Joel Sartore at the Tennessee Aquarium

Exterior of the Tennessee Aquairum, River Journey, entrance, with a Joel Sartore photograph of a slider (turtle) at the entrance, people going in.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee, recently opened an exhibit featuring the work of award-winning photographer and National Geographic Explorer Joel Sartore and the National Geographic Photo Ark project. They launched the exhibit with an event featuring Joel Sartore and his son Cole Sartore, who presented their story. I was lucky to purchase a ticket to it before they sold out.

National Geographic Photo Ark Logo in black, gray, and yellow on white background.

Orange spotted filefish - aqua and orange spotted - against a white background.
Orange spotted filefish, Oxymonacanthus longirostris, at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Nebraska, 2013. Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org.
Close up of an octopus, viewpoint looking underneath the creature, viewing its red tentacles and white suckers.
An octopus, Octopoda, at Dallas World Aquarium, Texas, 2013. Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org.

What is the National Geographic Photo Ark?

“The Photo Ark uses the power of photography to inspire people to help save species at risk before it’s too late.

“The interaction between animals and their environments is the engine that keeps the planet healthy for all of us. But for many species, time is running out. When you remove one, it affects us all.

“The National Geographic Photo Ark is a multiyear effort to raise awareness of and find solutions to some of the most pressing issues affecting wildlife and their habitats. The Photo Ark’s three-pronged approach harnesses the power of National Geographic photography and the bold ideas of our explorers. Led by National Geographic Explorer and photographer Joel Sartore, the project aims to document every species living in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, inspire action through education, and help save wildlife by supporting on-the-ground conservation efforts.”1

“I want to get people to care, to fall in love, and to take action.” -Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore with frill necked lizard, Chlamydosaurus kingii, Joel facing the camera, holding his camera, lizard in white photo box.
Joel Sartore with frill-necked lizard, Chlamydosaurus kingii, at a high school in Victoria, Australia, 2017 during a shoot for the National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org. Photo by Douglas Gimesy.

The Photo Ark is the world’s largest collection of animal portraits, documenting species before they disappear. The goal is to get the public to care, while there’s still time. Sartore knows we can save species from extinction. He’s photographed over 15,000 species so far. His goal is to photograph all 25,000 species in captivity in zoos, aquariums, and wildlife sanctuaries around the world. Here’s a short video about his work:

And here’s another video regarding the Photo Ark and the Extinction Crisis:

Lucky Me

I’ve been a big fan of Sartore’s for many years, not just because of his photography but his call for conservation and love for the species we are losing. A few years ago, my spouse even gifted me an autographed copy of Sartore’s National Geographic Photo Basics: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Great Photography. I wrote about Sartore in 2019 when The Photo Ark Vanishing: The World’s Most Vulnerable Animals was first published. I watched a three-episode documentarian PBS series titled Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark with my son when he was 6.

When I heard about this event, I knew the tickets would be limited and sell out quickly. That’s why I say I’m lucky that I got a ticket!

From the emails about the event, I expected to attend a 30-minute talk with Joel Sartore and his son, Cole, and then be able to tour the Aquarium. But the talk lasted for an hour, and it was inspiring! They told funny family stories and the journey of the Photo Ark.

Joel Sartore speaking at bottom right, with a large screen projection featuring a bison.
Photo by Marie Cullis.
Joel and Cole Sartore looking out at an audience, wood paneled background.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

The Tennessee Aquarium Exhibit

After, I got to tour the Aquarium and eat fancy hors d’oeuvres. They served beverages in real glasses and used paper plates and bamboo forks for food. I appreciated this since most places in the Southeast still serve everything in plastic and styrofoam.

Today we are losing species at rates 1,000 times greater than ever before.” -Joel Sartore

I’ve been to the Tennessee Aquarium many times, often with my young son who often flies through exhibits (though this seems to be improving with age). I appreciated the Aquarium more that night, not just because I could linger at my leisure this time, but also because of Sartore’s inspiring words. He called the audience to action in his talk and said that we should find something we are passionate about and do something about it. He said to consider what we can do to help and inspire others to help. I thought I am already doing that! and felt good that I use my website to highlight environmental issues, promote solutions, and inspire others.

