Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Adventures with bedbugs, episode 2

 For the riveting Episode 1 of Adventures With Bedbugs, see this link.

In this post, I'm going to write about how much I love my new heat gun, so I think I need to say right off the bat that

  • heat guns are not a recommended bedbug tool anywhere I can find on the internet;
  • heat guns can damage the finish on your furniture (after all, they're used to strip paint, so if you use them, you might end up stripping paint);
  • heat guns can start fires (I've haven't started fires myself, although I've set off a few smoke detectors, I think because of crispy dog hair);
  • and I LOVE MY HEAT GUN anyway.
With that said, let's resume the story in progress.  When we'd left off, an exterminator had agreed I'd correctly diagnosed the bed bug problem, but said the company couldn't come to treat them for a while (even if we'd signed the contract, the first treatment wouldn't be until a few days from today), and it'd cost $800.  So we decided to try to deal with this ourselves in the meanwhile, realizing we could go back and hire a professional in the future.

I have come to really appreciate the role of heat in eradicating these beasties.  For example, if we do hire pros, we're going to get some folks who can raise the temperature of the entire home to about 130 degrees.  Bedbugs and their eggs die at 122, so this treatment is reportedly very effective and non-toxic to boot, and it doesn't require coming back again and again (our local exterminators, who use spray, say they'd have to treat the home three times).   Another advantage of the heat treatment is that you don't have to bag up linens and clothes -- just open up your drawers and closets and let the heat do its work.

If bedbugs ever made an appearance at, say, my daughter's home, I'd urge her to go with this service immediately (she is a knitter, and has shelf upon shelf of yarn, and she also just generally likes being in a home where she has things piled on things).  But a whole-house heat treatment is also expensive -- like hundreds-to-a-thousand-dollars expensive -- and the nearest place that offers this service is an hour or so away.   So for me and my husband, who have wooden floors decorated with only the occasional floor rug and intermittent seasonal dog hair, and who have recently and happily pared down our earthly possessions, we're willing to try for a while with a more labor-intensive route.

Here are some things we've bought/tried since the bedbugs woke me up on the night of July 31/August 1.
  • Hypoallergenic mattress covers and pillow covers:  A+.  They don't let new bugs into the mattress; they don't let existing bugs out of the mattress; they're non-toxic; they make it easy to search for bedbugs (and I haven't seen any on them).  I wish I'd gotten these long ago.
  • Flashlight:  B.  Because if there are bedbugs somewhere in the house, you kind of wake up in the middle of the night wondering if that tickle means they're crawling on you -- but ever since that first night, all the tickles have been hair, or a wrinkle in the sheets, or my imagination.   Since bedbugs only come out at night, having a flashlight really helps with identifying where they are.  Nightmare inducing, but also useful.   
  • Oven:  A.  Bake bedside books at 130 degrees or so for a half hour.
  • Dryer:  A-.  I've emptied out my drawers and heated all my clothes.  I leave the dog bed in the bedroom at night to serve as "bait" so I can see whether we still have bugs, and then I toss the dog bed back in the dryer each morning.  Our small area rugs got the dryer treatment.  Basically, anything fabric we run through the dryer.  We use this a lot, and I'm not generally a fan of dryers.  The minus in the "A-" is because it uses a bunch of energy.
  • Plastic Garbage bags: C.  I broke down and bought a bunch of plastic garbage bags, even though I hate plastic.  But I really wanted to get the non-essential fabric things out of bedbug range, so now our rugs are in those; my summer dresses are in there; extra dog beds are in there . . . I'll try to give them away to someone who would actually use garbage bags for other things when this is all over.  In the meanwhile, they're really helping with peace-of-mind.  
  • Diatomaceous earth:  B.   This is non-toxic powder that dries the bedbugs out so they die . . . eventually, so they say.  I've sprinkled it kind of all over my bedroom floor and a couple of other places, into many cracks and crevices.  It's not nearly as effective as I thought it might be, but I'm still giving it a B because it's nontoxic and partly reusable (eventually, I'll sweep up the excess powder and stick in a jar for potential future use).  
  • Spray Poison:  D.  I bought it; I wish I hadn't.   There are multiple articles about bedbugs adapting resistance to these sprays; the spray comes in a plastic bottle, and it's toxic enough that you're not supposed to have pets or kids around while you're spraying or until after it dries.  
  • My heat gun.  A.   More on this later.

