I was in an ecology class at MiraCosta Community College in Oceanside, CA when I first realized that throwing something “away” just means getting it away from you. I’m not even sure what we were talking about but when the instructor said, “there is no such thing as away” it clicked. It was one of those “aha!” moments. Where does your trash go? When you throw something away, what does that mean? Even when the trash collectors pick it up and move it along it still exists. Away from you but it has to go somewhere. If I were an environmental superhero this would be my origin story. Unfortunately, I am not a superhero, environmental or otherwise, and I wish I could say that my life turned around at that moment. I’ve always cared about the environment. You can’t love animals and not care somewhat about where and how they live. I grew up during the time of “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute”, but the road from don’t throw your McDonald’s bag out the car window and, oh man, we live on one planet and everything we throw “away” doesn’t just magically disappear is a long one.
Growing up, I have distinct memories of my dad sitting in a folding lawn chair, crushing aluminum cans with his boot on the concrete patio in our backyard, as I lined them up, one by one. He was an accidental environmental at best, motivated more by the cash return on the cans than the global impact but, hey, same outcome. Of the three “Rs”: Reduce, Recycle and Reuse, he probably met all three by shear frugality. Today’s environmentalist is yesterday’s packrat.
We’ve had two duty stations where recycling was a priority. I guess when you live on an island, even a really big one, you understand “away” more acutely. The Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is 17 square miles. That’s it. Seventeen square miles and no room for a landfill. The recycling center was a regular stop on the school field trip calendar. Partially because it was so important and partially because a bowling alley doesn’t really count as educational. Each house on base–and we all lived on base–was given one of those blue plastic recycling bin about the size of a large Rubbermaid container. When they emptied the bin they would leave you two tickets for an upcoming raffle. I don’t remember how often they raffled things off but we won! It was a white microwave that we used every day. Unfortunately, that microwave was the victim of future movers when it was loaded in at the bottom of the moving truck and was subsequently squashed like a car in a junkyard. Now, I’m thinking about that flat microwave still sitting somewhere at the bottom of some landfill and I feel bad.
In Australia, they took recycling very seriously, too. Our recycling bin was twice the size of our trash can. They were also much more concerned about energy in general. We had a dryer in our house but it was tiny, and I believe, somewhat unusual. Most people hung their clothes and linens out to dry on a clothesline. I will admit, I have never liked the feel of clothing that has been air dried outside. It doesn’t feel soft, but maybe I’m just doing it wrong. They were serious about plastic bags, too. Unless you wanted to carry your items in your arms to your car like a load of laundry you either brought your own bags or bought one of theirs. I liked their bags so much that when we returned to the US, we brought the bags and the idea with us. My sister Emilie and I started a reusable bag company–she did all of the work–which went well. We eventually shut it down due primarily to supplier issues, but that’s a different story.
That brings me to our challenge (Persuade Your Parents to) Make a Change for the Environment. I wanted to talk with my sister-in-law, Valerie, because she has an awesome name and, more importantly, I have two very distinct memories of her doing the “right thing” for the environment. The first isn’t a single memory, it’s a collective. Almost every summer for many years our extended family has gathered for a long-weekend at a Lake of the Ozarks resort in Osage Beach, MO. We usually share one big house with some overflow to smaller places. Every last morning of the trip, that I can remember, Valerie is hauling bags of items to be recycled to the back of her Volvo station wagon to be carted across state lines into Oklahoma to be recycled at some later date. That is dedication.
One summer, Rachel, Andrew and I joined Valerie and my brother, Daryle, for Independence Day at a beach house they were renting in New Smyrna Beach, FL. We watched the fireworks over the ocean and the following morning we walked the beach and picked up all of the left over debris. Let me tell you, there was A LOT of it. This dedication to the environment is why I needed to talk to Valerie about this challenge.
Valerie took time out of her busy day to FaceTime with me on a sunny Friday morning. She came prepared, dressed in her Reduce/Recycle/Reuse T-shirt. We talked about how the environment got onto her radar in the mid-1980s after reading an article in Newsweek magazine. From that point on, she’s tried to be mindful that trash doesn’t just go away. Knowing that you can’t do everything, she does what she can. In 100 Things To Do Before You Grow Up there is a list of 10 quick, easy changes that could have a big impact. So, we talked about them.
