How to Start Reducing Waste in Modern America
For Christmas this year, our family visited friends in Senegal. Our friends work for the US government and an NGO, so our experience was closer to their ex-pat life than to a typical tourist experience of Senegal, if such a thing exists. We spent a few days in Dakar, and drove up to St. Louis for a couple of days, passing through dozens of small towns and new developments.
Some features of the landscape that we all noticed were the baobab trees, standing starkly in fields that were denuded of other plant life. Cows and goats and donkeys wandered on and off the road, which was littered everywhere with plastic trash. Most of the trash was plastic water bottles and water bags. In St. Louis, erosion has displaced fishermen from the beaches they live on and launch from. They’ve moved to tents on the far side of the city, nowhere near the boats that enable their livelihood.
Climate change feels more day-to-day in Senegal than it does here. When I thought about all the trash, though, I realized we have as much, if not more, than they do. We just do a better job hiding it. We have municipal trash and recycling collection, and potable tap water. Their problem is that there’s no infrastructure to hide the problem. Our shared problem is that we are creating too much waste in the first place.
In our last bill from Waste Management, there was a notice that said that China is being much more selective in what recycled materials they will buy from us. For example, they will no longer buy soiled plastic and glass. Please wash out your food containers before recycling them, WM asked. My mother-in-law wondered whether the water wasted wasn’t itself a cost that began to outweigh the value of the product, and I don’t know the answer to that.
I’ve been following @tinytrashcan on Instagram for awhile. I’m impressed by the efforts she has undertaken but I don’t have the same level of commitment to the effort of a zero waste home that she has. I read Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, and she talks about the fatigue and disappointment that can come from trying to zero waste absolutely everything. Making her own keffir, for example, entailed becoming a yeast farmer.
While I do believe that climate change will only be addressed when we have the infrastructure to tackle waste creation, I also believe that individual choices can help create a culture of waste reduction. I think there’s a reason that Marie Kondo fascinates everyone right now. We all know that there’s too much stuff and that it’s holding us back. We need less in our lives.
I’ve already Kon-Maried my life a couple of times. I figured it was time to start making other efforts to replace disposable items in our house with non-disposable items. I just started but I thought I’d share what I’ve done so far.
- I’ve started tackling the junk mail. We get mail for my husband’s deceased grandmother (he was the executor of her estate) and I’ve started marking it all “Deceased — Return to Sender.” For all catalogs, I register them at Catalog Choice (a service that helps you opt out of catalogs) but if they keep coming, I go to the company website and track down contact information to opt out of mailings. Next step: start marking our junk mail “Refused Return to Sender.”
- I made a bunch of handkerchiefs for my older son, who goes through tissues like it’s his paid job or something. If you aren’t a sewing person, you can buy handkerchiefs in the mens’ department of a department store, or just cut old T-shirts into 8x8 or 10x10 squares. Then rewash them until they fall apart. Next step: Make more for the rest of us.
- Ordered milk delivery. Believe it or not, the Bay Area has a milk man who delivers milk in glass bottles and picks them up for return the next week. We got our first delivery today so I don’t know how this will work out. Next step: Add other products for regular delivery that have returnable or no packaging (for example, I might change my CSA box because they’ve been putting everything in plastic lately).
- I cancelled paper delivery from Office Depot. We have a backlog and I need to do a better job using paper that has been printed on once as scrap instead of burning through new paper all the time. Next step: use one-side printed paper for grocery lists instead of fresh legal pads or post-it notes.
- I got a reusable coffee filter. Since it’s made of plastic (while the paper ones are compostable), I am uncertain about the long-term value of this. We’ll see.
- I’m throwing away the many shopping bags we have that were ripped or donating the ones that are too small to carry very many groceries. I identified the five best bags to use. I put them in my car, and return them to the trunk after use. For some reason, having fewer has made it easier to use them.
- I ordered Thinx, the underwear that you can wear for your period without a pad. I haven’t gotten them yet, but if I can eliminate even half of the waste from that whole process it will be a miracle. Next steps: Try them!
- I got a shammy to use for wiping up kitchen spills instead of using a dozen paper towels every time it happens (i.e. every other day).
I think I’m off to a decent start. Now that I notice how much waste there is, I feel bummed out that I’ve just discarded another plastic bag, but I also feel inspired to think of ways to avoid bringing the bag into my life in the first place. I will not become a yeast farmer though. That’s a bridge too far.