Sunday, October 24, 2010

Garbage In, Garbage Out - a journey to less waste

This is a post about garbage. Yep. And at the end of this post I've made a long list of stuff I've done to reduce our garbage output. But I can't make a list without a lot of editorializing, so here goes. :)

I'd venture to guess that most of us don't think about our garbage. But lately I've been doing a lot of consideration about that very topic. And I've become convicted that all of us need to be more mindful of the level at which we trash the world.  The average U.S. citizen throws out four and a half pounds of garbage every day. That makes 230 millions tons every year, just here in the U.S.!

It's a huge disappointment that Christendom, which should be a haven of care and respect for the physical creation, seems to be the least interested crowd.  Somewhere along the way, Christians got the idea that since the world is fallen and going to be fixed up someday anyways, we can do whatever we like to it in the meantime. (It's funny that you don't hear that argument being made about human bodies.) The first thing lost in that train of thought is the biblical concept of stewardship. Just like it's wrong to pollute our bodies with excessive smoking/drinking/poor eating, it's also wrong to rampantly degrade anything that's been entrusted by God to our care.  Something else to consider: creation has been entrusted with displaying God's attributes.  People understand God through the physical world, and that's no small entrustment. So creation is no less a part of God's master plan than humans are. Humans and the rest of physical creation have the same destiny (renewal), and should be treated with similar honor.

One last thing: forget what politics has to say. Party politics has (ill-)advised us on this issue for too long.

Here's a huge pet peeve of mine, considering how I think believers should behave: churches produce SO MUCH TRASH. The amount of styrofoam and paper and plastic dishes used even at one event is, frankly, embarrassing. A typical Sunday morning might produce hundreds of styrofoam coffee cups, each used for five minutes and thrown "away." There are alternatives that I think churches need to consider. First, attendees, bring your own reusable mugs for the coffee. Churches should be encouraging this, and also offering normal (non-disposable) mugs for those who didn't bring their own.  Also, at group eating events like potlucks, let's wean ourselves off the throwaway plates, forks and cups (which are flimsy and tacky anyways).  If it's a larger group, another option is for each family to bring their own regular plates and flatware to the church potluck, and wash them later at home. This is actually the way get-togethers were done in the past, when we did not buy things for the purpose of throwing them away.  This idea might sound a little nuts, but that's because we've been infected by the culture of throwaway. If you actually think about it, it makes much more sense. I'm pretty sure people from 150 years ago would think we're nuts (and more than a little wasteful) to have so many things intended for one time use, and immediately discarded.

You see, there is no such thing as throwing something "away." Yes, it goes somewhere we can't see it (at least without spending five seconds on Google) but it still exists. You might argue that most trash decays over time, and in a natural setting, that's true. But I was shocked to learn recently that most trash isn't put in an environment where it can decay/biodegrade. If I leave a newspaper in the woods, soon it'll be dirt again. If I throw it in a landfill, it'll be covered by layers of plastic or other material that keeps it from oxygen and light, and so it can't decay. So all my trash stays trash, in deeper holes and larger piles. Some gets burned (creating other environmental problems). Some is allowed to decay, and the resulting methane gas is used for power. But most of my garbage will never decay. Just because I can't see it anymore, doesn't make it any less of my responsibility.
Trash is built into our lives on so many levels. Especially in an culture which values convenience at the expense of everything else, it feels unnatural (and even a little rebellious) to shift the focus away from What Is Easiest For Me Right This Exact Second and towards What Is Best For Me And Everyone Else From A Long Term Perspective. It really comes down to convenience, or in most cases, I think laziness. We'd rather mindlessly subsidize the landfills than use our brains for five seconds. Do I really need to serve five people with throwaway plates and forks; is it that hard to wash a few dishes instead? Why do I believe paper napkins are actually an improvement over cloth ones? Do I actually need to use a produce bag for the apples, and one for an orange, and one for a cluster of bananas? Or, why do I need those produce bags at all?  Do I truly need a plastic sack to carry a few small items to my car? Why do they give me a throwaway cup to drink out of at Panera, and can't I simply order my drink in a reusable cup?  Must I wrap gifts in paper, which will be thrown away immediately, or is there an alternative? 

