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How I Turned my Garbage Can into a Compost Bin

I just got published in my school paper! Here’s the article.

As Morris students, most of us can agree that we dig sustainability in its many diverse forms, whether it be the feeling of pride acquired when gazing at wind turbines, growing free food with the organic garden club or trying to go to the bathroom in Imholte to use their water conserving toilets. My passion has lately been trying to live without creating garbage, which I’ve been working on for the past seven months. While I’m hardly one hundred percent successful in this endeavor, I’ve found that the key to living without pads, paper plates and the plastic wrapping surrounding cheese is not about convenience, time or money, but willingness to examine conventional habits and trying out new manners of existence.

In short, living waste-free is possible. 

The first challenge to overcome was how to define waste. Energy and water waste seemed like too much to consider on top of physical waste, so I focus on anything that could eventually end up in a landfill.
How do I do this? The age old three Rs help me out greatly; Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. However, I have almost completely eliminated recycling as well, which, in my mind, has the danger of merely becoming an excuse to throw more things away.

I have found that there are two main areas that are easiest to reduce waste in: food and  toiletries. I converted my boxed and packaged life into a pantry of root vegetables and stunning glass jars filled with bulk goods, which are mostly from the Pomme de Terre Food Co-op. This is where I get my baking goods, rice, pasta, oatmeal, coffee, other bulk goods and some fresh produce. I can also return egg cartons to the Co-op, which are then returned to local farmers for reuse. La Tienda and Willie’s also carry produce without packaging, as does the local Farmers’ Market from June to September. During the summer, I grew a large amount of food in the Student Organic Garden as well. Unpackaged food often requires a bit more time to prepare, but I’ve found that baking bread and cooking large amounts of food on weekends makes for a peaceful way to spend time with friends and creates ample leftovers for the next few days.

If you have baking soda and Dr. Bronner’s soap, you’re set for all the cleaners you could ever imagine, whether that be hair, teeth or toilet bowls. Liquid Dr. Bronner’s soap is sold at the Co-op in bulk, as is baking soda. There are also a surprising amount of alternatives to objects with planned obsolescence that can easily be found online, such as compostable toothbrushes, toothpaste that comes in tablet form with recyclable packaging, bar shampoo, reusable feminine products and spray deodorant in recyclable cans. There are plenty of others out there who are determined to curb the flow of trash that we create every day with unthinking ease.

With the great strides that have been taken in renewable energy here, it is time to turn our attention to what happens with our waste and what we can do to reduce and even eliminate it, on both individual and institutional levels.

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Let us be Inspired by Vegetables

This past spring, the farmer market venders gathered in the paneled meeting room of the library. Among others were apostolic women in graceful skirts, fathers with children in tow and a pierced man with the word peanut tattooed upon his neck gathered together to discuss market business for the upcoming season. I was at the meeting for my own work with an organization called Morris Healthy Eating, a group that is trying to change the food environment of our town to make healthy eating an easy option. This makes fresh and local produce a top priority. Ergo, we work closely with the twenty-two venders of our proud farmers market.

After the meeting, we had lunch together. I pulled out my own plate and silverware, as the paper plates that were being passed around would be in violation of my endeavor. Some strange looks followed my actions and my closest neighbor, Audrey, a woman who just started up a small farm north of town, inquired about my plate.

“Well, I’m trying to eliminate my waste.” I said, somewhat sheepishly. Was is pretentious to be bringing my own plate everywhere? It was certainly was bulky.

To my surprise, Audrey was incredibly supportive about the no waste thing, even going on to wonder how she could implement similar ideas into her business. She also offered to package food from her farm for me in reusable bags.

Thus began my love affair with the farmer’s market.

During the summer, I got the majority of my food from venders who would fill up my miscellaneous jars and bags with tomatoes, chard, spinach, bread, eggs and even pasta. I was also busy with the student organic garden club, where I was able to grow more of my own food.

It was surprising to me how much living with minimal waste has become a community event. I have met more people, have formed relationships and had conversations with this adventure than I ever imagined. Cheesy though that may sound. It still is shocking to me how interested people are in following my progress and wanting to help, or even change a few of their own habits.

Plus, the food is delicious. To quote a friend, “Let us be inspired by vegetables.”

Foodlums

What is a foodlum?

A foodlum is not unlike a hoodlum, not in the conventional sense, but is a person who is fed up with convention, who tries to change a flawed system, who decides to live in a manner that defies the mainstream, corporate hoo-ha.

Foodlums are gorilla gardeners, dumpster divers, consumers of organic, local and free-range foods.

Foodlums scorn the fast foods of the world and take pride in their skill at cutting up vegetables, their usage of woks and crockpots and their recipe literacy.

Foodlums are savers of seeds, defenders of small scale farmers, activists at the very root level.

Foodlums are people like us, saving the world one calabash at a time.

Turning our backs to McDonalds, we proudly sponser our farmers' market.

Stationed at the town days to help folks learn about Morris Healthy Eating, we were across the way from some wonderful henna hippies. Henna tattoos were inevidable.

Challenges and Cheese

In the very beginning, I was empowered with an aura of invincibility in regards to not creating waste. I could do this. No problem. However, as I went through the first few weeks of limited waste, unforeseen ambiguity reigned.

Does a limited waste lifestyle include water, fuels and toilet paper? To be frank, I’m still not sure.

One of my biggest challenges was how to deal with the gifting clause of the original contract. If I get a gift that happens to come with trash, than I still can accept the gift. My original intent was in regards to Christmas and birthday gifts. But if someone buys me my favorite type of chip (dill pickle. Holy moly, do I miss that vinegary goodness) because I cannot buy if for myself, I begin to question if I am still in the clear. Technically, yes. Morally… maybe?

Other challenges include toiletries. I still grab my toothbrush warily twice a day and shave with a razor that comes with disposable blades. Sinful.

However, I have found myself going beyond what is necessary in other matters. Even though I could buy a bottle of milk that comes in a recyclable container, I feel so guilty gazing at the bottle that I don’t want to. Recycling in general now gives me a slight case of the willies. I am beginning to suspect it is just an excuse to waste more without the guilt of throwing it away. Don’t get me wrong, I still am a huge believer in reusing rather than trashing. However, the extra shipping, processing and redistribution of recycling still causes extraordinary waste and pollution. So the milk stays on the shelf.

A word about cheese. Some people find comfort and meaning in life from chocolate, others, more snooty and posh, from wine. I however, am passionate about cheese. Growing up within a ten minute walk from the border of Wisconsin will do that to a person. However, in my humble, small Minnesotan town where I now reside, I cannot find cheese without packaging. Anywhere. Despite the fact that the largest dairy in the state is a mere two miles from my abode. And now that I’m too guilt ridden to buy milk, I can’t even make my own. I am devastated.

What is sacrifice? No cheese is sacrifice.

The Original Contract

April 29, 2011

We, the below signed, will strive to lead a limited waste lifestyle during the summer of 2011 (and beyond). We will follow these guidelines, with the ability to adjust them as need. We are up for the challenge, as we understand that this will not be an easy feat. We want to truly “walk the talk.” We will look to each other for support and accountability, as we strive to meet this challenge– and have fun along the way, with the hopes of making a model that others can follow.

TOWARDS A LIMITED WASTE LIFESTYLE:

Mission:
Reduce, Reduce, Reduce. Then Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. In that order.

Goal:
Only use products that can be composted or recycled, or that have already been reused.

Method:

  • Reducing what we already have (giving away, selling, trading, etc)
  • Dumpstering, recyclable things and Bent n’ Dent* are fair game
  • Make it homemade and then buy used first (garage sales, free-cycle, salvo, savers, goodwill, etc)
  • Blog-it (journal, keep a log of what works, video?, track the time it takes)
  • Recycle the garbage can
  • Compost it
  • Community cooking and shopping in bulk (keeping track of recipes)
  • Money tracking (budgeting and looking at what is spent)
  • Track things we throw away that we already have
  • Reusable jars/containers (canning, mesh bags, glass)
  • Shipping smartly
  • Diva cups and cloth
  • Handkerchiefs
  • Electronics (second hand, energy-efficient)
  • Books (used, new only for school)
  • Medicines (natural first, prescribed are legit)
  • Homemade cleaning supplies
  • LOCALize it!

The Bent ‘n’ Dent is a local store that sells canned food, toiletries, medicines and, most importantly, coloring books that would have been thrown away by larger businesses.

Preach or Teach?

“When I go back home, and I see how much people waste, it kinda makes me sick. But my parents are fifty, and I’m twenty, so I’m not going to try and make them change.”

These are the words of my friend Dan. And this poses a bothersome problem for me. How can I communicate about creating waste without offending everyone?

On one hand, I completely agree with the idea of respecting people who are older, who have more experience and who probably know a heck of a lot more than I do about a plethora of things. It freaks me out to even think about telling an elder that they are in the wrong, and I’m right. Plus, that makes me sound like a pretentious, unrealistic hooligan. And who is going to listen to a self-righteous rascal, let alone amend their lifestyle due to one? On the other hand, I know that creating garbage when garbageless options are available is wrong. I know that creating waste just because it is how you have always gone about life, just because it is convenient and just because everyone else does it, is wrong.

I also loath the preachers of this planet who can’t hold a conversation because they are continuously trying to convert you.

Therefore, I find that the only possible solution is to live in a manner that is as transparent as can be. To lead by example, if you will. If others want to jump on board, I’ll exclaim WAHOO! If not, let’s be friends anyway.

How Red Glasses Led to a Green Lifestyle

My buddy Naomi and I have the same glasses. They are red, unique in a world of bespectacled people. “You two have the same glasses” other friends say, looking at us with wonder-eyes. They have known us for two years, and notice just now. We chuckle.

While our friendship may have been built upon those red frames, we fortunately have more in common than our choice of spectacles. One might say that we see things eye to eye. So when Naomi was inspired to live for a year without creating any physical waste, I was all for it. A casual conversation in the back of a lecture hall between classes was all it took for us to settle upon the hows and whats of our new lifestyle. In very basic terms, we decided that if something would end up in a landfill, we wouldn’t use it. That was several months ago. We are now a full six months into the project.

Our motto: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. In that order.

Limited Waste Lifestyle

This is a blog about converting a boxed and packaged life into a pantry of root vegetables and stunning glass jars filled with bulk goods. The hows of surviving college without throwing things away will be explored, whys and philosophies discussed and anecdotes jotted down. While books like No Impact Man and Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff are certainly important resources for folks trying to limit their own impact on the environment, this is blog is focused on living sustainably in a small, rural town. (It’s not as difficult as you might think.)

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