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.