The habits in which we discipline ourselves, right now, will end up being how we live long-term. I am trying to develop good habits now, at the beginning of our marriage and family life, so as our children watch our behavior, these and other important habits will be magnified over several lifetimes.

I am not going to be perfect in this area. We do produce trash, although much less now than we used to. It has really helped to simply start seeing the amount of trash we produce, and simply being aware of it. But I acknowledge that nobody is going to be perfect, and so I don't think anyone should be held to a standard of perfection. The point is to do something. SO many people are simply lazy and so they do nothing. We aren't going to "save the earth" either; you'll never hear me arguing that. The earth has been groaning under the weight of sin for most of its lifetime, and one of the ways we see that is how people treat it. We can't stop massive companies from carelessly polluting our rivers and air far more than one family ever could (although we can quit supporting those companies). But that's not the point. We're all responsible for ourselves, and that's where we need to focus.

Just a note: recycling our garbage is absolutely essential. But it's not enough. Remember the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle?  The first step is to reduce the trash coming into my home or possession. I start out with less trash, reuse whatever I possibly can, and whatever's left, yes, we recycle that. One other thing: plastics are pretty much the worst ever. Glass and paper can be recycled right back into glass and paper; plastic can usually only be recycled into non-recyclable plastic, and even then it's an extremely inefficient, oil-guzzling process. If you must buy something disposable, always choose glass over plastic! Not to mention you won't get those lovely chemicals leaching into your food. And glass is great for reuse, too.

