Monday, March 18, 2019

"10 easy ways to reduce personal waste" or not

A friend wrote me an email with the subject heading "10 easy ways to reduce personal waste" to ask,
I met with an incipient Interfaith Coalition on Sustainability this week. An initial goal that emerged is to raise awareness among the coalition’s respective congregants about plastic waste. Naturally, I thought of you. The group wanted to know if you could provide it with a “top ten” list of things people can do today to reduce their waste.
And since re-using stuff is at the heart of much trash re-duction, I figured I could re-use my re-sponse by re-posting it here. Voila . . .
The difficulty with this request is the word "easy". Habits and awareness vary so much from person to person that an "easy" technique might be something that many people sneer at as overly simplistic, because they already adopted it long ago; and at the very same time prove to be so frustrating to another group of people that they gives up that attempt . . . and all others, too, by association.

One example of this dichotomy is "bring your own bags to the grocery store". I myself almost always do, and if I don't, I carry things home in my hands. But my husband almost always forgets. We hang cloth bags by the back door, and we keep a stash of extra bags in the trunk of the car . . . but the podcasts he's listening to somehow always distract him, and almost every single time he goes to the grocery store, he brings home more bags. (At least he brings home paper bags, not plastic ones).

So instead of giving you "easy ways" to avoid plastic, I'll give you my favorite "Effective Habits".

1. Reflect
Pay attention to your use of plastic. This might mean being as zealous as writing down every single piece of plastic you toss in the trash or recycling bin, but it can even be an occasional investigation of what happens to be in your trash can right now. Simple awareness, even without consciously trying to change your behavior, is likely to make a surprisingly large difference in the amount of plastic that passes through your hands and into the mythical "away".

This habit sounds simplistic, but I seriously believe that a habit of awareness has a bigger effect, both in the short term and in the long term, than any other trick or technique or habit below.

2. Refuse
Try saying "no, thank you" to unsolicited plastic. This can be as simple as asking for a drink with no straw or as refusing a bag at a store. Say no, thank you to conference bags or other bling at professional meetings. Or you can be more proactive: I've asked my newspaper carrier to deliver my paper with no plastic bag, and most of the time, I get my paper delivered "naked". I've removed myself from mailing lists that send me plastic-y promotions or wrapped magazines.

3. Replace
This gets more personal: find plastic-free alternatives to things you use; this often means finding alternatives to things you use. Instead of granola bars, get peanuts in a glass jar, or get bananas and oranges. Instead of bread in a plastic bag, get a bread maker and make your own bread. Instead of buying lunch in a plastic shell from a deli counter, bring your own lunch. As much as possible, get your durable products used (from Craigslist, Freecycle, thrift shops, yard sales, etc), to avoid creating packaging waste, manufacturing waste, and overfull landfills.

4. Reuse
This is where most "ordinary" people jump in to the plastic reduction: bring your own water bottle; bring your own bags to the store; keep a spoon and/or chopsticks in your purse/backpack so you don't have to use plastic utensils. You can also often bring your own containers to shops (at market, I get sandwich turkey in my pyrex containers, and fruit in my own cloth mesh bags, and Easter candy in my own canning jars).

This works for one-time, large-scale events, too. For example, for the cost of buying 100 plastic "disposable" wine glasses, you can rent 100 glass wine glasses from Ace Rents.

I'll add that most people find this very hard to do, especially if bringing things along is something that you do as a last-minute activity. Structuring your life so that you don't have to actively *remember* these things is great. For instance, as soon as I realize I'll need to buy, say, milk, I toss my glass milk jug into my market bag, so the containers in my bag act like a shopping list. Keeping spoons in a special zippered pocket and a water bottle in a different pocket in my bag means they're always with me. No thinking required.

5. Reduce
Where the above isn't possible or convenient or such, use less. Take one bag instead of double-bagging. Wash your home spaces with water and cloth rags more often, and use commercial products every other time, instead. Plastic reduction doesn't have to be all-or-nothing; let the "good enough" triumph over perfectionism.

6. Rot
Here, I'm venturing into areas where reasonable people would disagree with me . . . but I'd urge people to go for the biodegradable versions of things. Someone could reasonably argue that a paper grocery bag uses as many (or more) resources than a plastic bag. But there's no floating island of paper bags in the Pacific Ocean; birds don't die from eating too many paper bags; paper bags don't harbor carcinogens that make their way up the food chain to become deadly toxins in the biosphere. So: paper instead.

7. Recycle
I list this only because popular opinion considers recycling to be "green". But we know that even at its best, recycling is costly, expensive, and wasteful. And of course, much recycling never happens because of contaminants, spills, and other reasons. Recycling ought to be a last resort before sending something to the landfill, and people should definitely try to avoid "wishful recycling", as it might contaminate other more valid recycling efforts.

Hope this helps. Please let me know how this goes!


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! Maybe we could print up lots of copies and laminate them . . . oh wait, maybe not.