There are about two dozen of these large banners of Joel Sartore Photo Ark photography throughout both buildings at the Tennessee Aquarium, and it will run through the end of 2024. You should go see them if you have the opportunity! Here are just a few:

Close up of a southern flying squirrel on a black background.
Southern Flying Squirrel, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.
Spotted Salamander, black with yellow spots, on white background.
Spotted Salamander, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.
Close up of a Nashville crayfish, showing head and claws only, on a black background.
Nashville Crayfish, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.
Macaroni penguin, back facing camera with wings out, white background.
Macaroni Penguin, National Geographic Photo Ark. Banner photographed by Marie Cullis.

Other Exhibits

I’m not a professional photographer, but I captured a couple of cool photographs of my own that evening.

Large blue fish, close up of its face.
Photo by Marie Cullis.
Electric eel staring through an aquarium, red with small eyes.
Electric eel. Photo by Marie Cullis

My favorite exhibits at the Tennessee Aquarium are the ones that teach about plastic, pollution, and saving turtles.

Metal bin with plastic trash collected from the Tennessee River. Exhibit text on lime green background.
Exhibit showing plastic trash collected from the Tennessee River at the Tennessee Aquarium. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Exhibit showing human objects in a river basin, includes a car battery, a tire, a cell phone, and other plastic objects.
Exhibit showing human objects in a river basin at the Tennessee Aquarium. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Exhibit on saving turtles, includes exhibit panels, graphics, and interactive monitor.
Exhibit on saving turtles at the Tennessee Aquarium. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I also took photos of a plastic art piece at the Aquarium and added it to my Plastic Art Projects page.

The best part, for me, was that I got to personally meet Joel Sartore just before I left. I shook his hand and told him how much I loved his work. Our conversation was brief but meaningful, and something I’ll always remember.

“This is the best time ever to save species because so many need our help.” -Joel Sartore

Visit the Tennessee Aquarium when you have the chance! Also, please support The Photo Ark! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

red eyed tree frog, bright green skin, orange feet, red eyes, black background.
Red-eyed tree frog, Agalychnis callidryas, photographed in Seattle, Washington, 2011. Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark, natgeophotoark.org.

 

Links:

National Geographic Photo Ark

Joel Sartore

Tennessee Aquarium

Footnote:

Discussing Plastics, Paper Towels, and the Journey to Living Thoughtfully with Eve O. Schaub, author of Year of No Garbage

Underwater image of fish swimming near floating plastic trash.
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash.

After reading the new book, Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, I had the pleasure of interviewing author Eve O. Schaub. She was fun to speak with and very passionate about the subject matter. I loved the way our conversation flowed between funny and serious.

Seriously, she’s great to talk to. She’s very relatable, enthusiastic, and extremely knowledgeable. She explains complex matters in an honest and open way. We’ve all experienced conundrums with garbage and recycling at times, some of which have no resolution. She makes the reader understand that we aren’t alone in this. Plus, the book is quite an entertaining story!

The Beginning

Schaub has written three books within this paradigm: Year of No Sugar, Year of No Clutter, and Year of No Garbage. I wanted to know how it all started and how it transpired from No Sugar to No Clutter to No Garbage. She had seen an online talk by a pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, who associates sugar with many of the most common western diseases. “I was captivated by this. I mean, I’m not in the habit of sitting around and watching 90-minute medical lectures,” she laughed. But she found that his findings made so much sense. “It was like I had been given a new pair of glasses. I saw the world in a completely different way.” Schaub decided to make this a writing project. “What could be more important than the health of our families and the food that we put on our table?”

What would it take to eliminate sugar? Schaub thought that it couldn’t be that hard, so she convinced her family to live for one year without consuming added sugar, with a few exceptions. She drew inspiration from authors, such as Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who created a set of rules for a specific period and then reported on it. As she would come to find out, it is actually very difficult to eliminate sugar because it’s in everything.

After finishing her first book, Schaub said Year of No Clutter felt like a very natural next project. She stated it was more of a personal project for her because the root of the clutter in her home was her. “As the self-confessed polar opposite of Marie Kondo, I spent a year confronting my inner hoarder and wrote a book.”1 This journey led to the idea of Year of No Garbage.

Large, full yellow dumpster with all kinds of trash and debris.
Image by Nathan Copley from Pixabay.

