Week 5 of Green Garbage Project was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life, largely thanks to lots of media exposure and an overwhelmingly positive response to our project. Other than the person who suggested that if I really want to help the environment I ought to stop using the toilet (thanks for that), we have received encouraging comments from across the globe. I have received comments from readers in India, Brazil, New Zealand, all over Europe, and from many people in the United States as well. A friend in Germany called to tell us he saw us on the news over there. My grandfather called to let me know he saw us on CNN, and the calls keep coming.
Thanks to the huge response our Web site has seen over the past week (over 5,000 visitors in a week!), I feel I have a lot I would like to address in this blog, so please bear with me if it’s a little long. I’ll add subheads to help organize my thoughts.
Are we really making a difference?
Jessica J writes: “I appreciate what you’re trying to accomplish, but I wander if you’re relying more on one kind of waste in order to minimize another. I read that your grocery shopping now takes twice as long as it used to. I’m sure finding resources and shipping details for all your new recyclable products prompts my question: How much gasoline are you using now, as opposed to before ya’ll started, and how much fuel is being used to ship specialty things like recycled toothbrushes?”
I wanted to respond to this directly because it is at the forefront of my mind all the time. There wouldn’t be much point in a project like ours unless we could be sure we were reducing our overall footprint. At the end of the year, I plan to do an analysis of my expenses this year compared to the last to determine answers to these types of questions. Am I saving in garbage output but still polluting the planet by using more gas? Does living garbage-free cost more or less? It might be too early to definitively answer these questions, but initial comparisons seem to indicate that yes, this project is reducing my carbon footprint and costing us less on groceries.
Let me explain how that works: When I say my grocery shopping time has now doubled, I certainly mean it, but this takes into consideration more than just time driving between stores. It takes me longer to make a grocery list now, and scooping bulk foods takes longer than picking up the pre-packaged counterpart. Unloading and organizing groceries at home also takes longer. As for running around between stores and using more gas, I genuinely don’t think we are. What this project has done is force me to be more organized in my grocery shopping, so instead of making several trips to the store each week, I make one trip every other week, albeit to several stores along the way. If I head to a store that is out of my way, I don’t go until I can combine the trip with another errand I would have to make anyway. A good example of this is my monthly trip to the Portland recycling depot – since my parents live in Washington and I often visit them monthly, I combine the two trips, thereby using the same amount of gas as if I wasn’t going to the recycling depot.
As for the toothbrushes, C.P. Chen writes: “Preserve (the company that produces the toothbrushes) addresses the issue vis a vis their Brita filter recycling programme in particular: “Preserve has calculated that the benefits of keeping Brita® filters out of landfills and making them into Preserve products outweigh the impact of shipping them for recycling through this program”; And re. their recycling process in general: http://www.preserveproducts.com/ourprocess/ They hired an environmental consultant to calculate the net benefits.”
The toothbrushes are the only things we’re ordering online at this point. Everything else can be purchased from a local natural foods store. If we do have to order something online for this project, rest assured that I will be doing a footprint analysis to the best of my ability.
I greatly appreciate comments like these, and I hope readers keep them coming. I am in a continuous process of research about garbage and recycling and the overall environmental impact of a variety of activities. You should see my stack of library books – among them, Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, Flotsametrics and the Floating World, and Recycling and Incineration: Evaluating the Choices. I can’t get enough of this stuff, and I’m constantly learning more. As I look further into questions like Jessica’s, I will post my findings.
For now, I keep coming back to this: if the average American produces 4.5 pounds of trash a day, that’s more than 1,600 pounds of trash a year. If I can reduce that number to five pounds or less by the end of the year, I’ve saved 1,595 pounds of trash from entering the landfill. Any way you slice this, it’s making a difference.
I’ve had two people express concerns about the limited amount of burning we’re doing, and I do want to address this. First, rest assured that we are only burning clean, dry, untreated organic material, and we’re only burning it legally. In my burn bucket right now is dryer lint from cotton clothes, veggie corn dog sticks, match sticks, some butcher paper, and a bag that held movie popcorn.
