Friday, December 24, 2010

The Learning Curve

Our salad garden in October
Tally of new plastic waste since our last report: 11 oz.

So, a few weeks ago, I posted very optimistically about the possibility of subsisting through the winter on salads from greens I grew myself, on my windowsill.  And a glance at this picture will explain why.

With our excellent southern exposure and a couple of self-watering planters, I had big dreams for green leafies.

Now, I'm a little wary of any "earth-friendly" project that begins by buying new stuff--especially, as these planters were, new plastic stuff.  But I love salads, and I really did not want to go back to plastic-wrapped salads hauled over distances, so I went online and ordered these.  (I know myself; if it were my job to make it rain anywhere on the planet, that locale would quickly become a desert.)

In this picture, the planters look very promising, don't they?  I planted the lettuce quite close together, as I have done on occasion in the past outdoors, when I've put in "ornamental" borders of leaf lettuce around flower gardens.  But the lettuce was spindly and never grew much larger than this.

Whether this is the fault of the potting soil, the indoor lighting, or the density of the seedlings I did not know.  So I replanted the next time more thinly, in clusters.

Which barely germinated.  I had foolishly altered two of the conditions of the experiment, and reseeded with some organic lettuce seeds that had been included for free in another order we'd made.  Perhaps because they were old and likely to annoy paying customers by not germinating.

I have since reseeded the second planter as well, with the original bargain-basement seeds I got at the end of the season from a big box store.  Those seeds are not doing especially well, either.  Not more vigorous than the original batch, for sure.  There is just not very much lettuce growing on our windowsill.

They are simply too small to keep up with our demand.  The lettuce I originally planted grew slowly at best, and provided us with only about four salads before I'd completely exhausted both beds.  I need at least another three planters to match the number of salads we would probably want to eat in the amount of time it takes for lettuce to germinate and grow to maturity, and that's a lot of money--and plastic--to invest.

If I trusted myself to keep up with a watering schedule, I could plant them in almost anything, I suppose.  But, well, I know myself.  I don't think that experiment would have a particularly happy outcome, either.

The alfalfa sprouts are doing very well.  And I normally have at least three quart jars at some stage of production; I'll probably experiment soon with growing sprouts in old nylon stockings or in cotton bags--which may or may not work, but I'm willing to find out.

However, I don't think the lettuce crop makes sense.  If I can, I should probably simply rely on winter keeping vegetables--my own and the local coop's--and save the bins for some winter windowsill herbs.

I admit, I'm disappointed.

But it's a valuable reminder.  I think we can learn to live quite comfortably and gracefully without many of the modern conveniences our grandmothers lived without.  But, as our grandmothers did, we will have some learning to do in order to get there.  Everything about living in a less consumerist way takes a knowledge base, from knowing how little soap is needed to wash the laundry, to how to bake bread or save winter food.

We're experimenting.  A couple of weeks ago, we bought a winter farm share in a local CSA, and brought home about 100 pounds of food, some including winter vegetables I've never tried to cook before, like turnips and rutabagas.  And then there are the questions.  How do I preserve 30 pounds of fresh carrots or potatoes?  What's the best way for me to keep ten pounds of beets edible over the next few months?  What should I do to keep all the fresh potatoes and butternut squash?

Peter built us a lovely bin for the potatoes, for the space between our heated front hall and our unheated garage.  We've stowed the carrots between layers of damp sawdust, but we're still seeking the part of the house where we can find the right temperature--our basement is much too warm, what with the furnace and hot water heater down there.

So perhaps the lovely potato bin will be a failure--or a very limited success, as was the windowsill lettuce.  Perhaps we will come up with ideas that will make it work next year, if it doesn't work this year.

The point is, while I am committed to living in a lower-impact way in terms of the food I eat (and avoiding food waste--one often overlooked way to reduce our emissions footprint!) I can't ever guarantee any experiment's success at the outset.  There is a learning curve for everything, and in order to make change for the better, I have to accept that sometimes I'm going to fail.  Hopefully on the way to some satisfying success.

And if it's as satisfying as the boiled carrots with ginger and maple syrup I served for dinner this week, that will be a pretty nice reward.

Even if we do have to forgo the salad.

Friday, November 26, 2010

How Are We Doing? A Six Months' Checkup

6 oz of plastic waste in November
As of November 26, 2010, six months into our plastic fast, Peter and I have produced a total of 13 lbs., 7 oz. of plastic waste.

By a reasonable estimate, that puts us at about 17% of the average rate of waste production for the United States, though we may be generating plastic waste at a rate of only 7% of the average, depending on which set of numbers you choose to use for the average amount of plastic waste per capita.

For instance, Beth Terry, of Fake Plastic Fish estimates that Americans produce between 85 and 128 pounds of plastic waste per person per year--based on EPA data for residential plastic use in 2008.

The University of Oregon's estimate is a bit higher: "Every American uses almost 200 pounds of plastic in a year--60 pounds of it for packaging." (Source: San Diego County Office of Education, cited in University of Oregon Campus Recycling page).

So how are we doing? Better than we could be, though not as well as we might like. Beth Terry, for instance, produced only 3.7 pounds of plastic waste in 2009.  It is certainly possible to be more rigorous in avoiding plastic waste than we have yet become.

But along the way to reducing our household waste, we've examined our emissions, looked at the need for sustainable agriculture, cut our food waste, begun composting, and have learned how to base our diet increasingly on whole, seasonal, and local foods.  We've done it while saving money and working full time, too.

I believe in small changes. Partly because of the way they grow.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Eating In

Mmmm... supper!

I started by baking my own bread, in an attempt to get affordable bread without all the plastic packaging.  One thing led to another, and I returned to making my own pie crusts, as I had in college--only this time, making one to use now, and freezing the second--buying local produce and freezing it, then pickling it and turning it into jams and jellies, and finally into getting pretty much all of my produce local and organic.

But it's almost winter here in New England, and my favorite farmstand has closed for the winter, and I'm reluctant either to give up fresh produce, or to go back to buying the stuff hauled in from California, plastic-wrapped and ready for me at the local supermarket.

In fact, if all goes well, tonight's salad may be the last grocery store lettuce I'll need.

My fingers are firmly crossed; I've never been much of a gardener, though I lived with one as a child, and I know how much better home-grown anything tends to be.

But I've got this south-facing window.  And some packets of lettuce seeds.

Lettuce does not grow well in warm weather, and round about August, it began to be hard to get local lettuce of any kind, organic or otherwise.  And I thought about that for a while, and took advantage of the remaindered, end-of-season lettuce seeds for sale in the local stores.

I also decided to take into account my personal brown thumb, and I went ahead and invested in a couple of self-watering planters.  And for the past two weeks, I've been anxiously watching over the gradually materializing glow of green leaf lettuce filling those two planters.

I'm almost ready to start using a few thinnings in a sandwich or two.  And so far, they're looking good: very much like, well, young lettuce.  I am hopeful that I'll soon be able to replace the non-local romaine in my salad bowl with the ultimate in local food, stuff from my own windowsill.  There's plenty of sun, and, thanks to chilly New England nights and our stinginess with our fuel bills, it's just about the perfect temperature for lettuce in our house at night.

