If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I try to live lightly on the earth, minimizing my carbon footprint, and by extension that of my family.
Yes, I know, I'm kind of a zealot.
I hassle my parents about not composting ("You're gonna do WHAT with the corncobs? And kitchen scraps? That's awful!!" Sure, that's the very best way to end a family dinner, no?). I hassle my son when he puts something that is recyclable into the trash bin instead of the recycling bin. I'm the weirdo at work who, at an afternoon birthday cake, runs away from the styrofoam coffee cups; I bring my own mug. I even pause when I think about ski season because despite the fact that I LOVE IT, it means a lot more driving to and from the local mountains, and the ski lifts and snowmaking machines use a lot of power, whereas the rest of the year our family tends to aspire toward non-fossil-fuel-consuming leisure activities.
There's always more that I could do. There's always a way that I could make less trash. But I still need to find some middle ground here, because I know I'm a little bit irritating. So, two recent books are helping me find that balance.
Nathanael Johnson: All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier
Amy Korst, The Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less
In a nutshell, Johnson spent most of his childhood in the California Hills. His parents embraced a 100% "natural" lifestyle - all the way and THEN some. Johnson's wife grew up in "mainstream" suburban California. Although Johnson appreciated the "naturalness," he wanted to move a little bit more toward mainstream, and his wife wanted to move away from heavy consumerism toward "natural." Happily, the lifestyle they wanted together met in the middle of these two often-conflicting ways-of-life. And leading up to the birth of their child, Johnson set out to find out which choice was better: "all-natural," or "technical." As you might imagine, the answer is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
Pasteurization has made milk safer than it used to be, but there is also a place in our society for responsibly-produced raw milk to be sold to the public. Many laboring women benefit from the support of a knowledgeable midwife, and in low-risk pregnancies midwifery helps avoid unnecessary c-section, but surgical obstetrical technique also saves lives in emergency situations. Humanely-raised, free-range animal products are better than factory-feed-lot farms, genetically-identical swine, laying hens that live all their lives in a cage... but a raw vegan diet can have a whole other set of nutritional problems. This is an interesting series of essays collected as a book. Johnson pokes quite a bit of fun at himself along the way. All Natural a good read.
Korst and her husband chose to do a year-long experiment: live a totally waste-free lifestyle for a year. That meant no trash whatsoever, and as little use of plastic as possible. It means eating sustainable foods. Finding ways to re-purpose everything. It can be done, but it takes tremendous commitment. Take heart! Korst outlining in every chapter three degrees of change you can make: easy, moderate, and challenging. For example: Step 1 (easy): Drink from your own reusable water bottle; bring a travel cup to the coffee shop; use your own metal flatware when eating at work. Step 2 (moderate): Pack your lunch in a reuseable container rather than plastic baggies, stop using paper towels. Step 3 (challenging): Invest in a reusable straw and use it when you eat out; bring reusable containers for take-out food and for sliced meats or cheeses at the deli counter.
Even that Step 3 thing is too much for me. I'm just not going to whip out a glass straw at a restaurant or cocktail lounge, and despite my chronically-large handbag, I'm not going to tote around my own containers for the "doggie bag." But I feel pretty comfortable at most of the "moderate" level efforts on the list. I've increased my composting and learned that MANY more substances that I was not previously composting are, in fact, compostable (p.100). Some of my favorites: cotton balls, just about any shredded paper, and the contents of the vacuum bag/bin. And instead of whining that there's only paper recycling at work, I can suck it up and bring my own recyclables home: the yogurt cups, foil, cans, and bags. Even the crumpled-up paper towels can come along for the ride to the home compost bin.
Here's a good article about eating more sustainably. Again, it's not an all-or-nothing proposition: there is plenty of middle ground. Do what you can.
I'm fortunate to live in a community that embraces reducing trash. We have single-sort, curbside recycling, and we can buy compost bins at a significant discount from our Public Works department. It kills me when it's trash pickup day and I see the green trash bin out at someone's curb, heaped up, but NO blue recycle bin! I can't change those people, but the good news is that MOST of my neighbors wheel out both the green AND the blue.
A zero-waste approach is already impacting my buying habits. I like Whole Foods and Chipotle, but I appreciate them even more because they make it easy to recycle and compost, and I know that Chipotle food is raised with much more conscience than, say, Taco Bell. (Watch THIS Beautiful VIDEO to get an idea of just how much more conscience; yeah, I know it's marketing, but it makes you think....)
Yeah, I'm still a zealot. But I'm going to admit the upper limits of even my own zealotry, admire those who can go all the way to zero-trash, and be gently encouraging to those who could do more without impacting their lifestyle very much.
But if I give you the hairy eyeball for your styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts cup, now you know why.