Going Green 3: Garbage

Garbage. Waste. Where does it go? Where in the world does it end up? How much of the stuff are we each generating anyway?

Yes, it fills up landfills. Yes, big trucks have to haul it there. Yes, it releases loads of methane, which is 22 times worse than carbon dioxide for climate change. Then there are the oceans – for cities and countries that still dump their garbage into the ocean, shame on you! There is a gyre of plastic the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Some of the plastic has broken up so small, fish cannot help but digest it.

The other thing with garbage is the needless waste of energy and resources that were used to make it, just so it can be thrown out. Where did this garbage originally come from? Where on Earth was it derived? What is the embodied energy of it, what emissions were created to bring it into existence? It seems like such a waste of resources, just to throw it away.

Waste is so wasteful.

So let’s reduce it where we can. Time for the sliding scale of green for garbage! Even small changes can make a big difference. Where do you fit on the green sliding scale?

Dabbler

You recycle. Things that are paper, cardboard, glass or plastic do not hit your garbage can. They hit the blue bag or recycling bin or recycling centre. I have been doing this since I had my own apartment. My Mom has been doing this for over 20 years.

Here is our recycling for a 3 week period in 2010, before I started getting serious on cutting the packaging…

Beginner

You avoid one use items such as paper coffee cups, paper napkins, paper towels and plastic forks. You avoid plastic bottles, especially ones with only a single serving, like water that comes out of the tap for free. You carry a travel mug for coffee, a water bottle for cold drinks. You use real dishes, and then wash them, and then use them again. I started doing this pretty hardcore with no excuses about a year and a half ago when I had my green epiphany. Here is my beloved green travel mug, which I use almost every day:

Intermediate

You bake. You make. You know how to cook. Homemade food always creates less garbage than pre-packaged and pre-processed, plus it is better for you and you know what is in it. Most garbage is created in the kitchen, and mostly from food packaging. Make it fresh and garbage free. I started making my bread about a year ago, and since then have tried all sorts of interesting things – tortillas, crackers, granola bars, buns, biscuits, muffins… I make a bunch, freeze it and then always have homemade snacks. Plus have you ever smelled fresh bread baking in your own house? They can’t bottle that smell, it is so good.

Hardcore

You compost your organic wastes. You have a small bin under the sink for those potato peels and banana peels, for old bread and eggshells, for kid’s leftovers and stuff that went bad in the fridge. Apple cores, carrot tops, onion skins, coffee grinds – they all go into the organics bin and then out to the backyard composter outside. If you live in an apartment you get some worms and have fun with worm composting (which makes an even richer organic matter). I toss my kitchen scraps into my composter outside all winter long. It freezes solid. I just layer some brown leaves over each donation, and then it is ready for more. In the spring the whole thing thaws and heats up and gets going again. A year full of organic wastes from the kitchen and yard get transformed into rich organic compost, the very best kind of dirt you can get. What kind of miracle of nature is that? Garbage to growing material, renewed again. None of it goes to the landfill – a closed loop system.

Ultimate

You don’t buy food with packaging. Full stop. Nothing in a box, nothing in a metal can, nothing in a plastic container, nothing in glass… You bring your own produce bags to the grocery store, you avoid processed foods, and you make your own soup. You also preserve your own food, allowing you to reuse glass canning jars for tomato sauce, salsa, jams, pickles and peaches. You bake your own bread, muffins, granola bars and snacks. You have barely any garbage or recycling, maybe a small bin every two weeks. The garbage man often skips your house. You start to wish that you paid for garbage collection on a per bag basis, because then it would be practically free…

Bonus Points

Do you get any bonus points?

  • You have been known to bring your own plastic containers to a restaurant to wrap up the leftovers.
  • If you get a take-out hamburger and fries, you fold up the paper wrap and cardboard and slip it into your purse or pocket to take it home to recycle. Then if courage permits, you go up and ask the store manager why they don’t have recycling bins?
  • You pack your kids garbage free lunches, with everything in containers and no prepackaged foods. No plastic wrap, no throw away containers, no tetra-pack juice boxes.
  • You use cloth diapers for your babies.

