Recycling is Fun

When we first moved into our new apartment, I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to set up my "recycling center". It took me a few days, but I found a solution that works great. This slick little drawer system fits perfectly in my hall closet (no, it doesn't sit in the middle of my kitchen as shown in the photo). It can comfortably hold about a month's worth of recycling. I have a separate basket for newspaper/office paper. I didn't realize how wonderful curbside recycling really was...until now! When we lived in the house, I had 2 huge bins in the basement that I could throw stuff into. Every 2 weeks I would set it out, and poof! The recycling fairies would come and take it away. Now, I have to carry these drawers down 3 flights of stairs to my car and drive it to the metro recycling center (about 5 minutes away) where I hand sort it and throw it into the appropriate containers. It's too bad I don't have one of these nice reverse vending machines in my neighborhood. However, it does give me a great opportunity to talk to Bella about recycling while we're driving there.

If you're reading this and you aren't a recycler...give some thought to the following:

  1. Recycling conserves our valuable natural resources.
  2. Recycling saves energy.
  3. Recycling saves clean air and clean water.
  4. Recycling saves landfill space.
  5. Recycling can save money and create jobs.
  • Americans throw away 44 million newspapers everyday. That i’s the same as dumping 500,000 trees into landfills each week
  • Paper products make up the largest part (approximately 40 percent) of our trash.
  • Paper products use up at least 35 percent of the world's annual commercial wood harvest.
  • People in the U.S. throw away enough aluminum every three months to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet.
  • Americans throw away enough glass bottles and jars every two weeks to fill the 1.350-foot towers of the former World Trade Center.

Recycling is much more than just tin cans and newspapers. Recycling just means "to use again" or "to adapt to a new form or function". We live in a disposable-obsessed culture...and we tend to think we can only use things one time. There are many things around the house that can be re-used. I recycle my tin foil. I recycle plastic bags (check out this cool contraption). I recycle the envelopes/packaging that people send me. I recycle jars in my kitchen and use them for food storage. I wear recycled clothing.

Whenever you recycle, you are not just saving that item from being thrown away. You are saving all the resources involved in making a brand new item from scratch. For example, recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy used to make the material from scratch. That means you can make 20 cans out of recycled material with the same amount of energy it takes to make one can out of new material.

One of the greatest things ever invented is a recycling network called Freecycle. Freecycle's mission is to keep stuff out of the landfills. See if your town has'll love it.

You may be overwhelmed and not know where to start with recycling. Call your local recycling center and find out if they provide curbside recycling in your area. Most will provide free bins. Then, start with just one item. Then move to other items. Cereal boxes, cans, plastic bottles, glass containers...there are so many things that you can keep out of your trash by recycling. Start today...every little bit helps.

Find this information and more fun facts about recycling here.

The Secret Life of Stuff

Last year I discovered a delightful, but disturbing, little book...called Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things (by John Ryan and Alan Thein Durning). The book goes "behind the scenes" of your "stuff". Where did it come from? Who made it? What type of working conditions did they have? What components went into making that item? What kind of environmental impact did it have? It's an eye-opener to see how complicated and wasteful making "stuff" really is. The different items it examines: coffee, newspaper, t-shirt, shoes, bike, car, computer, hamburger, french fries, and cola.

Here are some excerpts from the intro:

"Made in Taiwan". I'd seen thousands of such stickers in my life without ever giving them a second thought. Taiwan. Taiwan. Not just a word on a sticker. It's an island. A country. A real place with real people across an ocean from me. Suddenly, the overloaded shelves around me looked different. I was stripped of the illusion that stuff comes from stores and is carted away by garbage trucks: everything on those shelves came from a real place on Earth and will go to some other place when I'm done with it. Everything had a history -- a trail of causes and effects--and a future. Everything had a life, of sorts. If you tried very hard, you could put a "Made in __________" sticker on each car wax bottle, speaker component, or old magazine on those shelves.

I started wondering where the things in my life come from. As coffee beans, newspapers, and soda cans make their way toward me, what wakes do they leave behind, rippling outward across the world? And what had to happen for millions of people like me to go about our ordinary business...using lots of stuff?

What happens around the world to support a day in the life of a North American is surprising, dramatic, and even disturbing. Multiplied by the billion members of the world's consumer societies, it adds up to stresses greater than the world can withstand. The first step toward solving any problem is recognizing it. I've started by looking at the things in my life in a new way and learning what I can about their secret lives.

One of the reasons why the Compact is so appealing to me, is that it forces me to find new avenues of acquiring things. I am becoming more creative and more patient as I search for an item that I need. When you buy something used or someone gives you a used are helping to stop the need for NEW resources to be tapped to replace that item you bought from the store.

A great example of this from the book is the chapter on the life of a T-shirt. If I went to the mall to buy a new t-shirt (instead of the thrift store), the following resources would be used (paraphrased from p. 20-25):

  • Oil: the polyester in the shirt started as a few tablespoons of petroleum (they go on to talk about all the effects of oil drilling, environmental concerns, etc.)
  • Cotton: to get the 2 oz. of cotton needed for the t-shirt, 14 square feet of cropland in Mississippi were harvested. The soil was first fumigated with aldicarb, one of the most toxic pesticides applied in the U.S. The cotton seeds were also dipped in fungicide.
  • Dyes: Regulated by the EPA as hazardous substances.
  • Sewing: the fabric was shipped to Honduras. Honduran women cut and sewed it into a T-shirt and earned 30 cents an hour. After it was completed, the box of t-shirts went to Baltimore, by train to San Francisco, and by truck to Seattle. It was unpacked on a department store shelf under a 150-watt floodlamp. That's where I found it. I bought it because I liked the earth-tone color. And I brought it home by car in a bag of low-density polyethylene from Louisiana.
  • Laundry: I spilled coffee on myself and had to change...and I threw the other one into the laundry chute. Later I washed it in water heated to 140 degrees by natural gas flames. Boxed powder detergent and chlorine bleach from a high-density polyethylene bottle removed the coffee from the fabric. The coffee, detergent, and bleach washed into Seattle's sewer system. An electric dryer evaporated the water from my shirt. The greatest environmental impacts associated with my T-shirt arose in my own laundry room: washing and drying the shirt just ONCE demanded 1/10 the energy as manufacturing it in the first place.

What can one person do to make a change in this process? Well, let me tell you. Little things make a big difference. In the case of the t-shirt, you can...

  1. Buy USED or vintage clothing.
  2. Wash only full loads of laundry.
  3. Use warm instead of hot water when you can.
  4. Wear your clothes more than once before washing.
  5. Look for organic cotton apparel.
  6. Encourage others to do the same.

If anything, I hope this has encouraged you to THINK about the secret life of your stuff.