February 28, 2020 § Leave a comment
I can still recall the milk box we had when I was a kid. A cube-shaped metal container sat outside our front door and would fill with fresh, new glass bottles of milk once a week. I never saw the milkman, so it seemed rather like a magic trick: put empty bottles in and- poof– new milk appears! Whenever my parents got home from work, they’d bring them inside.
It kind of boggles my mind now. At the time no one seemed particularly worried about the milk spoiling out there in the non-insulated box… or freezing… or that someone would tamper with the milk. The bottles each had a little round foil cap that peeled off the top when you wanted to open a new one, and it never sealed perfectly again once opened, but no one seemed too concerned about that either.
I know this makes me sound like perhaps I grew up sometime just before the invention of the icebox but this was the seventies, people.
Fast forward to my No Garbage project of today and here I am again thinking about milk. The pile of HELP WHAT DO I DO WITH THIS in my kitchen is ever-so gradually getting smaller, but the empty containers for milk are comparatively large and stacking up, effectively presenting themselves as the next urgent question to answer.
Before this project began I used to recycle milk cartons, thinking: paper. But soon after beginning the project I thought: Wait. Paper coated with plastic. If I have learned anything in the first two months of the Year of No Garbage, it’s that Frankenstein combinations of materials- such as paper and plastic squashed together by heat, say- are inherently evil, unrecyclable landfill fodder, probably invented by Satan.
But I realized that when it came to cartons I just really didn’t know. In search of answers online, I came upon the Carton Council, an industry organization that promotes carton recycling. Oh, hooray!! I thought. On their site you can input your zip code and it will instantly tell you whether recycling that includes cartons is available in your area. Now, when you live in Vermont NOTHING is ever available in your area, so I was sad, but not terribly surprised, to see that mine did not.
Fear not! the Carton Council website assured me, because you can mail your cartons in for recycling. To places like Virginia and Nebraska. It’s free except for postage, and, after all, this is not super-heavy material we’re talking about.
Okay, at least there’s something I can do, I thought. I didn’t love it, first because any additional level of complexity or cost is going to make it that much less likely for the average person to actually do it, and second because the environmental footprint of mailing boxes of cartons across the country to recycle them raises serious questions about the net impact of the whole endeavor. Aren’t we defeating the purpose a bit here?
Then I just happened to take a closer look at my garbage service “recyclable” list. Waitaminute! Contrary to what the all-knowing Carton Council website had indicated, milk cartons are on the list! This was excellent news.
But what about other cartons? The Carton Council’s mail-in locations also accept lots of other cartons, i.e. the boxes that hold shelf-stable things like juice boxes, soup and chicken broth. These items are labeled “Tetra Paks.” I don’t encounter them often, because we don’t drink juice and I usually make my own broth from leftover chicken bones and freeze it, but now that I’m having trouble buying whole chickens without plastic, my broth supply has dwindled to nothing.
Perhaps I could solve this problem, I thought, by buying Tetra Paks of broth for soups and sauces? Maybe those would be the only things I’d have to mail to Denver or Omaha.
But then I noticed something else intriguing on the list for curbside recycling: they also accepted something called aseptic cartons. What was that? The lady who answers the phone for my garbage service had no idea. Back to the Internet.
AHA! It turns out there are two kinds of cartons: refrigerated “gable top” (like the kind milk comes in) and shelf stable “aseptic ” (like the kind chicken broth comes in.) Both are combinations of polyethylene and paper, but aseptic includes a layer of aluminum as well. And aseptic is the generic name for Tetra Pak, which is a brand name. They’re the same thing.
The good news is that both of these kinds of cartons, unlike other paper/plastic amalgams— such as thermal receipts—can be separated back into their components for recycling.
The bad news is that this process still requires a fair amount of energy and effort, such as trucking giant bales of the cartons hundred of miles for elaborate processing. Although it keeps these materials out of the landfill, this still seems to defeat the purpose of being sustainable and earth friendly.
Hmm. So I can put my cartons, both gable top and aseptic/Tetra Pak, in the curbside recycling, and putting them in recycling is better than not putting them in recycling. But better still would be to find alternatives. For milk, I’m looking into a local dairy that has returnable glass bottles just like those of my youth. For chicken broth, my local butcher tells me if I call him ahead of time I can purchase chicken carcasses he’s butchered for parts, and bring it home in my own container no less. Promising leads, for sure.
I do miss the mysterious ways of the Dellwood milkman, though. He made it all seem so effortless.
February 14, 2020 § 1 Comment
I’m a big fan of reality television. Mind you, not just any reality television. Historical reality television. That’s the kind where they take three modern American families and have them, say, live as 19th century pioneers somewhere in the Montana wilderness.