We're not stopping there, however.  I'm also sprouting alfalfa seeds that I ordered from an organic online source.  It's a little bit of a pain, to rinse them each morning and evening, just before and after work, but the yield is pretty amazing.  For $7.50, I have enough seeds to last me all through the winter, and then some.  A tablespoon of seed fills a quart jar with sprouts in about a week.

Supper tonight?  Besides the store-bought romaine, I've got about 1/2 cup of alfalfa sprouts, some nice local red onion, and the tart green tomatoes from my neighbor's garden.  (It turns out that people who grow things in the dirt will give them to you, just to be nice.  And it turns out to be fun to give things back--stuff like pickles, and bread.)

This has not been a plastic-free adventure.  The planters are largely plastic, and the jar the pound of alfalfa seeds came in was, too, alas.  And it will take a while before the plastic used in producing and packaging these items, as well as the petroleum consumed in getting them to me, will be balanced by the impact of the in-house winter veggie production.

And the lettuce is experimental.  Perhaps it will not work.  (In which case, I'll try my hand at organic microgreens next!)

But there's a particular satisfaction in finding ways that my initial prompting, to try to reduce our plastic waste, has been leading us deeper and deeper into concerns like neighborliness, local food, sustainable agriculture, and now, the joy of a tiny windowsill garden.

Tomorrow, I may eat the rest of that soup I made a few days ago, with local squash and onions and peppers in it.  The day after that, perhaps I will plant the Chinese chestnut saplings given us by a friend.

And someday, perhaps I'll be eating even more locally than I did this summer: from my own backyard.

One small change can lead to others.  (Excuse me, now.  I've got a salad to finish.  Yum!)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Since My Last Confession

OK, so I'm not Catholic.  But it has been a very long time since my last confession here--meaning, the last time I posted our weigh-in of plastic trash and recycling.  (Why do I count recycling?  Because, although I do recycle everything I can, plastic is not like aluminum or glass that can recycle endlessly; plastic actually "downcycles" and becomes, essentially, hazardous waste for thousands of years after only a handful of reuses.  So it all counts, sooner or later.)

The last time I posted our weigh-in was back in July: a two-week tally of 3 lbs. 1 oz.

In the ten weeks since then, we have generated 6 lbs, 7 oz. of trash, which would average out to about 17 lbs of plastic waste per year per person for each of us... in comparison with an American average of over 80 lbs per person.

Of course, I'm not counting my totaled automobile in that amount.  I have to hope that many of the plastic parts will be salvaged, and used on other cars.

But I am counting the dead twenty-year-old eggbeater that we disposed of last month.  And we're still coming in with a lighter yearly average, based on the last few weeks, then we did at the beginning of the project. 

So, while I compromised the weigh-in part of the no-plastics diet, Peter and I did manage--mostly--to stay on it.

So, what made up our trash over the past two months?

  • Construction packaging.  We moved into a new/old house, and some parts--replacement springs and housings for the windows upstairs, for instance--were only available by special order, and came packed in--ugh--styrofoam.
  • Old products we no longer buy, like toothpaste in plastic tubes, or deodorant in plastic.
  • Lots and lots and lots of plastic caps for glass bottles.
  • Packing materials for the canning jars I bought to try to preserve local produce over the winter.
  • Prescription drug containers.  No avoiding these, apparently--and they aren't even recyclable.
  • One yogurt container--we haven't begun making our own yet.
  • Plastic pull tabs on frozen juice containers--and, yeah, there's a thin plastic membrane lining the paper tube, too.  We are starting to regard this as an occasional luxury, rather than a staple in our diet; both from the standpoint of food-miles and plastic packaging, this makes sense.
  • Straws and even one plastic cup from times we weren't quick enough to make sure to tell the waitress not to give them to us.  (We still goof from time to time.)
I will admit that I have on a couple of occasions not only forgotten, when out at a restaurant with friends, to ask for no straws or plastic containers (for sour cream, salad dressing, etc.) but even to bring the offending item home with me at the end of the night.

However, I've come to appreciate the way that requesting no plastic turns into a kind of opening to witness to the importance of reducing plastic trash.  Not because I make speeches, but because the waitress asks about it.

I can see why No Impact Man chose to use a canning jar for his commuter mug, too.  I mean, I'm very fond of my stainless steel mug.  But there's no question that using a canning jar makes its own quiet statement about the need to challenge and change our current consumerist culture.

That's it for now.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How to Weigh a Dead Car: Weeks Eight, Nine, and Ten Tally (Sort Of)

So this is an overdue tally, and I've realized that I'd probably post here more often, and the posts would probably be more interesting to read, if I didn't have the nagging feeling all the time that I "owe" the blog the latest tally.

The idea of posting the weight of our plastic waste (recyclable or not) has been to provide a kind of focus point, really just to keep me aware and noticing my use of plastic.  Knowing I'm going to be adding that plastic straw I forgot to specify to a waitress not to give me, please, hopefully makes it more likely I'll remember next time... but doesn't make for either thrilling writing or reading.

So I'm going to change the way I post this information.  It still seems like an important thing to have here, a kind of concrete checkpoint for readers that it's not all just a theoretical rant about the environment going on here, but actually an attempt at change.

But it's boring.

So from now on, I'll be posting our plastic tallies on the sidebar of the blog; you can find the information if you care to visit and look for it, but if you're following the blog via RSS reader, or checking it when there are updates, there will be no more updates coming on this subject.

I'm going to change the way we measure certain other kinds of plastic waste, too.

There's  a lot that's arbitrary in how we're measuring plastic use.  When I visited my doctor a few weeks back, for instance, they took my vitals when I came in, using a digital thermometer which gets a disposable plastic sleeve just for me.  Once they have my temp, into the trash it goes.

But not onto the tally; I'm counting that as the doctor's waste, and not my own.

Really?  I have no responsibility for that future toxic fossil?  None at all?  Well, not exactly, right?  But it's hard to measure, and I'm still striving for that elusive balance between wearing my witness in the world, and not being a total jerk about it.  So while watching that probe cover go into the trash gave me a feeling of unease, I neither stopped the busy nurse to listen to my lecture, nor halted her motion to capture that plastic sleeve to go into my own tally.  Maybe, with some thought, I'll come up with an alternative or an angle on advocacy on this kind of medical waste, but it just didn't seem like the moment to try to speak to an issue I hadn't yet thought about.

So I took the easy route that time, and counted the waste as "not mine."

Then there are objects that I'm not about to try to weigh.  For instance:

How do I weigh this?

During the last three weeks, Peter and I have been dealing with the aftermath of an accident we had on the Interstate.  We're completely fine and no other cars were involve, which is cause for gratitude; our car, alas, has been declared totalled.

Yes, for the observant out there, the car is, in fact, pointing toward the oncoming traffic and not away from it.  It turns out that a 180 at 65 mph is really bad for your car--not that I'd say it was deliberate on my part.  You may also notice the movement of the guardrail, at left?  About 3", we estimated at the time.  We struck it sideways, and it ate a lot of our momentum, which is probably why this story ends as happily--for the humans, at least--as it does.

I'm not sure exactly how much plastic there is in a late model Pontiac Vibe wagon, but my official estimate, without putting the thing onto the scale, removing all the plastic, and then reweighing it, is "a lot."

And I'm not exactly advocating for plastic-free cars.  When I was a kid, cars had a lot more metal inside them than they do today... and people died in accidents more often, too, when their heads struck unyielding metal dashboards and so forth.

The point remains, we added a whole bunch of hard-to-measure plastic to the waste stream this month.

I can't realistically tell you how much.

Nor would it be easy to get a precise weight on the plastic waste in the dead vacuum cleaner and window fan we also added to the waste stream this summer.  What to do about un-repairable plastic appliances?

Well, as Peter points out, storing plastic waste inside our home doesn't change the fact that it's waste.  Some things reach the end of their useful lives, and while some countries, like Germany, require manufacturers to take back appliances at the end of their useful lives, ours does not.

The car is going to the insurance company.  (On the bright side, they'll undoubtedly either fix it up for resale or sell it for parts.)

The fan and the vacuum cleaner are both going to the dump.  And I'm not going to try to weigh them.

I will, however, post photographs here (eventually--they're not up yet) also in the sidebar, showing pictures of the hard-to-measure plastic waste we produce as a household.  It counts, too; it may be harder to measure and easier to justify than a plastic drinking straw or other single use plastics, but it is part of what we, as a household, have contributed to the harm of the earth this year.  It's worth knowing.

But more worth knowing is that we have taken pains to replace the vacuum cleaner, at least, with a not just used but venerable and worthy vaccuum cleaner--a rebuilt Electrolux, with almost no plastic parts beyond the hose.

We do what we can.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What's So 10:10 About Us, Anyway?

The people over at 10:10 are worried--as you and I should be (and as the Senate should be too even though they don't seem to be yet) about global warming.

The 10:10 initiative started as an attempt to get the British to band together and decide to cut our carbon emissions by 10% this year--2010, so 10:10, get it?  The idea was that they were going to encourage everybody to cut emissions by 10%--schools should do it, corporations should do it, local governments should do it, and individuals should do it.  Simple enough notion: if everybody cuts their emissions by 10% this year, that's a 10% cut in emissions for the year.

The idea spread pretty fast, and so many of us in places other than the British Isles wanted in, they went ahead and made it a global initiative.  Just imagine if the whole world cut their emissions by 10% this year?

Unfortunately, even if everyone in the whole world were to cut their emissions by 10%, that wouldn't be enough.  Instead, we know we're going to need to cut our emissions by something like 80% by 2050.  What's more, because the developing world is, well, developing, and it's just totally unreasonable to expect young mothers in Africa to carry their infants and huge containers of water back and forth by hand each day when, for a bit of, well, development (and growth in emissions) they can have wells for safe drinking water, and maybe even some kind of refrigeration for safer food, too.

All this so I can keep on driving my skinny white butt around in a more comfortable car.

So, just so we're clear about it, what is really going to have to happen over the next forty years is going to be a lot more than a 10% cut in emissions.  Right now, if everyone in the world lived the way the average American does, it would take more than five planets to keep us all going.  So we're going to have to change course, and more than just a little bit.  Even though there is some hope in terms of world population not simply continuing to skyrocket, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are already over the level that produces a theoretically "safe," survivable level of climate change, so we're going to have to make big changes, and we're going to have to make them soon, before we reach a point of no return.

But you have to start somewhere, and, as a teacher, I know that one of the most important things about getting kids to change the way they work is to teach them to break projects down into smaller, more manageable chunks, give them lots of feedback on the intermediate steps to a long term goal, and make what I'm asking them to do as concrete as possible.

Since I'm basically a big kid, myself, I figure it makes sense for me, too.  And that's one thing I like about the 10:10 project: it does just that.  Instead of just scaring us silly with doomsday projections, so we feel as overwhelmed as Charlie Brown with a book report due, they give us simple, concrete strategies for making change one year at a time.

Ten percent.  Let's see if we can reduce our emissions by 10% this year.

What 10:10 suggests? They break down the broadest areas of daily life in the developed world that result in carbon emissions, and make suggestions on how to reduce your emissions in each area:
  • Travel
  • Home heating
  • Electricity
  • Driving
  • Eating
  • Stuff we buy
  • What we throw away
  • Water use
Cut each area by 10%, they reason, and you'll have cut your emissions across the board by 10%.  Logical enough.

Of course, if you're already concerned about the environment, you're probably already doing a lot of the things they advise doing, and if your income is low, you probably don't even have the option of doing a lot of the things that cause the most harm--like taking airplanes from Point A to Point B.  Some areas might be pretty difficult to make cuts in for logistical reasons, some you may already have made real reductions in (and every year gets harder, as you make the easy cuts--but that's not a reason to kick yourself; it's actually good news).  And some may be things you've been meaning to get around to, but haven't yet.

That's our story, anyway.  Some things we've always done fine with--we have no time for travel, so we never fly--and some we're making real headway with--like what we throw away.  Other things you'd think we'd have figured out, like keeping our car tires properly inflated, we constantly forget about, and some things, like getting more of our food from organic and local sources, or baking our own bread and hanging up the laundry instead of using a drier, we're figuring out for the first time.

When our house began the plastic fast at the beginning of June, we had actually already been doing a number of good things for quite a while.  But we had just done one very damaging thing: we'd moved from our previous, 950 square foot apartment into an old 1800 square foot farmhouse.  Lots more volume to heat, and a lot of it configured in ways that are going to be hard to adequately insulate.

Partly because I know that we took a giant step backwards, when we moved to our bigger house, and partly because I dearly love the woods and land around our house, last August's move has been a catalyst for a lot of intensifying thought and effort to improve our relationship with the planet.  I feel the tension between loving the countryside and, by my choice of residence, harming it, and that has been, for me, a strong motivator to try to clean up my act environmentally.

For me, 2010 began in August of 2009, with the move to Chestnut House--this house, our dream house, with room to write and room to garden, a big kitchen, and a big back yard.  For me, the quest to save the planet begins with the home I love.

I describe myself as a kind of soccer mom of environmentalism.  I'm a full-time school teacher; I don't have a history of living in a commune or running an organic gardening coop, and I do not intend to become self-sustaining on our 3/4 acre of land.  I'm a middle class American, with pretty ordinary habits and hobbies, not a hippie or a full-time activist.

I'm not putting down the hippies, organic gardeners, or full-time activists out there.  I admire a lot of things about how the ones I know live their lives.  But for me, whatever changes I make are bounded by certain realities: I'm committed to a lifestyle where I earn enough money to pay my mortgage, help my daughter get settled in a happy adult life, and am able to afford my health insurance.

I've got to get up at 5:15 AM 185 days each year to go teach school.  And I've got to have access to a car to get to the school and back, a computer to write my lesson plans and enter my grades, and electric lights to read the books I teach.  I've got to have enough convenience and ease in my life to manage the eight to ten hour workdays I have during the school year, and to cope with the health problems of my somewhat battered middle-aged body.

And I've got to like the life I live enough to be bearable--no, loveable--company for my husband, a man so wonderful he deserves every moment of happiness I can provide him in our lives together, should we live to be 120.