So where do you fall on the green sliding scale? We can reduce our garbage a lot just by thinking about it. Most of the garbage decisions are made at the grocery store, in the food packaging we haul home. If you don’t buy it, it will not end up in the bin!

Take the poll!

Want some inspiration? Here are some great low garbage superstars of the blogging world:

  • Clean Bin Project – this couple each created less than one small bin of garbage over an entire year, and made a documentary about it
  • My Plastic Free Life – seeing birds from the middle of the Pacific die with their with bellies full of plastic, she swore off the stuff in 2007 and just released a book about her journey
  • No Impact Man – he took his shopaholic, cappuccino drinking wife and young daughter on a ride to have no environmental impact for one year, and then wrote a book and made a film about it
  • Green as a Thistle – she made one green change a day for a year, and wrote a book about it called Sleeping Naked is Green.

Toy Mountain

Well another Christmas has passed, with the merry moments and warm wishes that go along with it. I have always loved the Christmas season, the sparkly lights, the pretty packages and the good spirits. I remember feeling sad as a child, when it was all over at the end of Christmas day.

My children are just getting old enough now (at ages 2 and 5) to get really excited about Christmas. They were so excited yesterday morning, when they realized that Santa really did come, and he really did eat the cookies and drink the milk. They were doubly excited when they saw that Santa really did bring the toys they had asked for. It was magical for them and for me too.

This year, I was committed to not use a scrap of wrap in the giving of our gifts. All my gifts were given in a homemade bag, a tote bag or a reusable gift bag. As a result we generated less Christmas garbage than in other years. Way less! Some family and friends also used homemade gift bags as well. We had cute fabric bags a plenty this year! One sister went as far as to make all her Christmas gifts, and a friend of mine gave Kiva loans to entrepreneurs in the developing world! I was so inspired by these gifts.

Despite this, we still managed to generate a lot of garbage associated with the toy packaging. It is obscene really. The most annoying thing is how all the toys are pinned in with multiple ties and screws and elastics and tape. Why? With some, you have to be careful not to break the toy when prying it free from its plastic cage.

How can I reduce that next year? Well one idea is to purchase used toys instead of new toys for my kids. I actually did some of that this year – they got some used story books, and some used toys from Santa in their stocking. However, I could have gone further if I planned better, and looked for stuff earlier on, such as at summer garage sales.

The second idea is to drastically reduce the amount of toys that we get the kids. Right now they each get three toys from us and one toy from Santa, along with a stocking full of toys from Santa. This is clearly too much, since they also get toys from Grandmas and Grandpas and Aunties and Uncles and cousins.

The worst part is that they are starting to get greedy for toys, especially my oldest. This must be in part, due to the amount of toys they have and get. What am I promoting here? That toys are what we value? When they grown up, what will they value? Adult toys? More stuff? This rampant consumerism is exactly the opposite of what I want to be promoting.

It is so hard though, since their little faces light up when they see the toys, and then they spend hours and hours playing with them. They do love the toys, and use them. It is hard to take that away, and they will probably not understand. However, it is in their long-term best interest. That is what parenting is about – thinking long-term, and educating for the long-term. That is why we don’t let them eat cookies and cake all day long.

So enjoy today kids, playing with your new mountain of toys. Next boxing day might be different.  Perhaps we will go sledding! :)

Bulk Bins

Ah…. buying in bulk. I used to think that only hippies did this, or those who really like eating granola. I used to shop at a grocery store that had bulk bins aplenty, and I would just snobbishly walk by them and head for the box-y isles. I would throw boxes of pasta, boxes of cereal, boxes of crackers, boxes of cookies and boxes of granola bars into my cart. Then I would head to the plastic-y bag isle, and toss bags of rice, bags of pasta, bags of sugar and bags of oatmeal into my cart. Then I would go home and we would eat it all up, and toss the boxes, toss the bags. Eat, toss. Eat, toss. Repeat forever.