- Eat a vegetarian dinner one night a week.
- Bring reusable bags to the grocery store.
- Cut down on your time in the shower.
- Reduce the amount of wasted paper by unsubscribing to junk mail.
- Choose reusable water bottles instead of disposable plastic.
- Challenge family members to put a quarter in a jar every time they leave the room with the light on.
- Replace all the lightbulbs in the house with the more energy-efficient LED bulbs.
- Whenever you can, walk instead of riding in a car.
- Start a compost pile.
Some items on the list seem directed at kids like cutting down time in the shower and turning lights off when you aren’t in a room. Others are especially hard depending on where you live. Our recycling gets picked up at our house, but Valerie has to take items to be recycled to a recycling center. Walking instead of riding in a car is also difficult, if not impossible or even dangerous, in many areas of the US. When we lived in Australia, I could ride my bike safely to so many places that would be unthinkable to ride or walk where we’ve lived here, including the zoo and the mall. As we went down the list, it was comforting for me to know that I’m already doing many things on the list: recycling, using reusable water bottles instead of disposable plastic, LED lightbulbs, reusable bags. I’m not sure that junk mail is as much of an issue as it used to be. Honestly, if I didn’t get any junk mail many days our mailbox would be empty. We did recently go through the process to get our bank to stop sending pre-approved applications for loans. Our goal was to keep those offers out of the wrong hands, but we made a move that will also reduce our junk mail. That left me with two changes to tackle: eat a vegetarian dinner one night a week and start a compost pile.
Valerie and I both acknowledged that while we sometimes do eat one vegetarian meal a week it’s not done purposefully, it just sometimes turns out that way. I think this is an easy one. We can determine that at least one meal a week will be vegetarian. I know meatless Monday is a thing but it might we Thursday for us. Starting a compost pile might be a little more complicated. Valerie says they have one in their backyard. We do not have one in our backyard…we do not have a backyard. Living in a townhouse, we have a small brick patio and a wooden deck. We have tried to have a compost pile before. When we lived in Chesapeake, VA we bought a bin for our backyard, did all the things they told us to, and were not pleased with the snakes who made it their home. Yes, snakes. Luckily I have great access to information at work so we might give composting another go.
Another change I’m going to make is to reduce the number of paper towels I use. We need paper towels. We have two animals in this house. But, I realized that I grab a paper towel frequently when a regular old towel will do. I recently fell victim to a marketing ad on one of my social media sites and bought some “unpaper towels”. I haven’t used them yet. I guess this is what you get when you google “Give a hoot, don’t pollute.”
I hereby announce that I have persuaded myself (and the person I live with) to make the following changes for the environment:
- Plan a vegetarian meal one night per week
- Start composting
- Reduce use of paper towels (not sure we’ve actually discussed this one yet)
Thinking about the environment and climate change is overwhelming. As one person, it’s hard to feel like you can make an impact. But, it also feels wrong to not do what you can. Earth Day 2021 was last week and I read many articles about how we can “Save the Planet”. Unfortunately, talking about environmental issues can be politicized. I’m not going to debate anyone but I think it’s safe to say there are easy things everyone can do to make this home we all share better for everyone. I’d love it hear about any changes you have made any changes in your life. Please share them with me so I can be inspired, I’ll try not to feel bad if I’m not doing them…yet.
Next challenge: Learn About a Religion Other Than Your Own
Before you go…I’ve tried to be very positive about a subject that can be very depressing. I actively avoid things that make me feel bad. Good or bad, I operate with a healthy amount of denial in my life. It’s a balance. You need enough honesty to motivate change but not so much that you feel immobilized and defeated. That brings me to Happy Feet. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t. It was marketed as a fun kid’s movie and ended up making me feel like crying, and not in a good way. I don’t need to be beat about the head about this stuff. I get it, it’s bad. If I wanted to be depressed and educated at the theatre, I’d watch a documentary. If you are looking for good, thought-provoking movies on this subject I recommend The Biggest Little Farm and Babe. But, not Babe: Pig in the City. If you like that movie, or Happy Feet, sorry we can’t be friends. I’ll always be nice to you but we just can’t.
As a kid:
- Grew up in Oklahoma City, OK
- Enjoyed reading, especially mysteries and Trixie Belden
- Wanted to be a teacher
- Lives in Bethany, OK
- Enjoys kayaking