Waste Challenge – Accepted

I think of myself as a fairly environmentally friendly guy.  I recycle every week; I bought recycled blue jean insulation to re-insulate the attic of my 90 year old house (that I purposely purchased in a neighborhood with extensive amenities within walking distance); I keep my thermostat at 60 all winter; I use biodegradable bags for my dog’s business; when I eat somewhere that doesn’t recycle I bring my cans and bottles home; I eat almost exclusively organic; I don’t use synthetic fertilizers or weed killers on my lawn; I have shade trees surrounding my house; I don’t eat meat.  I know there is more I can do, but I think of myself as more environmentally conscious than the average guy.

Its funny how one day, you can be content in who you are and how you live and the next you see or hear, or do, something that makes the walls of complacency and self satisfaction come toppling down on your head – making you wish you wore a helmet.  I had one of those days last week.  It started as one of my favorite days at MOM’s, new magazine day.  This is the day that we get boxes and boxes of magazines delivered.  It is like Christmas every month!  I love magazines and I eagerly await each shipment to see what’s new in the world.  After hungrily tearing open a box and digging through the contents, I came across Dwell.  I’ve always been a fan of Dwell mainly because I’m a fan of all things weird and useless, and Dwell is usually chock full of weird and useless stuff.

The main headline on the cover said “Rethink Recycling.”  That intrigued me, so I started to flip through and on page 72, I came across the most striking photo.  It was a picture that showed a city with garbage piled every where, you can see it through the windows of buildings, on the street and on the roof tops.  This is a neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo, and the people who live there collect all of Cairo’s trash.  They are able to reuse or sell 80% of all the garbage received, which – ask any urban planner or waste management company in the nation – is an amazing feat.

The picture stopped me dead in my tracks, and I’ve been thinking about it for days.  My wife and I produce about 6 bags of trash a month.  Its not as much as I used to, and not nearly the 8 – 10 bags per week that my family produced growing up, but add that up and its significant.  What really blew my mind was thinking about what I would do if I had to fend for myself with my trash. What would I do if the garbage man didn’t come every Wednesday and whisk my waste away to a land of magic, where I no longer have to think about it? What would I do with the plastic wrap from my left overs?  Or the old sponges I can’t use?  Or the kitty litter, when I change the litter boxes?  What would I do if I had to live with, and in, my garbage?  I don’t really have an answer, but now I’m going to do something I’ve never done before – really think about my household waste and how I can eliminate it, especially the stuff that can’t be recycled or reused, because I do that already.

I decided that this is a problem I need to start addressing now.  I gave myself a modest challenge, by the end of February I will only contribute ONE bag per week to the magic land of “out of sight, out of mind”.  I’m not sure yet how I’m going to do it, but when I get home tonight, I’m going to dig through that trash and figure out just exactly what it is I throw away.

Dan works at Rockville MOM’s.

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17 Responses to Waste Challenge – Accepted

  1. Rosa says:

    You will be interested in the film “Waste Land” about the largest trash dump in the world near Rio, Brazil – it is showing in DC –

  2. alyssabdh says:

    Great post, Dan! Your thoughts here made me remember a great movie I saw a couple years ago where the filmmaker convinced his married friend (with kids) to keep all their garbage for one month (including Christmas trash). The experiment was rather eye-opening. The movie is called Garbage: The Revolution Starts at Home!

  3. Great goal Dan!

    My lady and I live zero waste so here are two tips to get you started:

    – Flush the doggy doo (EPA says its the most environmentally friendly method of disposal)

    – Eat better (fruits, vegetables have no wrappers and their minimal waste can be composted) (you would surprised how highly correlated waste is with bad food)

    If you need some more help or just want to chat about living zero waste, shoot me an email: steve@acleanlife.org


  4. Tim says:

    You’d love the film No Impact Man also.


  5. Lee says:

    No Impact Man is also (was first) a book. Highly recommended and with a great, long annotated list of Websites, blogs, organizations, etc.

  6. Ellen says:

    This is very inspiring. I am in the same boat or at least in the same stream. I compost (not suppose to in my HOA, but so far so good) Use cloth bags and compostable plastic at stores. Eat very little meat. We are down to 1 bag garbage about every 2 weeks. Have been recycling for decades (remember when you had to drive your glass and cans the recycler or when they made you separate your glass according to color) There has been progress. Now we can recycle aresol cans, and batteries and electrical equipment, computer parts and cell phones, and plastic.