So when I tell you that the changes I am making in my life--including not actually eliminating plastic waste (though I'm getting smarter and better at avoiding it all the time) but reducing it radically, and committing to meeting and exceeding the goals of groups like 10:10--are working for me, are things that are not making me less happy, less healthy, or less able to live my life as I need to, but more...

When I tell you this, perhaps it is worthwhile.  Perhaps, like me, you are a soccer-mom or soccer-dad-ish kind of a person, not a person who thinks of themselves are remarkable, and not someone who wants to live like a martyr for a goal that seems hopeless and out of sight.

In which case, it may be interesting to note that, last August, at the time we moved to this house, I was living that typical American lifestyle of the Five-planet Consumer, by at least one rough estimate.

Just before I began this blog, I had managed to cut myself back to something close to a Four-planet Consumer.

As of today, we here at Chestnut House have made it down to three planets.  Is it enough?  If everyone did this, would we be OK?  Well, no.  Not even close.

But on the other hand, while Charlie Brown's book report is not yet written, I've made a start.  By this one, possibly overgenerous, rough estimate, we've seen a 2/5 reduction in our ecological footprint in just one year: 40%.

I think that's a pretty good start, actually.

And what's stellar news?  There's more I can do.  And I'm figuring out how to do it--and still be a soccer mom, have a social life, watch the occasional television show, eat out every now and then, and, yeah, get to work in back in time to earn the paycheck that pays the mortgage.

I know it's not enough.  But, on the other hand, I'm having a Rosie the Riveter moment here.

We can totally do it! We've just got to dig in.

But we've got to start now.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Weeks Six and Seven: Plastic Tally and Comments

No photo this time--I just didn't feel like hauling out the camera.  Just a tally and a commentary:

The last two weeks' tally for the two of us amounts to 3 lb., 1 oz. of plastic waste.

The good news is that very little of that is single use plastic.  The weight is probably inflated, too, since we tossed out several empty bags of dog food.  We buy our dog food in bulk, and the bags are mostly paper, but with a thin plastic liner.

I know some people do feel their dogs home-made food.  Honestly, with the special dietary needs our aging and allergic dogs have, I don't think that's a road I want to travel.

Another category of plastic waste this week is packaging from tools and hardware for our home renovation.  It's amazing how many things are simply not available without a little plastic coffin around them!  And other things, quite useful and ordinary things, like the pulleys needed to repair sash weight windows seem to be unavailable except in salvage stores.

This is disconcerting.  The more I focus on the environment, the more clear I become that old-fashioned virtues like thrift, including repairing the old and preserving the new, are a huge part of what we need to cultivate in the interests of our planet.

Other heavy things disposed of over the past two weeks include a broken timer for lights. The casing was plastic--again, lots of heavy metal parts probably inflated our weight this week--but, also, the timer itself was at least twenty years old.  When an appliance containing plastic is old enough to vote, I don't feel quite as bad if it is beyond repair.

So, the good news: a lot of that weight was unavoidable.  The bad news?  On vacation, I kept forgetting to tell waitresses not to bring a straw with my beverage.  (Who drinks iced coffee through a straw, anyway?)  We must have collected half a dozen little plastic straws--each and every one of them a monument to forgetfulness.

I'm less upset with that than I might be, though.  Being on vacation means being away from my usual habits--that there is a dramatic contrast between my actions when I'm in a situation where I can cultivate environmentally-friendly habits, and one where I cannot, seems to say more good things about our day-to-day changes than negative ones about our travel habits.  It's not like we travel every week, after all, and perhaps we'll get better at that, too, with practice.

Meanwhile, we had a great week at home around plastic waste.  Though our (old enough to vote) vacuum cleaner has died and cannot be repaired, we've decided to replace it with a rebuilt Electrolux (almost entirely metal in its working parts, and used to boot!).

And you should have seen the grin on Peter's face when he came home from grocery shopping this week.  The only plastic item?  A "rubber" band around a bunch of organic broccoli.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Trap (by Peter)

There’s a blogger named Colin Beavan who calls himself the “No Impact Man.” He’s become slightly famous in environmentalist circles, with a book and even a movie about him. The blurb for the movie asks, “Can you save the planet without driving your family crazy?”

That is one of the things Cat worried about when she started our “plastic fast.” She never demanded that I join in, and I’m not doing it to the extreme degree she is, but I also have a concern about plastic—have had since about 1980, when I was in college and became (for a couple of years) an avid organic gardener. I’ve been setting aside and weighing my own plastic waste as well, and I’ve been avoiding plastic packaging a little more in the last few weeks than I always have done.

But we’re contending with one of the biggest traps in this and a good many other worthy causes: Gray-faced, grim obligation.

About twenty years ago, when recycling was really starting to take off in our area, someone wrote an essay in The Valley Advocate called “Recycler’s Rush,” about how good it felt to sort the glass and paper out of your trash, even cutting those little plastic windows out of envelopes. Believe it or not, the essay got some angry letters in response, the gist of which was, You shouldn’t be doing it because it feels good; you should be doing it because the environment is in crisis and we’re headed for ecological Armageddon.

That’s an all-too-common failing of activists on the left of a great many issues: If it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t make your life an unending misery, then you’re doing it wrong. (I suppose this is just one specific instance of the basic human instinct that turns every earthquake into a punishment from an angry deity.)

And Cat and I are dealing with it ourselves. We photograph and weigh our plastic trash every week. (OK, we didn’t get to it last week. Bad, bad us.) The trash gets picked up on Mondays, so putting out the trash is part of the Sunday night rush getting ready for the coming week (which, for teachers, is considerable). The photographing and weighing takes a twenty-minute chore and turns it into an hour-long, multi-step project, and the temptation is always to think, That’s what you get for being such a bad citizen of the planet. If you didn’t generate so much plastic, this job wouldn’t take so long.

In case it’s not obvious, here’s why that’s really messed up: When I first started tagging along with Cat’s leading on this whole no-plastic lifestyle, I took the position that this shouldn’t be about personal purity, it should be about having an impact on the environment. I was doing things like writing letters to food manufacturers and talking to my school’s food service director about replacing their plasticware with compostable flatware. I felt energized and effective. I do less of that, the more that the weekly weigh-and-photograph feels like a burden.

Where Cat feels energized and effective is around finding new ways to run a more eco-friendly kitchen: baking all of our own bread and rolls, canning and freezing locally grown fruits and vegetables, making homemade chocolate syrup. She also finds herself noticing plastic in the world around us more, and finding more ways to avoid buying it, like getting our cheese from the deli counter wrapped in waxed paper. But that also means noticing all the times when we mess up and find that, Woops, we’ve brought home yet another plastic wrapper.

There are two ways you can go when you start noticing that your organic BGH-free ice cream from local grass-fed dairy cows comes with 0.016 oz. of plastic around the rim of the cardboard lid on the cardboard carton: You can start to think, Maybe we need to radically disengage ourselves from consumer culture altogether, or you can think, This sucks, I’m not doing this anymore.

