Thinking About Garbage (and How to Make Less of It)

Raised as I was by Depression-era parents and by a mother who was a great scratch cook, and wanting to leave the world a better place through environmentally thoughtful choices, I have a lot of old-fashioned thrifty and eco-friendly habits. As we've moved three times within three years we've also downsized a fair amount and I like what simplifying our possessions does for our lives.

A few years ago I read Garbage Land*, which looks at where our garbage actually goes when it goes "away." At the time I probably felt pretty good about my habits. But I've been reading Zero Waste Home* the past couple of weeks and realizing I can do quite a bit more with a little forethought.

Mind you, I'm not going to go whole hog. Author/blogger Bea Johnson burns almonds one by one, puts the ashes through a sieve, and grinds them to make kohl she uses for her eyeliner and homemade mascara. For real.

In other makeup tips, she uses cocoa powder to darken her eyebrows. Sounds delicious. I may make her all-purpose balm good for everything from chapped lips to wood furniture to leather shoes.

She reassures throughout the book that these choices don't have to take more time than dealing with (and earning the money for) more wasteful choices. She lost a little credibility with me when she referred to making a gingerbread house from scratch as "simple and fun." I won't even make those things from kits, packaging or no packaging.

And I do think her choices come from a place of unseen privilege. She's made her knowledge and practices into a career, which is great for her, but she didn't start this effort working 3 jobs as a single mom with no benefits. I don't begrudge her the chance to test these ideas so I can benefit from them. I'm just mindful of how hard some of this can be for reasons she doesn't speak to at all. What kind of grocery store is accessible given all your other time demands and the transportation modes available to you, for example, will affect what products you can buy in bulk.

What the Zero Waste author has given me is a new R before Reduce, Reuse, Recycle; a final R I was already using; and an additional boost of commitment along with some recipes and tips. Possibly some healthy guilt, too.

#1 R: Refuse. If you don't take it home in the first place you don't have to throw it out (or otherwise deal with it).

From packaging to receipts to "free" items at conferences, just say no. Free things at conferences and events are free as far as cash changing hands, but we all pay the cost of those cheap plastic pens you never actually like enough to use when you get home. As a conference organizer I'll review what we plan to give out to make sure it's truly useful and as eco-friendly as possible.

I've already added a caveat on this one at the cash register: If they're just going to throw my refused receipt into the trash, I'm going to accept it and take it home to recycle.

The author takes her own packaging to stores for everything. You're probably already carrying reusable grocery bags, maybe even reusing plastic bags for produce. But do you carry pillowcases to take bread home in and your own refillable jars for dairy products? Me neither.

(As a side note, why on earth did they add those plastic pour spouts to milk cartons that make their own little pitcher spout when opened the old-fashioned way? What a waste.)

#5 R: Rot. We've had a compost bucket for years. In Spokane I had a cold pile (I figured I was in no hurry to make dirt), in Seattle it's gone into the municipal composting green waste can. Now that we have a big yard and room to grow veggies I can get going on compost with a purpose.

What I picked up from the book: Reminders that some of the things that I reflexively drop into the wastebasket can be composted, like clippings from haircuts and dryer lint (I don't use dryer sheets).

The Aha Moment: Much of this isn't rocket science, it's Remembering (I think of this as R-0).

For example, I had thrown out an old and icky makeup applicator and was all set to purchase organic 100% cotton pads to wash and reuse. How friendly and natural, even if they do come in a plastic bag and I could make my own instead.

And then I remembered that the foundation I'd be applying actually came with its own applicator sponge. Done.

For the record, Johnson just uses tinted moisturizer, and then all that food-based pigment. Again, I'm not quite there in giving up certain habits and self-imposed expectations.

My initial implementation notes above and beyond current habits in case they give you ideas--

Things I've been buying that I'm going to replace with reusables:

Facial tissues: Riding a bike means dealing with a runny nose daily in cold weather. Heaven knows I have enough T-shirts from all those bike events to cut a few up into handkerchiefs.

