What to Do with My Garbage?

I read most of the posts at Sven Eberlein’s blog, A World of Words. Natural balance within the world’s ecosystems and our ways-of-life are of utmost importance to Sven; he has a big-picture, insightful outlook on how to heal our intentions and our corrupted planet. I think about his ideas, yet there is no nice way to say this: We ignorant Americans, in the blissful, forward-motion of living large, have done a great deal of damage to our home planet, the great living being, Gaia, who holds us in space in incredibly beautiful settings, provides the food we eat, the water we drink, and materials for our shelters. The enormous profits generated by those giddy to feed our never-ending ‘make it bigger, better, faster, more-more-more’ mindset, have been earned at the expense of our health and our world’s health. We must stop ourselves individually–change course–to change the course of those who supply us.

The first time I noticed anyone speaking of the dangers of becoming dependent on one exhaustible product—oil–for energy, was in the 70s during the ‘oil embargo,’ when we had to wait in long lines to get gasoline, and some days the gas stations ran out. I remember one man saying, “We can use the sun to produce energy, for God’s sake!” Even back then, powerful, wealthy men had created massive systems of pumping, processing and distributing oil. People speaking of alternative, inexhaustible systems of generating energy and products have always been shut down by extremely well-paid lobbyists who have learned campaign donations buys government compliance. All of this has made those powerful people believe they are invulnerable. We may want big-screen, high-definition televisions and cool phones and cars, but they want to control us, the world’s governments and dictate how our lives will unfold. “Curse you, you ignoramus’s! You WILL use oil and you WILL use our products made from oil!”

Though Sven’s writing at A World of Words inspires readers to believe we can learn new (old) ways to live without destroying ourselves and the world, my trying to grasp how far-reaching the problem of oil/plastics is (after I read a piece at Grist.org excerpted from a book by journalist Amanda Little called Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells—Our Ride to the Renewable Future) left me deeply discouraged. Here are several paragraphs from Little’s book:

“So one morning I took a small, quiet, but personally momentous tour around my office. My aim was to count the things in my midst that were, in one way or another, tied to fossil fuels. Since nearly all plastics, polymers, inks, paints, fertilizers, and pesticides are made from petrochemicals, and all products are delivered to market by trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes, there was virtually nothing in my office—my body included—that wasn’t there because of fossil fuels.

I had understood intellectually…that the energy landscape encompasses not just oil fields, coal mines, gas stations, and the vast network of copper wires that feeds electricity to our homes and offices. It’s also the cornfields in America’s heartland, the battlefields of Iraq, and the medical labs that produce penicillin, Novocain, chemotherapy drugs, and many other treatments and cures. It’s the cosmetics shelves and magazine racks in our drugstores. It’s the constantly humming, behind-the-scenes network of ships, planes, trains, and trucks that transport products to our store shelves. It’s even our own bodies, which we routinely drape in synthetic fabrics like spandex and nylon, and feed with crops that were fertilized by fossil fuels, and stitch up with plastic sutures.

Once I connected the dots between so many seemingly disparate elements of my life—my car, my clothes, my email, my makeup, my burger, even my health—I saw an energy landscape far more vast and complex than I’d ever imagined. I realized also that this thing I’d thought was a bad word—oil—was actually the source of many creature comforts I use and love, and many survival tools I need.”

Amanda Little goes on to say it was American ingenuity that resulted in our using oil for everything (at this point), and it will be American ingenuity that inspires products and propels into being the emerging energy technologies, the alternatives to fossil fuels: solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels, and hybrid-electric cars like the Toyota Prius. Just like Sven, her outlook is positive, and rightly so. Should we just give in or give up on ourselves and our world?

After reading and watching so much about the environment in the last couple of years, I began to feel a connection with our planet. A new thought crept into my consciousness: I’m not doing my part. I’m using my ill health/disability and lack of income as an excuse. It was like a punch in the gut. I’m embarrassed by my selfish my thought-processes revealed here:

“But wait,” I argued with my best-self. “I use those free plastic grocery bags to pick up my dog’s daily deposits. I’m supposed to pay for biodegradable doggie-pooper-scooper bags out of our small budget IN PLACE of the plastic bags I already have? (Yes. Stop putting them in the garbage cans, thus into landfills, where they will remain forever.)

“How will I bring our groceries home?” (Buy the cloth bags—they’re available for a dollar now at many locations. Bring them into the store and ask the checker to use them.) “How will I remember to bring them to the store?” (After you carry in your groceries, carry the bags back out to the car. It’s a matter of changing your habits. I promise you will learn to remember them after you have to go back to your car a few times.)

And, though we had recycled for the many years we had a home and recycling service, I argued: “But I can’t recycle in these apartments; they don’t do recycling here.” (You will find a way.)

So, I found an unused (plastic, of course) garbage can, hand lettered a sign on bright yellow card stock with the word “Recycle” and I pinned the sign above the empty garbage can, which now sits next to our throw-away garbage can. The very next time I went in the kitchen, I washed and recycled a can that had contained beans. It felt so good, like I had come home. I added milk and orange juice bottles and glass jars, feeling more weight come off my shoulders with each item dropped into the ‘recycle’ can.

When my daughter got home, she said, “Mom! This is awesome! We’re recycling again! But they don’t recycle here. Where will you put it?” After I said, “Don’t ask me,” we discussed collecting bags of recycled items, driving to the ritzy apartments next door, and, using mental cloaking for our old car (a dead giveaway that we don’t live there), speed in, slow down in front of their recycling bin, and my daughter would throw the bags in. Then we’d peel out on two wheels. I also spoke with a neighbor who I knew collects bags of stuff to supplement the family income, but only plastic water bottles and aluminum cans, neither of which we use.