So, two Tuesdays ago, when our exterminator said he wouldn't be able to treat the home anytime soon, we panic-bought the spray and the diatomaceous earth.  I applied the spray to all the cracks/crevices I could think of in my room, and when it had dried, I sprinkled diatomaceous earth all around.

Friday, I moved back into the room.  I'd been "camping" down the hall; a reader Amanda pointed out that this might encourage the bugs to follow me, and several internet sources backed her up.  That Friday night, with my flashlight, I saw bedbugs crawling up my bedroom wall, coated in the white diatomaceous earth.  I saw them boogie-ing on my bedside stand.  I didn't get any in my bed, but earth-covered bugs did crawl into the dog bed with Prewash and snuggle up there.  I didn't get much sleep, needless to say.  Saturday, I had a return of my anxiety attacks -- yuckers.

However, I *did* figure out, thanks to my trusty flashlight and my nocturnal sleuthing, that the bugs had made a tiny little nest in the crack between the top of my bed stand and the sideboards of my bed stand.  This is a *really* nice piece of butcher-block furniture, so when I say "tiny crack", I am not exaggerating.  I smacked them with poison spray.  Yuck.  That helped a lot, as I haven't seen any bugs crawling up my bedroom walls since, although I have seen them in a few other random places.

I did more research.  It was clear from the wall-crawlers that the diatomaceous earth wasn't killing the bugs instantly.  I'd been hoping for something like the Wicked Witch of the West encountering water, or slugs with salt -- watching the bugs shrivel before my eyes.  That wasn't happening, alas.  It turns out, says the internet, that the desiccating (drying out) effect takes hours or maybe even days.  

We also dug more deeply into professional services that might use heat, because I wanted to be ready to bring them in if the bugs spread to other rooms or got out of control.    As I said above, the nearest place we could find is over an hour away, but now we have the number.  A nearby franchise of a national chain uses spot heating, we discovered, kind of like a steam heater, but without the steam.  My husband and I were talking about this option, wondering if we could DIY it.  A hair dryer, for example, gets things hot, but it also blows a lot.  I mentioned that I used to use a heat gun to strip paint, and I'd be happy to try that . . . 

. . . and $25 later, my husband had bought me a new toy.  

So, here's how I've used my heat gun --- with the usual caveats that this is NOT something I've seen recommended elsewhere.   
  • When I do see bedbugs (there were some under a floor rug, or in the dog bed), I aim the heat gun at them.  And they shrivel up and die like the Wicked Witch of the West, and it's VERY satisfying.  Then I heat up anything that's nearby that might have been a hiding place.  I can't begin to tell you how much I enjoy that.
  • When I get paranoid about "maybe the bed bugs might move to the couch", instead of staying paranoid, I just go use the heat gun (carefully) on the couch, slowly heating up places where wood meets wood, cautiously toasting the seams and such.  I don't know if there were bedbugs there, or even if I successfully got the ones that might have been hiding in places that I ignored, but I'm doing *something*, and it's good for my brain.
  • I've preemptively gone over baseboards, bedroom furniture, etc, just to try to kill ones that I missed before.   I'm not doing the whole house, so I know I could be missing some, but I do feel like doing SOMETHING is better than nothing.
For what it's worth, last night (one Tuesday after the exterminator confirmed we had an infestation), I went upstairs with my flashlight and did a slow, careful search of the entire floor.  I couldn't find a single bedbug, and I admit I was a little bit disappointed because I really wanted to melt one with my gun.   In the morning, I found one tiny bug in the dog bed; so I gunned for that and then tossed the bed in the dryer for extra measure.