No Garbage

The idea of garbage and what happens to it had captivated Schaub since childhood. Trash is a given thing in our culture, and most people never give it a second thought. “Trash is like weeds. Right? Weeds are only plants that are in the wrong place…that’s the same with trash. There’s no such thing as trash, it’s just whatever we say it is. It’s in the wrong place, it’s inconvenient, we don’t know what to do with it,” she said.

What’s more impressive is Schaub did this during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many actually found it significantly harder to have less trash that year than any other, her family managed to do it by following a pre-established set of rules. She said it was a good distraction during a time when we were forced to slow down, and she felt it provided a good opportunity to reset and rethink.

“I kept trying to remind myself that the very fact that trying to live without garbage is super difficult—and at times virtually impossible—was the whole darned point: if it were easy there wouldn’t be much to write about, and everyone would probably already be doing it, and the earth would be a happier, less trashy, more equitable, less cancer-filled, less disaster-prone place. The End.”2

Trash symbol, outline of person in white paint throwing paper in a trash receptacle, black background.
Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash.

Plastics

Plastics are the hardest type of garbage to deal with, and there’s so much of it. Schaub acknowledged that it’s nearly impossible to avoid buying food without plastic packaging. “You’d have to live in a cave and grow all your own food in the ground, and drink from a stream. I mean, that’s how hard it is…That’s how ingrained it is.” But if we know this, we can work to turn off the plastic tap and think about ways to use less.

Most people don’t realize that plastic is made from oil and chemicals. Big Oil is openly planning to triple its plastic production by 2050. “And they’re proud of it!” Schaub exclaimed. “Do we need three times the amount of plastic in our lives than we already have now?! No, I don’t think anybody thinks that. But they are looking for new markets. They’re trying to increase profits, especially in the wake of people buying [and] turning to electric cars, for example. They’re going to be selling less oil in other departments because of environmental initiatives.” Capitalism drives everything in our culture, and Big Oil is one of the most aggressive industries. Those are the forces we are up against, she said.

“The plastic waste crisis is horrible, but it’s not your fault. It is the fault of forces that are beyond each individual person’s control. This is corporations. This is Big Oil.”

She mentioned that personal responsibility is not the sole solution, but that awareness is the key. Films such as The Story of Plastic, which highlights the global problem of the people whose lives are negatively affected by our waste; videos of a sea turtle with a straw in its nose; and images of dead albatross with stomachs full of plastics are disturbing. But they are powerful because they raise awareness.

Dead Laysan Albatross with plastic at Harbor Sand Island, Midway Atoll.
Dead Laysan Albatross with plastic in its stomach at Harbor Sand Island, Midway Atoll. March 31, 2015. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0 US).

Recycling

Single-stream recycling is a lie, especially when it comes to plastic, the author acknowledged. Knowing that the plastic recycling rate is only 5% is crushing, because people try so hard to do it properly and follow the rules. Yet, most plastic is landfilled. “Every other material has a place to go and has a way to break down. Or be made into something new.” Schaub said that after five decades of recycling, “five percent is the best we can do?!? That’s shocking.”

Single-stream (curbside) recycling often collects plastics with RIC numbers 1-7. But most of those (#3-7) are not recycled and end up in developing countries. “If I know that my plastic is being shipped to Malaysia and Myanmar and Thailand, I’m going to be hesitant to put it in recycling at all because I know that that’s the system in place,” she explained. “These are our plastics that are being shipped across the sea to litter the landscapes of developing nations that do not have the infrastructure to deal with it. You literally have children playing in our waste plastic. And the list of countries is long…these people are living in our trash plastic…this is an environmental justice issue. This is racism.” We have the impression that we are doing a wonderful thing when we put plastic in the recycling bin instead of the landfill, but that is unfortunately sometimes false.

“In the name of recycling, countries around the world are suffering.”

Smiling child garbage recycler in Saigon, holding a bag with cans from companies like Coca-Cola.
Child garbage recycler in Saigon, holding a bag with cans from companies like Coca-Cola. Photo by etoile on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC-BY 2.0).

The Role of Corporations and Industries

I asked Schaub: “How do we get these corporations to do the right thing? Because at every turn, like you talk about in your book, they’re looking for a new stream of revenue. How do we get them to stop?” Schaub responded, “Well, they won’t stop, because financially, it doesn’t make sense for them to stop. So we can’t really turn to the corporations too much. I mean, we can try.” But they are always going to put profits first. For example, Coca-Cola has been making environmental promises for decades. But they don’t actually fulfill those promises, “because there’s no sheriff in town,” she said. There are no entities that make sure companies fulfill their promises when it comes to plastic and other environmental endeavors.

