Reduction, Reuse and Recycling Made Easy: Reduction

July 21, 2009 at 3:14 AM | Posted in Environmentally Friendly Living, Psychological Wellness | Leave a comment
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Since I find myself now unemployed and vastly unable to find work, I’ve found a lot of extra time to update the blog here. I’m just going in a random order as far as topics are concerned – whatever I feel like doing at the time.

Today, I’d like to do a post on the three R’s as you know them – reduce, reuse and recycle. There seems to be this social stigma that doing any of these three things is rather difficult, but I can assure you that it is actually quite easy. This post will cover the ways I do things, which results in ALMOST zero waste. I don’t do anything special, besides make a monthly or bi-monthly trip to the recycling plant to drop off my glass.

Let’s start with the hardest one. I’ll talk about reduction in this post. How can you possibly reduce the amount of _______ you use? You’ve become accustomed to having that much of it, and using less seems like an inconvenience and a block on your life.

Reducing the packaging you use is actually pretty easy. In fact, if you are eating healthy, you’re probably already doing a great job of reducing the packaging you use. Many of the unhealthy foods you should stay away from come heavily packaged, and most of the time it can’t be recycled. Example: Jimmy Dean’s All-American Microwaveable Breakfast Biscuits (I know, it’s my proverbial example of all that is wrong in the world. Deal with it.). This stuff comes in a cardboard box (recyclable) and each biscuit is individually wrapped in plastic that is now contaminated with food and glue, which you must throw away. And let’s face it: is this crap really good for you? Of course not.

I buy a lot of FOODSTUFFS instead of food. Foodstuffs are those items which can be made into food, like flour, spices and herbs, raw meat and dairy, ground coffee, you get the idea. This means much less packaging for way more food. Here’s a quick check list to get you started at the grocery store.

– When you buy meat, look for meat that is packaged in plastic trays instead of styrofoam. Plastic trays can easily be rinsed and recycled, but styrofoam must be thrown away. And, as it turns out, styrofoam is one of the WORST things to put into landfills, as it does not decompose for a very long time.

– Buy grain products with minimal packaging. Examples would be flour wrapped in paper or one layer of plastic, boxed (not instantized, which comes in small paper pouches) cream of wheat or the giant tubes of oatmeal, and so on. Most bread loaves at the store come wrapped in recyclable plastic – just be sure to shake all the crumbs out first.

– When buying dairy and juice products, look for things like plastic lids and cardboard containers. Some of Wal-Mart’s half-and-half comes in containers with a plastic lid that is otherwise made of cardboard. This kind of packaging is difficult to recycle, and it requires you take the pieces apart. Just buy Land of Lakes instead – it tastes better and it comes in all cardboard. Rinse it out and recycle it when you’re done.

– Canned food containers are usually recyclable, but there are a few offenders to watch out for. The little packets of fruit that come in clear containers of plastic have that layer on the top that must be thrown away. All-metal cans are much friendlier. You need not remove the labels either – they are removed at the plant. Or just buy fresh fruit and avoid packaging altogether (and it’s healthier).

– If you’re buying bottled water, I’ve got a lot of problems with you. I mean, there are a few exceptions, but for the most part urban tap water is perfectly acceptable. Anyway, it is your responsibility to do the right thing and recycle water bottles.

Alright, so that covers the grocery store, right? Well, not quite. There’s this little trend popping up that most people haven’t yet caught onto: reusable shopping bags (the latest Wal-Mart brain-drain of a commercial features their reusable bags, which I must, regrettably, give props to Wal-Mart for). When you get a whole bunch of groceries at the store, you usually tote them home in a crapload of plastic bags supplied to you by the outlet. Instead, take a few reusable fabric bags in with you instead. You can get these things really cheap (like, 50 cents each) and it’s a one-time deal. Then, just take them with you and when you get to the checkout have the checker bag your groceries in them instead of paper or plastic bags. I do this ALL the time, and I assure you I don’t look like a moron and it’s not a hassle. Plus, it just makes you feel good and these bags can hold a LOT more weight without breaking, so you need fewer.

If you insist on using plastic shopping bags, save them up at home and don’t throw them out. If you don’t reuse them for small trash cans or pet bags or whatever, you can take them back to the store with you and toss them in the recycling box at the front of the store. Almost all grocery stores have these now. Just don’t throw them away when it’s so easy to reuse or recycle them! Alas, most recycling outlets don’t take plastic shopping bags. You MUST take these back to the store.

Reducing the amount of waste you have at home is really easy to do, too. Let’s start with paper products.

– Paper towels. Oh yes, the cornerstone of American kitchens across the country. Trust me, Americans are ADDICTED to these things and they are the devil. Almost all premium paper towels are made with virgin wood – wood that has not been recycled at all (read: straight from forest farms). This means two things: first, your paper towels are wreaking havoc on forests everywhere and secondly, they don’t decompose nearly as readily. Another problem is the bleach in these things: paper doesn’t come out white, recycled or not, so they bleach them and leave a bunch of residual chemicals in them. This leaves them on whatever you use them on: dishes, countertops, you name it. Not exactly good for your health.