And that's where we are with Episode 2 of "Adventures with Bedbugs".   The saga isn't over yet . . . I don't know whether we're actually beating them, or whether they're planning a surprise reemergence in a totally new place in the house. But I'm feeling better armed and more informed daily about how to thwart them, so that's good.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Another shelf-ish project

It looks like I'll be teaching the bulk of my classes from my Command Center this semester.   In fact, it ought to be an especially interesting version of teaching, because my students are all clustered together in a city in China -- the consulates haven't been open, so even if our College were wide open (which it's not; it's a very mixed kind of open), they would still be cooling their heels on the other side of the many oceans.  

So, I'll be teaching across thousands and thousands of miles; I'll be teaching across 12 time zones; I'll be teach across cultural and language barriers; and I'll be doing it all from the comfort of my own home. My class will be at 6:30 a.m. my time, 6:30 p.m. their time.  It should be fun.   

I'm still pinching myself at how fortunate I was to have splurged (unlike me) on a pair of really nice chalk boards for my home last fall.  Because of this, I can perch my laptop computer on a tall stand, point it at my chalkboard, and start writing and talking.  It's an awesome way to present mathematics. 

The only difficulty is getting a tall stand.  Last semester, when the pandemic first struck and we were all in Scramble Mode, I snagged a bookshelf from the living room to set my laptop on, but it was less than optimal.  What I *really* wanted was a tall stand on wheels, one that I could move in front of the chalkboard when I'm teaching, and get it back out of the way when I'm not -- which is most of the time, really.  

And then, about a month ago when I was walking around the neighborhood, I saw an ugly skinny dresser, kind of falling apart, out at the curb waiting for the Garbage Collectors to haul it away.  And so I hustled home, fetched my handy-dandy green garden wagon, and returned to my neighbor's trash pile.  I became a Ringer Garbage Collector for the moment, and I did my job with gusto.

I got to spend a fun (loud) day sanding off the old ugly paint.  (Like, seriously ugly.  You can tell this dresser had been loved by kids, who had hand-labeled the drawers in pencil:  "board games", "cards", etc).  I removed the metal door pulls, which had been painted in the same ugly paint.  After googling, I decided to soak these in boiling water -- and sure enough, that allowed me to remove the paint from the metal knobs and pulls pretty easily.  Yay for being in hot water!

Then came hardware time.  I used assorted left-over screws and nails to reattach the side panels, which had been coming loose.  My daughter has gifted me with a bunch of furniture wheels, so I used scrap wood to make support bars in the bottom of the dresser, and added the wheels underneath.  

And then I got to paint.  I have a bunch lot paint leftover from my previous shelf project, and decided it would make sense to have this new set of shelves match.  

And behold!

I wasn't sure, at first, that I'd want to reuse the same knobs this dresser had come with, but I think they actually look pretty good! 

If you look closely, you'll see the that this dresser doesn't seem to sit all the way on the floor. That's because, wheels.  It kind of miraculously fits exactly in the space between the existing shelves and the door, and I can roll it easily into the middle of the room where it's just about exactly the right height for my laptop to film my "class".  


Saturday, August 8, 2020

Miser Family mug shot update

We've got some good-looking mugs here in the Miser Family household, where our lives are rich and full.   

Actually, we've got a bunch of well-loved favorite utensils and dishes.  D loves his spatula.   I-daughter can hang her spoon on her nose.  (I taught her that awesome skill!).   In my planner bag, I carry a spoon that used to cause daily arguments between me and my sisters -- we three girls shared three spoons, and we all fought over the "girl" (the one wearing a dress), and it didn't matter how many times my father told us, "they're all girls!  Girls wear overalls!".  We knew that, and then we started arguing over who would get the "girl" today anyway.  

A-child and her mom both have the same favorite spoon, one I gave them.  Kinda continuing a family tradition?  They both want to use it to eat breakfast, so I guess if they share it, it's a serial cereal spoon.  N-son is taking fake sips from a silver-plated mug with his initials on it that he got as an infant.  And this week, for the first time, my husband's sister is joining in the Family Fun Foto;  "I have just the thing!! I ❤️ my morning tea."

