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ELCA World Hunger

Garbage, garbage everywhere

Is garbage really disappearing? You’d think so, from my last two cheerful posts (here and here). But I have a darker view today, because I had to do garbo.

“Garbo” is an inescapable duty for Holden Village volunteers, who must all put in at least one morning processing the previous day’s waste. At 8:15 am, we report to the quaint-sounding Garbo Dock for a couple hours of hard work. First, that morning’s five-person team breaks down and bundles cardboard boxes for recycling, setting aside waxy fruit boxes to send back to the growers. Next, we load the kitchen and dining room compost cans onto the pickup truck. We tuck them next to a dozen or more large plastic bags the Village Garbologist has collected from cans around the village—cans labeled Landfill, Burnable, or Recycling. When the truck is full, we walk to the Garbo Dock and spend 20 to 45 minutes opening and sorting the contents of those bags, one at a time, into the correct container.

We pluck candy wrappers and half-filled yogurt containers out of the recycling, moldy sandwiches from paper bags, toothpaste tubes out of paper towels. We separate plastic by number; glass into green, brown, and clear; stash items to be landfilled into bread flour sacks. All kinds of odd things turn up as we sift: toothbrushes, pennies, batteries, love letters, peach pits, postcards. When everything is in its proper place, we walk up a long hill to the compost pile. Depending on the village census, we dump and chop four to eight 32-gallon cans of compost into little pieces with flat shovels. Each day’s compost is slightly different; on my morning, we chopped coffee grounds and filters, kale stems, orange peels, oatmeal, and tomatoes. When the mixture is fine enough, we add it to one of the nine compost bins, throw in sawdust and already cooked compost, string up the electric bear-and-deer barrier, rinse out the garbage cans, and call it a day at about 10:00 am.

But not before we load the bundled landfill and recycled items into old school buses whose windows have been replaced with metal to keep bears out. Every few months, Mattias the garbologist unloads the buses onto a truck that he drives down the mountain, onto a barge, and, at the other end of the lake, to the Chelan County Waste Transfer Station. There he re-sorts the recycling and tips the landfill materials into a dumpster that goes to the landfill in Kittitas County, where more people and machines handle what Holden Villagers have discarded.

His daily duties have not made Mattias optimistic. He doesn’t think garbage is diminishing or that people are changing their ways.  “Once people throw something out, they don’t think about it anymore,” he says. “I know that 95 percent of this stuff is going to sit around forever. It’s really depressing.”

I was depressed, too.  Four hundred people trying to live lightly in the wilderness still generate A LOT of trash. Sorting it, you confront wastefulness (who threw this away??), laziness (why did this person skip sorting?), a pretty high ick factor, and a stern reality check to fanciful notions about the disappearance of garbage.

Nature, unlike humans, operates a closed system that converts one living being’s waste into another living being’s life source. Not us. We invented “away,” as in “let’s throw this away,” and then set up wonderful systems to take our trash there. A morning committed to garbo reinforces the truth that there is no away. Away is still on our planet (although Mattias has some intriguing ideas about sending trash to space) and in our—or someone else’s—neighborhood.  Throwing away something is a process that involves lots of steps and people, from the stewardesses who pick up your inflight drink to the hotel maids who clean your room and countless janitors and waste haulers who bend, sort, lift, and carry what used to be yours to its resting place in a transfer station or landfill.

Mattias does feel that the hundreds of people who participate in garbo leave with more insight into their role as wastemakers and clients of the mythical “away.” And watching garbage come and go, he  has determined one step he plans to take to create less waste. He is giving up disposable razors—one of the items he sees most frequently—and investing in an old-fashioned razor. The kind you don’t throw away.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Functional Optimism

The state of the world is discouraging. But I’m a functional optimist. I try to live as if my actions and decisions made a difference. And when change shows up, I like to think I played a role in its birth.

My last post on the disappearance of garbage is a case in point. I’d like to believe that every can and bottle I’ve recycled since my junior high recycling project in 1970 has been like a dripping faucet, slowly and steadily advancing the idea that garbage is silly. That slow, steady drips from millions of like-minded people pushed this notion at all levels of government and civil society. That those drippers worked together on legislation, testified before waste management boards, set up municipal recycling programs or got degrees in product design or lifecycle engineering, the better to create products that use less energy and produce less waste.

