My Evolving Relationship With Waste

How often do you think of your garbage?  If you’re anything like I once was, probably only once a week when it needs to taken to the curb for pick up.  Waste management, as it applies to a household, is an important topic that often gets overlooked.  Today I want to share with you ways in which I’m trying to reduce my waste generation and why I think it’s important.Before I get started let me share with you a little story that happened today.   As you will soon see my largest waste generation is from eating.  Such a simple act has become associated with so much waste.  I’m slowly finding ways to reduce this, but it isn’t something that changes overnight.  Like the bad financial habits I had in my former life, I have bad habits associated with how I consume things and the waste it generates.

I use cheese on a lot of things, but I hate throwing that package away that it comes in.  So today I decided that I would get a block of cheese from the deli and shred it myself.  Not a big deal right?  But I also wanted the attendant behind the counter to wrap the block in a paper towel instead of the normal Styrofoam tray and plastic  wrap it would normally be wrapped in.  Here is the conversation that transpired:

“I would like a half pound of sharp cheddar and half pound of the jalapeno jack please.

“Also could you wrap that in a paper towel instead of the plastic?”

(Confused look) “What?”

“Could you wrap that in a paper towel.  I’m trying to reduce the plastics I bring in to my home.”

4-5 sec. of an awkward stare accompanied by an awkward silence.  ” Are you joking?”  She asked.

” No.” I answered.  “Can you do it?”

“Sure.  I’ve just never been asked that before.”

So deep are the ruts dug by our habits that attempting to do anything different is looked upon as odd.  It’s a good thing The Stoic is not easily moved by the opinions of others or such encounters would be avoided instead of welcomed.

I’ve slowly been trying to modify how I eat, not based on reducing food expenses, but by becoming aware of how wasteful the act of eating has become.  The following charts are from the EPA website 

Total and per person waste amounts. From 1960-2012

Total and per person waste amounts. From 1960-2012

 

 

Waste By Source

Waste By Source

The first chart provides an idea of how much total waste is being produced per year and by each person per day.  The second chart shows what is being wasted.  I’m going to come back to it in a moment, but I want you to consider this and let me know if you agree; between 33%-50% of waste generated comes from eating.

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It all started quite innocently during my time spent in Saudi Arabia.  It was while living in a foreign country and at a time of great personal economic prosperity that I was questioning how I had been living.  My debt pay off and simple living developed in tandem, with the debt pay off occurring rapidly while learning to live a simple life are lessons I’m still learning.  It was while making chili one night that I looked over at the garbage can and for the first time was appalled at the waste I generated from making one meal (granted a pot of chili will make several meals, but you get the point).  Empty cans of beans, vegetable scraps, and various other packaging filled my small little garbage can.  Up until that time I had never given much thought to how much waste I generated.  It was an out-of-sight-out-of-mind kind of thing.  Unless the garbage needed to be taken out or the garbage bill needed to be paid it wasn’t something I considered.  It was during that moment, feeling an uneasy disgust in how wasteful I was, that I began a process of changing one of the most basic yet wasteful activities of modern humans in developed countries; eating.

Impressed with what Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home, had accomplished with reducing waste in her household, I began to think deeper about what I could do to change my waste production.  After purchasing the house last year I began taking all organic matter out to a small hole I had dug in the very back of my yard.  The plan was to deposit all of my organic kitchen waste here until I built a bin for composting, which  I never got around to building so it turned into more of a vermicomposting experiment.  Currently all of my kitchen organic matter goes into my vermicompost pile and not in the trash, reducing what goes to the landfill.  Why does it matter you might ask?  For one it places me closer to nature, an underlying theme that has manifested itself in my journey to financial freedom.  Probably the more important reason is the fact that food waste deposited in landfills is a huge contributor to methane gas production which is kind of a big deal:

When food is disposed in a landfill it rots and becomes a significant source of methane – a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Landfills are a major source of human-related methane in the United States, accounting for more than 20 percent of all methane emissions.      EPA.gov