And what a cool collection of plates and mugs we have! Y makes beautiful food;  L2 found a mug whose handle has slots to hold a spoon; my guy loves his bicycle mug, L1 has a mug with a confused mug and also a "This is my Social Distance Mug!  Get back or get cracked".  And Amelia Dog loves any dish that contains food.  (Okay, me too!)

What else? Well, on a kind-of-related theme, N-son has had interviews and even paperwork-filling-out sessions with a nearby nursing home, where he might get his first real job, washing dishes.  I taught him that!  Yes!  Today N-son went to get his TB test read, to make sure he's got the health background sorted out before he heads in for work.  

And, further along in the realm of medical updates, my husband and I both had doc visits.  I got to visit my dermatologist who confirmed (a) I have all my skin, and (b) none of it has Danger Moles.  So, I get another year of living with my spots, knowing they're friendly.   Meanwhile, my guy had a visit from his physical therapist who gave him his new Torture Device.  This is a lovely contraption that he's supposed to wear three times a day, a half-hour at a time, to help him get back his flexibility and his extension.  If it doesn't work, he'll get to have another surgery to get the screws in his elbow loosened.  (Ooh, *I* have screwdrivers!! I can do it cheap!)

Although maybe I'm not quite as adept with screwdrivers as I'd like to think.  A year ago this week, I was taking a quick break from Fitness Blender with my sister when I accidentally locked myself in a bathroom and couldn't get out without having my sisters rescue me, which was hard for them because of all the laughing we were doing.  Maybe we would have done better if I'd had my spoon with me, y'know?

And that's the news from our family, which continues to be wealthy in our adventures.  May you and yours stay safe.  

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Adventures with BedBugs

About two weeks ago, my pillowcases looked dirty; they had little brown spots on them.  I waited until my husband (the Lord of the Laundry) was back in town, and had him wash them.  They didn't really get clean. 

Here's what I wish I'd known:  that was bedbug evidence. They chomp on skin at night, and the blood spots get on sheets or pillowcases.

Although, honestly, the only difference it would have made, knowing what those spots meant, would have been that I would have had a week's head start on combatting the beasties.  Compared to other pests I've battled in my life (lice, I'm lookin' atcha) or that my friends have had to deal with (rats, ugh), these guys are fairly benign.  Bedbugs don't seem to cling to body parts; they don't make their home in food you were planning to eat so you open a box of cereal to see it wiggling (ants and I have not seen eye-to-eye on where they should live); bedbugs don't chew through wires and make stinky poop like rats do.  

At any rate, a week later I woke in the middle of the night to feel something (a fly?) on my arm, but my arm was under the sheet.  I grabbed whatever it was, and it was a real thing.   I tossed it in a nearby canning jar, turned on the lights, and looked under the covers.  Little black/brown bugs, the size of apple seeds, were scurrying all over.   Creepy.

When you wake up in the middle of the night to find things crawling all over your bed, and partly on you, it's very hard to go back to sleep, even when you move to a new space.  I did a bunch of dark-hours internet searching.  I threw a blanket (not from the bed) on the floor of my Command Center, and slept there . . . eventually.  

Where did they come from?  We're not sure.  My husband has been doing a bunch of traveling to NY and Philly, occasionally staying in hotels, but he's also been sleeping in a different bedroom (one with air conditioning, unlike our master bedroom), and his bed is completely free of bedbugs, whereas the bed where I've been sleeping is infested.  We live in a row house; I've warned neighbors on either side, but none of them have seen anything in their homes.  My best guess is that the bedbugs came in tucked into a book I'd grabbed from a Little Free Library.  

Here's something I know now:  You can bake a book in the oven.  Bedbugs die at 120 degrees Fahrenheit; paper burns at 451.  I have now "sanitized" my bedside books at 170 degrees (the lowest our oven will do) for an hour.  

