Fast Times at Reduced Waste High

Okay, so.  I was that kid that panicked about global warming.  I became an obsessive recycler in high school and I remained a stickler through college as I would lean into our recycle bin and take the tops off of everyone else’s soda bottles.  Though my fervor has lessened, I have consistently tried to recycle whatever I can.  However, it took me years of ruminating on the Pacific Garbage Island Thing, pictures of albatrosses dead from eating plastic, two sessions cleaning out my car that filled enormous trash bags, and working at the environmental nightmare that is Starbucks before I finally got it through my skull that recycling isn’t good enough.  I listen to people talk about climate change on NPR almost daily and I just feel dread.  I want to really make an effort to be better.  There are a lot of people out there who have, and they’re inspiring.  (And they’re on the internet!)

I used to live in Portland, Ore., and I remember reading an article about Amy and Adam Korst, a couple in Oregon who lived without trash for a year and continue to update their blog, the Green Garbage Project.  I’ve brought up the topic of zero waste living for a while, and found this one family’s fascinating venture into waste-free living, at The Zero Waste Home.  I had heard a lot about No Impact Man from a friend of mine and watched the film.  It’s a pretty amazing project, but also very extreme: six months into their year-long experiment, the family turns off their electricity and live only with a small amount of solar energy to power the laptop—that means no refrigerator.  Yet another friend introduced me to The Non-Consumer Advocate, which I look forward to reading in detail.  All these people offer tips in reducing waste that really aren’t that hard to follow.

However, I am also not fully in control of my own environment at the moment.  I studied English literature and graduated in a recession.  This is code for “I live with my parents.”   (I do have a job, I just haven’t gotten my poop in a group to flee the nest for reasons I can discuss at length.)  This week, my parents are leaving to collect my sister from the east coast for the summer.  I am staying home with the dog.  And it is during this time that I am going to try the Reduced Waste Experiment.  I’m going to find a way around being so wasteful and see if I can get my parents (and sister) to go along with it.  It’s hard to make an ideological push for how to live when you don’t own the house.  My mom is willing to evolve whenever I bounce ideas off of her, but we mostly just talk (and she uses a lot of paper towels, let’s be honest). My dad and I frequently have spats about how he comes home from the grocery store with plastic bags instead of cloth, how he throws things in the garbage that can be recycled.  If I can change the way our household runs even a little bit, I would be really happy.  (And if it doesn’t change, maybe I’ll finally get worked up enough to move out and live in my own hippie paradise.)

Honestly, an advantage that the Zero Waste Home family and the Green Garbage Project is that they are located on the West Coast.  I know from living on the West Coast and meeting people raised on the West Coast that these people are at an enormous advantage—and they may not even realize it.  One advantage Oregon has is that it’s very agricultural: it’s berry country and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a “u-pick-em” spot.  Cities like San Francisco and Portland are places where it’s easy to be environmentally friendly because there are a lot of green policies in place and the people love them. So here it is, for you San Franciscans and Portlanders (and others, too): a lot of cities don’t take care of your compost for you and a lot of people in this country don’t give two shits about recycling.  Okay?  That’s why there’s a problem.  I took a family vacation to Glacier National Park in Montana.  The eponymous glaciers have about ten years left, maybe twenty.  And those are just the ones that are left.  And guess where you can recycle in Northwestern Montana?  FUCKING NOWHERE.  I took recycling back to Portland.  There are place in this country where natural treasures are disappearing because of climate change and there’s not much being done.

I live in Colorado, in a suburb nestled between Denver and Boulder.  I don’t know if you remember what Jon Stewart said about Colorado when he broadcasted from the 2008 DNC, but in Colorado: you’re either a rapture-awaiting promise-keeper or your car runs on gorp.  There is no middle ground.”  I grew up with a healthy mixture of conservatives and liberals.  For the most part, I think Coloradans want to protect our state’s natural beauty (even though I really don’t go outside that often), but maybe not everyone thinks about how their waste is affecting that natural beauty.  I want to reduce the amount of resources I use to protect Colorado and protect our planet’s future.  But I think that if I can talk to people around me about saving money and reducing the amount of sheer crap they encounter on a daily basis, maybe they’ll come at it from a pragmatic and frugal angle and everybody wins.

Of course, this weeklong experiment is going to be a pretty gentle venture when it gets right down to it.  My parents have a lot of stuff I’ll use already in the house, so I’m not going to go out and buy more of it just to prove a point.  They’re not going to come home with a wind turbine in the yard and solar panels on the house (at least not this time).

