on your heater for an extra hour? Point! Also please send me a photo of that. It sounds adorable.

Beyond the helping hand I'm now lending the environment, deciding to take responsibility for my impact on the planet has also woken me up to a lot of ugly realities about our profit-driven society. Because of that I'm now a waaayyy savvier consumer and a healthier person all around.

Please keep in mind that I make $0 from recommending any products. I am 100% committed to authenticity in every aspect of my life, and regardless of my business arrangements now or in the future, I will never recommend something that I don't believe in and have not personally verified.

Now go save the world!

Have your own suggestions or experience upping your environmental friendliness game? Share them in the comments!

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