What doesn't work:   Baking soda.  (I put it down anyway, because I figured it wouldn't hurt and might deodorize, although there wasn't much that was stinky.  Diatomaceous earth works according to all the advice I've read, but baking soda, not so much.

What else doesn't work:  Space heaters.  We borrowed a few and turned them on full blast in the bedroom, hoping the heat would kill the bedbugs.  But the space heaters didn't get the room much above 100 degrees, and the bedbugs lounged in the sauna we'd made for them, refusing to die. 

Fortunately, although I don't know how we managed to get this lucky, it really seemed to be just that one room that had bugs --- and they haven't migrated into our chests of drawers or into our closets of clothes.  In fact, the list of places there are no bedbugs goes on and on:  They're not in the spare bedroom where my husband sleeps.  They're not in the command center where I've been "camping" this past week.  They're not in the living room, in any of the upholstered chairs or sofa.  They're not in the dog bed or in the front hall closet.  As plagues and infestations go, this is a pretty mild one.

We bought mattress covers.  (By "we", I mean "my husband", because he's the designated shopper, and knows his way around online while I cover my eyes and pretend we're not spending money).  

What I wish I'd known: Mattress covers that protect against things like bedbugs aren't the plastic pee-guard covers I'd been imagining.  They come in small zipped-up plastic bags but they themselves are cotton.  Apparently, we can put the mattress covers on the mattress NOW, with the beasties inside, and they won't be able to come out.  

The covers are on to keep the bedbugs from spreading, but I'm still camping down the hall.  Meanwhile, yesterday we had a professional exterminator come over to the house.  With neighbors on either side of us who could be affected if we don't get this under control, and with no past experience with bedbugs myself, I figured I really want to make sure we have the full inspection and a careful treatment.  I have friends who had dealt with bedbugs, and got a recommendation from them.

Here's how the conversation went with the Exterminator.  

Me:  We have bedbugs; they're probably only in this one room, in the bed and fortunately not in the clothes drawers or closets.   Here, I caught two of them in this canning jar.

Exterminator (looking in canning jar):  These are bed bugs.  

Me:  Yes, they are.  They're in the bed, too.

Exterminator:  Let's take a look at the bed.  (We unzip the mattress covers).  You have bedbugs in your bed.  

Me:  Yes, they're in the mattress and in the box spring.  But they don't seem to be anywhere else in the room.  

Exterminator (looks through the closets and drawers):  They don't seem to have spread here.   Has anyone been traveling, or stayed in a hotel?

Me:  My husband has, but the bed where he's sleeping doesn't have bedbugs.  

Exterminator.  Let's have a look . . . there don't seem to be any bedbugs in his bed.   

. . . [inspects the rest of the house]

Exterminator: The only place they seem to be is in the bedroom.

Me:  Good to know.   Can you treat the house?

Exterminator:  I'd recommend treatment.  I can write up the paperwork.  Even though we just see them upstairs, you should treat the whole house.

Me:  Great; I agree.  When can you start?

Exterminator:  I'll write up the paperwork, so you can decide whether you want to do this . . . 

So, the exterminator went away with a promise to get back to us with the paperwork and timing.  In the meanwhile, we got instructions, which say -- in not so many words -- that a bedbug infestation  is a heck of a lot easier for minimalists to deal with than it is for regular people or hoarders.  Before our exterminator could come to spray the whole house, we'd have to remove all clothes from the drawers, wash them, heat them to bug-death in the dryer,  and bag them up (in plastic bags . . . . shudder).  Shoes and stuffed animals would get the same treatment without the washer.  We'd need to get everything off of floors, remove pictures and mirrors from the wall.   

I have plastic storage tubs that I've been using for a few decades for off-season clothes, and during the past few days I've made use of those for my cleaned/laundered clothes, in lieu of plastic bags.  We happen to have a few giant army chests that we could use for my husband's clean clothes.  We're still trying to figure out how best to deal with his dry-clean-only suits.  I deeply, deeply feel the irony of putting my clothes in plastic bags right after I've finished blogging for an entire month about the evils of wanton plastic use.   

