Our zero-waste effort suffered some setbacks when I was injured. In general I’d argue that once it’s established, zero waste doesn’t require additional effort or time, and it’s certainly cheaper. The transition is a hassle—so if I were going to do it again I’d do it on a replacement basis, where when we ran out of one thing, we replaced it with a less wasteful alternative—but whatever weird stuff you do, once it’s familiar, acquires the easy grace of any other habit.
But Matt didn’t have the same shopping habits and haunts that I did when I was incapacitated. There was a lot of takeout, and although takeout pizza boxes are compostable, even our kids won’t eat pizza forever. Moreover, the in-home physical therapist who came to work with me twice a week brought a collection of disposable medical supplies (gloves, bandages, thermometer covers). And we certainly weren’t going to turn down any of the gifts of food or anything else people brought us, no matter how they were packaged. We were just grateful to have them.
Now that I’m more of an independent person again, I’ve been slowly rebuilding the zero waste muscles along with the ones in my leg. Despite the setbacks, though there were two big gains. The first is that our daughter changed preschools to a Japanese immersion program. Although this preschool is crazy with the art projects (and with music and dance; it is totally awesome), unlike the old preschool they eschew stuff like foam stickers and stick primarily with recyclable materials. There is an occasional plastic bead necklace, but overall our weekly landfill haul no longer has a lot of art piling up.
The second is that I discovered there is a way to recycle a limited amount of soft plastics in San Francisco. I have mixed feelings about plastics “recycling.” Even though I know better, it is easy to grow complacent about the fact that we can chuck a fair bit of plastic into the recycling bin. I know full well that it’s not really being recycled, but there are days when I’d prefer not to think about that. On the other hand, there are some things, like my contact lens solution bottles, for which there are no easy substitutes. I’m pretty sure that it’s better to down-cycle those plastic bottles into fleece than to throw them into a landfill. I try to be mindful and not go nuts with it.
So anyway, Cole Hardware in San Francisco recycles a small amount of soft plastics for members of their buyer club (free, and worth joining for the great coupons, which I used to build up our collection of pantry jars). There are restrictions in terms of amount and condition. Bags must be clean and free of food waste—otherwise they’d attract vermin—and you can only bring one small bagful per visit. I called and asked them about it, and they are sending them to the one place I’ve ever heard of that turns plastic bags into more plastic bags. That is an interesting business. Recycled plastic bags, despite being a more sustainable alternative than virgin plastic bags, are not very popular. Thanks to the many colors of bags that are sent for recycling, the end product is always a brown or grey plastic. Unfortunately people and businesses who buy plastic bags typically like them to be clear or white. Recycling is often one of those business concepts for which there is more supply than demand.
I am no fan of soft plastics, but I’m glad that they’re doing this. We occasionally get packages wrapped in plastic, or buy something with a surprise plastic wrapper inside a paper or glass container, and being able to save those for our next visit to the hardware store feels better than just tossing them.
At this point we have gotten most of the easy stuff under control. We shop in the bulk section with reusable grocery bags and jars and get most of our produce sticker-free at the farmers’ market. We compost what we can, recycle what we can, and with the help of the Cole Hardware soft plastics recycling program, have shrunk our landfill waste to whatever mystery-material junk our kids pick up at school or off the sidewalk, plus a few synthetic rubber bands. Food-related waste, it turns out, is pretty simple, and our kitchen has never been more uncluttered. Don’t buy takeout or processed foods, and when in doubt, have a salad. We put a pot of (bulk) beans in the oven every Saturday morning, throw every leftover vegetable in the fridge into a soup on Sunday night, and divide them both out over the week’s dinners. That right there is the reason zero waste is the world’s most effective diet, and also why it can be done on less money than a California family can get in food stamps. Unfortunately people who really live on food stamps rarely have the kinds of shopping options or resources to store fresh foods that we do. But given that we do, it seems ungracious not to use them.
From that point things get harder, even though we buy used when we can. The bathroom is a thorn in my side. We buy soaps and shampoo and conditioner in bulk, but our kids come home with band-aids and we’re still tossing non-compostable dental floss. (I tried to buy a carton of compostable silk floss and got sent a carton of non-compostable non-silk floss. When I complained, the seller refunded our money and told us to keep the carton as an apology. So we are working our way through it.) There are recyclable and compostable toothbrushes and we use those. Tom’s of Maine will recycle their empty toothpaste tubes if you send them back, so we do that too. But there are still dribs and drabs of stuff that trickle through. We are at the point where we’d have to put in a lot more effort for incremental gains, and I wonder whether that is the best use of our time.
The fundamental problem is that we live in a society where waste is the default option. It requires a certain mental effort and thoughtfulness to push through that. When I do there’s usually a lower-cost and lower-effort option, which makes sense. (That could be said of many things, another obvious one being the ostensible point of this blog, which is technically about alternative transportation. But once down that rabbit hole one tends to drift a bit into other counter-cultural stuff–although not yet to Burning Man!) Waste is presented as the default option because it’s a way to sell more stuff. But we don’t have to play along.