By Michelle Millet
I can’t remember the first time I heard about the concept of zero waste, but I remember being intrigued by the idea. A little Internet research on the topic led me to an article in Sunset Magazine about the Johnsons, a family living in Mill Valley, who manages to generate about two handfuls of trash a year.
Béa Johnson’s blog documents how they have achieved this seemingly impossible feat and after reading it left me to wonder, could my family do the same?
Truth be told, it seems unlikely. Organized, self-disciplined and the willingness to sacrifice convenience for a greater or a higher cause, characteristics that seem essential in accomplish this goal, are not ones most often used to describe me. After coming to terms with this fact, I asked myself, should the likely failure of achieving zero waste stop me from trying to achieve this goal? The answer, I’ve decided, to that question is no.
So while my family’s new year’s resolution of generating zero waste might not be a realistic one, I believe attempting to do so will have a significant and positive impact on my home, on my community and on the world, making it worth the effort even if the goal is not achieved.
When trying to reach any seemingly impossible goal, the best strategy seems to be breaking the process down into manageable pieces. I turned to Béa Johnson’s writings on how to live a zero-waste life for advice on how I should get started. Her recommendation is to start with these basic tenets: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.
Below are some of the ways my family is addressing these tenets as we live our day-to-day life here in Davis. I hope in sharing them I will educate and encourage others to join us on the path to zero waste.
* Refuse: Bea’s advice “refuse what you don’t need.” Unwanted mail is the first thing in this category I’ve decided to tackle. My “junk mail” is largely composed of catalogs, credit card applications and solicitations from charities to which I’ve previously donated.
To reduce the number of unwanted catalogs we receive, I went to www.catalogchoice.org, where I created a free account that allows me to opt out of receiving unwanted catalogs.
I learned how to stop receiving prescreened offers of credit by visiting the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information website, which directed me to www.optoutprescreen.com, where I was able to opt out of the lists used by companies that offer credit.
To figure out a way to stop receiving solicitations by mail from charitable donations, I visited www.charitynavigator.org, which laid out steps I could take to decrease the number of mailings I receive from these types of organizations.
* Reduce: Béa Johnson recommends “reduce what we do need by donating or selling anything that isn’t absolutely necessary for us to live comfortably.” While this approach seems extreme, I think the concept is worth contemplating, and while doing so I realized that all the unnecessary stuff my family owns, seemingly to make our lives more convienant, has had the opposite effect.
As I mentioned, organizational skills are not a strong suit, so getting rid of stuff we are not using leaves fewer things for me to organize and keep track of, making it easier to find the things we need. By donating some of the unnecessary and unused objects in our home, I hope to simplify our lives while making resources available to those looking to buy secondhand.
* Reuse: While many objects can be used, my initial focus is going to be on bringing my own reusable bags to the grocery store.
Soon the city of Davis’ single-use bag ordinance will be put into place. This ordinance bans the distribution of single-use carryout plastic bags and requires merchants to charge a 10-cent fee for paper bags. The fee is designed to encourage consumers to bring their own bags, or request that fewer be used to transport their purchases. This strategy has worked effectively in other communities and I’m confident Davis will see similar results when this ordinance goes into effect.
Like many, I have the best intentions when it comes to bringing my own bags. The problem I face is that I often forget to, or I make an impromptu stop at the store and don’t have my bags with me. To address this, I’ve purchased some nylon bags that can roll into a built-in pocket when not being used, making them small enough to fit into my purse.
I also acquired some small cloth and mesh bags to use for produce. (I can also use these bags for the pastries I sometime purchase at my favorite coffee shop, to go with the latte that I’ll have them pour into my reusable mug, when I manage to remember that as well.)
* Recycle: To better educate myself on the city’s recycling policies, I visited the city of Davis’ Recycling Program website at recycling.cityofdavis.org. I was surprised to learn how many things can be recycled, a lot of which my family was frequently throwing into the trash. These items include many plastic food containers, shampoo and laundry detergent containers, DVDs and children’s plastic toys.
I encourage anyone who is interested to visit the site to learn more about what can and can’t be recycled, and how to properly depose of potential hazardous materials.
Another great resource that combines recycling and reusing is Freecycle, whose official mission is “to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources and eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community.”
Freecycle works like a free Craiglist: You go online and post any items that you no longer want but think someone else might find useful. I’ve found this service particularly useful for large or bulky objects I don’t want to lug to the thrift store. My experience has been that I post an item, and within hours, and sometime minutes, I’ve arranged for someone to pick it up.
So far, I have found new homes for numerous items, including a rocking chair, kids’ water table, tomato cages and 200-plus used file folders, and have met a lot of my Davis neighbors in the process.
* Rot: Or basically, “Compost anything that can be composted.” Composting presents a huge challenge for us, mostly because the amount of food scraps generated by my family is more then we are able to effectively compost. Plus, I never seem to be able to get the ratio of wet to dry materials correct, or achieve the optimal temperate for the process to work correctly.
There is a solution on the horizon for those of us wishing to divert our food scraps from the landfill but are, like me, composting-challenged. It comes in the form of the green waste containerization program that the city of Davis is now contemplating. Moving from the open yard waste colloction system that the city currently uses to a containerization program would allow for the addition of food scraps and other compostable materials, potentially diverting about 30 percent of household waste from the landfill to a composting facility.
The Davis City Council will be deciding on this issue later this year, and I encourage anyone who supports this effort to contact their council members and let them know.
I have no illusions that a year from now I will be writing an article saying that in 2014 my family only generated two handfuls of trash. I’m hoping I will be able to say that my family significantly reduced the amount of trash we were responsible for sending to the landfill, and that we’ve learned new ways and our implementing new strategies to reach the seemingly impossible goal of zero waste.
— Michelle Millet is a Davis resident.