March 7, 2020 § Leave a comment
Steve walked into the kitchen today as I sat in the middle of what most people would call a pile of garbage, and asked “What are you doing?”
“Playing.” I said.
“Oh, okay.” he said, walking back out again.
There was a pause before I called after him, “Do you think I’m crazy?”
“Oh, I know it.”
I love my husband.
Of course, I wasn’t sitting in a pile of garbage, because in our house garbage doesn’t exist. Instead I was sitting in the middle of a whole bunch of items we no longer want or need, and now have to figure out exactly what to do with.
Although I was having fun sorting all my non-treasure into piles, it had all started because I had gotten angry. Earlier that morning, in the back of a cabinet, I had come across some ancient, expired boxes of yogurt starter and what normally would have been a two-second flip over my shoulder into the garbage can turned into twenty minutes of me opening each individual foil packet and dumping the powder into our compost, all the while fuming that the foil packages were going to be The Next Problem. Because foil/paper packages are designed to be garbage and nothing else; there is no second life for expired packages of yogurt starter. As I sat there getting yogurt starter powder on my feet and all over the floor I imagined a conversation with the yogurt company that began with me yelling at the folks in the packaging science department.
EXACTLY WHAT are we supposed to do with these after they are used? What do you mean you don’t have a plan? These are just supposed to go sit in an airless, non-decomposing hole for the rest of ETERNITY- is that it? That’s your brilliant solution??
Ah, the poor yogurt starter people. After imagining yelling at them I felt kind of bad about it. Making yogurt starter is a noble profession, and one which enables people to use less packaging in other ways, since they’re making homemade yogurt and not buying those packages, after all.
It’s just that I can’t figure our why on earth the world wide packaging industry is allowed to make things that we have no plan for after their initial use is done. It’s like this giant invisible loophole in our produce-and-consume economy that no one wants to talk about.
And as I wondered about this I was inspired to proceed to the recycling corner of my kitchen and angrily dump out onto the floor the three successive containers of “I don’t know” that I’ve accumulated over the past ten weeks. Surveying the devastation, certain key themes emerged, but one reigned supreme.
Multilayers. By this I mean extruded combinations of paper, foil and/or plastic. Multilayers are almost always pure, unadulterated landfill fodder and have now arisen as the bane of my existence. Frozen food packaging, plasticized produce tags, pull-off seals, stickers, tickets and receipts are among the items that show up repeatedly in my big pile. All of them are multilayers.
It’s hard not to look at this depressing pile and think of the zero-wasters online explaining how all their garbage for the year fits into a thimble. I remind myself for the frillionth time that we’re learning as we go. I make a resolution to attend the farmers market more, so to avoid things like vegetable tags and frozen food wrappers. I vow to redouble my efforts on the “No receipt please!” front, without actually screaming at anyone, although it is difficult when so many places don’t ask if you want a receipt- they just hand it to you. I know it sounds odd, but sometimes I just don’t have the heart to tell them I don’t want it. I need to get better about that.
Lastly, I ‘m tempted to call the information hotline for these multilayer-wrapped products and ask whoever answers the phone, What do I do with this?
I’m pretty sure the response I’d get is a confused, What do you mean? Throw it away!
Then I’d go back to my yogurt-starter-tirade and tell them:
Don’t you know there is no such thing as “away”?
February 28, 2020 § 2 Comments
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.
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 16, 2020 § 4 Comments
I’m doing it wrong. I’m doing it wrong all the time, and I know it, and it’s kind of killing me.
This is the thought I’ve been having a lot, because lately our house seems to be in particular chaos. There’s just STUFF EVERYWHERE.. It’s an awfully good thing I didn’t try to do Year of No Garbage at the same time as Year of No Clutter, because if I’ve learned anything in the last two weeks, it’s that an experiment in being Zero-waste is essentially a machine for clutter.
As I’ve written about before, clutter is the result of unknowns and unmade decisions, so it does make sense: all the I-don’t-knows and the what-about-this’s are stacking up. I’ll look it up! Has become my new favorite phrase, but always uttered while I’m in the middle of something else, so what I mean is: I’ll look it up later.
Right now I have a bowl of wine corks on my kitchen counter, right next to a small pile of wax pieces from a block of cheddar cheese. On the floor I have a clothespin holding a festoon of Mylar-lined items such as potato chip bags awaiting further investigation (note to self- call Terracycle). Next to that is a supermarket shopping bag filled with other plastic bags that I think can also be dropped off at the supermarket bag recycling bin: plastic bags from bread, from paper towels, from dried mango slices, from dry cleaning. I think this because I read it online- which is always foolproof, right?
Next to that I have a large, clear, plastic container holding all manner of serious question marks. What about the penny-sized plastic spout that pops out of the top of the olive oil container? What about the plastic tag welded to the rubber band that came on the organic scallions? What about the broken hair elastic? What about the postage stamp-sized SILICA GEL PACK? And foil lids from the tops of bottles- are they really FOIL? I bend them and they don’t feel like foil, they feel like shiny paper… not to mention the fact that the great recyclers in the sky apparently frown on our attempts to recycle The Small Stuff- the plastic caps and bits of foil that, according to folklore, jam up the mysterious machines.
Have I mentioned that these are only the piles in my kitchen?
Sometimes I feel like a Recycling Detective trying to ferret out the truth from among a million different myths. Every person I talk to “knows” something different, and it certainly doesn’t help that the rules have been in constant flux ever since I encountered them for the first time as a college student years ago. This was in Ithaca New York, well-known for being even more crunchy than your average college town, and it was in my senior year that I encountered the city’s shiny new curbside recycling program. Who had ever heard of such a thing? Up until then my efforts to save the earth had consisted mostly of me wearing long flowery dresses; I was excited to be in my first “real” house and in the forefront of green technology.
