Monday, July 23, 2018

Zero Waste: Eccentric Hobby or Wave of the Future?

As I learned from living there during four years of college, California is a land of extremes.  The all-time U. S. record high temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded in Death Valley, which has the lowest land elevation in the U. S. too, and this principle extends to human behavior as well.  A recent post on the San Jose Mercury-News website tells the story of Anne-Marie Bonneau, whose teenage daughter read about floating islands of plastic trash in the oceans back in 2011.  Just as monks and nuns of old took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Ms. Bonneau took a vow then and there to never buy another piece of plastic again. 

She’s still living up to her vow, and has extended the notion of cutting back waste to the extent that she has to take out the garbage only once a year, in a shopping bag (paper, not plastic, no doubt).  Not everybody would care to go to the extremes that Ms. Bonneau does.  She collects glass jars to store liquids in, buys shampoo in bulk, and makes her own deodorant and granola.  Her daughter Charlotte, while she is still on board with the zero-waste idea most of the time, has committed acts of rebellion from time to time, such as buying a plastic water bottle.  And she threatened to leave home if her mother switched from toilet paper to rewashable cloths, so they still buy toilet paper (but not in plastic bags).  Bonneau, whose day job as an editor must leave her with enough energy to run a part-time two-person recycling company and manufacturing firm, admits she is “hard-core.”  But she evidently feels strongly enough about how the planet’s oceans are getting trashed with an estimated 19 billion pounds of plastic every year that it gives her the energy and motivation to do what she and her daughter do along these lines. 

Ms. Bonneau is not alone, though few go almost to the limit of zero waste as she has. Recycling in some form happens in most large cities in the U. S. and smaller towns are catching up too.  While we sometimes think of it as a new idea, nature has been recycling since the beginning of life, at least.  Organic material comes from the soil into plants, animals eat the plants, and both during and after the animal’s life, the material returns to the soil.  And there is a line of thought out there that seems to say if we would only get rid of all this Industrial Revolution stuff—fossil fuels and plastic and climate-change-causing combustion—and live like people did prior to, say, 1500 A. D., then we’d have a sustainable economy and ecosystem. 

The trouble is, there would be a lot fewer of us to enjoy it.  Before Europeans came along, the North American continent supported fewer than a million residents.  And if you think making your own deodorant is hard, try catching enough fish and wildlife every day to live on.  Any archaeologist knows that the most informative thing you can discover about an ancient settlement is its trash heap.  And from trash heaps, we know that even ancient civilizations were pretty wasteful and generated a fair amount of trash.  I don’t know of any numerical comparisons, but my point is that just getting rid of plastic packaging would not automatically solve all our trash problems, though it would help.

Under the present circumstances that prevail in most parts of the U. S., there is not much motivation for those who do not have the exquisitely sensitive global-political conscience of Ms. Bonneau to reduce one’s weekly trash production.  To speak personally, my city provides us with three (plastic, sorry) trash barrels, each capable of holding a couple of cubic yards of stuff.  One is for green waste that presumably goes to a compost pile somewhere, another is for specific types of recyclable materials (plastic, glass, aluminum), and the third is for any general trash that can’t go into the first two.  For what it’s worth, our contribution to the recycle bin is usually larger than our contribution to the trash bin, and I’ve often felt kind of silly tossing one small bag of trash into that great big bin each week.  I suppose I should have felt guilty for using it that much.

Here’s an idea which probably won’t be very popular, because it would cost people money.  But I’ll float it anyway.  The technology exists for trash-pickup trucks to register the net weight of everybody’s trash as they stop and lift it with those big fork kind of things into the truck.  What if you were charged by the pound for your trash?  And what if it was a pretty steep charge after a first flat rate?  That would get a lot of attention from people who currently don’t give a flip about how much stuff they throw out.  It has the advantage of letting folks who value plastic above money to keep doing what they’re doing, but it would re-train the rest of us to buy stuff that leaves less trash behind. 

A brief Internet search turned up a single instance where this idea has been tried:  in 1993, in California, naturally.  A trash-pickup firm serving Thousand Oaks and Ventura experimented with a prototype system from a North Carolina firm.  But on the day a reporter came to witness the first public trial, the system got weights wrong by three to six pounds and missed one trash can entirely.  For whatever reason, even though the idea has been around for more than twenty years, it hasn’t caught on.

So that means if you want to reduce your contribution to the global trash pile, you are more or less on your own.  Ms. Bonneau’s example is out there for anyone who wishes to try it, but outside of the famously ecologically-minded culture of the Bay Area, you may be regarded as a little eccentric.  For most of us, making small changes in what and how we buy things will help some.  For example, after I read Jen Hatmaker’s 7 Experiment:  Staging Your Own Mutiny Against Excess, I started reusing the plastic bag I put my lunch sandwich in, keeping it for a week instead of throwing it away every day and getting a new one.  That’s about as small a change as you can make and still be able to say you’ve done something, but it’s better than nothing, I suppose.

Sources:  The article “Way beyond recycling:  How some Bay Area families are trying to get to zero waste” appeared on the San Jose Mercury-News website on July 20, 2018 at  I also referred to the Los Angeles Times story from May 12, 1993, “Pay-Per-Pound Trash Pickup System Tested” at  And if you are interested in why Christians should get with the reduce-waste program, you can read Jen Hatmaker’s book 7 Experiment:  Staging Your Own Mutiny Against Excess published in 2012 by Lifeway Christian Resources. 

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