At any rate, the exterminator finally got back to us:  the next available date is almost two weeks away, and it would cost $800.  

At this point, we decided to get rid of the exterminator, along with the bugs.  So we spent $28.02 for some bedbug spray and diatomaceous earth, and I followed the instructions and treated the mattress and boxspring (with the special covers off, of course) with the spray, plus all possible cracks/baseboard stuff with the diatomaceous earth.  

Bonus:  while I was driving back from the hardware store with the bedbug stuff, I got to see this rainbow, an aftereffect of Isaias blowing through.  I like to think it's a good omen.

Now that the spray has dried and the mattress covers are back on, I'll be moving back into the bedroom, keeping a close eye on the space and everything in it.  I know I need to repeat the treatment in 10 days, and then in another 10 days.   I worry that I'll feel a bit like Amneris sleeping on top of the tomb of dozens of little Aidas and Radames-es, but I do think that I now have this under control.

Anyone out there in the blogosphere have further wisdom for me?  

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Sporty Miser family update

Life continues to be rich and full and sporty in the Miser Family Household.  So full.  Behold.

Being sporty is pretty hard right now, for a bunch of reasons.  For one thing, in our neck of the woods . . . er, city . . . this past month has been the hottest July on record since our city started keeping records.  Also, my running buddy is temporarily off limits to me.   (She does physical therapy for little kids, which is hard to do online, although she's been doing that valiantly for a while.  A few weeks ago, her organization started home visits again, and about two weeks ago, she did a home visit with a child who subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.  She's feeling fine herself, but she's doing the usual self-isolation for a while until she gets the green light).  

Okay, so that's two reasons: heat and loss of a running buddy.  The third is I gave blood.  So I did try pumping iron mid-week along with Dan and Kelly Fitness Blender, but I bailed early.  Wimpy me.  I don't have a photo, but I did get to do a fun 4-mile run through a local park with some different friends, later in the week when I'd recovered a bit from my phlebotomist encounters.  

Athleticism runs in the family, so to speak.  I just got the update from my dad, who "has been going faithfully to the gym three times a week."  My step-daughter L2 shows in her photo above that sometimes you have to bend over backwards to get in a good workout (acro yoga is above and beyond me).  Another example of flexibility is taking a selfie with a spinning wheel (if you haven't tried, you'll see how tricky that is). I-daughter writes, "This is me with my wheel and the yarns I spun during this year's Tour de Fleece".

L1 has had a tough week.  She says, "Sorry been a long day, we are watching the Yankees Sox game. Dogs are watching peter eat his pizza; it's a sport for them".   We've just learned that their foster dog, Ameila, has terminal cancer.   L1 and Peter have decided that Amelia is now their forever dog, and will be with them and be made comfortable in a way that only L1 can really do.  We're all sorry for this beautiful old dog, but grateful that she has the best place in the world to live out the rest of her days.  

On a different kind of difficult journey, Y says, "My sport was spending 5 hours in the car moving back from Southern Maryland to Phillyphilly. #NoMeGustaElAtasco".

The sport theme was N-son's suggestion, and he hit this theme out of the park with his wooden bat.  A-child decided to do him one or two better:  she's got two bats, and a swimsuit!   She had a great time in the ocean with her dad.  See them both in the water?

My guy has multiple sports that he excels at; he's still walking something like 60 miles a week for example.  But this picture shows two other of his favorite sports: biking and buying things.  And guess what he did this week? He bought a bike!  Because why not?  We only have like 5 or 6, so might as well get another one.  (For what it's worth, this is a single speed mountain bike with fat tires; it's slower and steadier than his other bikes, and I did bless the plan to get this.  If it had been me, I would have carefully mulled things over and then considered the purchase and then thought about buying the bike, and maybe then I might have worked my way up to figuring out whether I wanted to actually go out and buy it.  But he saw it at our local bike place on Tuesday evening as they were closing, chatted with me about it that night, and bought it Wednesday morning.  crazy.)  