“We need more transparency…we need to have a sheriff.”

Schaub observed that industries often put the responsibility on the consumer, in that we shouldn’t buy those things, or that we don’t recycle properly. But it is the industry that should be making better products. “There are a lot of parallels between plastic and sugar, actually. It all comes down to something that’s cheap and it’s easy and it’s convenient and that’s why it’s everywhere, in the case of both of those things…The industry does not have an incentive to do better.” There is an illusion of choice for the consumer as well. There may be 30 types of bread at the supermarket but only one of them will not have added sugar in it. The same is true with plastic. “Try buying cheese without buying plastic. It’s incredibly hard!” Schaub is right – I’ve never been able to buy plastic-free cheese, anywhere.

“Personal responsibility is very important, [and] personal awareness. But if I go buy a bamboo toothbrush and a shampoo bar, that’s good, but it’s not going to fix the overall systemic cultural problem that we’re encountering.”

Legislation May Be the Most Important Focus

Schaub says turning to legislation is perhaps more important than asking corporations to change. She said that proposed bills such as The Break Free from Pollution Act and the United Nations Plastic Pollution Treaty, as well as state and local legislation, show us progress. There are plastic bag and plastic straw bans where she lives, and there is even a charge for paper grocery bags in Vermont. “This is the low-hanging fruit. You have to start somewhere,” she said. (I didn’t tell her that my state, Tennessee, has a law banning bans on plastic and polystyrene containers.) The hope is that more states and municipalities will do the sensible thing. “The more we ask, the more available it will become.” Asking puts in your vote as a consumer!

Diet Coke bottle floating in water.
Diet Coke plastic bottle floating in a body of water. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay.

Toxic Chemicals

Plastic packaging is often full of toxins that can leach into many things, including food and beverages. “Avoid plastic packaging especially when it comes to food whenever you can. And definitely do not heat your food in plastic,” Schaub said. Don’t put plastic in the dishwasher because the heat releases the toxic chemicals in plastic, and most of the time we don’t know what’s in those plastics.

“It’s amazing to me that when you go to the supermarket, and you buy a food product, they have to tell you what’s in that food…But nobody has any obligation to tell you what’s in the packaging. That’s another instance of where we assume that ‘well, this has to be safe,'” she said. But they may not be! There are so many chemicals and the formulas are often proprietary and secret. “Plastic and food need to stay way the heck away from each other, as much as possible.”

“It’s one thing when you’re talking about ‘the ice caps are melting and the polar bears are starving,’ and nobody likes that – that’s bad! But when you start putting toxic chemicals into my body, suddenly I’m paying even more attention…or, when you’re talking about putting those same chemicals into the bodies of my children…I think that’s probably what it’s going to take, is for people to start understanding that connection between plastics and our health, and all the negative effects that can be correlated. The same thing with sugar. When you start connecting the dots, it’s very alarming. And of course, sugar and plastic are so often used in conjunction, from candy bars to all the soda, it’s like they are best friends!”

Box with variety of plastic-wrapped candy bars.
Most candy bars are wrapped in plastic. Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash.

Avoiding Garbage Changes The Way We Purchase

I asked Schaub what items she’d stopped buying because of Year of No Garbage. She laughed, “I had quite a love affair with paper towels. I was the person who went to the supermarket every week and bought the largest bale, like a hay bale, of paper towels.” She explained that sometimes the large bales have individually plastic-wrapped rolls in addition to the outer plastic wrap. “Horrible! But I realized that there were so many times that I could avoid using paper towels very simply, by just having dish towels on hand…or I’ve got rags that I’ve made from cutting up really old towels or sheets. That’s what I use for cleaning now…and I get a great sense of satisfaction out of that…I have incorporated [it] into my life, it’s part of my routine now. So now I just do it without even thinking about it. It does take some effort to set up a new routine. And there is discomfort in that.”

But it was manageable. And she still uses paper towels but significantly less. “I went from going through a hay bale of paper towels every week to now, I buy one roll at a time, and I’ll have it for weeks.” If you don’t want to use a certain item, like paper towels or sugar, the best thing to do is to avoid bringing them into your home. That will automatically discourage use.

