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.