I can’t recycle these items, and because it’s been shown that biodegradable materials often don’t biodegrade in landfills, I feel that burning is our better option here, especially when you consider that this burnable stuff comes with us when we camp, where we use it as firestarter. We’re actually reusing these materials in a place we would be burning anyways.
However, that said, I’ve been hard pressed to find scientific information of the environmental impact of, say, burning versus landfilling waxed paper. It’s easy to discover that in many cases, burning other materials like plastic is much worse for the environment than just simply putting them in a landfill, because burning these sorts of materials releases toxic chemicals into the air. I’m still researching this, and will keep this blog updated with my findings.
In the meantime, I’m going to experiment with composting the butcher/waxed paper and dryer lint. Some people say it can be done. If that’s the case, the burn pile is eliminated.
We had an excellent article appear in The Guardian about our project, and the reporter mentioned that our cat Lexy refuses to use biodegradable litter. Since the article, we’ve had lots of suggestions for dealing with our non-green kitty, all of which we appreciate.
We’ll keep trying to get Lexy to accept biodegradable litter, but the litter itself isn’t as much of an issue as the fact that cat feces can be toxic whether flushed or buried. From nrdc.org: “Now, here’s the scoop on cat poop. EPA brochures and a variety of other publications say you can flush it down the toilet, minus the litter. However, research suggests that the eggs of Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite found in cat poop, may survive the wastewater treatment process and contaminate waterways. While Toxoplasma rarely affects healthy people, it can cause defects and brain damage in babies whose mothers were exposed when pregnant. Brain disease can also develop in people with compromised immune systems. In addition, Toxoplasma has been shown to harm sea otters and may affect other wildlife as well. As the eggs can last for up to a year in soil, burying cat poop is also problematic. For this reason, researchers working in the field recommend keeping cats indoors and disposing of waste and litter in the trash in sealed plastic bags.”
I know I sound like a broken record here, but I will continue to research this issue. In the meantime, however, flushing, burying, or even composting cat poop just doesn’t sound like the best plan. While we could switch to biodegradable litter, I’m afraid it might be an exercise in futility since it will be heading to the landfill anyway where biodegradable materials are doomed to a stagnant life for many years.
I will, however, look into pet poop composting once we move into our new house in a couple weeks. This could be a good option for us. Please, keep suggestions, ideas, and thoughts coming.
Dental hygiene and preventative health
I had an email conversation with Sue Mills, RDH, regarding dental health and the dental routine I indicate on the “tips and tricks” page. To preface, I need to update the tips page, because our routine has changed somewhat. We make our own mouthwash, use Preserve toothbrushes (plastic handles made from recycled yogurt containers), and use a rubber stimulator and water pik in place of floss. Mills says, “I am a Dental Hygienist, 20 years now and I just want to comment on your dental thoughts. Wooden toothbrush with natural bristles-NO, don’t do it. I can’t say much about the wooden handle but the natural bristles will harbor bacteria, yuk! Don’t compromise your dental health or overall health for this project. A rubber tip stimulator doesn’t replace floss, sorry! The only thing that does what floss does is floss. You can try using flat toothpicks to get in between teeth, but that still not Dental floss and over time you might set yourself up for cavities between the teeth. I would definitely talk with your DDS or Dental hygienist and see what suggestions they have specifically for your dental needs.
“Personally I am a huge fan of the Oral-B Braun rechargeable models. I tell my patients who are trying to be green that after they have charged up the handle to unplug the base until they need it again and you should be able to take out the battery and replace with a new rechargeable one in 4-6 years. Yes, you are throwing out a brush head, but that is a dental health related issue.”
After telling Mills that I have communicated with a dentist about our project, she pointed out that, while our current routine is adequate for our current health needs, it may not always be so. Basically, Mills cautions us to practice preventative care, and I think this is a marvelous idea, because in all health areas, if preventative care incurs a little trash, this is always preferable to reactive care, which is not only worse for one’s health but also creates a boatload of trash, too.
I’ll leave my comments there for now, as this has (as predicted) gotten very long. I still want to write about my garbage-free week with my mom, which we spent making soap and cheese and canning jams and salsa. Look for that update by Wednesday.