Avoiding Plastics

Schaub and I agree that it’s best to avoid plastics whenever possible. And when you do have to buy something with plastic, it’s almost better to put them into the landfill than to try to recycle them. “I feel like that’s a much more honest approach. If I have something that’s going to go to the landfill, I’m just going to put it right in there and accept that’s the only thing that can happen to this piece of plastic…but knowing that will now cause me to be ever more vigilant to try and avoid buying that product,” she said.

For me, that has been items such as bottled shampoo, plastic straws, and plastic shower curtains. Once I became aware of the problems with those things, I stopped bringing them into my home. We switched to shampoo bars and have never reverted back to liquid shampoo. We don’t need a straw for most drinks; when we do, we have metal straws. And though I’ve had my trials and tribulations with fabric shower curtains, I have not had a plastic one in the house for 10 years. As for paper towels, I also use very few and the ones I purchase are plastic-free.

Year of No Garbage book cover

Normalizing Environmental Actions

I was telling Schaub that I routinely keep two clean glass containers in my car with my cloth shopping bags. This way, if I’m at a restaurant and want to take my leftovers home I can do so without having my food touch toxic Styrofoam (polystyrene). But while bringing your own bags to the supermarket is common now, bringing my glass containers to a restaurant is still kind of weird to people. She affirmed, “I think this is all about normalizing it, right? If somebody is standing next to you when you go and use that container at the butcher or the restaurant, they see you doing that and they go ‘Huh! That’s interesting.’ And it starts the process of becoming more normal. And that’s a wonderful thing we can do. We’re not just helping ourselves, we’re progressing this whole idea forward.”

“Awareness is the beginning of all meaningful change.”

Glass container with bamboo lid, white background.
Glass container with bamboo lid from IKEA.

Living Intentionally

Schaub said that all three projects permanently changed how her family lives and consumes in the world. This is because they can’t ‘unknow’ the information they’ve learned. She also liked the symmetry of the three projects because she felt like her family came full circle. “We started with the things that we put into our bodies, and then I focused on the things we bring into our homes, and then lastly I focused on the things that we’re putting into the environment, which, guess what – spoiler alert – because they’re in the environment, they’re now coming around and going back into our bodies as well. And so now we’re finding microplastics in foods because it’s in the dirt! It’s in the produce! It’s in the tap water and the bottled water! These microplastics don’t go away…[plastic] never breaks down.” It turns into microscopic plastic pieces. “But it’s still there, and that’s the stuff that’s going into our bodies as well as into the environment,” she maintained.

Our culture is so busy but when we slow down, we can be more thoughtful and more intentional, including with our resources. She wrote, “As it turns out—and I’m as surprised as anyone about this—living No Sugar, No Clutter and No Garbage all led to the same place: living thoughtfully…Being thoughtful about your space, your resources, your food, where the objects of our life come from and where they all go; devoting the time to put those ideals into practice: getting objects to people who will love and use them, recycling and reusing, cooking as much as possible from basic ingredients.”3

Cardboard sign with black painted letters with sky in background: "All You Need Is Less."
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash.

Read Year of No Garbage

Schaub’s goal is to spread information and provide people with more information so that they can incorporate it into their lives in a way that makes sense for them. She said that some people read Year of No Garbage and find it an entertaining story. For other readers, it might change everything about the way they shop and discard and recycle. She doesn’t want people to feel shame because guilt isn’t going to make anything better. These are urgent issues and we need to come together. Her book incorporates these ideas, so be sure to check it out!

If you are interested in purchasing Year of No Garbage or any of Schaub’s other works, you can find links on her website.

Read my book review, and please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Book, Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, by Eve O. Schaub, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2023

Video, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” Education, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, May 26, 2009.

Documentary, “Fed Up,” 2014.

Video, “Plastic Straw Removed From A Sea Turtle’s Nostril (Short Version),” The Leatherback Trust, August 13, 2015.

Website, About The Story of Plastic film.

Footnotes:

Tennessee River Clean-Up!