Until now! Since so much of our trash is food related, I decided to try and break free of all the boxes and bags. So, I trotted down to the grocery store that had bulk bins a plenty:

I brought along my stash of bread bags that I have been rinsing out and keeping so that I would not have to needlessly use more plastic bags. My first foray into bulk bin shopping resulted in purchases of oatmeal, pasta, egg noodles, trail mix, raisons, granola and black beans. As I run out of other foods, I will also purchase rice, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, nuts and whatever else I can find in the bins that we eat. I will probably also load up on different kinds of beans, just as soon as I learn some recipes on how to cook with them…

There is another thing I learned about of buying in bulk – it is way cheaper. Bonus!

So I got home and my first thought was that I needed to purchase new canisters and glass containers, for all my new bulk items! I wanted pretty rows of glass containers, showing off my colourful pastas and rice, my nuts and beans! Shopping, I needed to go shopping!

Then I stopped myself. The point of this is to reduce needless waste, after all. So I looked at what I had on hand, that I can use. I scrounged. Finding interesting things in your house that you already have can be fun too! It feels self-reliant and self-sufficient. Department store? Bah! I have what I need in my cupboard… pushed way at the back, if you just give me a few minutes and a flashlight… okay, maybe not… perhaps I can find something in the basement… just a sec…

So I ended up finding a bunch of glass jars and extra canisters. I filled them up and what do you know:

They don’t look half bad! Here I put my accumulation of bulk items together, so that you could see them all in one shot. However I keep most of these in the cupboard. Overtime, my stash will grow as we go through existing boxed and bagged food supplies. I may have to resort to purchasing used canisters down the road, or maybe we will just eat more pickles and pasta sauce to harvest more jars.

In the end, I have to admit there is something nice about opening up the cupboard door to see rows of simple glass jars. They compartmentalize the food, making the contents easy to see and appreciate, without all the logos and other baggage. It feels more organized somehow, I cannot explain it.

It feels good.

Going Granola

I continue to think about the garbage I produce. So much is food related! Everything I purchase in the grocery store comes in a package or a box or a bag or is shrink-wrapped on a Styrofoam tray. Every meal I prepare for my family leaves a wake of garbage when we are done. Wrappers, bread bags, pasta boxes, meat trays… Luckily I am not throwing away my organic waste anymore (more on that later), so that is helping. But still, scads of cardboard and plastic end up in the recycle bin.

 Look what Beth Terry over at Fake Plastic Fish has done to eliminate plastic. She counts every single plastic item that comes into her possession, and has been charting it since 2007. She finds non-plastic alternatives to everything. She even uses a glass straw! Her inspiration is the birds who feed on the huge gyre of plastic waste in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Have you seen images them? How did we get to this?

Back in my kitchen, I start to see that so many things in my pantry are individually wrapped in plastic as well. Granola bars, fruit bars, cheese strings… These are all snack staples I feed my two small children. Staples!!

So I have decided to stop. Instead of purchasing cardboard boxes of individually wrapped snack items, such as these:

 

I made these instead:

 

Homemade granola bars!  They are chock full of ingredients I understand like rolled oats, organic honey, raisins, nuts and peanut butter. I made them tonight and the whole house smelled like sweet nuts and oatmeal. If you want the recipe I used, it is loosely based on the one I found here. There are a million of them out there. Got some chocolate chips? Throw them in! Extra coconut left over from baking? In it goes! I actually had some almond butter that I wanted to finish, so in that went too! I have a stash of almonds and trail mix that will go into the next batch.

I have also stopped with the cheese strings. Now I purchase a big block of cheese and cut little stick shapes off the end when the kids want a cheese snack. It is so easy and so much cheaper too.

These new snacks are better for my children anyway. They are not as processed and have fewer preservatives.

So – does this mean I am officially going granola?

Homemade Gift Bags

I have always loved wrapping Christmas presents. I would pump the Christmas tunes or perhaps turn on a Christmas movie, and then spread everything out on the living room floor and just go at it. I would pick the prettiest wrapping paper and the shiniest ribbons, and would coordinate and apply them for maximum effect. Then I would expertly arrange them under the tree. Everything had to match and coordinate with the tree as well, of course.

