Growing up, we heard all about the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. I was born in the late 80s, and the better part of my formative years was spent existing in the shadow of excess in all things – plastic packaging, disposable razors, wrappers, shrink wrap, Ziploc bags, fruit snacks, disposable cameras, the yearning for Lunchables ….the list goes on. My parents yellowing stash of thick Tupperware accrued sometime around 1984 seemed pointless and outdated, because why would we need it when everything came in its own to-go container? Think of all of those balloons, butterfly clips, snap bracelets, jelly shoes, sand toys, and containers of Play-Doh we used to use languishing in some landfill now. Consumerism was at its height – everything was shiny and new and ultimately, so conveniently disposable. The consumption models that began with the advent of mass production have only multiplied, ultimately modifying the way we view tangible goods and commodities such that we’ve been willfully blinded to our gross overindulgence and reclassification of necessity.
We saw the campaigns pushing recycling. Denver started a recycling program when I was a kid, and we put all of our eco-knowledge into separating trash from recycle. We learned about the deforestation of the rain forest; we learned that the Earth was warming; we watched Fern Gully and some of us (me) had nightmares; we were concerned about CFCs in the atmosphere, global warming, and the ozone hole.
I guess in my idealistic young mind, I assumed that all humans would realize we had a collective problem, and we’d fix it. Globalization couldn’t be all bad, right? Everyone on Earth would have to work together to find a solution, and of course we would, because it’s our home. The plan was simple: everyone just recycle, plant more trees, not use so much hairspray, and the Earth would be okay again.
In college, were secretly convinced that Chicago didn’t actually have a recycling program and that the blue bags distinguishing recycling that got hauled away with the rest of the trash just got dumped with everything else. Then came GrubHub, that magical food delivery mechanism, and with it, Stryofoam containers, greasy pizza boxes, and plastic cutlery, wrapped individually in plastic bags.
Composting was for the real hippies. That was some real next-level shit. Recycling would be enough. Companies would lower their emissions; solar energy would not require the pollution-intense process of some really dirty mining; no future President would increase massive tariffs on the solar industry, effectively crippling its affordability and growth, nor would they ever consider rolling back laws intended to benefit the environment, and thus, the population as a whole, even at slight increases in costs for companies who increase profits by disposing of waste in horrible ways. The corrupt capitalist ideal of greed would never leach deep into the souls of those in power, like an oil leak in the Gulf we underestimated and now can’t stop. We would never pull out of a non-binding climate accord, just to be dicks on the world stage.
Or so I thought.
I cringe now to survey my home and think of all of the products and packaging contained therein. We recycle avidly, which is frustrating because recycling pick up is only once every two weeks and our bin is always full. Our trash can is never full, but when it is, it’s full of trash bags with plastic packaging, cat litter, and soiled things that can’t be recycled. I’m ashamed to admit we’re still using cleaning wipes, those convenient non-recyclable, non-biodegradable bastards. (We’re on the way to baking soda and vinegar, though, and I swear, my bathtub has never been happier. We also have ridiculously hard water, so I use vinegar on everything to decalcify and degrime.)
I’m in the process of a massive attempt at overhauling our lives and the ways in which we create waste. I’m a huge fan of Costco, because who isn’t, but I’m also starting to be more mindful of the ridiculous amount of packaging surrounding nearly every product. Of course, it’s not just Costco. It’s everything. From the moment you’ve clicked on the Submit Order button on your Amazon account, you’re creating a waste trail. Someone has to use a car to get to work to get paid a terrible wage to work in terrible conditions to grab your order, put in more packaging, and then label it and ship it to you, utilizing resources like more gas, more fossil fuels, etc.
I once got stoned in high school and cried because I was stocking the disposable plastic spoons at the Dairy Queen where I worked, and when I dropped one on the floor, the reality of the fact that it was wasted landed in a very real way. This spoon had been mined, manufactured, processed, purchased, shipped, and intended for single-use ice cream consumption by the end consumer. And now, because I’d dropped it, it was useless, wasted. Pointless. I felt so careless in that moment. I should find the ridiculous blog I wrote about it that night; the memory of that feeling has stayed with me.
But now imagine that extension of careless waste that’s extended my entire life, and yours. Think of how, if you had to stack all the trash you’ve ever created in your backyard, it would grow endlessly. It’s like the rise of cyber-bullying, in a very far-reaching simile, because without having to see the effects of your actions (or inaction), you are not faced with the consequences. Your trash gets magically whisked away every week and it’s not your problem anymore, because it’s out of sight and out of your mind. Much like when you call someone names on the internet. You don’t have to watch them cry or see their self-esteem crumble, because you’re safe in the confines of your own home, desperately trying to make yourself feel better about your sad life by putting others down. (I should clarify, this was not a great metaphor and I definitely don’t feel so vindictive about my trash leaving as I imagine internet bullies feel about internet bullying.)
Oh, and even if you recycle your plastics, which we do to the fullest extent possible (this includes remembering your reusable bags, not buying bagged salads anymore because we can at least recycle the plastic boxes the lettuce/spinach come in, opting for non-packaged fruits and veggies, etc.), you’re still not helping anything, because plastic can only be recycled a few times before it’s useless. Even recycled plastics require the addition of new virgin plastic to ensure that the structure is sound. Hopefully this comes as no surprise, but some plastics are not recyclable at all.
Glass and metal are the only materials that can be recycled over and over without losing quality, meaning that we can keep recycling aluminum cans, glass bottles, and whatever else in an endless loop. That’s heartening, at least. I’ve been trying to choose more glass (even though I’m clumsy as all hell and it’s led to the increase in broken things around our home). I still remember when my little brother and I thought that collecting cans was the ticket to young wealth, because King Soopers/Kroger would pay you like 5c/can. Or maybe it was by weight….because they’re light. We imagined we’d be rich. Alas, that did not pan out.
It starts little. No one will be perfect at living without creating waste, and if they are, I’m sure you’ll hear about it like running into a friend who’s just become a vegan or taken up Crossfit. But honestly, if you can do this, you’ve probably earned some serious bragging rights, so preach!
I read a great thing recently about how it doesn’t take everyone being perfect; it takes all of us doing it imperfectly. Change doesn’t happen overnight; it begins with that single decision to start being more conscious about how we consume, create, and dispose of products. Even though we’ve been blindly recycling for years, we can all do better. So much better.
Glass snapware containers replace our plastic ones; but our existing plastic ones, we keep and use, washing them and ensuring that they don’t molder in the refrigerator (I’m guilty of throwing away cheap plastic containers in my life due to this situation…). Glass jars line our shelves. Most of our dishes were purchased secondhand or gifted. The Corelle dishes from my youth now live in my house; the china set I purchased at the flea market nearly a decade ago is still in (beloved) rotation. We have reusable dishes and cups to take camping. I’ve always loved a good thrift store trip, and over the past few years, I have definitely cut back on the amount of clothing I purchase everywhere.
We’re working on phasing out paper towels. We’ve got an abundance of dish towels (no microfiber cloths – those also have plastic in them), and we’ll be asking my mom to help us sew some Swiffer-sized cloth things so we can re-purpose our Swiffer and stop using the non-recyclable cloths. (She’ll read this before I actually tell her about it, so Mom, let’s discuss how to best go about this. I’m imagining a flat envelope-ish fabric mop situation.)
We’re attempting to compost, which we’re doing a terrible job of, so that’s at the forefront of our plan to try to live more intentionally. (Hey, Denver people, you can get a compost bin for like $10/month and you should do that. Aurora, I have a friend who started a compost business and will come pick your stuff up. Unfortunately, Englewood doesn’t offer municipal trash service, so the company I use doesn’t offer composting, which is why I’m open to any and all suggestions for happy composting. I need worms.)
I’m obsessed with Nalgene water bottles, despite the fact that my very spatially-unaware self struggles with not spilling their contents all over me at least once a day, and we have a rotating set that we use instead of other water containers. We’re making our coffee and tea at home, and we carry those with us in reusable metal and plastic containers, saving us money on not buying coffee, too. We’ve got reusable straws. I keep a spoon in my backpack at all times (which might be why I’m constantly complaining that we don’t have enough spoons in the house).
We’ve switched to bar shampoo instead of bottles, and I am still looking into bar conditioners, although I have yet to find one that’s decent. Suggestions are welcomed! I’m also using apple cider vinegar (diluted) to rinse my hair on non-shampoo days. We’ll be switching to toothpaste tablets as soon as we’re done with the tubes we have now.
Next year, we’ll try to grow more of our own produce. This year, we have managed to keep all the plants we bought alive (definitely not thriving, but alive), and we currently have a whopping 2 tomatoes growing. I’m excited. We’ve got a push mower, too, to cut back on gas usage and increase caloric output and cardio benefits while lawn mowing.
Biking to work, carpooling, reducing the amount of trips we take, not ever taking a cruise, limiting air travel, buying local, not getting new electronics just because, not having air conditioning, washing clothes on cold, not using the dryer, fewer soaps and detergents, proper disposal of prescription medication, signing up for e-billing instead of paper bills, not plastic packaged cushy toilet paper, making food instead of buying it pre-made, choosing to buy products that come in glass or metal or paper or without packaging, etc. Even the thought of procreating is terrifying – both for the sake of my hypothetical children and the sake of their impact on this planet.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list – we’re working on it, and building it. We have an online list where we drop our ideas and we’re trying to see what other steps we can take to reduce energy consumption, decrease waste, and overall, be better to our home planet. We’re not even good at it yet, and I’ve been grateful to see the increased prevalence of articles about the state of the planet and it’s increasing my sense of urgency to stop thinking recycling is the answer, because it’s absolutely not. It’s not about the United States anymore – it’s about how we can’t just ship our plastics off to China and wash our hands clean of the havoc we wreak.
This year, I did middle school programming for the adoption camps I volunteer for (never again; middle schoolers are hormonal demons who travel in packs of angst and feed off each other’s energy), and as part of our service project, we cleaned up trash in a park and in the area where the camp was held. It was a ridiculously hot morning, and everyone was grumpy and angry, but all in all, we collected five bags of trash among roughly 15 kids.
We went camping in Wyoming last week, and hiked a few miles to this gorgeous waterfall, and on our way there and pack, we packed out a backpack’s worth of garbage, including dog poop (bagged but discarded behind a tree along the trail, not necessarily so someone could remember to pick it up on their way back) and a boot. A boot. I watched a child throw a plastic water bottle into a river, threw my hands on my hips, and said, “Well….” in a very patronizing way, and stood there until the parent finally noticed and made their child retrieve it. (Yeah, I’m that guy now.) You’ve intentionally sought out nature and you’re going to abuse it? How does that even compute?
Even though I know that I’m but a drop in the bucket, or a single boot in a river, I know that it is my duty as a citizen of this global community to do whatever I can to ensure that I protect our environment for our future, whatever that may look like. I also know that it’s not just on a personal consumption level, it’s about politics and legislation and corporations. It’s about global efforts to enact policies that reduce, reuse, re-purpose, and change the consumption models so that corporations are incentivized to reduce packaging, pollution, and overall waste in their sourcing, manufacturing, and product marketing. It’s about everything. It’s about the fear of the melting permafrost that’s not so permanently frozen. It’s about climate change and dwindling habitats and dying animals. It’s about giving up our comforts so that we can do better. Even though this is a frustrating way to end this post, it’s my hope that eventually, we can wake up, finally face the grim realization that we’re killing our home, and work hard to protect the remaining resources and life we have left, before it’s too late. (Which, of course, for so many environments, ecosystems, and species [maybe even us], it already is.)
Yes, despite your obvious good and well-stated intentions, it is too late, it has been too late for a long, long time, and we do not profit from fantasies that ignore the calamitous warning signs.