Lunch at Our Table

March 27, 2020 § Leave a comment

Lately, a surprising amount of my energy is devoted to the task of not being terrified. I’m a person who suffers from obsessive anxiety, so even pre-Corona virus I was really, really good at washing my hands. Like, I already sang the alphabet song.

Now I sing Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Luckily, for me, I have enough other things to keep my circular thought patterns at bay: the task of keeping a houseful of teenagers and young adults fed, for example. Ever since my daughter’s acting conservatory closed two weeks ago, we’ve had six under our roof, which is double our usual number, including Greta, her actor boyfriend, and her dear friend who is also studying acting.

I was delighted to have them all here, refugees from the panic that has become New York City. I was delighted too, that I could cook for them, because that always makes me feel that I am caring for people. It gives me purpose, makes me feel that I’m literally making the people around me more happy and healthy by feeding them nutritious, homemade food.

The only problem is that I’ve never cooked for the Brady Bunch before, and I keep wondering where the heck Alice is. Between the fact that I make pretty much everything from scratch, and was doing all the dishes? Three meals a day? With no “Hey! Let’s go out tonight and give Mom a break!” in sight?

It has knocked me for a serious loop. I was going to bed exhausted, planning meals in my head, and waking up exhausted, planning meals in my head. Why, you may be wondering, didn’t I ask for help? I don’t know. Part of it is sheer stubbornness. Another part of it is probably my unconscious, deciding that it was better to be on the brink of exhaustion than to think about the scary things that are going on in the world right now.

Thank goodness, things on the Eve Exhaustion Front have now significantly improved. I finally started accepting help when it was offered (imagine that!) and even asking for it upon occasion. We set up a calendar of chores so everyone in the house is now contributing every day. And Greta’s friend made the decision to fly home to her parents, which made us sad to lose her company, but in sheer practical terms also meant one less mouth to feed.

That’s a phrase that strikes me as very old-fashioned: “one less mouth to feed.” It reminds me of stories about the Depression, and the Little Rascals short films that took place in orphanages (“Don’t drink the milk!” “Why?” “It’s spoiled!”). I think about the American Girl historical fiction movies with their young characters living through World Wars and the Depression and their fictional family members who died or disappeared and all anyone could do was bring you a casserole.

What does any of this have to do with No Garbage? In my mind it’s all connected. In fact, weirdly enough, all three of my family adventure-projects seems bound up together for me in living through this current crisis: sugar, clutter, waste. All of these themes have to do with how we live our lives, and- perhaps you’ve noticed?- currently how we live our lives has been thoroughly upended.

For example: my younger daughter, Ilsa, needed a quiet place to park her laptop and attend “school” every morning, and our under-used upstairs room seemed the obvious choice. But, truth be told, this “Hell Room” (the room I spent the entirety of my Year of No Clutter clearing out) has been backsliding into Hellishness for some time now. So I had some work to do.

Interestingly, I discovered some newfound decluttering energy, and Ilsa and I cleared a neat space for her with little trouble. I think it was easier than my past efforts because I had a practical problem to solve, quickly, and thinking practically changes me: it makes me not think quite as much about tomorrow and some future self, but about what we need now, today. I liked the change. So much so that I’ve continued to clean and organize the rest of the room since: if I can manage to clear it out still further it could also become another good space for other things… reading, relaxing, being. I was surprised to realize that all it took was actually needing the space, to make me more effective and efficient.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen we are running a tighter, more efficient ship as well. Yes, No Sugar taught me to cook things from scratch, and yes, No Clutter has been teaching me about planning and thinking ahead to avoid packaging. But this new normal has been bringing home cooking and planning in our house to a new level, and it’s pretty much all lunch’s fault.

Once upon a time, the midday meal in our house had been a “winging it” affair, an amalgam of leftovers, “just in case” foods (“Don’t we have a frozen burrito left in there somewhere?”) and school lunches. Now? Now we have meals. Planned ones. Only. Every day I make sure we have a hot, sit-down meal to feed five people three separate times. This is because social distancing makes our grocery shopping no longer casual- “oh I’ll pick up some milk on the way home”- but instead infrequent, targeted and specific. It is also because we are feeding more people, and therefore the only way I can be sure there’s actually enough food for everyone to eat. It’s a lot of work, for sure, and sometimes I get very overwhelmed, but it’s no different than our ancestors have done for centuries.

As it turns out— and I’m as surprised as anyone about this— living No Sugar, No Clutter and No Garbage all lead to the same place: being thoughtful and devoting the time. When people are nostalgic for the “good old days” they’re not pining for beef shortages and the Whooping Cough, I’m pretty sure what they’re captivated by, when it comes down to it, is the pace. Even the Little Rascals sat down for breakfast together. Being thoughtful about your space, your resources, your food, where the objects of our life come from and where they all go; devoting the time to put those ideals into practice… getting objects to people who will love and use them, recycling and reusing, cooking as much as possible from scratch. These all sound like old-fashioned ideals that many will tell you just aren’t possible in modern society, but all they require is being thoughtful and devoting time.

