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.