How much are we throwing away? - #62
Look at this stuff, isn't it neat? (It's not.)
When you drive into this valley, you’re met with the town “hub.” There are no commercial businesses here and the town mandate dictates that there never will be. The hub is, instead, for the community. It includes the town hall with the shared greenhouse, a playground, a basketball court littered with bikes and hoola hoops, a maintenance shed to store all the summer signage of “Slow Down” and “Please Slow Down” and hopefully next year “For Fuck’s Sake Buddy”, plus bigger machinery to maintain roads and morale. But the most frequented building of them all is the trash shed.
The trash shed is maybe 450 square feet. It contains a couple trash dumpsters, two dumpsters for cardboard, maybe 10 bins for your various papers, cans, plastics, and glass, as well as two composting machines and a little area for donated goods where thus far I have picked up a Le Creuset pitcher, an expensive telescope, and god knows how many house tchotchkes. I even took home a kid’s handmade mortar and pestle, and I use it.
What I really love about the trash bin is the easily won sense of accomplishment. I put whatever trash we’ve accumulated into the bed of the truck maybe every two weeks or so, drive down to the shed, and get to sorting. It’s a task that’s mentally easy, just a touch labor intensive, and leaves you with a feeling of space – because I have in fact won back some space in the shop.
There is one other side effect though: we are intimately aware of exactly how much trash we create every single week. And how much trash everyone in this town makes. And how much trash that means everyone else makes. When you see four dumpsters, 10 bins, two composting machines, and a donation pile absolutely overflowing with shit after one week because of 200 people, it is easy to slip into an existential crisis.
We are two days shy of America’s favorite season: two months of unabated consumption. Look, I’m guilty. I love big meals and twinkling lights, stockings and canned cranberry sauce. I love advent calendars, Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas album Wrapped in Red, and maybe more than anything else, I love shopping.
I’ve loved shopping since I can remember. I loved grocery shopping with my parents, hanging out in CVS with my best friend on Friday nights, meandering through Target in college with my roommates, walking across the street to H&M for a new outfit when I worked in Midtown, and now sifting through rugs on Etsy. I love shopping.
But almost every kind of shopping I just listed is, well… bad. The endless packaging, the products for industry-concocted needs, the clothing made by people not even receiving a living wage, the carbon emissions of the planes, trains, and automobiles required to get those items to their destinations. It’s estimated that Americans throw away 25-30% more trash during the holiday season. But Americans are always throwing away trash!
In 2018, Americans produced triple the amount of trash from just 60 years ago coming in at 300,000,000 tons. That’s 600,000,000 lbs per year. For a moment, picture an absolutely jam-packed football stadium, one of the big ones that seats 100,000 people. Now imagine all those people are actually the size of horses. Not just any horse, but draft horses. An absolute mastodon of a creature. That’s like 90,000 tons at best. Then put all those horse-sized people in a pile and try to decide what you’re going to do with it knowing almost every option is destructive, inefficient, and expensive. Now multiply that problem by 3,333, a number which is the equivalent to the days in around 9 years, and then remember this is actually a problem that happens every single year and we’ve only talked about America.
Anyway, this is what I think about at the trash bin.
Ben’s endearing nickname for me is Trash Goblin. Like any pair of cohabiters, living with someone readily reveals all the ways in which that person is disgusting. One of our reliable long-drive podcasts is called Are You Garbage? Hosted by comedians H. Foley and Kevin Ryan, they set out to determine if their guest of the episode is in fact garbage. Every week Ben proves himself to be the epitome of class (which, let’s be honest, is insane because he’s a dirtbag) and I am, forever and always, trash. Here are some examples of questions they ask:
Have you ever clogged a Coinstar machine? I have.
Does your family give scratch-off lottery tickets as gifts? They do.
Did you have the “Justification for Higher Education” poster? I did.
Worn JNCOs? Stolen hotel shampoo? Owned a George Foreman Grill? Yes, yes, and yes.
I buy cheese balls to eat them by myself. I wipe my hands on my pants. I grew up cooking bologna in the microwave and then putting slices of pre-wrapped American cheese into them so they’d melt into little cheese fat meat catastrophes so disgusting you needed to use multiple paper plates to soak up all the grease, because yes, I also used paper plates.
Ben finds a lot of this charming — hence why we’re married — but this lifestyle came with a lot of paper towels and paper plates and the purchasing of absolute junk. For years, he’s been on a one-man crusade to get my actions to align with my feelings about the environment, and dare I say he’s succeeded. It’s difficult to change a habit, any habit, and to change many of them at the same time is either a Type-A strategy or a recipe for failure. But the easiest way to improve your habits is to at least have an idea of where to start.
As I find this wholly overwhelming, I wanted to ask y’all the ways in which you manage your footprint, your trash, your house, etc. Sure, we could turn to listicles, but isn’t it nice to hear what people actually do, and how they do it? Below is a breakdown of all the ways this household is trying to do better in regards to waste, the environment, and how we live.
A few disclaimers before we get started:
If you read any of these and know of a better solution, please share it with everyone in the comments. No shaming. We all just want to do our best.
Some of these solutions are obviously dwelling dependent. It’s a special apartment building that allows rain barrels.
None of these links are affiliate links. This newsletter is ad-free because of paid subscribers.