Paper towels: I hadn't been using them at all, then bought some for a reason that now escapes me.

Plastic wrap and waxed paper: I had already bought a silicone cover we use for a lot of applications that would call for plastic wrap, such as covering a bowl of bread dough while it rises.

At the very fun Recology Store in Burien run by solid waste company CleanScapes, they sell a variety of things that help you choose reusable products made from things found in nature without a ton of processing. One new find I especially like: food covering Abeego, coated with beeswax, jojoba oil, and resin. It comes in a recycled/recyclable uncoated cardboard box.

Shifts away from waste-producing choices:

Plastic produce bags: We have a couple of mesh produce bags but not enough for a typical run for our household. We've been saving and reusing plastic bags but they give out over time. Time to make a few more bags out of the rest of those T-shirts.

Other bulk purchase containers: As for carrying jars for things purchased in bulk, we shop for groceries by bike. Johnson is using a car to haul around all those empty glass jars. I think we can do enough with bags, and maybe I can find a farmers' market with dairy products that will let me bring back milk jugs and reuse egg cartons (much better eggs if they're fresh anyway).

Toilet paper

I first became aware of Scott brand's no-tube toilet paper when they sponsored the National Bike Summit. I meant to seek it out, then forgot about it; now it's on the list.

Use Scott's handy-dandy calculator to figure out your family's lifetime consumption and what could be made out of that many tubes. The sofa shown here comprises 19.720 tubes: the lifetime consumption of a household with 2 adults and 2 children, 2 each male/female.

Making food instead of buying premade in plastic: 

I'll reinstitute my old yogurt-making instead of bringing home all those plastic containers, although I do reuse them to freeze my homemade veggie broth.** Ricotta cheese is also easy to make at home. I already make homemade ice cream -- no sacrifice there!

Johnson says she'd rather buy bread in bulk than bake for a family of four. I'd rather bake and this No-Knead Bread recipe makes it stupid-easy so I'm already on this.

We buy very little processed food as it is, but I've been known to buy packaged falafel mix and I bet I can make falafel. Ditto with hummus and pesto. Buying those instead of making them is just kinda lazy on my part, especially since I grew a bumper crop of basil last summer and missed the peak moment.

We already make our own salad dressing, marinara, pizza sauce, pizza crust, soup.... Being a scratch cook cuts out a lot of packaging but somehow our refrigerator still holds a lot of store-bought containers.

Adding to the list of things I'll start making instead of buying: Mustard, teriyaki sauce (again with the lazy since I've made it before), mayo (aioli).

Renewing old practices: This summer it will be time to get back into canning, freezing, and dehydrating locally grown produce. I've made one batch of ketchup. It is incredibly labor-intensive and uses tons of tomatoes because it has to reduce so much to get the flavors concentrated. It tasted great but I'm not sure it was worth it if I were to figure out the cost per ounce.

(Fun fact: A ketchup [or catsup, if you're one of those people] is any spiced, fermented vegetable paste, which is why labels specify tomato ketchup. The Joy of Cooking has a recipe for mushroom ketchup, among other types. Say, I'm growing mushrooms from indoor kits right now....)

Cleaning products: I'll make liquid Castile soap instead of paying insane amounts for Dr. Bronner's. Simplicity itself: grate Kirk's Castile Soap bars that are 3 for $3.79, mix with hot water. 1-1/2 c. grated soap to 1 gallon hot water, stir, let it sit overnight, blend, put in jars.

I'll finally switch to vinegar and baking soda the way I've meant to for years and years once all the products on hand are used up.

I have all the ingredients I need to make laundry detergent.

Gift-giving: I seek to give experiences where possible, and try to choose practical and needed items. In the case of our children this often means cash, which certainly cuts down on the wrapping paper.

One more step when I do give a real something: Wrapping items in something useful and reusable like a dish towel using some of the Furoshiki techniques.

Your Turn:

  • Have some tips or recipes to share?
  • Have you tried to go whole-hog zero waste, and how did that work for you?