    I have always believed that there is no “away” when throwing out trash. Throwing something “away” has to go some place. We keep our temp at 65 in the house. We take our lunch everyday. I have tried to get my husband to keep a continer in the shower for gray water to water plants, but that has not caught on. We use something until it breaks. I have gone to thrift stores my entire life. My children still go. I so wanted to have more environmentally friendly carpent installed when our was damaged, but we could not find any. We have started using “green” paint. Hang virtually all of my clothes in our basement. Dryer is probably used 20 -25% of the time that the washer is used – if that. And our favorite way to help the environment is to shop at Moms ~ thanks Mom !
    Thank you for all of the movie suggestions. Would love to hear any other helpful tips on thinking smarter and better ~

  7. Turner Houston says:

    Pick up a copy of the excellent book, “Garbageland” and read how a reporter got interested in that very question–where does my garbage go and how can I reduce what garbage I produce. She actually weighed her throw-aways for a while–it was eye-opening to become really conscious of what she–and I–throw away.

  8. Ann M says:

    These comments are eye opening! I never realized you could recylce so much stuff! We do make a run to the landfill every couple of months, for batteries and dead electronics and I recycle plastic bags until they have holes and recycle them. I also shop at thift stores, esp. the half off on holiday sales. I’m going to try a small gardening patch this spring and do something I said I would NEVER do again…can some fruits and vegetables. Having spent summers on the farm I developed an IMMENSE hatred of the preparation for canning foods! Less GMOs.

  9. ChuckD says:

    I installed a 60-minute wind-up timer on my bathroom vent fan. Now, when the bathroom needs to be ventilated, we can set it for 10-20 minutes and walk away, knowing that it will shut off and stop pulling cold winter air into the house, yet not trapping moisture (… and so on…) in the house with us.

    With a cold-frame in the garden, I was able to harvest really fresh, frost-sweetened, organic carrots for Christmas, New Years, and mid-January meals. (But now I need to go back to Mom’s for a few months, until the spring crop is ready.)

    Down-filled booties (from REI, near the College Park MOM’s) keep our toes warm when the thermostat is set low.

    Last winter, an area of melting snow on our roof identified a big gap in the attic insulation. How does the snow on your roof compare to your neighbors’?

  10. Steve says:

    I like to challenge myself so in the winter I keep the thermostat set to 50′. It’s a challenge but I have really gotten used to it. My average usage (in a leaky house) this December/January was 450 KWH. I also have a bag of trash a month using methods already described above…

    Have a great green day!

    • Steven Mandzik says:

      Steve – how in the world do u survive/enjoy urself at 50 degree temps. What do you do to keep it hospitable?

      • Steve says:

        I live in the Baltimore area and have an all electric home with an old heatpump for heat. It’s just me and at times my GF who spends less time with me this time of year.

        I wear lots of fleece and also heat small rooms at times with an electric space heater. I have gotten used to the cold and it’s not really that bad unless it’s damp outside. In the summer months I use air conditioning a total of about 20 hours. I really don’t need to save money, I just look at it as a test of my will and to see just how far I can go. The last two years I must admit have been a challenge.

    • ChuckD says:

      Is 450 kWh your only source of heat?
      Just for reference, my 1340 sf. single-family home of 4, cooking almost all meals at home, laundry at home, gas water heater and clothes drier, and high-efficiency (condensing) gas forced-air heat burned 104 Therms of gas in December. 104 Therms x 29.3 kWh/Th = 3047 kWh equivalent, + 590 actual kWh electricity = 3637 kWh.
      In Washington D.C., a flat-plate solar collector receives about 2.8 kWh/day/sq. m. So, if I had a 35 sq. meter solar panel, without any losses, and with an ideal thermal storage system, I could get the same amount of heat as I’m now getting with gas. You could get by with 5 sq. meters.

      • Steve says:

        Yes, I live in the Baltimore area and have an all electric 1280 sq ft middle unit townhome with an old heatpump for heat.

        I really don’t need to save money, I just look at it as a test of my will and to see just how far I can go. The last two years I must admit have been a challenge. It’s funny, with no children I’m trying to save the planet plan while my friends with them squander our resources like there is no tomorrow.

  11. Michael says:

    The solution to the kitty litter issue is using natural pine (or cedar) pellets. This approach is best with a sifting-style box, as the pelleted litter crumbles into sawdust when it absorbs moisture.

    -completely compostable (minus solid waste, which could be flushed as previous commenter noted)
    -odor control, as both pine and cedar neutralize ammonia naturally (no effect on feces, but this is an acceptable trade-off IMO)
    -cheaper by far than any other option in my experience (at <$10/40lb bag at a 'feed-and-seed' type store; otherwise available for comparably more under trade name Feline Pine, e.g., at regular retailers)
    -no potentially harmful chemical-laden dust, as with clay or other types
    -harvested sustainably from purpose grown forests is more environmentally friendly than strip-mining clay, e.g. (recycled newspaper pellets are friendly, but lack other benefits such as natural odor control…)

    -solid waste must be dealt with promptly
    -tracking of sawdust clumps could be an issue if using wood pellets without a sifting system
    -as per previous, may require a sifting system, if not already in place
    -any substrate change must be handled attentively to promote a cat's acceptance without undesirable, uh, … consequences

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