Two days later my mom stopped by. “Oh!” she said with a big smile. “You’re recycling again! But where will you put it?” “Don’t ask me,” I said. She sat and we talked and later she smiled again and said, “I can take it and put it in with my recycling.” “Really?” I asked. “You’d do that?” “Of course I will. You know that.” My mother has taken three bags of containers for recycling already. I did find a way–or it found me. My best self, who often writes here, was right. For now, I’m ignoring the thought that those tall kitchen garbage bags containing our recycling probably can’t be recycled. I don’t even know where to buy garbage bags that are biodegradable.

But since we started recycling again, I realized there is something every family can do. I bought eight cloth one-dollar grocery bags the last time I went shopping and the checker was happy to use them. I looked at the blue pooper-scooper bags, but they didn’t say biodegradable, so I didn’t buy them. I might have to go to a pet store for them.

Making a difference all starts with deciding the earth, and our relationships with it, are more important than our whiny or careless thoughts and habits. There must be a hundred little things we can choose from in order to use less stuff and energy, like unplugging our toasters and computers when we’re not using them, or combining our errands into one trip. Years back, we had a seven-year drought and were asked to turn off the water when brushing our teeth and to flush our toilets only for bowel movements. We live in a desert and I still do those things. I’ll keep my eye out for a list of other things. A lot of caring for our planet is about using what we already have, or thinking of creative ways to re-use our stuff. While it’s true that my efforts, or your efforts alone, don’t make much difference, a whole bunch of us together makes a whopping difference. Think of NOT getting the latest and greatest as something you want to do. That’s how the ideas above, so small yet important, snuck up on me and bulldozed me to again take more responsibility for the garbage I create–with my mom’s help.

Here’s a link about alternatives to plastic bags at a great WordPress blog called Liberated Spaces. And I found a list at Sustainable Environment for Quality of Life of 100 little things we can do, that added up make a big difference.

6 thoughts on “What to Do with My Garbage?

  1. Pam, what a great inspiration you are! I really do believe that individual efforts like yours make a huge difference, not only because of the few less items that end up in the landfill but because of the conversation and exchange it inspires. Maybe if a few more people in your community start taking their recyclables to their neighbors’ complex, the word will spread and eventually your local government will implement a full program for the community. That’s how everything starts, just a few people leading by example and changing the status quo. When I was in college in the late 80s there was no recycling on campus, so a friend and I converted a couple of old molasses bins into recycling containers, build lids out of plywood, and painted “bottles” and “cans” on them. We picked them up in our old van once a week and took it to a recycling center in the next town, the only place back then for recycling. Today there are shiny recycling bins all over campus, integrated with waste management, and recycling just seems to be 2nd nature.

    So, while there’s a lot of systemic and structural hurdles still to take to make us less dependent on oil and its many products, it’s the small acts such as yours that create awareness and change the trajectory.

    Oh, and very timely, Deb just posted a really helpful story about how to live with fewer plastic bags, check it out:

    Life without single-use plastic bags? Tote-ally awesome

    • Sven, you and Deb are the inspirations. It must be so awesome to know that wherever you go, you are sharing about and working at changing the thoughtlessness of the ways we live. Thanks for Deb’s timely link. I’m going to place it into my post and look for other small changes people can make.

  2. Thanks, again for the link, Pam, and for the candid and honest account of your journey to minimize your input to your local landfill!

    Now, as far as those compostable doggie poop bags – if you’re still receiving a newspaper or have access to any free newspapers, grab those and use the paper instead! It’s the old-school way!

    And speaking of paper, check with your local hardware store for large garden/leaf refuse 2-ply kraft paper bags. As I tell my clients, they aren’t just for garden waste. I use them regularly with clients who shred large amounts of paper, and for the purpose you describe – to transport empty cans, etc. for recycling – these would be perfect. I usually replenish my supply when the local ACE hardware store has a five-pack on sale. (see: http://www.acehardwareoutlet.com/productDetails.aspx?SKU=6065411)

    • Thanks, Deb! Using newspaper to pick up my dog’s leavings had crossed my mind, because one day he went and I used the plastic bag I had with me, and then he went again and I had to dig some newspaper out of the garbage can to pick it up. I don’t subscribe to a paper, but once a week the mailman leaves newspaper flyers/ads in our mailboxes, which many people throw in the garbage can right there. It would be easy to grab some and use those. Using newspaper is not as neat for the person doing the pooper-scooping, but at my age, I’m long overdue to choose helping, over hurting, our planet. After I read Sven’s comment yesterday, I realized that if we care enough we can get really creative and, like he and his friend did, start a stampede! Have you or he written about other creative solutions that make a difference? I’d like to add those links to this post, if you have.

      I did check out the compostable bags at the Ace Hardware site. The paper bags come in larger quantities that makes it hard for me to buy them, but there are 12-packs of compostable plastic bags for about $5. The shipping is too much ($8) so I’ll look locally. I figure a 12-pack will last us for a long time, since my mom is so good about reusing things. She will take the recyling bagful with her and then return the bag to me. She is a wonderful example of people who wasted not, reused and composted. I’m proud she is my mom. Thanks so much for helping me to do better.:)

      P.S.–Here are the direct links to compostable bags at Ace Hardware online:

      PAPER: http://www.acehardwareoutlet.com/SearchResults.aspx?SimpleSearchValue=paper+trash+bags

      PLASTIC COMPOSTABLE: http://www.acehardwareoutlet.com/SearchResults.aspx?SimpleSearchValue=compostable+trash+bags

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