Nickajack Lake on the Tennessee River, water in foreground and hills at center. Bridge at left. Cloudless blue sky at top.
Nickajack Lake on the Tennessee River on the day of the clean-up. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Last year, I read the book, From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers by Chad Pregracke. It was about Living Lands & Waters, the organization established by the author to clean up trash along rivers. His story was super inspiring, especially because I love to clean up trash (and would even do it for a living if I could make that work). This organization, based out of Illinois along the Mississippi River, performs large-scale river clean-ups. Since 1998, they have worked on 25 rivers in 21 states, and have conducted more than 1,100 community clean-ups.

“[Living Lands & Waters] hosts dozens of community river cleanups each year to help watershed conservation efforts with the assistance of thousands of volunteers of all ages who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty – individuals, schools, community organizations, businesses and more!”1

So when I discovered that I could get involved with local clean-ups along the Tennessee River, I was more than excited! I was too late to sign up last fall, but this month, I signed up when an opportunity came up near my area.

This one was hosted by Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and AFTCO (American Fishing Tackle Company) in partnership with Living Lands & Waters. Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful is a nonprofit that serves as the first Keep America Beautiful affiliate in the nation to focus solely on a river. Their mission is to educate and inspire people to take care of the Tennessee River and show the impact of trash. Their volunteer cleanups are held along the 652-mile Tennessee River and its tributaries, an area spanning seven states!2 

The Experience

I took my family with me. My son enjoyed riding in the boats and meeting people. He really fed off of the energy of the crew, who took time out to make him feel included. I’m proud that he understood why we were there and that he gets why it’s important at such a young age.

My son talking to a crewmember with a dog on a grassy area.
My son making friends with a crewmember of Living Lands & Waters. She had a dog, and he loves dogs, so it was an easy conversation starter. Photo by Marie Cullis.
My son cleaning up trash along a river bank, holding a yellow bag, boat at right center background, clear blue sky.
He wasn’t afraid to get into the water and clean up trash along the river banks. Photo by Marie Cullis.
My son found a barge line along the shore, tangled in logs. He is trying to pull it out here.
My son found a barge line along the shore, tangled in logs. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

It was a gorgeous day on Nickajack Lake! We picked up so much trash – hundreds of plastic bottles, Styrofoam pieces, tires, broken fishing tackle and line, plastic lighters, plastic bags, food wrappers, glass bottles, and many other pieces of broken plastic items. Even a section of a plastic dock and an entire plastic truck bed liner.

One of the participating kids, Cash Daniels, also known as the Conservation Kid (@theconservationkid), was there with his family. Cash is an avid environmentalist and ocean lover. He has organized many river clean-ups and is also a published author and public speaker. I had read about him before and it was cool to meet him and his family.

The volunteers all worked hard, and the crewmembers were like superheroes!

Their leadership and positivity are what struck me most. Both the executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the crewmembers of Living Lands & Waters were super positive, highly enthusiastic, hard-working, and obviously happy to be doing this!

Flat bottomed boat on the water with one person and heaps of trash.
Dan Breidenstein from Living Lands & Waters with trash loaded onto his boat. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Two women removing a large tire from the water, a shoreline with logs. A dog crosses a log. Two boats in the background with a man loading trash onto one of them.
Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful with Callie Schaser from Living Lands & Waters, removing a large tire from the water. Photo by Marie Cullis.
People loading trash into a floating boat, background shows lake, land, and bright blue sky.
Loading one of the boats. The black piece in the foreground is the truck bed liner. Photo by Marie Cullis.

By the end of the afternoon, we had loaded two full flat-bottomed boats with trash and debris from just a few shorelines.

Flat bottomed boat on a trailer filled with trash, ties, and other debris.
Full boat of trash. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.
Flat bottomed boat on a trailer filled with trash, ties, and other debris. Person with his arm up in the back of the boat.
Second full boat of trash. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

In the end, it was an awesome experience. I recommend that if you’re able and interested, you join a local clean-up in your area. We can all make a difference!

“That’s how the change for our river will happen: through local partners and individuals who are eager about taking ownership to protect and improve their beautiful river community.” -Kathleen Gibi, Executive Director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful3

Group of people with a boat load of trash behind them, water in background.
Our group photo! Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.
Group of people with a boat load of trash behind them, water in background.
Photo of the second group, courtesy of Kathleen Gibi of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

Remember, the most important thing you can do right now is to stop using disposable items. Especially those made from plastic. Even when you think you are properly disposing or recycling something, so much of it inevitably makes its way into our landscapes. We have to turn off the tap when it comes to disposable items.

