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?

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.

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.

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