The way we handle trash nowadays allows us to put it on the curb or in the dumpster and forget about it. We pile up however much rubbish we produce then someone comes to take it away. If we start taking responsibility, composting and reusing and recycling, that will help. The biggest help would be reducing the amount of waste we create, particularly plastics and chemicals, which don’t so readily yield to natural processes of decomposition and are something we can’t really deal with on our own.
While it can be a tad harsh (on oneself), one of the best remedies for rediscovering an intrinsic concept of waste creation (and recreation) is to truly take responsibility for the rubbish we personally produce. And, this is still excluding all of that which goes into making the products we use at home, though having some knowledge of that is worthwhile as well. If suddenly, garbage bags are piled in the backyard, if food is rotting in those bags and causing a stench, if disposable bottles and plates and cups and to-go containers and whatever else…if it all cumulates in front of us, the amount of garbage we create resonates much more.
Garbage in the Real
My wife Emma and I once stayed on a farm with an attached eco-lodge that did this. However, in that case, there were dozens of acres at the owner’s disposal, which meant there was always a hidden corner in which to stack plastic bottles, cans, and so on as they awaited whatever fate would come. Though we hadn’t created the trash there, the sight of it loomed large throughout our days. What would become of it all? Much of it found its way into building foundations, much of it in large bins with no foreseeable destination. He had the space for such pursuits, but for most of us, that’s not realistic. I couldn’t help but wonder what such devotion would look like in the “real world”.
Shortly after volunteering on this farm, we were running a site of our own, and we decided to do something similar. For six months, we found useful avenues for all the trash we brought onto the grounds, or we kept it and faced it. We managed to not send one bag of trash off the property. The plastic bags that dry beans, pasta, and rice came in was washed, cut into small strips, and used as stuffing for outdoor pillows. Anything organic was composted, and boxes and papers were used in sheet-mulching arrangements. Metal was sent off with a local guy who collected it for recycling and earned a living doing so. And, in Panama, glass bottles for beer are reused as opposed to recycled. From that, we learned that it didn’t take that much to create hardly any waste.
We have continued much the same since then, some five years ago. Now, in the USA, we do have recycling centers which help ease some of the burden, particularly with the non-reusable beer bottles here (my worse offense). We haven’t created more than a reused plastic shopping bag, someone else brought to the house, full of garbage this year. This is not to tout our accomplishment (if that’s what it is), so much as to say that this realistically can be done. We are far from the most self-sufficient or devout ecologists in the world. We simply made the choice to take our garbage seriously, as a responsibility, and we’ve adjusted the way we do a few things to help with that.
The Current Situation
At the moment, we live in a cabin in the woods of North Carolina, near the border of Virginia. We moved here in late December and were stuck with buying all of our winter produce from the supermarket in town, which we visit once a week. Now, we have a garden, which has been providing us veg since around June. Our shopping trips mostly consist of dry beans, grains, flour and beer/wine. Every three months or so, we visit my mother, and there is a store near her where we can stock up on stuff from bulk bins: organic grits (a southern thing), nuts, spices, barley, oats, and so on. We do as much of that as seems feasible because we can take it home in reusable bags.
Emma and I are vegans, so our diet consists of legumes at some point every day. We make our own sourdough bread, roughly two loaves about two to three times a week, and that generally manifests as toast with different spreads—hummus, peanut butter, jam, etc.—and vegetables or fruit for breakfast. We cook most meals from scratch, save a few items like pasta or the occasional bags of crisps. We snack on nuts or whatever veggies or fruits are in overabundance. We don’t often make fancy meals in the evening, but hearty stuff that sticks to the ribs and tastes comfortable: red beans and rice, lentils and flatbread, chickpea and vegetable curry. These don’t require recipes but rather some semblance of what ingredients are available. Eating this way drastically reduces the trash we create.
The little bit of produce we do buy, we buy in bulk bags or preferably loose. Our would-be trash comes mostly from the plastic bags beans and bulk vegetables come in. While we try to minimize these bags as much as possible, even when we do acquire them, we’ve found outfits nearby that will recycle them. Any cardboard we accumulate goes to sheet-mulching or compost piles, and in the winter, we use it to help with starting fires for heat. Vegetable peelings and skins are often used to make vegetable broth and then composted. Bottles and cans are recycled. For us, that essentially leaves items like bottle caps, crisp wrappers (pretty much my fault), and every now and then some kind of packaging foible from eBay, though those kinds of purchases are few and far between.