I hope to meet you on a future clean-up! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Project 333: How a Minimalist Wardrobe Can Save Your Sanity and Save the World

Last updated on May 9, 2024.

Project 333 book cover

Project 333 is a minimalist fashion challenge that frees the mind from overwhelming choices and clutter. I have been participating in Courtney Carver’s Project 333 for almost 2 years, and this year she released a book about the project, which I highly recommend reading!

Today, I’ll tell you about Project 333’s role as a model for minimalism and about my journey with the wardrobe challenge.

“You can  remove a significant amount of stress from your life simply by reducing the number of items in your closet.” -Courtney Carver

Denim blue jeans, a white sweater, and eyeglasses folded, white background.
Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay.

“We wear 20 percent of our clothing 80 percent of the time, yet 100 percent of our wardrobe gets 100 percent of our attention, emotion, space, and time. That’s exhausting.” -Courtney Carver

The Project

Project 333 is a minimalist fashion challenge where you dress with only 33 items – including clothing, accessories, jewelry, and shoes – for 3 months. A few exceptions include undergarments and workout clothes, but check out the website (link below) and the book for the full guidelines.

“Remember that what you are wearing is probably the least interesting thing about you.” -Courtney Carver

The experiment began when Carver tried wearing the same 33 pieces interchangeably for 3 months to see if anyone noticed. But no one did. “People care more about what they wear than what I wear,” she writes on her website. We can simplify our lives and free up mental and physical space for things that matter more than clothing.

“There are so many things I’d rather think and talk about than what’s on sale, or where you got that dress/purse/shirt.” -Courtney Carver

Clothing rack with business clothes, suit jackets, pants, and button up shirts in gray and blue hues.
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay.

Too Many Choices

Courtney Carver says decision fatigue can be eliminated by reducing the amount of small daily decisions. If you think about all the decisions we must make every single day, it is no surprise that we are all overwhelmed, stressed, tired, and worn out. What or where to eat multiple times per day, what to cook, what to wear based on what we are doing that day, what to say in conversation, write in an email, what chores we need to complete, errands we need to run, exercise, what to watch out of thousands of choices, what to read, what to listen to (audiobook, podcast, or music?), when to take the car in to get the brakes checked.

If we have children, we have an additional set of decisions: school, homework, meals, clothes, hygiene, permission slips, lessons or sports, money, when to fit in quality time, and when to teach them about any number of topics. Add in any shopping, which is nothing but decisions at every angle and overwhelms all senses. On top of that, we have social media, a monster of comparison and decisions based on what other people post. If you take the time to think about all of the micro-decisions we make daily, it’s mindblowing. All of this eventually takes a heavy toll on our minds, health, and lives.

What to do about Decision Fatigue

We have far too many daily choices to make, far more than humans have ever had to make in history, and it overwhelms our brains and taxes our ability to make good decisions. It makes us mentally and physically tired.

What can we do about it? We can eliminate some of those daily choices by meal planning in advance, checking email less, and reducing the number of clothes in our closets. Less decision-making equals less stress and more time for the decisions that matter to us. This was the driving force for Courtney Carver’s creation of Project 333.

“Fewer decisions about what to wear allow more clarity for more important choices.” -Courtney Carver

Additional Benefits of a Small Wardrobe

Improved Self-Esteem

If you only own clothes you feel and look good wearing, you will feel more confident. “It’s utter madness what we do to ourselves while simply getting dressed,” Carver wrote about the negative self-talk and guilty thoughts we have from owning clothes we spent too much on but don’t wear or clothes that don’t fit our bodies correctly.

“Limiting your clothing items to 33 items for 3 months forces art. Limiting your wardrobe does not rob you of personal style – it causes you to find it.” -Joshua Becker, Clutterfree With Kids

Saving Money

You will spend less if you buy less clothing overall. “Investing in one $100 dress that actually fits you saves more time and money than spending on five $25 dresses throughout the year,” Carver explains.

“The average woman owns $550 in clothing that has never been worn.” -Courtney Carver

You will save even more money by eliminating impulse buys from shopping to fulfill boredom. Carver has talked about how she used to fulfill a deeper need by shopping, thinking she was bored with her clothing, but that the issues were much more complex and had nothing to do with her wardrobe.