So here are some things I/we have been doing to create less trash in the first place (and some great bonuses you'll experience when you start using these tips)...
  • I've given up plastic bags (duh) not only at grocery stores, but other stores too. If I buy lots of things and have forgotten my fabric totes in the car, well, I make myself go and get them. Then I probably won't forget again. (Bonus #1: fabric bags can hold a lot more and are way sturdier. Bonus #2: many stores give you a rebate when you use them.)
  • I don't let myself use paper towels, except for emergencies. (Mostly for cleaning up meat juice.) I keep a roll in another room where they're inconvenient to get at, and we use cloth rags instead, which actually work much better for most things. 
  • I use the rags instead of Kleenex too. I happen to hate Kleenex so this is great.
  • We simply don't buy throwaway plates or utensils. I have a dishwasher and plenty of real dishes.
  • I try very hard to reduce/eliminate my use of plastic or styrofoam plates or cups wherever I am. I sure don't need a plate to catch three crumbs from a cookie.
  • At work, if I get something to eat at the cafeteria, I get it on a real plate, and bring the plate back later.
  • We don't get takeout a lot, but I've been remembering to bring my own containers for takeout food. (Bonus: real containers=much less chance of spillage in the car on the way home.)
  • If I have leftovers from a restaurant, I put them in my own containers. (I keep my own containers in the car at all times if you hadn't gotten that yet.)
  • I've been purchasing as much food as possible from the bulk bins, in my own containers. (Bonus: it's cheaper.)
  • For the shower, I choose bar soap wrapped in paper, instead of liquid soap in a plastic bottle.
  • I try to get secondhand stuff as much as possible. There must be some law that says new things must be covered in multiple layers of trash. (Bonus: it's cheaper.)
  • I quit canned food cold turkey a few months ago and have only missed canned foods about twice. (Bonus: fresh is way better anyways, and you won't be eating the nasty chemical BPA.)
  • I've learned to make a lot of things (sauces, etc.) from scratch instead of buying them in dedicated bottles and jars. (Bonus: you control the ingredients, and it'll probably taste better!)
  • I've found a place to get meat on recyclable trays instead of (toxic) styrofoam.
  • I make my own chicken and veggie broth in the crock pot (from food scraps, no less!) instead of buying that box stuff. (Bonus: real stock is super healthy and tastes awesome.)
  • We keep all our 'scrap' office paper and print on the blank sides as much as possible.
  • I wash and reuse my ziploc baggies and aluminum foil whenever possible.
  • I'm planning not to replenish my supply of ziploc baggies, aluminum foil or saran wrap. (Here's one of the tragic side effects of refining aluminum.) I think people did make food before plastic and foil. (Bonus: saves money.)
  • Instead of ziplocs, I'll keep the bags our bread comes in, and other little plastic bags I'd normally throw away, to use in the same ways as ziplocs. (Bonus: you save money.)
  • All of our hand soap is pumped out of reusable bottles (so I don't buy a new bottle every time, which is just insane) and I refill the main bottle of soap at Open Harvest. We use foamers anyways so we don't use much soap (which saves money too).
  • I try not to buy individual sizes of bottled water, pop, or juice. That should be a no-brainer. If I do buy a small bottle of something to drink at a gas station, I choose a glass bottle instead of plastic. (Bonus #1: You won't waste money on the epic scam of bottled water. Bonus #2: You'll drink fewer sugared artificially flavored beverages.)
  • I buy produce that is not wrapped in plastic and paper. I can just put it all into my (cloth) bag, and if not, I've brought my own containers (for small things like mushrooms and spinach and brussels sprouts). Shop at places that don't use pointless wrapping. If you are concerned about it getting dirty, remember your food GREW IN DIRT. Remember to wash your bags often.
  • I try to remember to bring my stainless travel mug to places like Starbucks. Travel mugs work for pop and water too! (Bonus: it's less likely to spill.)
  • I choose ice cream cones at ice cream shops - which means I don't need a dish or plastic spoon.  (Bonus: cones are awesome.)
  • I try not to buy things that can't be recycled, like PAM, which is just overpriced canola oil in a can. I already have canola in the cupboard, as well as butter and other alternatives.
  • Also, shaving gel cans cannot be recycled, so try normal soap or another alternative. I use olive oil and it's fantabulous. (Bonus: olive oil works better than anything else EVER.)
  • In general, I look for food that's less packaged. I've found butter in a block, wrapped in one layer of paper instead of in paper AND in cardboard. (Those used butter wrappers are great for greasing pans, too, instead of the stupid PAM.)
  • When we have a baby, I'm planning to at least try to use cloth diapers and wipes instead of disposable ones. (Bonus: you will save thousands of dollars.)
  • No individually wrapped candies and treats. Open Harvest carries some candies in bulk. (Bonus: you can eat them faster.)
  • I steer clear of single-use sponges, cloths and cleaners, as well as those one-time-use toothbrushes and floss thingies.
  • We use plastic can liners in one trash can (in the kitchen, where the food scraps go) but all the other ones are unlined. When we start composting (ie, when we get a house) I'd like to quit using liners altogether.
  • Our daily work lunches go with reusable containers and normal silverware.
  • Instead of buying my own set of subscriptions, I get magazines lent to me from a coworker when she's done with them. (Bonus: it's FREE.) I don't really read newspapers, but the same idea would apply.
  • Also, it's good to remove yourself from unwanted mailing lists, and get electronic bills whenever possible. (Bonus: less annoying mail.)
  • I save bits of (clean) recyclable trash that I produce throughout the day (papers, napkins, pop cans, containers) and bring it all home to our bins if there's not a recycle bin nearby.  I also just put a little basket in our office, for my coworkers to leave their cans and bottles.
  • Ladies, feel free to ask me what I've done to reduce "personal" throwaways! I'm not 100% comfy with publicizing details here, but if you are interested, I'd love to private. ;)
Did you notice that lots of my ideas started with "I try to..."? This isn't about mandating 100% compliance! It's about truly doing your best. As much as I'd like to encourage baby steps, I also feel like that sentiment makes people feel good about doing one teensy thing (like, when they're out and about, putting their pop bottle in the recycle bin, which is right next to the garbage bin). Then they think they are 'good' for a while and neglect other important efforts.  So I am not merely encouraging you to do a few scraps of thinking here and there, but to make real lifestyle changes.  It isn't difficult at all, but what it does take is being intentional.