Measures I’ve already taken:

  • Coffee cups.  I have had a severe caffeine dependency since I was about sixteen or so.  I have been good about recycling plastic cups and/or plastic cup lids, but I have also essentially tossed one coffee cup in the garbage every day for the past six years (give or take enjoying coffee at home or at my local coffee shop).  I recently bought a couple re-usable cups.  I have a ceramic one that I have used every day except on two occasions since the end of February.  I have a plastic one that I’ve phased out even though it’s BPA-free, and I also bought a metal cup with a plastic shell that you personalize, but I’ve been to lazy to personalize it.  Using this cup has also single-handedly kept the garbage level in my car manageable.  By now you wouldn’t be able to see the carpet.   I have not done NEARLY enough to undo the damage I’ve done already, and frankly, I’m kind of embarrassed how easy it was to make the switch.
  • I avoid bags like the plague —especially plastic bags.  I’m normally not good enough at remembering to bring my own cloth bags, but occasionally I do remember them.  If not, I almost always carry a large enough bag for whatever I buy.  This is another part of my life that is made easier by living with my parents:  I normally don’t purchase enough items to necessitate expanding beyond the bag I bring into a store with me.  I will accept a paper bag with a handle because I like to re-use them as gift bags.
  • I’ve been the same clothing size since high school and I like to shop at thrift stores.  I could be better about this—especially my addiction to Target’s cheap-o leggings—but in general, I try to shop used and I wear something as long as I can stand to.  (I am considering getting my enormous collection of over-sized Nirvana shirts turned into a quilt, but that’s not really of this time.)  I also buy used books and whenever possible and if I buy music on CD, I buy used as well.  I prefer to get movies used, but I also like to buy movies I know I’ll watch over and over again.
  • We grew up without air conditioning.  Sometimes I have to go to the movies to escape once we’re in the triple digits.  But, really, air conditioning is a big waste of energy.  I’m lucky I don’t live in a place like Phoenix or Texas.  Colorado can produce its own water sometimes.

Things I want to try to do:

  • I’d like to reduce the amount that I drive.  I do a good job of maintaining my car, but my car does leak oil.  I can’t afford another one.  (And in my defense, I inherited said car from my dead grandmother, so it’s not like I could turn to consumer reports and shop around.)  Right now I live in the Denver Metro Area, specifically in an area with inefficient public transit.  I don’t have a bike and I’m terrified of bikes and I can’t walk.  So I’m going to try to do my best to plan ahead and drive as little as possible.  I may even take transit if it’s practical (in most cases, no).
  • I don’t always eat at home.  Although it would require driving, Denver proper (as opposed to “the Denver Metro Area” for those of you not in the know) has some restaurants that are dedicated to being sustainable, or at least dedicated to organic and/or local food.
  • Related: I will look like a creepy bag lady, but I am dedicated to bringing my own to-go containers with me.
  • My mom works at a small landscaping company as a bookkeeper.  From said small landscaping company, we received a composter, but it has never been used.  There is no way it will be properly set up in time.  My placeholder goal is “no inorganic waste,” but how to deal with the organic waste isn’t yet apparent to me.
  • Something I don’t think No Impact Man addressed very well in his documentary is the waste of water.  My mom always points out that we can put everything made of plastic in the recycling bin, but rinsing food particles off of it is using water.  I heard today on Public Radio that this year Colorado had a lower snow pack than we did in 2002, when we had to follow drought regulations.
  • I want to be ultra super conscientious about the amount of electricity I use as well.  I want to unplug things when they’re not in use, not use electric lights while the sun is still up, etc.  I should limit my TV/computer time.  I need to be better about turning my computer off when I am not using it.
  • Switch to dish clothes instead of paper towels.  Seriously, the amount of paper towels we use disgusts me.  I’m still using toilet paper, though.  The jury is out on Kleenex at the moment, but if I’m using toilet paper, I should probably concede the tissues.
  • I want to get reusable menstrual products.
  • Shop in bulk when appropriate.  We have a lot of leftovers already and I know I’ll have to throw those containers away.  I honestly won’t need a lot of bulk goods—I’m not going to buy flour that’s already in my house to make a point.  I really want to go to the Denver Urban Homesteading Market to see what’s what and ways I can buy things with limited packaging.
  • Reduce the amount of meat I eat.  I really love meat, but the environmental impacts of it get me pretty down, whether it’s the waste produced by so many animals or the fact that it’s full of nasty shizz like hormones.  I also learned how to cook in a vegetarian Co-Op, so I don’t know how to cook meat.
  • Basically, try to buy shit without packaging.

So, yeah.  I’m bursting with ideas and this is already a super rambly post.  I’ll post more tomorrow in preparation for the week.

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One thought on “Fast Times at Reduced Waste High

  1. Dang, I’m super excited to read about your waste-reduction adventures. That may make me an insufferable hippie, but whatever. I think this stuff’s important

    Extra plus to bringing your own bags and containers places: sometimes they’ll give you a discount. A lot of coffee shops around my place knock off a dollar if you bring your own cup.

    Colorado has less water issues with Texas, but I’ve also had some luck with grey water recycling. I’ll save the water from rinsing salad greens or dishes (we use super gentle, biodegradable dish soap) and use it to water my plants or fill the toilet tank.

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