*Note on the Amazon purchase link: If you can, I hope you'll ride your bike to your favorite independent local bookstore and buy it there. If you can't, or if you like the environmental footprint of your Kindle, at least your purchase through embedded links on this page will benefit bicycle advocacy in Washington state through the Amazon Associates program.

**Homemade vegetable broth. I save all the little scraps from food prep (tough end of the celery stalk, root end of the carrot, parsley stems, little rubbery bit on the bottom of the mushroom stem, leek stems, onion skins) in a bag in the freezer. When it's full enough or when I run out of vegetable broth, I saute them briefly to extract a little extra flavor through carmelization, then simmer them slowly in a bunch of water in my pasta strainer pot. When it's a nice deep brown I put the by-now-squishy vegetable parts in the compost bucket, strain the broth through a sieve, and freeze it. This is pretty much a perpetual-motion machine: The veggie scraps created by making soup go into the broth I use for more soup.

Changing Again:

“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”

Heraclitus summed it up nicely, don’t you think? (You remember him--the Greek philosopher who said, "You can never step in the same river twice."

Three and a half years ago I made a big leap. From Spokane to Seattle, from the security of work as a public employee to the responsibility of leading a nonprofit, from a city where it felt as if my network gave me one and a half degrees of separation from everyone in town to a major metropolitan area known for its “freeze” reception.

And it all worked out just fine.

The move: First to a borrowed condo in the heart of downtown, situated right on the duck boat tour route and they play the same song at the same point Every. Single. Time. But we could walk to Pike Place Market, bike along Elliott Bay Trail through the Myrtle Edwards Sculpture Park, and find good coffee on every corner. (It’s Seattle, after all.)

Next, north to a Lake City rental on a little side street near a park. Walking distance to great falafel and sushi, express bus service or an hour’s bike ride to downtown. Nothing special but a really functional layout when it was just the two of us. When we had all four of our adult-sized children with us and one bathroom, not so much.

This summer we bought a house in an untrendy neighborhood near White Center. “Untrendy” can be translated as  “within our price range in a crazed red-hot real estate market.” Great house, great layout, great yard, and three whole bathrooms. (You can come home now, kids.) I shortened my bike ride to work, with the bonus that 6 of the 8 miles are on either a separated path or a bike lane with sidewalk option. We still have access to restaurants with cuisines from around the world, we’re only two miles from my older brother and his wife, and we have easy access to the highway connections and airport I need for work travel.

The job—big change again. When I came to the Bicycle Alliance of Washington as executive director we had a great track record that was relatively unknown beyond the circle of people who watch bike advocacy closely.

We’d led work in Olympia for nearly 3 decades, producing a dozen laws for safety, education, and enforcement. Our communication work hadn’t kept up with our policy work, and I set out to change that.

We stepped up our social media game big time. Today we have over four times as many Facebook followers and nearly 10 times as many Twitter followers, with high engagement on both fronts. We increased our blog content production, giving us more to share on social media, and saw the results in our site traffic. And we rebranded to become Washington Bikes, an action-oriented and easily remembered name that lends itself to all kinds of programs within our mission. As we liked to tell people, "When our work succeeds, Washington Bikes."

The effort to build a large and engaged following paid off time and again as we worked for even more policy wins. Each year we achieved a new high in state funding for biking and walking. We passed policy bills. We expanded the base of support for bike investments by positioning bike travel and tourism as economic development assets, particularly for small towns and rural regions that need it most.

When it came time for the state to put together a transportation revenue package, we had enough legislative support in both houses and on both sides of the aisle to see bike/walk investments actually increase during the final negotiations, to end at around half a billion over the next 16 years--the biggest investment in state history. That’s Billion with a B. That revenue package then faced the threat of executive action that would strip our dollars. We led a bold campaign with the help of the allies we’d been partnering with to shape and spread our message framing, and we won.