Neither one leads to a particularly effective ministry. There are people like the Amish who have so radically disengaged from consumerism that they might almost qualify for corporate sainthood, if there were such a thing. But really…nobody ever says to themselves, Gee, I think I’ll be Amish too. The Amish don’t minister to the outside world; they simply shun it. They don’t offer any handholds that the rest of us can use to follow in their ways. So while they may not be contributing to the downfall of the Earth, they’re not going to save it, either.

George Fox said, “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone” The Amish aren’t a pattern; they’re a one-shot, limited edition, break-the-mold collector’s item. Because they don’t engage. And the same thing has happened to countless other left-wing save-the-world movements that have gotten too caught up in their own precious purity to continue caring about the mass culture.

So where does that leave me and Cat on a Sunday night? Not, I hope, beating ourselves up over every plastic coffee lid. Not making the weekly photo into a ritual of liberal self-flagellation. But developing habits. Learning to see, and to act, but in ways that feel sustainable, even energizing. Choosing the plastic-free product when possible, or going with homemade, but also rolling with the occasional slip-ups and the inevitable shrink-wrap. Doing the weigh-in on Friday instead of Sunday, to leave a buffer for when we can’t get to it on time.

And reminding ourselves and each other, over and over again, If it’s a misery, we’re doing it wrong.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Weeks Four and Five

Lots of plastic, even for two people for two weeks: this tally comes to 2 pounds, 2 oz.  Which works out to be about 27 pounds of plastic for each of us at the end of a year at this rate; still well below the American average.

Which is disconcerting, actually.

One comment about this double-week's plastic waste:
While we're still dealing with a certain amount of old single-use plastic, there's some new stuff, too--largely from fast food buys when one of us was suddenly hungry away from home.  One of the things that has to go, for us (and probably our society) to move away from a disposable culture is the ability to make decisions on the spur of the moment. 

Life without plastic involves more planning ahead than most of us are used to: remembering to return reusable bags to the car, but also remembering to eat before running errands, or to bring a snack or reusable container for food while out.  And while you won't see any more frozen pie crust wrappers in our plastic tallies, that will only work if I either allow the time to make pie crusts when I need them, or plan ahead and have some home-made ones in the freezer.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wild Raspberries

The backs of my hands and the insides of my arms up way past the elbow are currently rough to the touch.  Look closely, and you can see the faint red cross-hatching left from my forays into a patch of black raspberries behind our new-to-us house.

I keep finding myself running my hands lightly over my raspberry scars.  It may sound odd, but they're a source of no small satisfaction to me.  They don't hurt much, and they remind me of something that is becoming precious to me: a connection not just with the land our house sits on, but with being alive and in my body in a way that last year, living downtown in a small city, I was not.

The house, the land, the land-love, and the plastic fast... and now this, my raspberry scars, are all connected.  Let me tell you how.

Last year, we bought this house, a hundred and fifty (or so--the records are lost) former farmhouse on a little less than an acre of land.  The house is long on "character"--floors that slope gently or not-so-gently, a 1970's era kitchen, and funky 1950's tile (made, ironically enough, from plastic) in the bathroom, as well as a wonderful curving staircase, dormer windows, and a slate roof.  There's a busy, noisy highway out front--not a selling point, but probably the reason we were able to afford the house to begin with--and acres and acres of woods out back.

We love this house.  For the first time since I was a girl in the house I grew up in, I feel at home.

And last summer, when we were waiting for the closing and our move-in date, we would sometimes come and visit the house, walk in the woods, and dream.  And on one of those visits, we found a tiny handful of black raspberries on the very bush I'm picking from now.

Before we even moved into our house, it was feeding us.

Moving into a house again that had woods behind it has reminded me of how much I care about woods, the land, the planet.  Hiking the paths in those woods, last year and this year, took a concern for the earth that was sometimes a thing of my brain more than my body, and made it alive and visceral for me in new ways.  It made me feel, in my body, my love and my concern for this earth of ours... And though I have been making slow alterations in how I live my life for many years now, trying to live more ecologically, connecting again to a piece of land has given those changes a sense of urgency that's hard to explain.

The land feeds us; we honor the land; we change to live in greater balance with the land.  It's all connected.

I should also say that in the month since we began our plastic fast, I've noticed a deepening concern for all sorts of environmental change.  It's not just plastic: I find myself wanting to be aware of energy consumption overall, of food miles and what kinds of chemicals and resources are being used to grow my food, and of the eco-friendly habits of thrift and husbandry that our grandparents lived by daily.

I can hear my grandfather's voice, these days, in my inner ear.  "Turn the lights off!  We don't own Central Maine Powah!"  And if my concern is less for my electric bill than for my carbon footprint, still, Right Use of Resources ideas are becoming part of what I'm alive to, too.

And then there are the raspberries.

When we moved in, our neighbor--a magnificent gardner, who kept up the perennial beds here after the old man who planted them had died--counseled us to uproot the raspberries that had invaded here and there around the yard.  Having eaten the fruit of that Other World, however, we resisted.  And this year, for whatever reason, there has been such a heavy crop of black raspberries that it is all I can do to keep up with them.

Twice a day, I go out to the yard to pick berries.  Morning and evening, I pick about a pint of berries each time I venture out.  Thus far, I have put up eight jars of jam and made an enormous black raspberry cobbler, that we've been eating for desserts all week.  I've got about enough picked again at this point to either freeze a batch, or can them in syrup, or perhaps make jam again.

In another few days, perhaps I will bake a pie, or some muffins.

I have all these cravings, not just to eat the berries, but not to eat commercially-produced foods; not just to enjoy them now, but to eat primarily the foods that are in season or that I have put up myself, when winter rolls around again.

I did not set out to become a localvore, but simply to reduce my use of plastics.  But all of this is part of a spiritual practice for me, and I've heard it said, follow the Light you've been given, and more will be given you.  Following any spiritual discipline gladly and freely tends to lead to more openings, more Light, and I think that's happening.

And there are my teachers: the black raspberries... and the spiders lurking in the bushes, the birds quarreling with me for picking the sweet berries they wanted themselves, my dogs with their open, smiling mouths as I pick the fruit, the sweat on my forehead and the scratches on my arms.

I'm alive when I pick wild raspberries.  I'm smiling, I'm physical, and I'm real.  It is not just the fruit as I eat it that is the reward, but the whole process of being outside, a little uncomfortable but looking forward to the results of my work.

People who buy fruit in little plastic coffins, refrigerated in a big box grocery store not only pay an incredible amount of money--each of my forays into the berry patch would cost me $8.00 in a grocery store--but they bring home nothing but the berries.  No dodging of thorns, no sun-squint or sweat or interaction with the earth.  It is as if they bring home only the ghost of their food.

We've done so much, we humans, to make our lives convenient, painless, and easy.  But it turns out, take away the effort, take away the sweat and the thorns and the mosquitoes altogether, and you may lose something you didn't even know was there.

I'm not saying that I like scratches on my arms for their own sake.  But I think that a willingness to sweat, to get dirty, to plan ahead and not count on fresh strawberries in January are going to be part of what we have to do to live kindly toward the earth.  And it turns out, this kind of living is not without rewards.  No kidding--a life lived hermetically sealed in plastic is not as joyful as one with thorns alongside the sweets.