What I just described is one of my favorites shows of all time: Frontier House, which premiered on PBS in 2002. Before being transported “back in time” the participants were asked what things they thought they’d miss most. As they listed off a whole bunch of things, the whole time I was thinking: I know what I’d say: paper towels! I mean, NO PAPER TOWELS!?! How did people live?
Ever since watching that episode I’ve wondered somewhere in the back of my mind if I could ever, truly wean myself from my fully absorbing paper towel addiction.
(See what I did there? I even like bad paper towel puns. Clearly, I need help.)
As if in reply to my question, some time ago on social media I came across a tutorial on how to make your own paper towels out of cloth and then sew little snaps into the sides and snap them together one by one to form a reusable roll. Like a lot of these DIY videos, the slick editing makes this idea seem completely brilliant. Wow! Look how easy it could be. And no waste!!
I’m definitely a crafty, I’ll make it myself kind of person, so at first I was captivated. However after the idea sank in a bit I was made of questions: hold on a sec here Pinterest people. How long would it take to make this gigantic reusable paper towel roll, I mean, without time-lapse photography? And once you had used the towels up and washed them all, how many hours would it take to snap all those tiny little itty-bitty snaps back together? And what if you sewed one snap just a liiiiiittle to the left or right and suddenly your lovely DIY project is NOT COOPERATING? And you accidentally throw the whole darn thing out the window? That’s not very zero waste, now is it? If you ever did manage to roll the whole thing back up again- you know, say, three weeks later- is there any possibility it wouldn’t look like a giant used wad of Frankenstein Kleenex?
I decided the chances of that were pretty much nonexistent, so I kept on using regular paper towels at a rather alarming rate, despite the fact that I have an extensive collection of dishtowels and cloth napkins that I also use. But, you know, sometimes the napkins were all dirty and I hadn’t had a chance to wash them yet. Paper towel. What if it was just a little bit inconvenient to go grab a dishtowel? Paper towel. What if it was a messy, stain-y job involving spilled wine or something that I didn’t want my pretty dishtowels being exposed to? You get the idea.
So in the first few days of our Year of No Garbage, I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to go when it came to the Paper Towel Conundrum. I had discovered that paper towels are compostable, so that was good news, but it was also kind of bad news, because my kitchen compost bin was getting filled up approximately every ten minutes. People were using one-use, disposable paper towels for jobs that really could easily have been going to the reusables, silly things like drying their hands off or wiping the countertop off. It was simply out of habit and because we knew we could.
It was hard to retrain myself and virtually impossible to keep everyone else away from the siren song of old, bad habits rooted in one thing: convenience.
Should I just do away with paper towels all together? I thought. That was one solution. I kind of feel like that’s Zero Waste Ninja Level. I hope to get there someday, but for now I still want to use them for the very slimiest jobs such as wiping grease out of cast iron pans and drying off raw meat and poultry.
Instead, I decided to switch the narrative: if the problem was convenience, how could I make paper towels the most inconvenient solution? So I put them in the laundry room waaaaaay on the other side of our house from the kitchen. In a way I felt like I was just trying to hide them from myself, which seemed silly. I mean, I knew where they were. And anyway surely something that simple would never work.
It totally worked. It worked so well I was kind of shocked. One day I was sighing and emptying yet another compost containing 75% paper towels into my poor starved compost pile in the backyard, the next it was like “Paper towels? Hmmmm. I’m not sure I’m familiar with those. Could you describe them?”
In the old days I am not kidding you, it was not unusual for us to use up an entire eight-roll package in one week. Now that the paper towels live in the laundry room, we’ve been on the same roll for the last six weeks.
Okay, I’m pretty proud of that.
Eventually I may get to a point where we’re so organized we even have a separate batch of dishrags for those few greasy, ooky jobs, along with a separate container to hold the dirty ones between washings. But for now I feel really good that this worked. It all came down to a simple idea that I need to be sure to remember: make the things you want to do easy, and the things you don’t want to do, more difficult.
Now if PBS comes knocking, I’ll be ready.
February 6, 2020 § 7 Comments
I’ve been having a lot of weird thoughts lately. Like, the fact that I’ve been throwing stuff away my entire life. This now strikes me as a crazy thing. Or wondering, how much garbage in a landfill somewhere is directly from my own hand? Then, I think to wonder, what was the first thing I ever threw away? The largest? The worst? How does my invisible pile of lifetime trash stack up against everyone else’s?