Then on Christmas morning everyone would tear into everything and all my pretty paper and ribbons would head straight into the trash.

A few years ago I started to realize the wastefulness of wrap, so I started using the reusable gift bags wherever possible. They did not arrange as nicely under the tree or look as pretty, but oh well. At least we could put them back into the bag bin and use them again. The odd big toy package still got wrapped.

This year I decided to take it one step further. I want to use homemade gift bags. As of this morning, I now have 6:

Quite a cute brunch, no?

My mom and sisters and I all decided to make some this year. We now have a pact to use them for inter-family gifts only. So you give one, you get one, then you give different ones next year, and they just rotate through the family. These are the ones I made with them:

  

Then I got out the scrap material left over from my sewing my living room curtains 6 years ago, and made two of these. Dupioni silk looks much better all trussed up under the tree, instead of tucked away in the scrap drawer. Don’t you think?

This one was made out of green velvet pants I wore in high school. I was in love with these green velvet pants (hey it was the 90s!). When they finally gave out I could not part with them, so I cut them up into smaller bits of fabric. They now have a new life as a purse-like bag, embroidered with some holly leaves (yes I did that part too!) and a vintage button.

So starting this Christmas I will no longer use a scrap of wrap!

No Napkin, thanks

I am continuing to think about the things I consume and the garbage I make. I have never spent this amount of time thinking about garbage.

I found this really interesting movie, not yet widely released, although coming out on DVD soon. It is called the Clean Bin Project. A young couple from Vancouver decide to challenge each other to see who can produce the least amount of garbage over the course of a year. They come up with the idea while cycling down the pacific coast of the United States, where they lived for months with only what they could carry on their bicycles. When they got home they were confronted with all their “stuff” and asked themselves why they needed it all, if it just is going to end up in a landfill. So they decided to stop buying stuff for a year, and eliminated their garbage to practically nothing along the way.

My garbage is far from nothing. Sure we recycle, but check out this pile of recycling bags:

Okay this is about 3 week’s worth, and we had a 5 year-old birthday party thrown in there, with all the toy packaging that entails.

But really, even if we recycle, is this amount of waste going out of our house in 3 weeks even remotely acceptable?

Well I took one more small step to reduce it today – paper napkins. No longer will I buy these. They are made of trees aren’t they? How many trees are cut down to produce North American paper napkins for one year? I have no idea but I bet it is high. Have you ever gone to a fast food restaurant and ended up with like 15 napkins on your tray? Why do we need all these? I don’t want them on my tray and I don’t want them in my house.

So I went from this:

To this:

Do you like my P-E-A-C-E Christmas decoration in the background? I know, I thought it was a nice touch. At dinner time our whole family discusses this peace decoration, and we each have opinion whether we have peace in our house. Peace and quiet? Not so much. Peace in our hearts? I would say so…

Anyway, the point is that real cloth napkins are much more refined. Paper? No dear, we use cloth.

Actually I purchased these 8 napkins for $6 at a second hand store, Value Village. I am seeing how many things I can also avoid buying new. So far, Value Village has filled my pretty napkin needs quite nicely.

We will see how they work out, and whether the extra laundering is that annoying. I am optimistic. How much extra work among 12 loads of laundry, can 8 little napkins be?

Coffee Time

Today my resolution is to switch to a travel mug for all coffee purchases. If I forget the travel mug, then there will be no coffee. This is a big deal, since I love my coffee in the morning. Every morning before work I pick up a coffee. Every morning prior to today, I got that coffee in a non-recyclable cardboard cup, with a cardboard sleeve. Then, after I am done the coffee, every morning I toss that cup right into the garbage.

I was trying to think, how many cups have I thrown out in my lifetime? I have been working now for 12 years, 7 of those full-time, 2 on maternity leave and 3 part-time. Since I am a dutiful accountant, I thought I should actually calculate this thing out. The result is shocking:  

  

When I first thought about it this morning, I thought I was probably in the few hundred coffee cup range. Nope. Turns out, I have thrown away over 2,500 coffee cups. What would 2,500 discarded coffee cups look like anyway? Could it fill my kitchen? I bet if you laid 2,500 coffee cups out all over my house, it would cover every surface, and act as a new, slightly gross, coffee cup carpet.