To be honest, we don’t do that much out of our routine to achieve this, but our routine has evolved over the years to reduce the amount of trash we bring home and the amount of negative consumerism we participate in. There are a few guidelines we try to uphold, and they seem to keep us out of a lot of mischief. While some will often mistakenly identify these as sacrifices, we—at least most of the time—do not: These are the means to living closer to the way we really want to. We want to live in harmony with the planet, to avoid further scarring the earth with exploitation and negligence, so we do our best, or shall we say put forth a very honest effort, to make choices that reflect the more noble of our desires.
Here are some simple things that help us along the way:
- We never accept a plastic shopping bag. We take reusable bags. If we forget them, we either carry the items loose out of the shop, or we can often find empty cardboard boxes to put groceries in. A purse or backpack often comes in handy as well. There always seems to be an option or solution for avoiding plastic, or even paper, bags when we take the time to seek one out. The same goes for plastic cups, bottles, and the like—we find a way to avoid this. Not long ago, when a coffee shop we were at with family didn’t have actual cups, I just popped across the street to a thrift shop, bought a mug for $0.25, and washed it in the bathroom sink. There is typically a way.
- Before we buy something, we consider which routes are available for keeping the packaging out of a landfill. First, we opt for no packaging, preferring loose items, or if there is packaging that can be composted, that’s an acceptable situation. Next, we go for metal or glass: Metal takes less energy to recycle; we reuse most of the glass jars, opting when possible to buy ones that function as canning jars. I can’t think of anything we buy in a plastic bottle or plastic jars. Due to budgeting, we haven’t move entirely out of rice, pasta, and beans that come in plastic bags. Bulk bin legumes in this area tend to be about three times as expensive and the same goes for rice. Pasta is unavailable. Barley is cheaper in bulk, so we’ve started having it more often.
- While this may seem time consuming, the truth is that we buy similar lists every time we shop. After going through the effort to figure the least packaging to get what we need, the choices for doing so become boringly routine.
- Of course, we try to grow a lot of our own food, and similarly, we try to base our consumption more off of what we grow than what we can buy. Since the garden came in this year, we’ve bought very little in the way of vegetables, and our produce purchases have mostly been organic fruit. Ultimately, as we settle and establish our gardens and food forest, the compulsion to buy things we don’t grow will be less and less as we’ll aim to produce adequate diversity, particularly in the fruit and berry department.
- We don’t really do take-out. Occasionally, we’ll grab a coffee on the road during a trip, but more likely, we’ll make that before setting off and have it in a reusable thermos. The same goes for water. The same goes for snacks. The same goes for meals. We try to carry along what we need. This is partially because it’s tough to find stout vegan meals out and about, but mostly we don’t want to create the excess packaging that comes from buying a little bag of nuts or a tin of fruit. If we eat out, it is likely an occasion that deserves sitting in a place with plates and cutlery that can be washed rather than dumped in a trash can.
- In the case of things that aren’t food, we almost exclusively opt for secondhand items. In general, and with patience, we can buy higher quality than we’d likely be able to afford otherwise, and they don’t come with all the flash and pizzazz of quadruple wrapped packaging. Clothes, shoes, sheets, tools, cars, computers, and even building materials—We do our best to adjust, design around, and repurpose things that obviously still have life left in them. Admittedly, it has given us a noticeably unique fashion sense at times, but it’s also provided a lot excitement in finding something good and a hint of pride knowing, whatever anyone else thinks, our choices were founded on something meaningful to us.
We look to buy things that can be composted or last for ages. Wooden utensils for cooking will decompose if they break, and cast-iron cookware can easily live for decades. Toothbrushes can be bamboo, and toiletries and cleaners are easy to concoct at home with baking soda, apple cider vinegar, and essential oils, making them both eco-friendly and low-impact on the packaging. Wooden furniture can be dismantled and left to rot in the forest or used for firewood. And, on the list goes, with the simple premise of plastic as a last resort and repurposed materials (or homemade versions) as the first option.
In the End
This is actually something I’ve written about a time or two with Permaculture News before, but it’s an idea that probably warrants constant revisiting. And, to the point, it’s an idea Emma and I constantly revisit, noticing where and when we fail to do our best and how we might handle the situation more responsibly next time. By no means is this a judgment of anyone who does less but, more so, a reassurance that we can all likely do more (and, I must acknowledge, as well, how many people do so much more than us). But, hopefully, some of the ways I’ve listed will help those who want to deal with trash differently, do so. Hopefully, they’ll remind me to take my time and live as I want to rather than as mass marketing has suggested. Sometimes we need the repetition to learn; sometimes we need to face a big pile of our own garbage stewing out in the front yard.
I’d love folks to add their tips for avoiding garbage.
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