I suppose such thoughts are bound to be inspired in the stopping, because the whole practice of throwing things away is like a kind of forgetting, a physical amnesia. I forget YOU milk carton! And I forget YOU granola bar wrapper! We all enact this ritual all day long, every day. Which makes a kind of sense: if we all had to keep and look at everything we’d normally throw away, we’d probably go insane, right? I’m imagining nightmares of being chased by every milk carton I’ve ever known.
But sometimes I like to keep objects just to help me remember things- it’s the hoarder in me. So on the desk by my computer I have a tiny little shrine composed of a wood box and a piece of gravel. One day recently, as I was walking through our house I stepped on this piece of gravel, tracked in from our driveway as sometimes happens, and picked it up with annoyance. Without thinking, I headed for the trash, when I realized (as I have done nearly every day over the last month) that there was no trash to put it in. I stopped, stymied.
I looked at the piece of gravel. What the heck was I doing? What, I wondered, had I ever been doing?
I mean, seriously. It’s a freaking rock, Eve, I admonished myself. Rocks aren’t garbage… they’re nature. Why would I throw a rock in the trash? To be trapped in a non-degrading plastic bag, hauled to the landfill and sit there, smothered for the next umpteen zillion years? Sure it’s tiny, about the size of a plain M&M, but how many times have I thrown away a piece of gravel, and how many other people have done just the same thing? That, like anything, adds up.
How much more effort would it really have been for me to open the front door and toss that pebble out into the yard? At some point I must have made the mental calculation-oh I’ll just put gravel in the trash because that’s easier, but the difference was truly miniscule: between opening a door and not opening a door. And I know I’m guilty of myriad other, similar infractions… how many times have I tossed out a paperclip or a safety pin just because the trash was closer than the drawer or box where I keep these things? How many pencils have I thrown away because they were missing erasers, or simply weren’t sharpened, because we already had a handful that were? We live in a time of material abundance unprecedented in human history and clutter is the thoroughly modern phenomenon that comes along with it. Surely I can’t be the only person who has ever thrown “perfectly good” things into the trash out of a strange sense of pure, unadulterated self-defense?
But what gives me the right, I wondered for the first time, to send something to the landfill? When did we become such masters of the universe? When did we become so careless with our resources?
The piece-of-gravel revelation has played out in our house over the last few weeks in dozens of different ways: what once we would have thrown out, now we are, for the first time, compelled to really look at… and find another way. I’m sheepish to admit that in the past whenever a clothespin came apart I considered it “broken” and would pitch it: too hard to fix! Probably impossible. I’d think. But when that happened to me the other day I sat down and in about a minute and a half figured out how to put it back together. I felt quite unreasonably proud about it, too.
And when my older daughter Greta came across a huge entanglement of random yarns and craft scraps that had somehow all been shoved together in the bottom of a tote bag, she looked at me questioningly… what on earth were we going to do with this? Any other year, we would certainly have thrown it away. Instead, we sat down and started untangling. It sat on the coffee table for a few days getting progressively better in installments until one day it was no longer a horrible mess at all, but instead a neat pile of several different balls of yarns and fabric strips. Again I felt both proud and a little ridiculous for feeling proud. I keep thinking: those bits and pieces can now be used. Used! I felt like an alchemist who had discovered how to turn trash into gold nuggets.
But the real discovery, I think, is that it was never trash in the first place. Trash is a made-up idea, invented in the name of convenience, which I’m coming to view as a dirty word. Because that lovely idea, as it turns out, comes at a terrible, terrible cost.
So sure, I saved a teeny, tiny rock from the landfill and who cares. But it’s a teeny, tiny rock that represents something much bigger, and that’s why I keep it on my desk, to remind myself that just because our culture accepts something, doesn’t mean it makes any sense. Sometimes it’s just a matter of stopping to really look at something for the first time that can change your point of view entirely.
Sometimes it can even be something right underfoot.
January 29, 2020 § 12 Comments
For a while now I’ve wondered what the deal is with those mysterious boxes at the front of the supermarket offering to recycle your plastic shopping bags. Often they’re just big cartons or barrels with a slot in the top and a green recycling arrow on the side. I can’t imagine I’m the only person who’s ever wondered, yeah, but what is this? I mean:
Who collects the bags?
Where do they go?
What can you make plastic bags into anyway- more plastic bags?
Can you recycle other plastics in these boxes?
But after a little research the other day, I was able to call up Stephanie, who helped me to sort it all out. Stephanie works for Trex, and Trex is the answer to the question “Who wants a bunch of empty plastic shopping bags?” This is because Trex turns them into composite decking for outdoor porches and railings.
