The goal: For our family of six to produce less than one garbage bag of trash a week.
I started this goal (in earnest) in February. Back then I decided to use the first month of the challenge to really pay attention to what we were throwing away, then start the slow, intentional process of reducing waste.
I took this really seriously, and immediately started examining everything that went into the trash. I lectured my kids and (especially) my husband. The first step is awareness, I always say. Imagine me smacking my husband’s hand as he reaches for a Ziploc, researching ways to reduce food waste, and trying to find out once and for all if I can compost the heel of the banana bread that no one will eat.
Looking back, it all seems so innocent, so sweet, right? (Doesn’t EVERYTHING feel that way!? How naively we used to meet friends for coffee! Awww! Remember those adorable trips to the grocery store to pick up ONE THING!? We were so cute!)
Since those days, the quarantine happened. And, well? I honestly barely think about waste.
I have a friend who hasn’t used a paper towel since the Clinton administration. She texted me and confessed that she and her roommates, who live in New York City, are using a roll a day. They have to, otherwise they’d be risking their health.
I have always known that waste reduction is a matter of privilege — most choice usually are. A lot of my family’s waste comes from food trash, wrappers and containers. I love to cook, so it is fun for me to think about how I can make more from scratch. It’s all privilege — access to food, ingredients, money, time. Same goes for having the space to compost, or the money to subscribe to a composting service.
I’ve always known this, but it’s more glaring now. You can’t choose to not use safe, disposable disinfectants when you have an autoimmune disorder and you’re living in the epicenter of a global pandemic. (To clarify, I’m describing my friend.) In this case, access to cleaning supplies is the privilege.
What I’m trying to say is: the goal has taken a back seat. In the front seat is doing what I have to do to take care of my family and myself in this unprecedented time.
I hope that’s what you’re doing, too.
This isn’t all shouting from the bottom of the pandemic well.
We actually have made some progress, and I did learn a few things in the weeks that I was plowing full-steam ahead. First, I was really encouraged by how we are SO CLOSE to one bag a week already. WE CAN DO THIS. Second, I realized how quickly I can take things like this too far. As in, getting a little *too* mad at my husband when he tosses recyclables in the trash (“I THOUGHT YOU LOVED ME!”).
Here are some of my takeaways:
- Eating out creates SO MUCH TRASH. I joked to someone that one way I’d meet my goal would be to make sure I threw everything away before we got home. It’s a funny joke but it’s also true. The first DAY of my challenge, Tom brought home a bunch of leftovers from a catered dinner. So.Many.Containers. Nothing that I could recycle or reuse.
- Those diapers, man. A ton of our trash is diaper trash. If I could go back in time and get Anna in cloth, I would. But I can’t. I also can’t potty train her until she’s ready. (I have spent about five minutes trying to encourage her to potty train and it was a terrible five minutes. Back to the original plan — wait until she’s ready.) So here we are.
- We throw away a lot of wrappers. Granola bars, bags of pretzels, those awesome canisters of crescent rolls, etc., etc., etc. I love the challenge of making more from scratch, and hopefully helping my kids see the waste they create.
- We also throw away a lot of packaging. As in, that toy I bought for a birthday that comes in a giant plastic thing. Or the Amazon order that inexplicably comes in 12 separate envelopes (I CHECKED THE BOX THAT SAID AS FEW SHIPMENTS AS POSSIBLE!) And do not get me started on LOL dolls. I realized the painful truth that the best way to reduce waste is to reduce consumption. Minimalism, contentment, simplicity, environmentalism all go hand-in-hand.
- Hospitality gets in the way of environmentalism. Perhaps this is another area that requires creativity (or energy!) but we really enjoy having people over. We don’t enjoy hours upon hours of prep or clean-up. Prep, meaning cooking everything from scratch. (Honest to goodness what would we do with out Costco pizza pick-up?) Clean-up meaning washing loads of dishes. This is one that will require compromise; hospitality trumps environmentalism. Until I can come up with some better ideas.
Veggie scraps for vegetable broth. After I make the broth I can compost the veggies.
A week or so before the world shut down, right when things were starting to get cancelled but weren’t quite yet, I frantically took a bunch of bags to be donated. This gigantic bag of plastic went to the Trex recycling program. Look at all that plastic!
These bags of tchotchkes went to a carnival that was collecting prizes for games. (The carnival has since been cancelled.) My kids got most of these from goody bags. WHY with the goody bags you guys!?
I think, after just a month of really considering this, my life-long goal isn’t to get down to one bag of trash a week. It’s to be a person who is thoughtful about consumption, not automatic. That change alone is bigger than putting a number on how much trash is “acceptable.” It’s just so easy to throw things away…There’s a quote floating around somewhere, attributed to someone that says something like “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
I love that, and I think that for my family it means balancing our priorities and figuring out what works NOW. That will change as our family continues to change. It will certainly change once we’re no longer in the middle of a flippin’ global pandemic.
That said, here are three easy changes we made immediately in the month that things were normal:
- We already recycled, but we UPPED OUR GAME. I’m driving my family crazy, but before it goes into the trash it gets scrutinized, dismantled, and sorted.
- We’re finding new ways to recycle things we couldn’t before. Plastics are a big one here. I’m washing and recycling so much more single-use plastic and I CANNOT BELIEVE how much plastic our family uses.
- Really, really using what we have. This goes especially for food (I cannot explain how satisfying it is for me to stretch food), and things that would normally go straight into the trash. It requires creativity, and isn’t burdensome if you let it be fun.
Not that there are silver linings, but it’s worth saying that the pandemic is naturally pushing us all into better environmental practices. We’re scraping our pantries clean, using what we have, and all of those impulse buys at Target have gone the way of social gatherings.
Plus, there are the global effects. Can you guys even believe all this stuff? I’ve heard there are coyotes on the Golden Gate Bridge, the canals in Venice are clear, and sea turtles can lay eggs on the beaches undisturbed.
Like everything, I’m wondering if we’ll all just go back to normal once this is over — back to our littering, consuming, polluting selves.
Perhaps. But perhaps not. Perhaps we’ll appreciate the view in the same way we’ll appreciate a hug. Only time will tell.