Alongside this effort we were engaged in exciting conversations about the possibility of merging with Cascade Bicycle Club. They focus on the most populous region of the state with a larger staff than ours, making them a significant partner in many ways. Their executive director Elizabeth Kiker, who came to Seattle the year after I did, became a friend and colleague right from the start. 

The discussions over the course of the summer and fall hinged on whether their board and staff understood what it meant to us to be the statewide bike nonprofit—not just in Olympia, but around the state, connecting with, seeding, and supporting local advocacy efforts that lay the foundation for legislative success. We articulated and discussed what matters most in our work and saw how much alignment our missions already had, along with the increased efficiencies we could gain from a merger. 

Ultimately both boards voted in favor of the merger on December 8. The Cascade board embraces the Washington Bikes mission, staff members look forward to learning what it will mean for their work as it evolves, and we’ll be able to do more over the long run for the people who care about better bicycling and safer streets. Together we constitute the nation's largest bike nonprofit.

So on January 1, 2016, I’ll no longer be the executive director of Washington Bikes. The name still exists, and I’ll serve as Chief Strategic Officer for both Washington Bikes and Cascade Bicycle Club. Our stellar statewide policy director, Blake Trask, will become Senior Director of Policy for both entities, aligning advocacy work in the Puget Sound with state work. 

I’ll continue to lead communications, with the exciting new challenge of shaping two brands that need to be complementary and connected and with more staff to support the effort. As the statewide ambassador of the merged organization I'll keep working to strengthen the relationships we have with groups and individuals all around Washington. And in this first critical year of the merged organization I'll be stewarding the history and vision of our organization as we blend our programs with Cascade's and plan together for what the future will look like.

As for the network I had in Spokane, it’s still there. It’s been extended to include friends from Bellingham to Port Angeles to Wenatchee to Vancouver to Tri-Cities to Pullman, and even beyond that, to Texas, California, New York, Georgia, Iowa, Florida, Oregon, Idaho. It doesn’t feel quite the same as seeing the same faces every month at a meeting of Greater Spokane Incorporated or welcoming city, state, and federal officials to an event for WSU Spokane, but it has its own rewards. 

With my change in duties and the larger organizational infrastructure to work with, I’ll finally have time to pursue some of my interests outside work that have been shelved while I focused intensely on extending our presence. That will further enrich my circle of friends and connections. I expect continued opportunities for professional growth at the same time I restore some much-needed balance.

The past three years have held changes and challenges. Beyond those listed here, to list just a few: 

My children have matured to become young adults. Eldest Daughter lives and works in Spokane, Second Daughter lives in New York while she attends college and pursues her musical theater ambitions, and my husband's two teenagers are with us on a schedule constrained by school and other obligations so we're practically empty-nesters much of the time, except when we're not. 

My dad died just a few months after we moved to Seattle; my mom died a year ago just after Mother's Day; my husband’s father died unexpectedly later that summer. 

In May of this year my husband crashed during a race and broke multiple facial bones (with full recovery), I had a heart health scare that turned out to be nothing (but boy, is it ever expensive to figure out "nothing"). 

To quote another wise sage, Roseanna Roseannadanna, "It's always something. If it isn't one thing, it's another."

And now it's time for another thing.

"Click" on Personal Safety and Privilege

As a middle-class white girl growing up in Lewiston, Idaho, and then Spokane, Washington, I never knew fear. Not real fear. Not the fear that someone is going to hit me, hurt me, rape me, kidnap me, steal from me, kill me. 

When we moved from Lewiston to Spokane it was just as the South Hill rapist, Kevin Coe, began his string of attacks. I was turning 13 that year. I remember my mom at some point letting on that she was worried about this move to the big city and the inherent dangers of the metropolis. I think she told me to be careful, but I'm pretty sure she also tried not to scare me.

(I pause here to add a laugh track for people familiar with the area: We moved into the Ponderosa subdivision in the Spokane Valley, on a street where every other house had the same floor plan and split levels were big. Gritty it was not. That doesn't mean there weren't assaults, domestic violence, and more in those "nice" neighborhoods, but we weren't moving into an area known for its high crime rates.)