It is just so wasteful.

So my new love is my new green travel mug:

It is green, allowing others to see that I am making a green choice with my pretty green mug. It is also made of recycled materials, and is BPA free. I purchased this particular mug because I forgot. I told myself that I would never get another disposable coffee cup again. Old habits die hard, since the next day I found myself standing in line at Second Cup, with no travel mug in hand. So I just grabbed this travel mug off the shelf. So now I have three travel mugs, and no more excuses.

While walking to my local Starbucks on my coffee break today at work, I decided I would count the number of people carrying disposable cups. Keep in mind this is a very short walk, under 5 minutes. I counted 15 people carrying disposable cups, and another 5 within the store ordered in a disposable cup while I was there. 2 people in the store had travel mugs. One person on my walk back had a travel mug. So including me, that is 20 disposable cups vs. 4 travel mugs. I know my methods are very scientific and all, but I would hazard a guess that in reality, only 10% or so of people carry travel mugs every time, every day.

Heck I didn’t carry one, and I have been worried about the environment for years. But I was lazy. Give me your paper cup. That way I don’t have to remember mine, and don’t have to clean it either.

But starting today, things will be different. I will carry my green travel mug with pride, that I am doing something, and not being so wasteful.

Coffee, anyone?

Pretty Diapers

When examining the trash you make, it is hard to go far without noticing the large contribution of disposable diapers. My youngest is 2 years old and has been potty trained for about 4 months. However, she still wets at night. So I throw on a pull-up diaper and she is good to go. Our diaper garbage has been reduced, but is still one pull-up per day.

I started calculating how many disposable diapers I am responsible for in the landfill, taking into consideration the ages at which my kids were potty trained.  We used on average, about 5 diapers a day:

I always knew it was a lot, but this really makes me sick. 9,300?

I previously thought that it was just the landfill cost of having a baby, and that there is nothing that you could do about it. Somehow I dismissed cloth diapers, because we were all are told that well, by the time you get a diaper service to drive their truck to your house and pick them up, then wash them in hot water and then drive your diapers back to you, you are doing more harm on the environment than just using the plastic ones. I never questioned this line of thought. I just made my mind up that disposable were easier for me, and tossed them and forgot them.

I did not consider that I got in my car to drive to the store and back to pick up my disposable diapers, and so did the store’s delivery truck, and probably the distribution centre’s truck before that.  Plus what about the energy and resources used to make them? 

I never even considered for a second, the idea of washing them myself.  

Then some of the younger girls at work started getting pregnant. They asked me – what diaper service did I use? What? Diaper service? These girls were considering a diaper service? Perhaps all the driving and the washing was not as big a factor after all. Perhaps having nice soft organic cotton next to baby’s skin was better than the stuff diapers are made of. That brings me to another point – what are disposable diapers really made of anyway?

It is so great that the new moms out there are starting to change, and cloth diapering is becoming more and more common. I had no more excuses, and there was no time like the present. I was almost through my diaper journey with my kids, but even if I save another 100 diapers from going into the landfill, it is something right?

So I went out and bought these (shown to the right of the pull-up):

You just insert the padding, and change it out when she wets. The shell can be rinsed and dried out, ready for the next night.

Full investment: $18. This is less than the cost of one pack of disposable diapers!

This is how they look on her:

She calls them her night-time panties and likes them. When I ask her if they are comfy she says yes.

Silly me for not even considering this sooner.

Tote This

Today’s resolution is simple and way overdue – stop using plastic bags. Employ reusable tote bags instead.

First stop – plastic bags at the grocery store. I normally have full intentions of using my reusable bags when I go grocery shopping. I actually prefer them, as they stand up better, hold more and are comfortable to carry. However, most times as I walk up to the store, I am kicking myself for forgetting. Why can’t I remember? For the last 2 years I have probably only remembered my reusable bags about 20% of the time. That is a horrible record. Every time I carry out a week’s worth of food in about 12 plastic bags, I feel pangs of guilt and regret. It should be just as second nature as remembering my keys and purse as I head out the door. Keys, purse, bags. Check, check, check.