Yes! There is a company that really does want these plastic shopping bags, and that really will do something constructive with them. Best of all, none of this is part of an elaborate hoax to relieve our guilt at having forgotten the reusable bags at home. Again.
But it gets even better, because Trex doesn’t just want your plastic shopping bags; they want all your polyethylene, which is a science-y word for plastic film, and includes a whole lot of things you’re probably throwing away right now. I found a fabulous poster on the Trex website that I printed out and am hanging in our kitchen to remind us of all the many things that— as long as they are clean and dry— can go into this magical box at our supermarket, including:
- bread bags
- ice bags
- produce bags (both the kind that come on rolls in the store and the kind apples and oranges are already bagged in)
- plastic overwrap from things like paper towels, toilet paper and water bottle cases
- bubble wrap, bubble mailers and air pillows (deflated)
- dry cleaning bags
- Ziploc bags
- newspaper bags
- cereal box liners (unless they tear like paper)
If you don’t find that list super exciting, then you clearly are not me. For one thing, this opens up a whole host of products I thought I wouldn’t be able to buy at all this year, from sandwich bread to cereal. Yes, I’ll still make my own bread and buy it from the bakery. Yes, I’ll still be bringing my reusable mesh produce bags with me on my shopping expeditions.
Yes, I will still always choose the lowest-plastic option of any product, because at 300 million tons of new plastic made per year the world certainly doesn’t need my encouragement to make any more, whether it gets recycled or not. But still. The other day when my daughter Ilsa felt crappy and asked for toast, it was a relief not to have to drive for an hour or wait for bread dough to rise all afternoon- I could just buy her a loaf at the store ten minutes away.
(When your kid is sick, not having to make a choice between them and the entire planetary ecosystem can be worth a lot.)
Now if you are like me you’ve tried to be good. When you read various recycling instructions you inevitably read the recycling warnings too. This is the part that says, in effect: IF YOU PUT ONE WRONG ITEM IN HERE YOU WILL DESTROY AN ENTIRE BATCH OF RECYCLING AND PROBABLY MURDER A POLAR BEAR IN THE PROCESS. These dire warnings all send the same message: “when it doubt, throw it out.” I take issue with this. We don’t need more encouragement to throw things into the landfill. What we need is better information.
Which is why I like people like Stephanie at Trex so much. Her job has everything to do with giving people more information so they can recycle correctly. More companies should have a Stephanie, to answer questions from the public not just about their products, but about their product packaging, and what exactly they expect us to do with it so as to not strangle the planet.
Stephanie answered other questions I had too. She told me that when the plastic film recycling boxes are full they get returned to the supermarket’s distribution centers, where they are converted into 1000-pound bales. She explained that most distribution centers ship one semi-load of these plastic bales to Trex every two weeks.
Wow. That’s a lot of not-landfill.
Most importantly, she told me some simple steps to help people avoid putting the wrong kind of plastic film into the Trex boxes. First, check if it is marked with a #2 or #4 plastics recycling number. If so, this is polyethylene and YES! Trex wants it.
If, however, there is no number to be found, here is an easy test:
- Is the plastic able to be stretched? YES! Trex wants it.
- Is it shiny or crinkly? NO!! Trex cannot use this.
Things that fall into the shiny/crinkly NO!! category include:
- pre-washed salad mix bags
- frozen food bags
- candy wrappers
- chip bags
- 6-pack rings.
So there you have it: some bona-fide good news, courtesy a company that is totally getting a Valentine from me this year. On recycled paper, of course.
January 21, 2020 § 3 Comments
I guess, over time, everyone develops a system. The way one goes about regular weekly tasks in order to get the ordinary stuff done efficiently— perhaps almost mindlessly— while we focus our brain power on other, more important things. I certainly have one. I mean I did.
Years ago, when our family decided to do a Year of No Sugar, I had a different routine, a different system, and a significant portion of the discomfort of that year-long project was trying to find a way to develop and establish new norms that fit our lives’ new parameters. At the time I wrote about doubling the time I spent at the grocery store: overnight I went from buying the week’s groceries in one hour, to buying the week’s groceries in two hours.
At the time I thought that was pretty impressive, but that alteration seems like a cakewalk to me in comparison with what’s happening now.
I’m including a photo of the weekly grocery list I made up this morning. In my system, I loosely plan out the week’s menus on the left-hand side, and list the ingredients for each dinner on the right. The new rub in my shopping, of course, is that I have to go wherever the disposable packaging isn’t, and very frequently that place is not the supermarket.
So where once I would get pretty much everything in one fell swoop, place it all neatly in my reusable bags and come home, now I am running all over town, and occasionally, all over our county, trying to get things like produce and meat and cheese without the landfill fodder. Take tonight’s dinner: shrimp risotto.