And the biggest disclaimer of them all: I KNOW that corporations and private jets and a handful of shitty people are the biggest obstacles to climate change. I KNOW. I know that our tiny actions are in fact, microscopic, but small things can matter. I’ll leave it at that.
So let’s talk about the ways this cabin is trying to do what it can. First, the kitchen!
Stasher bags + Water bottles + Tiffin tins: this is probably the easiest one of the bunch. Eliminating plastic bottles, Ziploc bags, and many other single use plastics is easy. Many companies that sell aluminum bottles offer lifetime warranties on them, as well. Plus Stasher Bags are great for stashing anything.
Reusable bags and reusing grocery bags: we keep various bags stashed in the car for grocery trips. Sometimes we forgo them to get paper bags from the grocery, which we use as our recycling bin bags. We also use paper bags as fire starters, gift wrapping, homemade envelopes, etc. For gifts, to spice up the brown paper, I usually draw something on the paper, like little trees or snowflakes or cats.
Composting: we have a bowl we keep on the counter that we toss all our compost into. We carry it out into a compost bin Ben made out of old wood pallets (which we’ll get to.) We empty the bowl probably once a week or so. It doesn’t smell, doesn’t attract flies, and we didn’t need a fancy contraption.
Low flow faucet: we have a low flow faucet on our kitchen sink to prevent using too much water when cleaning dishes. The only time I find this grating is when filling pots.
Paper towel rags: this one was legitimately hard for me, and we still have paper towels for particularly gross messes (looking at your vomit, Cooper), but we roll little dish towels onto a paper towel rod. We just use rags and an old cardboard roll — here’s a tutorial of how to roll them. (We also have an eco-washer, which helps.)
CSA: this one is dependent on where you live, but we get a lot of our food from a CSA, which is community supported agriculture. This means honey, jam, fruits, veggies, soups, etc. all come from local farmers. It helps us eat seasonally too, and it cuts down on the plastic waste you find in stores.
Meat box: instead of buying meat from the grocery, we buy from our butcher who only sources local and ethical meat. Sometimes we get some cuts we’ve never heard of, but it’s been fun to experiment. We’ve reduced the amount of meat in our diet year on year, with the most dramatic reduction in beef. We have steak a few times a year and burgers even less.
REST OF THE HOUSE:
Energy: Our local power provider offers an option to have all your power come from exclusively renewable energy sources. It’s more expensive, but it does a lot to reduce our carbon footprint.
Heating: This cabin has decentralized heat — we have individually controlled baseboards, so we don’t heat most rooms. We do use quite a bit of wood for fires, but we’ve found a way to make use of this…
Ash litter: We use the fireplace ash as cat litter. Really lucked into this one, as Snoots was refusing to pee in anything but dirt (which, when he’s not outside with me, means he’s digging into the plants inside) so discovering he would use ash as an alternative had the whole house in high spirits. It’s a no-packaging, natural solution. And once the cat poo is scooped out, the ash with the urine is all safe for the compost.
Pine cones as a pee deterrent: While Snoots will use the ash box, he still loves dirt. To keep him out of the plants, we collect pine cones on various mountain bike rides and runs. No special sprays or tools.
Rain barrels for plant watering: We have two large rain barrels for a gray watering system. We use this water spring through fall to water the indoor plants, and we also use them to water the garden.
Making bouquets: There’s just something special about a house with flowers. Our town has an invasive species weeding effort every year, so I create bouquets of those flowers. In fall, I make bouquets of the dying plants. Tie a bouquet with twine and hang it upside down to create a long-lasting dry bouquet.
Library: I mean duh. The queen of all reusing. Our library has all kinds of unusual items you can borrow so that you don’t have to buy something once, barely use it, and then toss it. Just get it from the library!
Recycled Pallets for construction: Our local lumber yard lets you take wooden pallets for free, and we’ve used them for all kinds of things. It’s perfectly good wood that otherwise goes to waste. It’s likely your local hardware store or lumber yard does something similar, so give ‘em a call and ask.
Focusing on local buying: Look, it’s pretty obvious I’m not buying FarmRio locally. But what I can buy locally, I do. And that includes looking for home goods, gear, and clothes at thrift and antique stores.
Packaging: When we do get packaging, it goes into one of several categories:
Cardboard boxes are either broken down and recycled, used as fire starters, or saved to be reused as gift boxes.
Packing materials like ribbons, bubble wrap, etc. are saved for mailing things or gift wrapping.
Paper is either recycled or used for fire starters. Or if it’s pretty, gift wrapping.
Donations: clothes go into the Free Bin in town, larger items get taken in bulk to ReStore. If something has a semblance of life left in it, it gets donated.
Carpooling: I don’t often drive, and Ben carpools to work.
We still have improvements to make. I mean, I drive a truck. There are a lot of improvements to make. We’d like to get solar panels and get rid of propane. Ben’s building a hoop house next year to grow our own vegetables. I’m learning to reward myself with experiences rather than new chinos. (Looking at you, Alex Mill.) We’re purchasing less, reusing more, and dedicated to doing so. But we also love road trips and traveling, and worse, we’re thinking about making a kid. “Having a child is 7-times worse for the climate in CO2 emissions annually than the next 10 most discussed mitigants that individuals can do.” Lol, can’t wait.
So now that I’ve injected as much terror and guilt into your day as possible, how are you managing your footprint? Got any fun tricks up your sleeve? Is your community doing anything that’s blown you away?