So what do you do? Well, I go through less than a roll of paper towels in a month. I have a little secret: hand towels. Not just cheap and cheesy ones, though – nice, thick and absorbent. And another thing: dark-color. Why dark color? Well, what are the things we use paper towels for the most? Usually, collecting spills and cleaning our countertops. If you’re like me, you make some coffee, then spill a bit on the counter because NO FREAKING COFFEE MACHINE MANUFACTURER IN THE UNITED STATES CAN MAKE A COFFEE POT THAT DOESN’T SPILL ALL OVER!!! Ok, I’m fine, I swear. Anyway, rather than grabbing a paper towel, I clean it up really quick with a black hand towel. It doesn’t show up as a stain on the towel, so you can reuse it and have guests over without them thinking you’re risking their health (and you aren’t either, provided you wash the towel weekly). You can get a few of these rolling and replace it once every couple of days and I promise it won’t hurt your health.

Every time you wash your hands, use the hand towel instead of a few paper towels to dry off with. You can even designate a separate towel expressly for this purpose. You’ll start reducing the number of paper towels you use like mad! If you are washing your hands correctly, buildup of bacteria should not be a concern, especially over just a few days.

Now, there are still some situations in which I have to use a paper towel to clean up. My roommate is one of the messiest people I’ve ever met, and some of the things he does I just don’t want to touch. But, if you do a decent job keeping your countertops clean (using a cutting board, for example), you won’t need to be constantly cleaning up a bunch of food and spills anyway. Pour things over the sink. Empty ground beef directly into the pan it’s going into, and don’t open it over the counter. Easy things like this can VASTLY reduce your paper waste in the kitchen.

And one last thing to mention: buy paper towels and toilet paper made with recycled paper! It probably isn’t 100% recycled, but it’s still better than Charmin or Bounty. I promise, they won’t rub your anal tissue to blood and you’ll still get along just fine without the manly absorbency of Bounty towels. It’s worth mentioning that premium paper towels and toilet paper are an American phenomenon: all other countries use recycled paper for both.

Finally, a word on paper plates, plastic cups and fake silverware: don’t. If you’re camping or having a cookout, fine, but for the sake of all that is sane, don’t do this on a day-to-day basis. This kind of extreme laziness is the kind that should be put down by force. Not only does it generate HORRENDOUS amounts of waste, but with hot foods you risk burning through to your dining table or cutting through with a knife. If you’re just cooking dinner for the family, use real plates and real cups. If you’re worried about children or breakage, just use plastic.

So, you’re on the right track now: you’re buying sensibly packaged food, recycling almost everything and using fewer paper towels (the recycled kind, right?). There are still a few really awesome things you can do though.

I’m guessing you’re still throwing out a goodly amount of food scraps. Even if you eat all your food, there’s still some left over at the end. This is where composting comes in. Composting is an incredibly rewarding experience – especially if you are eating correctly. Things like corn cobs, meat scraps, egg shells, leftover sauce or bread and vegetable scraps can all be done away with very neatly. If you have expired bread and it’s WHOLE flour, feed it to birds and squirrels. If it’s enriched (read: white, or almost everything else), put it in the compost. This is an easy thing to do if you own property. Designate a small part of the yard for compost if you haven’t already, and simply toss food scraps in the heap at the end of the day. It’ll work better if you bury them to keep them away from wild animals.

I’ll admit that composting is probably the most inconvenient part of this entire scheme. In fact, if you opt not to do it, your level of kickass at life will be reduced, but not too much. If you own property, you REALLY should do it. The results are several: less garbage, a better feeling about not destroying earth and topsoil regeneration. What’s that last part, you said? When all of your leftovers decompose, they’ll turn very nicely into organic soil for your gardens and flowerbeds. And you didn’t have to drive to Wal-Mart and lug a 40-lb bag out of the garden center! And there are some unexpected benefits to compost heaps. One year, my grandma put a huge heap of peach and cherry pits into the pile. The next spring, we had baby peach and cherry trees everywhere! We saved a few. For those of you who are out of the loop, fruit tree seeds must be stratified by the cold winter before they can germinate, and that’s if they’re even viable. This year we have a wild zucchini plant growing in the heap. Who knows what next year will bring.

So you’ve reduced the amount of packaging you consume, the amount of paper you throw away and the amount of food you throw out. I take the trash out once every few weeks and I haven’t bought new paper towels yet (last time I bought them was before summer began). Not only does this amount to less driving, less money spent and less waste generated, but you’ll really feel better about yourself in the end.

And a final word: this gets into the bigger picture of our plight as a civilization living on our planet. The problem of solid waste has become runaway – even with mitigation efforts like recycling, solid waste finds its way into our waterways, parks and sanctuaries every day. I know it’s easy to dismiss this whole thing on the basis that your neighbor will do it, but your neighbor is counting on you to do the same. So, I guess my point is this whole thing begins with you. I practice what I preach and my level of awesome is pretty high. Are you ready to get awesome? Being awesome doesn’t mean driving around in a Camaro smoking weed with scantily clad women anymore – that version of awesome is a thing of the past. Now, riding your bike to work, composting your coffee grounds and recycling your milk bottles is awesome. Take a lesson from my domain name and stop sucking at life.

You may not think so, but this kind of thing isnt very far from your own back yard.

You may not think so, but this kind of thing isn't very far from your own back yard.

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