#FindYourLab with Joy Owens

Urban Green Lab knows a little change goes a long way when it comes to living sustainably. To help Nashville make that little change, we’re helping everyone in the community find their lab.

“The reality is that incremental changes can make a difference and they don’t have to be pretty or perfect to count. Use what you’ve got, start small, and build from there.”

Joy Owens
Education Manager
The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee
LinkedIn | Instagram

Joy, where is your lab?

My lab has always been my kitchen. I have been interested in sustainable food systems and sustainable eating for years. When I was in college this meant a lot of growing my own food in a mini back to the land phase. Now I’ve got less time to grow my own food but a much greater interest in cooking it. It’s been fun to find the small changes that can be made in the kitchen while still pursuing something I really enjoy. I finally got my composting system down (woohoo!) and I’ve also been getting creative with what might normally be considered waste. Y’all broccoli stalks are delicious and you should definitely just eat them and not throw them out. I’ve been trying to gently push my carnivore partner to a more plant-based diet and to responsibly source our meat otherwise. Since we’re getting into summer now, my latest challenge is to find ways to support local farms. I’ve been researching a few CSA opportunities – luckily there are a lot to choose from in middle Tennessee. As for other small changes – I’m proud to say that we’ve fully transitioned away from Ziploc bags and plastic wrap in our home.

What has been your biggest challenge or question?

Food packaging is the worst. I live in a place where I don’t have easy access to bulk food and honestly, the thought of lugging mason jars to the grocery store to fill with rice and beans and coffee isn’t my favorite idea in the world anyway. And I think that’s a roadblock for a lot of people. Sometimes my choice comes down to which type of packaging has the best chance of being recycled if no packaging isn’t an option. There are also some non-negotiables luxuries in my house – looking at you hot Cheetos – that I know will always involve some packaging but I’ll give myself some grace there.

How did you get interested in sustainable living?

Science was one of my favorite subjects in school. I found the interconnectedness of ecosystems fascinating but I was also learning a lot about how humans disrupt that natural balance. By the time I got to college, I was a new major in sustainability was offered at my school. In these classes, I was starting to see how the environmental science I already loved was also connected to social justice and economic systems. Sustainability issues aren’t simple. They’re complex and challenging. I found this challenge endlessly interesting and I’ve been hooked on finding solutions since.

What keeps you motivated to make sustainable changes?

I’m a nerd who loves to learn new things. In the pursuit of a sustainable life, it seems like there is always something new to learn – some new skill or strategy to reduce your own footprint but also some new challenge that requires systematic change. New challenges inspire me to keep pushing harder.

Paddling the Buffalo River in the summer just may be heaven on earth. The water is calm which makes for an easy trip. The limestone bluffs and forests create a sense of quiet even when there’s a bunch of people on the water. And of course, it’s just really, really fun.

Name a sustainability champion that you look up to.

Aja Barber. Aja is a personal stylist with a focus on sustainability, ethics, and racism. Her Instagram is full of amazing content that discusses issues surrounding fast fashion and all its many negative effects on people and the environment. She speaks in a no BS way and puts a lot of effort into research so when she speaks on something you can bet she knows what she’s talking about. She reminds me that any sustainability movement has to be intersectional to be successful. She’s also gotten me to reevaluate my own relationship with fast fashion and sustainable fashion has been a fun “new frontier” to explore.

What advice do you have for others to make sustainable changes?

Just do it and don’t try to be perfect. I think the idea of “sustainability” can be overwhelming – you don’t know where to start or it can feel like change is “too big” to commit to. There’s also this idea that you have to do it perfectly to be doing it right. The reality is that incremental changes can make a difference and they don’t have to be pretty or perfect to count. Use what you’ve got, start small, and build from there. Instead of trying to go “zero waste” overnight, try swapping out paper towels for reusable rags. Once you’ve mastered that add another baby step. Pretty soon you’ll have created a bigger change than you thought.

What is your sustainable vision for the city of Nashville?

I live in Columbia, outside of Nashville, but I can see the growth of the city pushing further into my town all the time. My vision would be that we take this opportunity to implement true planned, sustainable development. For me, this would include better public transport, especially between suburbs and the city. It would include incentivizing developers with sustainability plans and green building practices. It would include growth that plans for things like stormwater runoff and the preservation of green space. Growth in middle Tennessee may not slow down but we could certainly make sure it’s growth that works for the environment and for the people who live here.

“In the pursuit of a sustainable life, it seems like there is always something new to learn”

-Joy Owens

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