Immediately I was frustrated by the fact that after rinsing and separating all my items and placing them carefully by the curb in a series of baskets and cardboard boxes, about half the items would not get taken by the trash collectors.
In retrospect I find it kind of amazing that the trash people had the time to sort through my proposed recycling as if it were my senior thesis. But what was I doing wrong? “Oh, that’s because you can’t put in any container that could stack with another container.” One of my more eco-savvy friends said. “Like yogurt containers or sour cream- it has to have a smaller top opening so things don’t get stuck inside one another.”
I don’t even know if she was right. It just felt like I was failing some kind of earth-loving test, to which no one had given me the textbook. I clearly recall thinking, Seriously? If they want people to recycle they can’t make it this hard to figure out.
And here I am having that very same thought thirty years later.
Going into this I knew I’d have trouble. I knew I’d want to be No Garbage perfectly right away, which is pretty much impossible. But then I remind myself that that’s the whole darned point: if it were easy there wouldn’t be much to write about. I imagine it’s likely that humans have always had some concept of garbage, but never have we had so incredibly much of it: for the first time in history we’ve made disposability a way of life. Undoing that will take some time. And thought. And uncertainty. And doing it wrong. So I’m working on being okay with that.
If you don’t hear from me for a few days though, it means I’ve been eaten by the piles.
January 10, 2020 § 8 Comments
We are one week in to our No Garbage Year and our family has officially caught our first break. And that’s good because lately I’ve been feeling like I say “oh shit” about every ten minutes. This learning curve is so steep I’m getting a nosebleed.
Three foods have quickly surfaced as being the most troublesome, but the good news is that they’re just small things. You know, things like meat, bread and cheese. I know what you’re thinking: well, duh. Of course meat, what with all the concerns about contamination. Heck, we can’t seem to keep our meat disease-free as it is, even though we wrap it in enough single-use packaging to kill a goat.
But bread? I’m not even talking about sandwich bread, which clearly comes wrapped for protection from the apocalypse, but even the “let’s pretend we have a real bakery in the supermarket!” bread that comes in the homey brown paper bag, because those bags all have shiny little windows, presumably so the consumer can see the lovely bread without having to touch it with their dirty consumer hands.
And we all have dirty consumer hands. Don’t get me wrong. For the health advances made possible by modern packaging science I am eternally grateful- truly. In fact, when I posted a frustrated picture of my favorite peanut butter jar yesterday with a heretofore unnoticed-by-me plastic ribbon around the lid my friend John rightly commented that those plastic bands are there to keep people from putting poison in my peanut butter.
I mean, really. How DARE Teddie Peanut Butter try to save my life!?! The NERVE.
But seriously, (and at the risk of sounding like a broken record repeating the mantra of my previous projects) the problem of how to exist in a less damaging way upon the earth, while deeply important, is nevertheless a first world problem. If you are facing starvation or fleeing oppression, you aren’t going to care about whether your rice comes in a dolphin-friendly bag. You’re just not.
In short, trying to figure out how to live with less or zero garbage, while a legitimate problem, is a problem we are lucky to have. So if I’m whining about the annoying plastic wrap on my favorite peanut butter, I just want to be extremely clear I realize how fortunate I am that, on any given Thursday, this is the biggest of my problems.
But back to cheese. This one I honestly did not see coming. Just try finding a cheese- any cheese- in your local supermarket that doesn’t incorporate any plastic wrapping. I’ll wait.
SEE WHAT I MEAN? It’s crazy. It’s as if cling wrap had to be developed first, just to pave the way for the invention of cheese.
Listen. I was a vegetarian of one kind or another for twenty years. If necessary, I can do little or no meat. And I have been known to make some pretty decent homemade bread when pressed (cough cough Year of No Sugar). But cheese? I adore cheese. At this point in my life, I’m pretty sure my body is made up of about 95% cheese. I may or may not be tearing up right now at the very thought of a cheese-less year.
Which brings me to our big break. Before abandoning all hope and barricading myself in the basement with a tear-stained copy of Cheeses of the World, it occurred to me to check in with our dear friends Patty and Robin who own Al Ducci’s, an Italian specialty food shop in Manchester, Vermont. Patty assured me they’d be happy to cut from any wheel of cheese in the big glass case and… wrap it in paper for me. (Cue the Hallelujah Chorus.)
AND, as it turns out, they ALSO sell several types of homemade bread made on site that comes in plain brown paper bags… with no plastic windows. (Cue even louder Hallelujah Chorus.)
Sure, the ladies working the counter looked a little confused when I asked for Parmesan cut from the wheel even though they already had about twenty different wedges in the case pre-sliced and wrapped in Saran Wrap. I settled for Romano instead. Heck- Parmesan, Romano, Velveeta- WHO CARED? I was getting cheese, people. (Cue the Hallelujah Chorus, hip hop/extreme dance club version.)
I know, I know. This is expensive cheese. Which brings us to the ever-recurring conversation of whether living more lightly on the earth is a luxury only available to The Fancy People. This was a recurring theme with No Sugar as well: sure, you can spend hours reading ingredient lists, cook homemade food and buy more expensive products that have better ingredients, but most people can’t. Most people don’t have that luxury.
Well, yes. Money and time are ever-present problems in our culture and exist in myriad ways as barriers to changing the way we do things. But things can change and change has to start with people showing up and asking for it. Organic produce, bulk shopping, coops, health food stores and farmers markets, while still not mainstream, are both now more popular and much more accessible than ever before. Acknowledging that everyone may not be able to spend the time or money necessary to go Zero Waste, doesn’t let us all off the hook. We’re still on the hook. And it’s a big hook. Planet-sized to be precise. But we can all start somewhere.
After all, thinking about something differently is free.