The good news is, in our home, it's working! More often than not, our trash gets "taken out" not because it's full, but because it's smelly! (Food scraps, remember?)  Our recycle bins fill up more slowly now as well. Last time we took the recycling out, I was thrilled to see how much less plastic we'd used over the last month or so. One great benefit of recycling is that you see your waste piled up, and see how your stuff really adds up. Then you can take the appropriate steps to reduce it.

What do you think? Do you have any of your own trash-reduction hints to share?


  1. If you are concerned about it getting dirty, remember your food GREW IN DIRT.

    Lately, I've been imagining all my garbage sitting in a landfall for the next 500 years as a lovely "gift" to future generations. We say "out of sight, out of mind" and I think it's true. And I also agree with you very much about our attitude as Christians towards creation care. I see us as one of the many "bad stewards" in Christ's parables, and I am completely baffled as to why acting this way seems to be considered a tenet of the faith by many people! Especially when it harms vulnerable people around the world, which it often does.

    I end up with a lot of plastic bags, from bread, tortillas, etc., but I reuse them as trash bags; no one seems to have really solved the trash bag problem, yet. (I live in an apartment, and there is no way I would ever fill up one of those giant biodegradable bags before it became a stinky mess of flies and cockroaches.)

    I use cleaning rags most of the time, and handkerchiefs most of the time. I'm toying with the idea of making some cloth wipes. I would also like to get one or two cloth pads, as backup for my menstrual cup, but there are so many options out there it's overwhelming, and I don't sew.

    I like the suggestion about the ice cream cone. Maybe I'll have to practice that form of trash reduction today!

  2. Use old socks, holey t-shirts, etc. for cleaning an dish cloths. They are soft, absorbent and wash up great!

    Great post Nikki!

  3. Aydan - the trash bag problem is a problem. I have also wanted to try plastic grocery bags...we somehow always end up with a few random ones, mostly from other people.

    Mindy - great idea! I have cut up several old t-shirts and they are the rags we use instead of paper towels and kleenex. They do work well, don't they? :)

  4. here's a tip for people like me who like to take other people food. watch garage sales and pick up cheap (& often pretty) dishes and pans for pennies. then take those to others and just let them know you don't need it back. it's way nicer and cheaper than using the disposable foil pans from the grocery store (a 9x9 foil pan is like 1.50 while i've gotten real 9x9 pans off garage sales for .50 & .75 cents)

  5. Sarah - that is SUCH a wonderful idea! I love it! I usually take food in our own dishes and just get them back at some point...but your idea is so much more frugal and thoughtful. Thanks a ton for the suggestion - I will totally use it. I'll just have to make sure I think they'll like the dish! :)

  6. Wait. Your not going to give my gifts wrapped in paper that I can tear of in one swift motion anymore?!?! Nikki, I will wash all my dishes forevermore and only use cloth napkins for the rest of my life if you'll wrap my gifts in shiny wrapping paper!!

    Kidding. Sort of. I really do like wrapping paper. But I see your point. Out of sight, out of mind, unfortunately. Maybe they should start building landfills in the middle of town? :)

  7. hey nikki its a good thing to make lest waste and i i thing its a funny thing that you blog about making lest waste and i thing its true that church potlucks do give alot of waste with all the paper plates and cups good job

  8. you alwawys give me lots to think about nikki. but please tell me you haven't given up toilet paper...

  9. natalie -- hehe, that's one change I don't think would go over well here. Not that I'd be interested making that change anyways. Fear not. :)