I had tons of privilege I didn't even recognize. Reading Ms. magazine starting in high school opened my eyes to just how many women were attacked, beaten, raped, killed every day -- the hidden epidemic of violence all around me that had never touched my family directly.

Even with at least some consciousness raised, it took me a while to develop any kind of self-defense awareness and practice. College had its share of weird alcohol-impaired encounters, but even then I generally moved in a pack with other women and counted on safety in numbers.

After college, living alone in an apartment for the first time I locked my doors and carried mace on my keychain. I took a 6-week self-defense class at the YWCA taught by a 6'4" fourth-degree black belt. I paid attention to where I parked my car and didn't get in without looking underneath and in the back seat. 

I walked assertively and made eye contact with everyone who passed me. I played "eyewitness": Observing every man walking toward me and developing a quick list of things I would say to the responding officer and then the sketch artist. (Note the privilege right there? I was sure police would respond appropriately, believe my account, and help me.)

I still operated from a fundamental belief that most people are good, not bad, but at least I started paying attention in case that belief was misplaced.

When I had children my sense of danger and awareness expanded. We read books on the difference between good touching, bad touching, and secret touching. I talked to them about what to do and who to ask for help if for some reason I wasn't there (seek out a mom with kids). I looked at men walking toward me in full Mama Bear Mode: assessing whether they looked like they'd hurt my children more than whether they looked like they'd hurt me. 

When I began bike commuting I paid attention to personal safety through yet another lens: Do drivers see me? Are they driving accordingly? Do I have an exit strategy in this badly designed corridor if something goes wrong? This round of safety thinking wasn't about being attacked so much as it was about the physics of trajectories and impacts. 

I'm not 100% consistent. I don't keep my guard up at all times. But I have an ongoing low-level awareness that my personal safety is my responsibility. I feel a great sense of freedom and strength when I'm riding my bike, while maintaining a sense of situational awareness.

This was brought home to me yesterday morning when I rode for miles behind another rider who never looked around to see if I represented any kind of threat whatsoever. As a woman, no matter how complacent I may be at times about the many wonderful people in the world, I would never ride for miles with someone right behind me without looking at the person, without paying attention.

Improving the Happiness Quotient

I loved reading a quirky, wonderful, unique story: The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick. It's not every day you read an epistolary novel in which the correspondence carried on is a one-sided outpouring to Richard Gere.

The mother of our letter writer, a devout Catholic, has a somewhat karmic approach to dealing with life's blows and setbacks. She tells her son Bartholomew that for every unhappy there is a happy -- and vice versa.

If you're experiencing something bad, someone somewhere -- not necessarily you -- is experiencing something wonderful. Bartholomew's mother takes solace in the idea that some good is balancing the scales somewhere.

Conversely, if you're happy than somewhere, someone is suffering, or at the least having a bad day.

Earlier this year I successfully completed 30 Days of Biking, to which I added a word/picture of the day challenge to myself. As I wrapped up the series I chose "happy" as my word of the day. I sincerely hope this didn't mean someone else was having a bad day.

I've long held the belief that I should contribute to the net positive balance of energy in the universe by doing good things. If the balance is actually 50/50 as Bartholomew's mother believed, it's important for me to notice and cherish every scrap of happiness because someone is paying for it.

Even though I don't really think you're paying for my happy day, it's still worth paying attention to and appreciating.

The research into people's behavior with respect to their shopping and service experiences says that we share negative experiences much more often than we do positive ones. While I definitely think there's a place for feedback that helps others improve (ask me about my luggage lost en route to Washington, DC, and meetings with members of Congress), we too seldom take a moment to thank someone for a job well done or a really positive experience. We take that for granted and focus on the screw-ups.

What if we made a point of paying attention to our happiness, to good experiences, and sharing those and only those for a day or a week? We'd be adding to the net happiness in the world.

Let's change the equation.