None of the concerns I am writing about, from thrift to time spent outside, are totally new or totally alien to me.  But living them, together with an effort to be true to the leading I have had, that plastic use is not treating the planet as though She mattered, is weaving together all these concerns in a way that is very nearly as satisfying as the time I am spending harvesting our wild raspberries.

I am eager to see where this practice is going to lead.

Black Raspberries in Fruit by Ken Golding, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Clamshell berry package, Talkin' Trash, Montgomery County Maryland recycling blog.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Catsup, Ketchup, Cat's Sup.

OK, more like Peter's actually.

Peter is the real catsup fan in the house.  I like it on the really skinny, bad-for-you kind of french fries that I shouldn't be eating anyway, but Peter likes it on lots of things.

And we ran out of our last pre-plastic fast bottle a week before last--just at the start of cookout season.  What fun is a portobello burger with no catsup?  Alas, I am no longer able to find it locally in a glass container.

Happily, there are lots of recipes online.  Here's the one I used... though I chose it mostly from convenience, because it used (or I felt comfortable substituting) ingredients I already had on hand.  It was very easy to make, and I understand that some cooks, who really like to save money, make an even simpler version than this, with nothing but tomato, water, vinegar, salt and sugar.

Cat's Catsup

1 can of tomato paste (I chose organic)
1/4 cup apple juice
1/4 cup sugar
1 T. molasses
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. good quality curry powder
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. cloves
2 T. vinegar

Mix together ingredients.  Adjust liquid and/or vinegar as needed for your preferred taste/consistency.


And for my next trick?  I'm thinking of trying to make some black raspberry jam.  Not that it will save plastic, exactly, but there's this one bush that's producing cup after cup of them.  And preserving and eating food from our own back yard... well, I certainly can't complain about the food miles!

Photo credit: Yohan euan 04, at "Ketchup"  at World News

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Week Three Plastic Tally and the Problem of Stealth Plastic

Did you miss us?  My last day of school was yesterday; Peter's was two days before that.  Every year, it's the same thing: achingly hard work to begin and end the school year, and achingly hard work to end it.  And every year, I forget just how hard it's going to be.

Maybe that's for the best.  I don't know.

In any case, tired or not, we did our weekly weigh-in and photograph on Sunday, as usual.  This week was a bit discouraging: 14 oz.  That's because we did a bit more unpacking--we moved last summer, but (did I mention the part where teaching school is a lot of work?) we're still emptying out and breaking down boxes, especially of the last minute stuff.

One box of last minute stuff contained a very old pair of my flip-flops.  Needless to say, I am not in the market to buy more of them, so I was very happy to find these... until I tried to put them on.  The plastic, brittle with age, simply snapped, and 8 oz. of non-recyclable plastic joined the pile for this week.

Other items of note this week: if you look closely, you can see the brown rectangle of a plastic frame from the lid on a half-gallon of ice cream.

Why do they feel the need to package ice cream in so much plastic these days?  Half the brands have plastic film that goes over the ice cream; the other half seem to have these stupid little plastic rims for removable lids.  We'll be looking for ice cream that does not come in plastic packaging... though, meanwhile, we had some left over from before the beginning of our Plastic fast this June, and we finished it off this week.

A lot of the light little bags are left over from before the fast, too... though some are a category of plastic I'm starting to think of as "stealth plastic"--where someone packages a snack food in paper or something meant to look like paper, generally in keeping with some implication that the food is "all natural" or old fashioned somehow.

The packaging turns out to be a cheat, is the bottom line.  I've seen cheese packaged in plastic that had been printed to look like waxed paper, for instance!  More commonly, once you get inside the paper package, there's a shiny silver mylar wrapper.  It's not foil--it's plastic.


I've taken to peeling away the paper on these, and adding them to the pile.  Needless to say, I find this quite annoying, and I avoid such products whenever I find them.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Week 2 Plastic Tally: 6 oz, Divide by Two

So I was expecting a horrible result for the plastic weigh-in this week, partly because my husband Peter has joined me in the no-plastics challenge, and he bought bookshelves this week... that had been padded, in their boxes, with styrofoam.

It is amazing how much volume plastic has for its mass, though.  Our combined total for the week was still 6 oz.

And, to make the definitions clearer:
Last week, I was not counting Peter as a full partner in this challenge--though he has modified his habits some, too.  Last week, I did count whatever plastic packaging I used and discarded cooking for both of us, but I did not have Peter save anything he created on his own.

We are now defining our plastic waste as our household waste, generated by the two of us--the ugly pile you see in the photograph is at least the product of two American consumers rather than one.

We are neither of us, however, trying to count indirect plastic.  For instance, when the local deli cut me off a half pound of cheddar cheese and wrapped it in waxed paper for me, I did not estimate how much plastic wrapper around their ten pound block of cheese had originally wrapped the share I took home.  Nor are we counting plastic generated at our workplaces--two public schools.

We are, however, making inquiries about ways we can, just maybe, get our schools to reform a little bit next year, in terms of their plastics use.

Peter is better at this than I am.  I get very shy when it is time to ask an institution to change anything at all.  Peter?  Bold as brass.

On the other hand, I am finding that one reform leads to another, and it is already feeling very natural to simply waft down the potato chips aisle, for instance, thinking, "Nope--nothing here I can have, and nothing here I need."  And I'm finding a real pleasure in figuring out little local places I can get produce, free of plastic packaging.  We're eating more seasonally and more locally, and I'm discovering that it's more fun.

Only eight more days of school left.  Then I can really take stock, and see what lifestyle reforms we can put in place during the long, fertile days of summer.

See you next week!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Local Food and Mysteries Solved

This week, I thinned out the volunteer saplings that had sprouted up amid the groundcover around the stump of an old white pine. We would never have taken down that pine tree ourselves, but by the time we bought the house, the damage had been done.

The downside to that has been a loss of a wonderful visual screen between the lawn and our busy street.

The upside is planting a mini-orchard of semi-dwarf apples along the front of the property, to eventually serve the same role... and maybe provide us with some truly local produce. (Zero food-miles is a pretty environmentally nice number.)

But what to do with the island of groundcover in the middle of it all has been something of a question. I don't much feel like trying to eliminate the old tree roots--that was an enormous tree. I've thought about planting some rosa rugosa to grow over the old stump, and eventually fill up the island. But in the meantime, the volunteer saplings kept growing: a clump of swamp maples, and something I could not identify.

Yesterday, I thinned out the saplings to just the biggest of the maples and the tallest and healthiest looking of the unidentifiable trees. Today I finally I.D.'ed the mystery sapling: it is an American elder, an elderberry tree.

In some ways, this is ideal. I had only kept the saplings around as backup insurance, in case the apple trees do not flourish, so I'll have something started in that spot. But now I know it's an elderberry, I'll probably take out the swamp maple, but let the elder remain.

The elderberry is considered either a tall bush or a small tree, likely to grow to not much higher than the semi-dwarf trees around it. And, like the apples, it produces food: elderberries are edible when cooked, and can be made into jellies or wine. How cool is that?

They're messy trees, but this one is surrounded by a girdle of mixed groundcover plants.