I mentioned that the weather has been really hot and the sun has been fierce.  In some ways, I'm kind of delighted by this.   Here' s a spreadsheet showing our energy usage for July -- you might notice that about the middle of the month, our usage went negative.  Yes, we now have solar panels, and they're working.  Whoop!

Yesterday, Friday, was our 23rd wedding anniversary.  To mark the special day, I got my husband bedbugs, and he got me mattress covers and chocolate.  This was not actually what we'd planned to get each other, but I woke up in the middle of the night and realized to my horror that even though my husband was sleeping in the recovery bed in the next room, I was not alone, and in fact I had approximately a gazillion companions.  Icky, icky, icky.  Fortunately the bedbugs seem to be restricted to one room.  My husband (did I ever mention he's good at shopping?) ordered mattress covers; we've put the solar panels to good use by washing and then using the dryer on sheets and pillows and such, and we have an exterminator coming Tuesday.  So we're crossing fingers that we caught this before it takes over the whole house.  Still, icky.

Oh, and did I mention he got me chocolate (from a local store, and brought it home in pyrex with no plastic)?  Love that man so much.  

And that's the news from our family, which continues to be wealthy in our sporty adventures.  May you and yours stay safe, and don't let the bedbugs bite.  

Friday, July 31, 2020

Why good people do bad environmental things: a book report

A year or so ago, I read DeSombre's Why Good People do Bad Environmental Things.  It seems like the perfect kind of book for finishing up my Plastic-Free July series . . . because I like to think I'm a good person, and I think single-use plastic is a bad thing, and yet even *I* certainly had my share of single-use plastic this month.  Why, oh why, do we do things we shouldn't?

Actually, the way the question is usually framed as, "why do those other people do all that bad stuff?".   A solution that many kind-hearted, green-minded people come up with is to try to inform the public, and to change their minds.   A persistent theme running through the book is:  that approach doesn't work, because information isn't the key to behavior.   Putting up signs in the bathrooms that say "These paper towels come from trees!" is worse than useless.  

The problem usually is not that we don't know or that we don't care; it's that we have many different values that we care about, and many different habits we rely on, and many different structural constraints built into the way we live our lives.  DeSombre illustrates this point with her own experience.  I don't have the book in front of me anymore so this isn't an exact quote, but she says something like,
I'm a committed environmentalist, and I know how harmful automobile culture is, and yet I drove to the coffee shop today to work on this book because it was raining and I didn't want to bike or walk in the rain.
So why do good people use bad plastic?  Part of the issue is the "bad actors" who structure the situation to make it hard to avoid (say, companies who want to sell more plastic and who flood the market).  She notes this isn't just a matter of power-and-money vs. powerlessness; the small number of players who have a vested interest in producing more plastic makes it easier for them to organize, where as the vast numbers of people who are very or mildly ticked off by plastic trash form a diffuse group who have many priorities.  It's not just money and power; it's social graph theory at work.   "The broader point is that externalities are more likely to be created, and more resistant to being addressed, when those who suffer are more numerous and more spread out  (and those who cause the externalities are smaller in number and more able to coordinate their action.)"  [p. 31]

Compounding this is something known as the "Jevons Effect", which posits that a more efficient use of a resource (or perceived efficiency) can lead to increased use of that resource.  More efficient lighting sources has led our society to use more lights; more efficient air conditioning has led to ubiquitous (over) use of AC; computers have increased our use of paper instead of decreasing it.   

And although she doesn't give this example, I do believe that widespread adoption of recycling in past decades led to increased comfort with using plastic, giving us another example of the Jevons effect in action.  (When I was growing up, there was no curbside recycling of anything.  I remember reading an article by a social scientist who predicted that future generations would mine landfills to extract valuable plastic once we ran out of resources to make this material).   We've come to accept recycling as the good and natural order of things, so much so, that when China stopped accepting recycling, many people got mad at our city waste management authority because "they won't let us recycle any more".  Now we don't have a way to feel virtuous about disposing of plastic yogurt tubs . . . but that virtuous feeling had its downside.  Although recycling of plastics increased in the past decades, production of new plastic ramped up even more.  