Since I didn’t quite trust myself yet not to forget, I loaded my car with extra bags as a backup plan. If I forget again, no problem… just let me reach for my secret stash…

Next stop – no more plastic produce bags. Over the last week, I have been saving all the bags that I would have normally thrown out. Produce bags, bread bags, used Ziploc bags… Here is the result. One week.

I am not going to throw away that pile of plastic above, I can reuse these bags when I want to purchase food from the bulk bins (less packaging!). So I washed them all and cut out the lid of a big coffee can and put them in like this:

Hmmm… Just like a nice can of plastic Kleenex…

Since I am not going to use plastic for produce anymore, I went and bought these. They even come in their own little bag, making them easy to just pop in my purse.

Cute, huh? Bye-bye plastic, hello pretty reusable mesh. These are called Care Bags Produce Bags and can be found here.

Third stop – no more plastic bags at any store, ever. Tote it or carry it. Fail safe solution? Carry a nylon bag that scrunches up really small in my purse.

Really, this stuff is just about planning ahead. Once I thought about it, it took me only 2 minutes to figure it out. Sometimes breaking old habits is just about simply thinking about them in a different way.

Listen to the kids sing about it. Let’s build them a beautiful and sustainable planet, without the plastic bags in the landfills and oceans.

Take Out the Take Out

Today I went out for lunch to the local food court with two people from work.  As we walked up, I started to think about my lunch garbage.  Looking up at the various neon signs starting back at me, I realized that if I wanted to avoid Styrofoam (polystyrene foam), then my choices would be severely limited.

Of the 9 food outlets, 5 of them required the use of a Styrofoam container, 2 of them gave you Styrofoam for about half their meals and 2 of them were Styrofoam free.  So if you do the math, out of the hundreds of lunches that were pumped out each day, approximately 2/3s generate a Styrofoam container.  How many containers is that per lunch hour?  This is just one food court, out of many downtown, and many more throughout the city.  How many containers are thrown out per day, just in my city?  Then multiply that by 251 working days per year, then by the number of cities in North America, then by the number of years we have using Styrofoam…

Stop!  My head is spinning.

So on this day, I did not order a lunch with Styrofoam.  Normally I would have.  Today I did not.  What difference will my choice make?  How will my choosing to not use Styrofoam, among the mountains of Styrofoam produced each day, make a difference?  This is where I start to get weary.  Why even try if it doesn’t even make a difference?

Well I am voting with my dollars, by shopping at those establishments that have Earth-friendlier packaging.  If everyone did what I do, I am sure that these establishments would quickly get the message.

There are alternatives to Styrofoam.  There is a high density cardboard, which I have seen around town.  Why can’t food stores switch out?

Why?

I carried my non-Styrofoam lunch to a food court table to eat with my coworkers.  Looking down at my meal, I realized that even without the Styrofoam, I still had a napkin, a plastic fork, a paper plate and paper tray liner all to throw away.  It was the first time I had ever thought about this.

So much of our waste in landfills is due to single use items.  Napkins, drink cups, straws, coffee cups, hamburger wrappers, fry containers, Styrofoam containers… We just use ‘em then lose ‘em without a second thought.  Have you ever brought your family to McDonalds and looked at the tide of garbage on the tray afterwards?  We just open the shoot, dump ‘er in and away we go.

In grade eight there was a girl at school whose parents would go to McDonald’s and bring all their own dishes.  I am sure the McDonald’s workers were very confused.  How do you make a burger without putting it on the wrapper first?  How to you serve fries without the container that fits the fry dispenser?  How do you put a regular cup in the pop dispenser where paper cups should go?  Everyone at school talked about it.  I thought it was cool.  How brazen and defiant! 

But this was back in 1988, people.  It is not a new idea.

Today’s resolution – refuse napkins, forks/spoons/knives in stores (carry my own in my purse) and avoid Styrofoam.