If You Need Me, I’ll Be At The Store

January 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

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.

Year Of No Garbage Tip Of The Week

January 20, 2020 § Leave a comment

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

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.

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.

Ugh.

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.

The Learning Curve Goes Straight Up

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.

When did cheese and plastic get married? More importantly, why was I not invited?

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.

Pardon me while I mortgage the house, people. I have cheese to buy.

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.

Day Two: Are Having Fun Yet?

January 7, 2020 § 13 Comments

“Well THIS is going to be fun. I don’t get to have crackers for a whole year?”

Greta was fuming. Grouchiness was coming off her like vapor off a steam engine as we plodded back to her Brooklyn apartment. We were returning from our first visit to her local grocery store of the new year- the brand-new Year of No Garbage for our family- and I think it would be fair to categorize it as an unmitigated disaster.

“I’m just saying. Carr’s Crackers are my childhood. They’re part of my ritual when I come home from classes. I mean— I’ve finally figured out all the things here that have no sugar!!!”

Greta & Ilsa were SO CAREFUL to make sure their coffee cups and lids were recyclable. This is the moment we realized Rockefeller Center has removed all recycling containers for security purposes. We carried those cups around for HOURS. Alternate caption: Mom’s Projects Suck

I felt terrible. Everything I said to try to console her just turned into another argument. We can make crackers! Yeah, but they won’t be as good. They might be even better! Probably not.

Of course it wasn’t just the crackers. The first five things we had picked up in the store were returned to the shelves in despair: clementines in plastic netting, no-sugar bacon in vacuum-sealed plastic, bread in shiny see-through bags, cheese of all shapes and sizes in cellophane, and of course, the infamous, last-straw Carr’s Crackers which had become a staple in our house during the Year of No Sugar, and which we well know contain a cellophane bag inside their paperboard box.

Ilsa was just as indignant. Her eye had been on a package of smoked salmon and cream cheese pinwheels that had been wrapped in approximately fourteen different kinds of plastic, all of which screamed LANDFILL to anyone who would listen.

So in between sparring with Greta on the hopelessness of our situation, Ilsa jumped in with her own commentary. (me:)What if we make our own pinwheels? We could buy smoked salmon and cream cheese… Smoked salmon comes in plastic. We can get it at the fish store! I don’t like that kind as much. Besides they won’t sell it to you without a plastic bag either.

Despair, despair, despair.

In desperation I even pulled out the Big Picture Talk: “You know guys, this year… it’s going to be a process. It isn’t going to just be easy. And a lot of things we’ll have to research and learn and… that’s the value of doing this whole thing, right?”

They just looked at me with utter blankness on their faces. Well known to parents of young people, it’s the look that says: “Yeah. Right.”

By the time we got to Greta’s basement apartment, I had about had it: Look. Guys. It’s Day TWO. Are we ready to give up? Is that it? And Greta, you volunteered to do this in the city. If you don’t want to do this then you don’t have to. Yes I do! No you don’t! Yes I do!

There was an aggravated silence, broken at last by Steve. “So! How was the store?”

“It was awesome. EVERYBODY’S MAD AT ME.” I responded.

“I’m not mad.” Greta said, growing quiet. “I guess I’m just… scared.” I was stopped dead by the abrupt shift in her demeanor.

“I’m sorry mama. I just feel like, if I don’t do this project… I won’t be a part of this family anymore.” She paused. “And, I also feel like you’ve forgotten how hard Year of No Sugar really was.”

She had me there. “First of all, you are ALWAYS a part of this family, no matter what.” I said firmly. “And second… you’re right. Sometimes I think I remember, but I also think I forget too.” After a pause I added, “Plus, you guys are older. You fight back much harder now.” This made the girls smile. And just like that the First Big Argument was over and we were on the same team again.

The fact is, I had forgotten how hard it is to do a big against-the-societal-grain-project like this. It’s like swimming upstream, all day long, every day. How could I have possibly forgotten that? And how could I fail to take into account the amount of strain that puts on our family? Of course I knew the answer to my own question: it was because I get so mesmerized by the power of The Big Idea, and I want so badly to do it. Was it wrong for me to ask that of my family? I don’t always know the answer to that question.

But I was heartened by Greta’s ability to identify her anger as fear, and her ready willingness to express it. If only, I thought, if only we can all manage to work together as a team, and not take our frustrations out on each other, that would be essential to getting us through this year in one piece. That, and a little luck. With that thought, I breathed a sigh of relief as we put the last groceries away in the cupboard.

Then we went outside to find that our car had been towed.

 

Year of No Garbage Day One

January 1, 2020 § 10 Comments

I’m terribly excited to announce that our third and final family Deprivation Adventure will be…. a Year of No Garbage.

So far I’ve only told a handful of folks about this project. Their response is always the same: there’s a pause, a thoughtful “hmm” look, followed by a small smile and then: “What about (insert trash item here)?”

What about milk containers? What about old clothing? What about the plastic cellophane wrap at the top of a water bottle?

Believe me, as January first loomed ever closer on our family calendar, we’ve all stopped countless times to look up at the rest of us and suddenly ask a variant of this question.

What about Band-Aids? What about the paper they wrap our sandwiches in at the local deli? How about chips? Are those bags recyclable? What about toothpaste? Or plastic pull-tabs?

So many questions. Which, of course, is one of the reasons I love this project and why I’ve been thinking about it in the back of my mind for- I’m not kidding- years now. As this last week of December unfolded and New Years approached, it was as if every time I went to throw something into the trash I’d go into slow motion, pausing to consider: what was I really throwing away, anyway? And, as if for the first time I really looked at our trash and thought about it. Sure, there were things I realized on second thought were probably recyclable after all, and which were then rerouted to another bin, or the compost container. But many things were just “hmmm” things— things I had really never been given a real reason to stop and consider before.

There were yarn bits from a knitting project. The plastic wrapper from a block of cheese. The plastic netting from a bag of clementines. Foam packaging from a new piece of technology. The wrapper from a stick of butter.

Oh my yes, this will be a very interesting year.

Just as in our previous projects, of course, there will be rules– some parameters we’ve already decided and others that we haven’t even yet realized we need to consider. The main gist is this: we can recycle. We can compost. We can donate, give away and sell. But no trash, no garbage and no landfill. After one big final garbage sweep of the house (see our one minute video above) all the trash cans in our house have been removed.

And, as before, there will be exceptions. The first is health and safety. If one of my kids needs a Band-Aid, or medicine with a made-for-the-landfill wrapper? They’re getting it. Period. Also, my husband’s photography business will need to continue to function, so his studio across the street will still be able to throw away trash, with the understanding that he will work to minimize it as much as possible.

Both our daughters Greta and Ilsa, now ages 19 and 14, will participate. Given that Greta now goes to school in New York City, that should prove to be an especially challenging and interesting part of the project.

And as before we will, of course, make mistakes. There will be dead ends. There will be a box to contain the items that represent those moments, which I have named the Whoops Box and my husband has alternately named the WTF Box.

Our garbage company allots us one 96-gallon container worth of trash removal a week, and I’ve been paying attention: we fill it every week. That means our household alone is contributing nearly 5,000 gallons a year to a landfill somewhere. This year? Our goal is to reduce that contribution to none.

Think we can do it?

Stay tuned to find out. Be sure to follow me on Instagram and use the hashtags #yearofnogarbage and #trashlesseve

Happy New Year everyone!

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