I’m pretty excited about the drippers who work for manufacturers. In industry magazines, they are discussing compostable, returnable and reusable containers, and the radical notion of providing no packaging at all. In the retail industry, drippers are discussing In.gredients, a zero-packaging store opening in Austin, Texas, this fall. In.gredients was inspired by Unpackaged, which opened in London in 2006 by a dripper who has been praised for her “system-changing idea.”

That’s what these drippers and their drops are doing: changing a system. Which is what it takes to make lasting change. Individual efforts will always be important, but they must be multiplied to have an impact. Go ahead and light your candle in the darkness—but your light will be greater if you link up with some other candle holders. (I’m mixing metaphors, but water and light are elements that transform!)

Says the press release from In.gredients: “Americans add 570 million pounds of food packaging to their landfills each day, while pre-packaged foods force consumers to buy more than they need, stuffing their bellies and their trash bins: 27 percent of food brought into U.S. kitchens ends up getting tossed out.” Now that’s a system.

If I see that system as powerful and oh-so-distant from little me, I’ll feel overwhelmed. But if I can see zero-waste stores and returnable packages as another response to the steady drips of my 41-year-long recycling career, I can get up and live another system-changing day.

Jesus knew the power of the tiny mustard seed. (Oops! Metaphor # 3.)  In fact, he was counting on our mustard-seed faith, habits and practices, joined with others, to coax system-changing ideas like the kingdom of heaven into existence. For people of faith, life is a system-changing enterprise. Let’s live into it and see what emerges!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity


The Disappearance of Garbage

Never mind “City of the big shoulders.” Chicago is the City of the Big Garbage Cans. Behind my old four-occupant, two-unit apartment building stood four 96-gallon supercart containers: two black ones for garbage, and two blue ones for recycling. Together, these monstrosities could have held 384 gallons of garbage and recycling, and the City of Chicago was prepared to empty all of them every single week!

In spite of our big garbage cans, I’m starting to see a shift in the way the world thinks about garbage. Outside of Chicago, garbage can sizes are shrinking as cities offer larger containers for recycling and yard waste/compost material. Collection calendars are shrinking, too. Skagit County tackles the waste-generating, big-container-frequent-pickup mindset by offering weekly, twice-monthly, or monthly collection. Every two weeks I set out a few ounces of plastic packaging and bottle caps in a 32-gallon can. Monthly pickup—or no pickup at all—is in my future.

Garbage is disappearing. It’s becoming a resource. “There is no garbage, only fuel we haven’t converted yet,” says one energy expert. In Denmark, garbage burned in very clean incinerators is an alternative energy source. In Washington and other states, methane from landfills is captured and converted into electricity.

“Urban mining” is gaining traction. Mining companies in Japan and China (and soon, the U.S.) are extracting rare-earth elements and minerals from cellphones, computers, and other electronics in landfills. Peninsula Plastics & Recycling in Turlock, California is remolding millions of pounds of plastic bottles into packaging for fruit, cookies, and cupcakes. Oft-cited on the internet is this nugget: Americans throw away enough aluminum every three months to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet.  If that’s true (I can’t find the source of that statement), mining landfilled aluminum can’t be far behind.

Then there’s my favorite: the Zero Waste trend. It’s partly an industry push to redesign products to eliminate wasteful packaging like plastic clamshells, and partly an individual quest to keep garbage at bay by buying in bulk, reusing containers, and otherwise avoiding packaging. The Zero Waste mantra? “Refuse, refuse, refuse” and “Don’t buy it!”  These folks are upgrading the old three Rs into five—Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rot (compost) and then Recycle—and launching a great new word: minsumerism.

Here are two Zero Waste slide shows to watch: this one about a California family that produces almost no garbage, and this one about the village of Kamikatsu, Japan, on track to become first place in the world to produce Zero Waste.

This is one race to the bottom—the bottom of my garbage can—that I’m really going to enjoy!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity