A bit of explanation: Most Los Angeles neighborhoods, including mine, provide separate street bins for trash, recycling, and yard clippings, a.k.a. compost. Invariably, people don’t realize the difference, or get lazy, or don’t know what goes where and don’t bother to learn. So I regularly find big cardboard boxes sticking out of a trashcan, and I find myself hauling them out, breaking them down, and putting them in the blue recycling bin. Or someone dumps wooden planks in with the recycling, apparently thinking they count as very large, unbreakable pieces of paper, so I transfer them as well. For some reason, my landlord’s gardeners don’t like using the clippings can for clippings. So after they leave, I get up to my elbows in lawn trimmings and shovel it into the green bin. It’s lucky I love the smell of cut grass. As this transferring happens at the front curb, I get the occasional odd looks from neighbors and passersby. I don’t even care anymore. That’s when I realized I have issues. The first step is asking for help.
Dividing trash up is a pain. That’s why I try to make it as pleasant as possible. My in-home recycling bin is pretty, and it’s in a convenient spot by the back door. I use recycled water to clean the recycled containers I toss, so I don’t add to the water waste. Basically the container sits in the sink while I wash other dishes, and it’s cleaned by the time everything else is.
Recycling has even helped me see that I eat too much packaged food. And I’m not the only one. Packaging accounts for almost a third of our trash. So I’ve been trying to cut down. I also try to use every container again before I throw it in the bin. Yogurt and sour cream containers are great for leftovers. Clear containers are good for bringing to restaurants for leftovers. I leave a bag of them in the trunk, and bring them inside a cute bag, so I only feel slightly embarrassed scooping my food into it.
That’s right, I don’t use the restaurant’s containers, which are usually Styrofoam but always wasteful. Another plus is that I tend to eat less at restaurants when I know I’m going to take it home. (I hate letting food go to waste.) It’s not like you have to do this on a first date, or out with the boss. I’m not asking for social suicide at the behest of the environment. Not yet anyway.
A friend wants to create a leak-proof pop-up container that can fit in a purse, so we don’t have to keep running to our cars for forgotten containers. Feel free to steal that idea. Crises beget entrepreneurialism!
And it’s monumentally geeky, but when I go to the nearby café to write up columns like this, I bring back the plastic cup I’ve been given there previously – lid, straw and all – to refill with my next ice blended treat. The counter people look at me a little funny when I bring the cup in, but they don’t say anything. To me anyway.
Some larger corporate cafes, which shall remain as nameless as they are soulless, won’t let you bring your cups. But they will let you buy and bring back their reusable cups, which is, of course, absurd. Subverting the dominant paradigm from within often is.
But I digress. I’ve been recycling for years, but the green bin has been a revelation to me. It took a year of hauling it back from the curb before I learned that I could throw all my compostables in there. That means all raw vegetable and fruit scraps can be saved from the landfill, where it just gives off methane. Instead all my banana peels and cucumber skins are off creating rich soil. And they’re not in my kitchen trashcan anymore, so it rarely has that delightful trashcan smell. I keep a big yogurt container on hand for daily scraps, and then put it in the freezer overnight so it doesn’t smell up the place either.
For those who don’t have my easy green bin fortune, a little bit more effort is required. A good friend in Park Slope, Brooklyn, participates in a communal garden. She keeps her scraps in a tightly closed mini-trashcan under her sink, but it still gets a little funky, as decomposing scraps are wont to do, and then she has to tote the compost to the garden every week or so. But she also has some great times in her garden, and some delicious local produce to boot. And for those who don’t want to seek out a community garden, you can find hot- and worm-composters that fit under the sink. (I don’t want to endorse one over another, just search online for undersink composters.)
According to a 2007 EPA report, the U.S. generates over 250 million tons of trash a year. 33 percent of that was recycled or composted. That means the average American generated 4.6 pounds (2 kg) of waste per day, of which 1.5 pounds (.7kg) was recycled or composted. Breaking it down further, we recycled about 54 percent of possible paper and cardboard, 64 percent of yard trimmings, 35 percent of metal and 28 percent of glass. So there’s plenty of room for improvement. Can you imagine if we could raise those rates even 10 percent? It would greatly reduce my obsessive curbside behavior, and for that, my neighbors would thank you.
Stats, links, and other points:
If you don’t have blue bins at your curb, you can find a recycling center near you by typing in your zip code at Earth 911.
Here’s the 2007 EPA report.
Here’s a link about aluminum fun facts from the Can Manufacturers Institute, and I swear, it really is fun. Did you know aluminum can be recycled forever without degrading? Forever! Oh man, I’m a recycling geek.
And here are some really depressing facts about usage from the Clean Air Council.
The Annenberg Foundation site is both depressing and fun, because the bottom of every dispiriting fact page has an inspiring solutions page. Check out their Garbage – How Can My Community Reduce Waste? page.
Lisa Rosen is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. She has been writing about film, television, books, art, and design for the Los Angeles Times since the turn of the century. Her work has also appeared in Written By, Moving Pictures, and LA Architect, among other publications.
When not thus involved in the popular culture, she engages in activist work in support of human rights, justice and environmental movements in countries such as East Timor, Indonesia, Burma, and the U.S.