Tag Archives: trashlesseve

If You Need Me, I’ll Be At The Store

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.

My weekly grocery shopping used to entail one stop- now it requires five.

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.

My health food store has compostable produce bags!! Why can’t the supermarket?

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.

My grocery cart last week. Please notice my reusable mesh bag with onions- I am very proud of it.

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.

Cross fingers.

Dear Recycling: Please Stop Trying to Kill Me. Thank you.

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.

Kitchen Counter Chaos

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?

A Festival of Mylar!

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.”

Now BOTH our bins are devoted to single stream recycling, and I’m amazed how fast they fill up

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.