Recycling

At the beginning of the year I started taking my recyclable material to a recycle center.  It would be easier to just get the separate bins that most waste services provide for you to place your recyclable products in, but I wanted to really see what waste was being generated.  Once a month I take it to a recycle center and separate the glass, plastics and paper.  It puts me in touch with how wasteful I actually am, no longer an out-of-sight-out-of-mind thing.  Between composting and recycling I now only have to empty my garbage once a month.  Now this might sound kind of disgusting at first, but keep in mind there are no organics in the garbage, therefore no odors.  The only thing these days going to the landfill is mostly plastic packaging that isn’t recyclable. I will soon no longer need to pay a monthly waste removal fee if things keep going this way.  My greatest challenge is reducing packaging from the foods I eat, which is the source of about 90% or more of the waste I generate.  Bea Johnson’s book I mentioned above has many solutions, it’s just a matter of implementing them.

It is here that I return to the pie chart above.  My speculation that 33%-50% of waste comes from the percentages outlined in the chart.  14.5% comes from actual food waste. This is food that is thrown out due to it expiring, rotting before consumed, or just not eaten and swept off the plate into the garbage (don’t even get me started on this one!).  I believe that the percentages you see for plastics, glass, and paper can largely be attributed to food packaging.  It’s only my interpretation of the data, I’m certainly open to hearing whether you agree or not. Why has so basic an activity such as eating become so wasteful?

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At the end of the day your left with one question, why does it matter?  There are so many things to worry about these days and besides, what difference is one person, one family going to make?  This is a common line of thinking when confronted with large social issues that our individual behavior will have little effect on.  Confronted with issues of poverty, hunger, lack of basic health and the like, we become paralyzed by inaction.  What can we possibly do?  What impact is my meager contribution going to make?  I’ll tell you; absolutely nothing!  Surprised?  Why should you be? Entire government aid programs haven’t solved these problems.  Wish you only had greater resources and then you would act.  Why?  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation and countless other such organizations have yet to eradicate the world’s most pressing problems.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King were remarkable men and despite their unique gifts could not extinguish the injustices they fought against.  Their power is found in the passion they both possessed which acted as a spark and ignited the passions of others to think and act in a different way.  What I’m trying to share with you is the realization that you don’t have to be The solution to the problems and injustices you feel in the world today, you merely have to act against them and not in favor of them and the great awakening is being aware that inaction is sometimes the strongest form of action you can take in favor of the very injustices you want to rally against.  Inaction and the apathy it breeds allows the world to become that which we wish it wasn’t.

Decreasing the waste I deposit upon the world won’t make a dent in the greater problem I see of a depleted, waste filled planet we may be leaving future generations, but just because I can’t single-handedly solve the problem doesn’t mean I can continue to be a part of the problem.  My contribution to solving the problems our planet faces is but a drop in an ocean, but combined with other drops, from like minded individuals, creates a ripple effect that could lead to real change.  That, dear reader, is the real significance of the individuals contribution, there can be no ripple, no wave, without first a combination of single drops.

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “My Evolving Relationship With Waste

  1. I will always remember your comment on my electricity bill pondering. I like using less electricity. My boyfriend has a lot of electronics, but we are splitting the bill now, so it’s not so bad. His most recent bill for his apartment was $22 for two months!

    I would love to start composting, but the whole condo building has to decide to do that, so I don’t think we’re quite there yet. I hope you had a great holiday, Stoic! Happy new year!

    • Leigh,

      I can’t say I recall exactly what that comment was, but I hope it’s a positive remembrance you have. 🙂

      $22 for two months at his apartment?! That’s crazy cheap. I don’t think mine was that low when I was still in an apartment.

      You should spearhead the composting project Leigh! It would be a great way of getting to know your neighbors. I read a recent article from the Center for Sustainability at Duke University that about 2/3 of household waste could be composted!

      I had a wonderful holiday and I hope you did as well! Wish you all the best in 2015!

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