But let's return to the question of information.  We keep thinking that information will change people's behavior, but it almost never does, because (a) people usually already know, and (b) they care about other stuff more.  (Yes, paper towels come from trees, but I need to dry my hands).  Knowledge and education can't overcome expense or inconvenience.  

The exceptions to this ineffective information rule come in a variety of ways.  Information can help change behavior when it is
  • new knowledge (for example, last Halloween, many people avoided candy made with Palm Oil when they learned of its role in deforestation);
  • long-term education of children;
  • "procedural" knowledge:  how exactly to recycle, or who to call for an energy audit.
In my own words, we're more likely to change if we get "how to" information, not "why to", information.  

Another kind of information that can be powerful is feedback, provided we can figure out how to get it.  (It's very hard for most of us to get feedback on how our house uses energy, for example.  If you think about which of your appliances used the most energy in the past week, how would you know?)  But with plastic, you really can self-monitor, if you're up for the task.  For me, back in 2012 I started the simple task of just counting how many trash cans I put at the curb (not even paying attention to what was in those trash cans).  That year, my family filled our garbage can 23 times.  Somehow, without entirely knowing exactly how, that number has come down dramatically.   Okay, I admit that having our last three kids move out during the past few years has contributed a bunch to the decrease in trash we produce.  But I do think that just being aware of our garbage has had the bigger effect.     

Part of the reason, DeSombre would suggest, is that personal feedback can often lead to changes in infrastructure.   When this happens, she points out, the infrastructure change (like installing new water-saving toilets) means that daily decisions (shortening showers) aren't required to achieve the same kind of results.   My own acquisition of a curated canning jar menagerie during the past decade certainly helps me avoid food storage bags, saran wrap, yogurt containers, etc.  

Another reason my trashcan count might work so well, she'd suggest, is that feedback needs to 
  • be in terms that people understand (cost, say, as opposed to CO2 emissions), 
  • have a basis for comparison (to neighbors or to previous behavior), 
  • be almost immediate in time, and 
  • be given in a way that people can see it (they don't have to go looking).  
Counting trash cans has a lot going for it, according to this list above.  I can't tell you how many times my husband has come upstairs from the basement (where our trashcan is now), and described to me with great satisfaction that it's still not looking full enough to put out for a couple of weeks yet.  

The book also has chapters on habit.  The paragraph that got me thinking most from this chapter was on one of our stickiest habits:  "One of the major areas for environmentally relevant habits is commuting."  Drivers tend to drive everywhere, even if a bus, metro, etc might be a more convenient way to get to a store, etc.   "We tend to use the same mode of transport no matter where we are going."  There's more good stuff in that chapter, but that was the section that really got me thinking.

Toward the end, DeSombre returns to attitudes and policy.  She notes that calling upon our attitudes and values that are not specifically environmental can help us persuade ourselves (and others):  appealing to frugality is more effective than appealing to environmentalism in conserving gas.  We can appeal to good parenting (avoid pesticides) or being a proud resident of a place (avoid degradation).    Calling attention to people's identity is more powerful than providing information, as anyone familiar with the "Don't Mess With Texas" anti-litter campaign well knows.  Indeed, ironically, focusing on certain environmental behaviors as morally "good" in their own right makes it more likely that people will reward themselves for "noble" actions by allowing "bad" behavior -- a "moral licensing" paradox that echoes the Jevons effect she described earlier.  So focusing on other deep-seated values has multiple advantages.

And changing social norms is an important step in making policy change easier.  "A community that has already reduced its use of disposable grocery bags is much less likely to stand in the way of policy action to eliminate or tax the remaining use.  Policy at local levels . . . can then increase support for policy at higher levels of government."


So, this brings us to the close of my Plastic-free July blogging.  It's been as intense as I thought it would be, and honestly more fun than I thought it would be.  I ended up learning a bunch of stuff myself (especially about so-called styrofoam and about silcone, but also about fun things like chocolate syrup and wine vinegar).   Thanks so much for tagging along with me!