Living with Less - Garbage

One of the ways to assess how "efficiently" one is living is to examine one's waste output. I live in an affluent neighborhood and there is lots of "stuff" being discarded all the time. There are those who drive through such areas and rescue perfectly good things for reuse or resale. Some people even encourage this by putting things on the curb on Sunday afternoon rather than on Monday morning when the trash gets collected. This gives those who are looking for such items a chance to find them.

So, having previously said that I'm in my "post-materialist" phase, I've been examining what I discard. We have recycling programs for paper and bottles and cans so I can easily see how much of each category I'm discarding.

We have a pickup every other week of mixed bottles (plastic and glass)and cans. The town provides a green medium sized (about one meter high)container for this material. Papers must be bundled. We manage to almost fill the container in the two week period. The most common items are jars and cans that held processed foods. This means things like canned soup, tomato sauce (which comes in jars), jams and jelly jars and an occasional aluminum tray which held baked muffins. Many fresh food items are now packaged in rigid clear plastic boxes and we recycle these as well.

Our one waste indulgence is the daily NY Times. This generates about a grocery bag full of paper a week. In addition we get a number of magazines and the unstoppable supply of catalogs. The local newspaper (which we don't get) has revealed their true objective and has started delivering the weekly supermarket flyers even to non-subscribers. In other words the ads are more important than the news.

Our kitchen garbage mostly consists of food scraps and inedible residues like coffee grounds. Some people attempt to compost this, but we don't have enough to make it worthwhile. I do some informal composting of the fall leaves by putting them into a wire cage that I built. By the next year a two meter high pile has reduced to about 10 cm of material that can be spread around the garden. If I bagged the leaves and put them out for collection the town would compost them instead. Doing something or doing nothing with leaves and grass clippings is a neutral action. In either case the material eventually goes back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

We have recently started to carry a bag into the supermarket, but this only works well when we are buying a modest amount. Otherwise we try to get paper bags which we use to recycle the newspapers in rather than plastic which have to be discarded. (Some stores will take them back, but I doubt they get recycled.)

As I've said before attempts to buy things which use less packaging are increasingly difficult. Spinach now comes in a bag or rigid plastic container, instead of being loose. All meats are sold on Styrofoam trays, usually with an absorbent pad underneath and overwrapped with plastic film. The days of butcher paper are long gone, even for custom cut orders.

Our town has started a recycling effort for environmentally damaging items and I've used it twice. The first time was to dispose of some old computer equipment and the second for some photographic chemicals that I will no longer use since switching to inkjet prints. They claim the electronics will be recycled, but I'm guessing hazardous chemicals (which includes paints and solvents) get buried - just somewhere else.

On a positive note a group has been started to try to get people off the junk mail catalog lists. You register your name and address and then select the firms that you no longer wish to get catalogs from and the group will pool the requests and forward them to the vendors. Persumably those who have agreed to participate will remove the names from their mailing lists. The site has only been up for a few weeks and claims it takes up to three months to see results, so it's impossible to say how it will turn out.

For those in the US here's the link: Catalog Choice

My conclusion is that reducing wasteful packaging is still not high on anyone's agenda. We don't buy bottled water or fizzy drinks and these are among the largest sources of waste plastic. The recycling efforts are modest and the material when reused has to be for items lower down in the chain like carpet backing fiber or similar. Recycling, even when successful, doesn't permit reuse in the same way as originally. That went out with the glass milk bottle and home delivery.

I don't see what else I can do to cut down the waste stream, packaging is still king.

Moral: Waste not want not.

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Copyright © 2007 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.