I'm feeling pretty happy about this discovery, needless to say.

Meanwhile, Peter and I have been managing to eat more locally already, though less spectacularly. One way of dealing with the problem of produce bags has been to buy local vegetables from small local stores, and often, these aren't wrapped in plastic. We've been eating a lot of asparagus, which the Valley is known for this time of year. Also on the menu have been local strawberries, and organic (non-local) fresh broccoli and lettuce. It has all been quite tasty.

Oh! And I've solved the cheese problem--at least partly. One food that's hard to come by without a plastic wrapper is cheese. The answer to that turns out to be our local deli counter, where I can ask them to slice off a one pound chunk of cheddar cheese, of the sort they normally slice thin for sandwiches. While it is true that it comes in a long, five to ten pound block that's wrapped in plastic before it gets to them, it's also true that they will wrap it for me in paper if I request it, and that the result is less plastic than if I bought the same cheese from the grocery store, ready-wrapped for my convenience.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Week 1 Plastic Tally

OK, so it is actually a little less than a full week; I began collecting my plastic on June 1st. However, I want to have a regular weigh-in day, and Sunday will probably work out best, so here we are.

The grand total for Week 1: 6 oz. of plastic.

I was really quite discouraged at the amount of plastic I'd accumulated in the (plastic! But not new plastic) bin for this week, until I weighed it out. Actually, I still feel apologetic, and feel the need to point out that a lot of the items in this week's collection, things like the yogurt container and hand sanitizer bottle, are from purchases from weeks or even months back. Hand sanitizer, like liquid soap generally, is something I'll be avoiding in future: I've swapped over exclusively to bar soap and powdered, which comes in cardboard (though with a little plastic measuring cup, unfortunately), with the possible exception of dishwashing detergent. Though my friend Hystery tells me borax works for washing dishes, so we'll see.

Among the pieces of plastic waste here is packing material from the scale I bought for measuring plastic waste. Guess what the scale is mostly made of? That's right...


I'm wary of the temptation to deal with this challenge, as all others, in that good old fashioned American way, by buying more stuff. I did consider alternatives to having our own scale. After all, my husband teaches science--Peter has access to all kinds of fancy measuring equipment at school. But I was hesitant to add yet another job to his already busy life. He's pretty indulgent of my quirks and passions, and, though he shares my concern for the impact of plastic on the planet, it's different for him--he's not "under a concern" as the Quaker phrase is, feeling a kind of bone-deep urgency to change our way of life.

The whole question of how spouses of people trying to follow an inconvenient cope is an interesting one. I know I've met a number of Quakers who are war tax resisters, and that's pretty tough on a spouse who doesn't feel the same intensity in their witness. Resisters' husbands and wives also face the possibility of losing their home--or the certainty of never owning one--and the impossibility of getting loans or credit, among other things. Hard to do that if you don't fully share a leading.

And then I think about people like No-Impact Man, and his wife and child, who didn't sign up for a radical witness, but had it chosen for them. That is asking an awful lot.

Not that Peter is making a fuss. He's putting aside a number of his own favorite foods and beverages, until we find plastic-free alternatives he can use. He's giving up his favorite soda, and the yogurt is really his love, not mine; I cook with it, but it's a daily indulgence for him.

Eventually, we'll get him a yogurt maker and maybe a seltzer maker, too, and have a try at recreating that favorite soda recipe of his.

All of which will also involve... plastic.

Again, I feel odd about buying tools and toys to help us beat back our habits of consumption. But everything this week has been about balancing one need or urgency against another. Nothing has felt simple.

Maybe that is why this process isn't feeling especially satisfying just yet, or like it has gotten me any closer to that Spirit that was the impetus for trying it.

Then again, maybe the answer to that is in staying up too late, wasting too much time on trivial Web surfing and computer games. There is more than one kind of plastic in my life capable of being a barrier between me and the Spirit of Life.

In any case, there you have it: Week 1. If my consumption were to hold steady at this level for a year, I'd finish the year with less than 20 lbs. of plastic waste--less than a quarter of the American average. But I doubt it will be that simple.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Environmental Mindfulness

Day Two of the No Plastics Project, and so far I'm noticing how much I have not been noticing.

First of all, to be clear, I am not, unlike Beth Terry of Fake Plastic Fish, even trying to get rid of the plastic that I have in my house, serving in long-term jobs. Though I suspect that plastic does pose health threats to humans, I'm almost fifty years old. I've been surrounded by the stuff most of my life, my reproduction is done, and my concern is focused on the harm done by the production of new plastic, and the disposal of old stuff. I'm fine with using the plastic I already have--in fact, it seems to me that the most ethical thing I can do with existing plastic is hang onto it, take care of it, and keep it in use as long as I can. That goes for the stuff that has contact with food, like Teflon on my pans and plastic food containers, as much as it does for the vinyl siding (I know, I know--I didn't put it on there!) on my house.

My main focus is simple--or at least, it sounds simple: eliminate all single-use plastic from my life; reduce other new plastics as much as I can.

So: no bags of potato chips, and I'll make serious efforts to get produce without plastic (for instance). But I'm going to use up the products I already have packaged in plastic, and I may wind up buying more, if it's stuff I can't find substitutions for but deem I really "need" to live my relatively ordinary middle-class American life.

I'm noticing more and more how much plastic actually (*ahem*) wraps my daily life. Despite trying to reduce my plastic use for months, having committed to doing this publicly, I now see how I am surrounded by plastic: the band aid on my finger, the wrapper around the cardboard boxes of bar soap I use, the velcro band that holds the stalks of broccoli together in the store. Is the band around the asparagus made of rubber, or plastic? The ice cream cone from the stand near my house has no plastic packaging, but the sundaes sold in the same place are sold in styrofoam. I can refuse to eat them, of course, but should I be advocating for a different bowl with the owners of the stand, or refusing to eat there entirely? Where do I begin?

With finding a way to store my waste, among other things. One thing I do not want to do: be a typical consumerist American, and go out and buy myself a new THING--some kind of perfect storage container for the plastic I'm saving and tallying. What are the odds that such a container would be made of plastic, packaged in plastic, or packed in plastic.

Same thing for a scale to weigh my plastic waste, before throwing it away or recycling it. If I go rushing off to buy myself one, even if I find one that isn't made of plastic, how environmentalist is that?

I'm becoming more aware of the thousand small consumerist decisions I make on a daily basis, and of how often I "solve problems" by buying a new, specialized tool for a job that might not even need to be framed the way it is.

There was a time when I laughed at my mother-in-law and other thrifty people for saving, washing, and reusing plastic bags. I blush to admit it, now, but it's true: it struck me as false thrift, as fussy. And as messy! I have seen for sale special drying racks, intended for the environmentalists among us, for doing just this one thing, neatly. As I remember, they were made of wood.

But does that really matter? Rather than buy yet another toy for my kitchen, more stuff on a planet overstuffed with stuff, surely I can tolerate the mess?

I dry my bags by clothes-pinning them to my dish-rack. It does look like a mess. Maybe I have to just get over that. Isn't the insistence on total neatness and total cleanliness really a kind of marketing device for cleaning tools and chemicals? Or maybe not. Our ancestors did without the tools and the toys, but I don't think they especially wanted to live in hippie squalor.