Normally I buy one pound bags of frozen wild-caught shrimp, deveined and shelled. I’ve bought it so many times I could probably find it in the fish freezer blindfolded. But I know this product has both an inner and an outer plastic bag, and I’m still unsure if these can be recycled in any way. A trip to the local fish market down the road might be the solution, but can I convince them to put shrimp in, if not my own container, at least a recyclable plastic container, rather than a disposable bag? Cross fingers.
Then I’ll head on to the next town over where there is an actual free-standing butcher. They sold me meat in butcher paper last week, so I’m hopeful to get the beef for my beef stew, if I get an amiable counter-person. Cross fingers.
Then I’ll head to the health food store. There I can get things like carrots and celery without plastic bags- perhaps a rubber band or a twist-tie will be involved here or there, which I keep and reuse. I bring my own mesh bags, but if I run out they have a roll of biodegradable bags on hand. YES!! I try to limit how much produce I buy there since it is significantly more expensive than the supermarket, which sometimes translates to better quality, but not always. Things like garlic and lemons can probably be found without packaging at the supermarket for less. Cross fingers.
But first I will head to the Italian specialty shop Al Ducci’s, which I’ve discovered will sell me both bread and cheese wrapped in paper, just paper. Again- it isn’t cheap bread and cheese, but it is fabulous, and I can get by without plastic wrap or cellophane windows, which is huge.
So now I can go to the supermarket, having exhausted all other shopping options. When I’m done I’ve visited five different stores, all in a town thirty minutes from my house (except the butcher which is another 15 minutes further). You can understand why, if I run out of bread at home like I did yesterday, I found it easier to make bread than get in the car to go buy it. An hour’s trip for bread? Forget it.
During our Year of No Sugar, after I got past the initial learning curve I found that I got much more efficient— there were only so many things I could buy after all— and my shopping trips fell to only thirty minutes a week. I’m not sure such a simplification will be possible for Year of No Garbage, however. Rather, what’s required in thinking about groceries reminds me of a more European sensibility. When I was a college exchange student in Italy years ago I was quite amazed at how many different specialty stores the Italians went to just to gather their basic meal ingredients: butcher, baker, outdoor markets with special hours for vegetables… the supermarket was a small, uninspiring affair, and seemed to exist primarily for things like toilet paper and sad-looking frozen dinners.
A lot of this comes down to a European emphasis on very high quality, very fresh ingredients, made by hand. Everyone loves this idea in principle, of course, but for Americans factors like cost and convenience clearly outweigh healthier, fresher, more delicious food. We’re busy. We’re on a budget. Food has to fit in around the important things; it must be practical.
For many Europeans I’ve met, practical can take a flying leap. Food doesn’t fit in around the more important things- it is the important thing. A few years ago we were lucky enough to be invited to a wedding in Paris and I noticed that the things Americans tend to spend all their wedding budget on were done comparatively minimally: the dress, the flowers were all tasteful but… simple. The father of the bride proudly explained to us that essentially all of the budget had been spent on THE FOOD.
And what food it was. How many wedding dinners would figure in your most memorable meals? But that’s what was important.
So, to summarize: we’re eating more… carefully. There isn’t a lot of extra food around the house these days (want a snack? If you aren’t up for apples with peanut butter you’re out of luck) and I’ve temporarily stopped packing Ilsa lunches- luckily her school has some pretty good food options as school lunches go. I just haven’t gotten the hang of it enough yet. I still haven’t figured out how to buy chicken at all. Red meat from the butcher or fish from the fish market, in addition to being more expensive and inconvenient, isn’t cryo-shrink-wrapped in fourteen kinds of plastic, so I’m not buying as far in advance as I once did: I no longer buy a pound of ground beef if I don’t think I’ll use it for six days. And yes, this all involves an extra amount of driving around in my gas-powered car, so there’s that environmental impact to consider.
Oh my. But I have faith that, with time, I will develop some strategies. I’ll get a new system.
January 20, 2020 § Leave a comment
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My kitchen counter was threatening to go on strike till I came up with this: mason jars contain the mess of smaller Weird-But-Recyclable items that collect over time AND make everything look pretty. Even used tin foil. This is my first #trashlesseve tip of the Week! . . . #eveoschaub @sourcebooks #yearofnogarbage #authorsofinstagram #memoir #stuntproject #nowaste #zerowaste #enviroment #earthday2020 #solutions #masonjars #weird #stillrecyclable #kitchen #kitchencounter #kitchenideas #used #tinfoil #winecorks #etc #silicagel #tipoftheweek