In Amy Korst’s how-to book, The Zero Waste Lifestyle, she describes how she and her husband went from normal garbage-producing Americans to generating less than three pounds of trash per year (enough to fill a shoe box), a feat which I suppose could cause some folks to intermittently consider them role models or complete wackjobs. Either way, just because the author’s family is “all-in” doesn’t mean the rest of us should be “all out,” and to Korst’s great credit, the message of her book isn’t one of deprivation and denouncement of all things 21st Century, but rather an encouragement to start thinking about garbage differently and to take steps towards reducing it. To help the reader along, she illustrates what other American’s have done – some whose goals are quite lofty, others whose missions are more modest.
Prior to reading her book, I felt like my family was already practicing what I consider to be the low-hanging fruit of waste reduction, and I wanted additional ideas. My family of five normally produces about 1½ kitchen bags of garbage per week. Less than many. More than most, especially if one considers the world beyond the U.S.’s borders. But I wondered if there were other simple steps I could take. Turns out there are, and I’ve incorporated a few additional practices in the past few months without any effort at all.
Here’s what we’d already been doing:
1) Using reusable grocery bags, lunch boxes and lunch food containers.
2) Double siding nearly all of our printing paper, including sheets my kids bring home from school.
3) Recycling anything we can, even those things that our city doesn’t pick up: things like electronics, ink cartridges, batteries, old smoke alarms, fluorescent light bulbs, etc. (note: recycling is not the panacea some people think it is. More on that later.)
4) Choosing cloth napkins rather than paper napkins (most of the time).
5) Avoiding using paper plates, plastic utensils and plastic cups. There are exceptions, but we now use these products maybe a few times a year.
6) Composting all of our food-based scraps and using the compost in our garden each year (this is neither difficult, smelly nor messy. Couldn’t be easier and the benefits are huge).
As a result of these efforts, we’ve virtually eliminated plastic baggies from our lives, have limited the number of plastic grocery bags we accumulate, created garbage that’s much less messy and limited our new paper consumption to approximately two reams a year.
Not perfect, but a start.
I looked for addition ideas in Korst’s book. Some I found useful, some not so much, but that’s cool. The idea is do what you can and then do a little more. The most important accomplishment of her book is to get readers to start thinking about garbage differently. As a result, in addition to using some of her suggestions directly, I came up with a few of my own, and continue to ask the question: is this disposable item necessary, or can there be another way?
Here’s what we’ve incorporated into our lifestyle since reading Korst’s book:
1) We’ve started using reusable produce bags. I was concerned that these mesh bags might pose a problem for cashiers, but that hasn’t been the case at all. In fact, most of the time I get compliments for using them, and now we can even purchase the bags at our local grocery store, so they’re becoming less of a novelty.
2) I no longer use Swiffer sheets for my hardwood floors. Instead, I use cut-to-size scrap pieces of fleece we had laying around. When they get overly dusty, I grab off the clumps and throw the fleece in the wash. Wa la (this was my own idea, and it works beautifully).
3) I no longer throw out scraps of wood, but rather use them as kindling for our camping and backyard fires.
4) When I have a choice between purchasing something in a plastic bottle vs. something in aluminum or glass, I choose the latter. Recycling is a messy business, and it’s important to note that not all recycling is created equal. Aluminum and steel recycle very efficiently compared to, say, paper and plastic. Best to avoid plastic whenever possible for a variety of reasons.
5) I don’t use paper towels very often, but when I do they come from post-consumer material. That goes for bathroom tissue, too. Is it as soft? Heck no! But it’s really not a big deal.
6) I no longer buy plastic bags for pet waste.
About that last point, allow me to elaborate about plastic bags. I’ve heard some people say, “Why should I use canvas bags at grocery stores when I reuse the plastic bags for my dog’s or cat’s waste? And besides, those reusable grocery store bags don’t last very long and I end up having to throw them out.” Good questions, for sure. Here’s what my recent experience has been.
First, I’ve been using some grocery store bags for over fifteen years, but they’re not the cheap synthetic bags you’ll find at Target and other stores. They’re made of thicker cotton – almost like denim – and these last forever. Here’s an example.
As for pet waste, what I’ve found is that I have more sources for carrying waste than I realized. Consider the following:
1) The liners of cereal boxes. It never occurred to me to use these prior to reading Korst’s book, but now I use each and every one of them. In the morning when we finish up a box of cereal, I take the liner out and clean the cats’ little boxes. Yes, it’s still producing waste, but it’s using what I already have. It’s a small step.
2) The bags that paper towels and toilet paper come in. These work great for litter, and would probably even work for dog waste in the back yard.
3) Newspaper bags. You might be saying, “If you really care about eliminating waste, why get a paper in the first place?” Good point. This will be one of my goals in the upcoming weeks. I only get the Sunday paper, but it’s a huge waste. However, I also get a neighborhood paper delivered automatically, and I reuse the bag it comes in for pet waste.
There is so much more I can do, and little by little, I’m reducing my family’s garbage addiction. Some of Korst’s suggestions seem almost batty, like taking a glass straw when you go out to restaurants or convincing women to stop using tampons or pads. Not all of her suggestions are for everyone. But there’s no question that all of us can do better.
Why not take some modest steps and see where it takes you?