How did we get here?

People always ask “how do you do that?” when they hear about our one can of garbage a year.  While one of our friends did accomplish one can a year in just one year, for us it is a longer process. We didn’t say to ourselves, “Hey, let’s have one can of garbage a year!”, nor did we even think of it until we started seeing that our new practices were resulting in less waste.

How did we get here? We started recycling in the early Seventies when the first recycling center opened in Corvallis. We took our newspaper, cardboard, glass and cans, which were the only items accepted at the time.  We felt pleased that there was a better choice we could make rather than throwing all those items in the garbage. When we moved to Portland in 1974, we found another place to drop off our recyclables.  Curbside recycling didn’t become available until the early Eighties.

In 1992, we were in the second round of the Master Recycler course. One of the biggest takeaways for me was “Where is ‘AWAY’?”  Well yeah, good question.  If we throw things AWAY, where is away and what happens to all that stuff? In 1994, we discovered Northwest Earth Institute’s discussion courses.  The big “wow” from one of the courses was “Everything comes from the Earth”.  Of course it does, but I hadn’t really connected the dots.…..all of the things we have are made from resources that come from the planet.  And what happens to those things when they’re no longer usable?  Most places don’t have recycling options for them so they go into a landfill where they sit forever.  Then we make more things, many from non-renewable resources.

At some point, we decided to work on eliminating disposables. Paper napkins were the first to go.  Three people in our family times three meals a day equaled nine paper napkins in the garbage daily.  Not only were we throwing away trees (not to mention the energy, water, transportation impacts, etc., used to make the napkins), we were throwing away our money that paid for the napkins. The switch to cloth was simple. Each of us left our napkin at our place at the table for the week, then they were laundered.  Some people have a different napkin ring for each person, then the napkins are put away between uses.  (A word of advice – use printed napkins because they show soil less than solid ones).

We eliminated other paper products. We started using cloth bags at the grocery store way before it was common practice – the clerks didn’t know how to handle the floppy canvas bags.  And we opted to not take bags for small items – that really freaked out the clerks because putting an item in a bag shows that it has been paid for; we chose to just carry the receipt in plain sight.  We started shopping in the bulk section of the grocery store to avoid the packaging, save money, and to buy just the amount we needed which also reduced waste.  We reused our plastic bags and took our own jars for some items like honey, syrup, oil, almond butter and tamari.

Another way we reduced curbside waste was composting our food scraps, first with a worm bin, then with a compost bin in the backyard. ( Items that can’t be composted in the backyard, such as meat, fat, bones, breads and grains because they draw vermin, are kept in a bag in the freezer until the garbage is picked up). Over time we noticed that the garbage can wasn’t full each week, so we switched to monthly service, then later to on-call service. For several years we had two cans of garbage per year, then in 2006 we accomplished filling  just one 35-gallon can in a year. As I write this, we have a brown paper grocery bag under the sink with almost four months of garbage; next Tuesday, July 29, the four months is up and I’ll switch to a new bag. (update:  it’s July 31st and I’m still working on that bag.)

Our concern about waste is born from concern for the state of the planet and concern for coming generations of humans and non-humans.  We realize that we must reduce the amount of the planet’s resources that we use.  And waste reduction isn’t that hard!  Step one is to look in your garbage can and see what doesn’t need to be there, either because it can be recycled or because you can avoid getting it in the first place.  This is the creative part!  It is very gratifying that by making small changes, you can help reduce climate change one garbage can at a time.  Remember, for  each can of garbage put curbside the equivalent of seventy cans of garbage were created in the production of the stuff being thrown away.  (Please watch The Story of Stuff on YouTube).