How do we want to live? What kind of people do we want to be? If we try to find a silver lining in this crisis it could be that it is forcing so many of us to stop running headlong through life, believing we don’t have time for things. Life is time. If we are alive we have time, and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t up to you how to spend it. What we, as a culture, need to do is stop ceding control of that time, those decisions about how we spend it, to someone or something else- our culture, our job, our technology, our expectations, or someone else’s.

Right now my daughter Greta is downstairs baking bread for lunch today. She won’t use sugar, create clutter or make any garbage in the process. Today we’ve done the best we can do, and that’s good enough. I know I was born with a truly exceptional ability to worry about the future, and that’s what comes easily. The harder part is reminding myself instead that today is what we have and often- often- that’s pretty darned good. The harder part is reminding myself to just be grateful for a family lunch at our table, and a still-warm loaf of bread.

—-

Homemade bread nourishes you twice: it’s relaxing to make it and delicious to eat it.

Here’s my favorite bread recipe, what Greta made today. If you make it let me know how it turns out!:

Oatmeal Sandwich Bread

  • 1 cup old fashioned oats
  • 3 cups boiling water
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup barley malt syrup or brown rice syrup (in a pinch you can even use dark corn syrup, which is glucose not fructose)
  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour

In the bowl of a mixer, put a cup of oats. Pour boiling water over oats and let sit one hour.

At one hour, sprinkle the yeast, salt, and olive oil on top. Add the barley malt syrup and mix with dough hook. Stir in whole wheat flour. Stir in 2 cups of all-purpose flour. Then stir in 2 more cups of all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup at a time, mixing in between each addition.

Turn dough out onto a foured surface for kneading. Use the final cup of flour to add to dough whenever it gets sticky. Knead for five minutes, until dough has absorbed most of the final cup of flour and feels smooth. Place in a bowl and allow to rise for one hour.

Butter two loaf pans and heat oven to 350 degrees. After the hour has passed, turn dough onto counter, cut in half, and place each half in a bread pan. Allow to rise another 30 minutes.

Bake at 350 for 33 minutes. Remove bread from oven and allow to sit for five minutes before turning loaves out and letting cool on a rack.

 

 

 

Things I am wondering today:

March 14, 2020 § 2 Comments

  • At what point are they gonna cancel high school for Ilsa?
  • And for how long?
  • What does “anthropogenic” mean?
  • Like, it’s bad, right?
  • Do I have time to do my writing today AND drive forty minutes to buy milk in glass bottles?
  • I now have a houseful of kids- I mean, young adults– fleeing the craziness of NYC in the wake of Coronapocalyse.
  • Can I keep them all fed AND stay No Garbage?
  • On a related note, are Greta’s friends gonna think I’m as crazy as a soup sandwich?
  • Would they think that anyway?
  • Saran Wrap seems to be made of polyethylene.
  • Is it?
  • And if so, does that mean it’s recyclable at the supermarket?
  • Is there ANYTHING harder than trying to wash Saran Wrap?
  • Giving a chicken a manicure, maybe?
  • We are now out of toothpaste.
  • How, exactly, will my husband react when I present him with toothpaste homemade from baking soda?
  • Toothpaste can’t be grounds for divorce, can it?
  • On a related note, is Terracycle really all that?
  • But, like, really?
  • I probably have to stop hating hand sanitizer now, don’t I?
  • Damn.
  • Are the kids- I mean young adults– bored yet?
  • How about now?
  • Don’t we have a soccer ball around here somewhere?
  • Should I make another trip to the 45-minutes-away butcher to stock the freezer?
  • Or, perhaps go hide under the bed?
  • Is it wrong to try to be No Garbage when the world seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket?
  • Or, is it an excellent strategy to stay sane?

There’s a Crazy Lady in the Kitchen

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.

Hiding it all under the bed suddenly seems like a very viable option.

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”?

The Mysterious Milkman and Aseptic Cartons

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.

Our old milk box looked just like this one and now I feel very old.

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.

I hear the cartons are meeting in secret at night behind the blender. I don’t like it.

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?

The Carton Council’s list of places you can mail your cartons to currently.

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.

Confessions of a Paper Towel Addict

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?

I have a problem

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.

I keep dishtowels and cloth napkins in a bowl by the kitchen

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?”

Me in my lovely laundry room

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.

It’s the Little Things

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?

Be honest. Is it weird that I am inspired by a piece of gravel?

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?

Turns out? Fixable.

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 horrific yarn mess before…

…and after.

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.

Demystifying the Big Supermarket Box

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:

A Mystery Worthy of a Scooby Doo Episode?

Admit it. You’ve wondered.

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.

Print the full poster by clicking here

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.

Oh, this is WAY too small for you to read! Instead check here to see if your supermarket sends its Plastic Film to Trex

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:

  1. Is the plastic able to be stretched? YES! Trex wants it.
  2. 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.

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