All of this can descend to a kind of navel-gazing and obsession, if I let it. That's the dark side of this attempt.

What's the up side?

Being aware of how long I am using the hot water in the shower.
Thinking a little more about clustering errands when I shop or drive anywhere.
Remembering every time I leave the computer to turn it off.

It's all small stuff. Nothing is revolutionary here. But what I'm trying for is a new way of relating to the things I, as a modern woman, live surrounded by. I think that if I can manage to be mindful of plastic, the stuff that is everywhere, and which we are supposed to buy, use up, and toss away with no thought to the consequences, it may help me to be more mindful of where my food comes from, where my energy goes... maybe even, of how much I substitute being with things for being with people and Spirit.

We'll see. For now, I fall in and out of mindfulness, and in and out of self-consciousness. Hopefully I will find both my balance and an alternative to plastic-packaged deodorant soon.

Beach image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: found at Real Oceans blog.
Bag drier sold through, or, better, check out this link about making your own.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Small Stuff (A Cross-Posting from Quaker Pagan Reflections)

For quite a while now, I've had a growing concern about plastic and its impact on the environment.

Pagans, of course, theoretically worship the earth, the land, and the cycles of nature. And not only do many Quaker meetings maintain an environmental witness, but Quakers have long been enjoined to "examine our possessions for the seeds of war."

What if we examined, all of us, our possessions for the seeds of a different kind of war, the war our species is waging on our planet's health? What if we thought for any length of time about the true costs of the lives we live, and the conveniences we feel entitled to?

This thought has been returning and returning and returning to me, in waves that leave me rather breathless. I'm starting to think of these waves of pain--sometimes pretty intense pain--as a kind of labor. I'm starting to think of this kind of pain as the difference between having a concern, and laboring with one. It feels an awful lot like needing to give birth.

I think perhaps I can no longer bear to live as though my convenience is worth the death of ecosystems. I think I can no longer bear to choose quickness and comfort and modern ease over the lives of others, from whales and sea turtles to the plankton that forms the basis of all life in the sea--and, indirectly, most life on land.

Specifically, I find myself convicted that I am killing the planet I love through my heedless, selfish, foolish reliance on disposable plastics.

The video that pushed me over the edge a few weeks ago, from a growing personal concern to a sense of being placed under and laboring with a spiritual concern, is posted at the bottom of this page.

As I mentioned, I've been concerned about plastic for quite some time. I've been gradually removing more and more sources of disposable plastic waste from my life--starting with the easy stuff, like no more of those horrible plastic grocery bags or water bottles. And while I always do recycle what is recyclable, I have learned how inadequate that is--plastic, unlike glass, aluminum, or steel, does not truly recycle; it only "downcycles" for a limited number of cycles before it becomes waste forever.

For it will take hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of years, for plastics to ever fully degrade. They will choke macroscopic and microscopic life for every one of the years in between--not to mention the toxic chemicals they release into the environment for decades, if not hundreds of years, first.

When I think of this, the plastic container holding a package of cookies, the plastic bag holding my bread, the plastic bottle of shampoo or condiments or milk seems like an obscenity to me.

I think of how Quakers have responded to moral obscenity in years past, and I am ashamed.

I think of Elias Hicks, who was so opposed to slavery that not only did he refuse to wear or use cotton cloth, but as one story has it, when he suddenly suffered a stroke while traveling in the ministry during a heat wave, despite being unable to speak, he managed through his agitation to communicate to his hosts that he could not bear the touch of a cotton sheet upon his body. Through his restlessness, he eventually made clear his distress; he would not, could not, rest easy until that cotton was replace with a woolen cover, heat wave or no heat wave.

He knew that sheet was foul with human sweat and blood.

I know that plastic is foul, too. I know it. We all know it, don't we--not just about plastics, but the thousand thousand ways human actions are destroying the planet?

Elias Hicks knew how to be faithful. Do I? Do we?

Can I bear not to be? What am I going to do with this?

I think that being faithful to the Spirit of Life is a lot like being faithful in a marriage. Let's face it: most days, most of us don't have to choose whether or not to cheat on a spouse. It's not that that the big stuff doesn't matter... but it isn't what's in the frame on a daily basis. It's not normally what makes it or breaks it for us, and for those we love.

But we do have to find a way to not get bitchy when they've left their underwear on the rug, or come home late or too tired to do what we wanted them to, or whatever other small test of love and patience daily life brings to our lives together.

It is my experience that it is in the small things that human beings are least faithful to each other. I suspect it's true for being faithful to our gods as well. And it's when I look at the small things in my daily life, the details, that I am most keenly aware of my faithlessness.

My friend Marshall Massey has said that one mark that a leading is really from God is that it will be large, and probably lead us to do things that will be very difficult or inconvenient for us.

I think that may be right, sometimes. But I also think it's only partially right.

I am not sure where this concern, this leading, this thing is going to lead me. I don't think it's going to lead me to quit my job and go live in an unheated yurt in the desert; I hope in doesn't lead me to relinquish my beloved computer (made with plastic!) and the world I share through that computer.

But I'm getting a clear signal that the way I am living is not All Right. Yeah, God loves me anyway--that's a done deal, unconditional love if ever I've found it--but I'm making Her very unhappy.

I just don't want to make Mama unhappy like this any more. So a few things around here are going to have to change.

First of all, what will not change: this blog, at least for now. Quaker Pagan Reflections is home to a very wide range of my experiences and concerns, and I'm keeping it that way.

But, as of today, I'm adding a new outlet for my writing: the Chestnut House blog. That's where I'm going to track my attempts to be as faithful as I can, first to that leading I think I'm feeling to reduce my plastic consumption, and second, to live a more environmentally-friendly life generally.

I make no promises not to talk about the environment here, on this blog... but over on Chestnut House, you will see the results of my attempt to dramatically cut my use of plastic.

Beth Terry, over at Fake Plastic Fish, has cut her use of plastic to about 4% of the typical American total of 88 pounds per year. I don't think I'll be in her league, and certainly I won't at first. But I'm going to do what I can. The new blog is where I'm going to write about how.

Chestnut House is where I'll be posting the mechanics of that struggle: starting Tuesday, June 1, I will be saving, photographing, weighing, and logging all of my plastic use. Every bit of it--or an explanation for what gets left out.

If you want to, you can keep score. I'm going to.

Expect a lot of very practical posts there--how to make ketchup may be an issue I'll take on soon, for instance, as I am running low, and I can no longer find any in glass in my local stores. Expect it to be nit-picky with details, because there seems, from the limited amount I've done already trying to cut down on plastic in my life, to be no end of that.

I don't know how I'll do. I want to live with integrity; I want to be faithful to the Light that's speaking to me.

But I doubt I'll be graceful about it, any more than I have been about the small ups and downs of marriage. I am not an environmentalist saint--I love my fast food, pop-culture, easy-access American life too much for that. But then, maybe sharing that struggle is worth something, too.

I'm starting with the small stuff.

Next time I write on this subject, it will be over there. (I'm thinking of writing about shampoo... or maybe baking bread.)

Blessed be.