Saving the Environment

A minimalist wardrobe not only helps you live a better life, but it helps the environment too. Here are a few fashion facts from Carver’s book:

      • The world now consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year.
      • 95% of discarded clothing can be recycled or upcycled.
      • The amount of water for annual clothing production could fill 32 million Olympic-sized swimming pools, while over 1 billion people globally lack access to safe drinking water.
      • Polyester (which is plastic) clothing can take up to two hundred years to decompose.

Carver says when building a new, more eco-friendly wardrobe, don’t try to replace your entire wardrobe all at once. “The most eco-friendly thing you can do is to consume less by using what you have,” she writes. Stay away from trends and look for clothes that have a more classic appearance, and your clothes won’t feel out of style.

“Trendy looks good today; timeless looks great everyday.” -Joshua Fields Millburn

My clothing journey

Like many people, I used to have too many clothes. I had two dressers and a full closet. Years ago, I reduced my clothes by a third because I wanted to move one of my dressers into my son’s room instead of buying additional furniture. Later, I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and cleaned out my clothes even more.

Clothing piled on bed, many colors.
I piled my clothes on the bed. This photo was taken after the first cut. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Piles of clothes on the hardwood floor.
My pile of clothes to donate. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Wooden dresser drawer using Marie Kondo's method of folding, many colors of shirts folded in drawer.
Dresser drawer using Marie Kondo’s folding method. Photo by Marie Cullis.

My Project 333

When I discovered Project 333 almost 2 years ago, I was surprised and excited about this new challenge because I felt like I’d already let go of so much. By then I’d become inspired by minimalism and began living with a more minimalist mindset. But I still owned far more than 33 items of clothing.

Using the Project 333 website to clear out clothing again, I began building my capsule wardrobe. I put everything on the bed again. I made three piles: favorites, maybe keep, and donate. My favorites went back into my closet and dresser. Per Project 333 guidelines, a large amount of maybe’s and out-of-season items went into a storage container. The donate pile got boxed up for the local thrift store.

Bin of clothing, bright blue shirt on top.
Bin of clothing to reassess next season. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Closet clothing, black hangers and variety of colors.
My closet after doing Project 333 almost 2 years ago. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I ended up with a few more than 33 items, but as Courtney Carver always says, the purpose is not about the exact number as the intentionality. I think I had around 45 items including shoes and accessories (but not jewelry). But I was left with about thirty empty hangers which I donated. I also had an entire empty dresser drawer which became my bedsheet storage, instead of the bathroom closet.

Today

My Project 333 has evolved, as it does for everyone. I got rid of many items in the storage bin because I forgot about most of them within the first 3 months. I also do not rotate my clothes seasonally anymore because of where I work and live, both of which have changing climates! I keep all my clothes in the closet and dresser and have no clothes in storage. So I do own more than 33 items but for year-round wear.

Closet clothes, many colors and prints.
Image of my current closet. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I continue to follow Project 333 rules, such as:

      • My workout clothes do workout
      • I don’t go shopping unless I actually need an article of clothing
      • I only own shoes that do not hurt my feet
      • I let go of items I hadn’t worn in the past year, with a few exceptions: one vintage dress that belonged to my mother, a Halloween costume, and my wedding dress.
      • My size fluctuates sometimes so I keep a few items that are too small and too big.

As I replace articles of clothing, I’d like to buy more sustainable clothing. I’d also like to own more muted tones so that it will be easier to mix and match.

Minimalist Fashion Might Be the Answer

Overall, this minimalist fashion mindset is about what’s important for our sanity and the environment. Consuming less is the key. If you want to make your clothes last longer, you can line-dry clothes or use wool dryer balls. Read my article on Laundry Habits. Furthermore, common laundry detergents and fabric softeners are full of toxic chemicals and are harmful to human health. You can read my article on replacing fabric softeners and dryer sheets to learn more.

Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe. Let me know in the comments below if you are participating in Project 333!

 

Check out these great links related to Project 333:

      • The Project 333 website
      • Courtney Carver’s article, “33 Little Lessons from Minimalist Fashion Challenge Project 333”
      • Carver offers a list of sustainable clothing resources on her site
      • The Minimalists’ podcast with guest Courtney Carver
      • Minimalist Joshua Becker expands on the benefits of a small wardrobe in this video.
      • For inspiration, you can search Project 333 on YouTube or Instagram.