America has instituted such a high-functioning waste-disposal system that the ugly consequences of disposable consumption are largely hidden from most citizens. Thirty-one million tons of plastic waste was generated in 2010—of that, only 8 percent was recycled. Where does it all go? Not just into our landfills (or our outsourced landfills overseas), but in the world’s oceans. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”—a giant, swirling area of the Pacific’s surface that is dense with plastic waste—is not a myth that environmentalists cooked up; it is a problematic reality that almost no one bears witness to.
The numerous “garbage patches” in our oceans are primarily made up of miniscule (and dangerous) particles of plastic, so the vast patches are not visible in aerial photographs, and sometimes not even from a boat. Little hard data is available on the phenomena, but both the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recognize their immense size and the legitimacy of their danger to ocean life.
Although the seas’ current garbage patches may never be fully cleaned up, at the very least, we can strive to stop adding to them. The concept of generating “zero waste” is becoming more popular. The term “zero waste” is a bit of a misnomer—most people participating in the lifestyle still produce some waste—but often, so little that they can consider discontinuing trash service (the Johnson family in Mill City, CA, who are vocal advocates of zero-waste living, produce about a quart of trash every year). Julie Green, a local artist, OSU associate professor, and zero-waste proponent, produces so little garbage that trash service is retained almost solely for the yard debris bin.
Pursuing a zero-waste lifestyle is not an impossible feat, and makes a great 2013 New Year’s Resolution. Proponents of reduced-waste living promote the four Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (compost). Reduce your possessions; avoid frivolous purchases, and make an effort to have high quality things that (preferably) serve multiple purposes. Think creatively to reuse things before consigning them to the trash bin; Green, for instance, reuses old contact lens cases as paint palettes. Recycle as necessary. For compost, you can put your compostables in your city-supplied yard debris bin, or do it yourself.
Green recommends that people approaching a reduced-waste lifestyle do it in stages, beginning with shopping in bulk. When Green does her grocery shopping at First Alternative Co-op, she arrives with a couple cardboard pallets filled with two different sizes of canning jars. Her larger jars have a tare weight (weight when empty) of one pound exactly, and the smaller jars have a tare of .48 pounds. Utilizing primarily two different sizes of jars facilitates the organizational aspect of bulk shopping. Canning jars and their lids are widely available, and can often even be purchased second-hand.
Corvallis is home to myriad retailers that offer bulk shopping. First Alternative Co-op offers the most variety, but Market of Choice, WinCo, and even Fred Meyers have bulk grocery sections that are nothing to sneeze at. Plenty of non-edibles are available in bulk as well. Find bulk cat litter at Petco; decorative gardening rocks, bird seed, and grass seed at Schmidt’s Garden Center; and even a variety of pet food and treats at First Alternative Co-op. Gardening products like mulch and soil can be delivered unpackaged when the quantity is large enough; consider going halvsies with a neighbor if it’s too much for your yard alone.
Eventually, work up to making things yourself that absolutely cannot be found in bulk (such as jam and pâté). Shop for cheeses and meats in the deli section, and have the item put directly into your own container. Lochmead milk can even be purchased in reusable containers at the Co-op. And to avoid the little stickers that accompany every single piece of produce, get your fruits and veggies at the farmer’s market, farmer direct, or grow your own.
In general, try to avoid plastic as much as possible. Move away from purchasing DVDs and CDs by looking into online and digital media options. Replace disposables (razors, paper towels, staples) with reusables (all-metal razors of yore, kitchen rags, paper clips). If you look closely enough, there are less wasteful options for almost everything.
For more inspiration, check out these websites: www.greengarbageproject.com, www.zerowastehome.blogspot.com, www.365lessthings.com, www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org
…And these books: Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson (available April 9, 2013); The Zero Waste Lifestyle by Amy Korst (available December 26, 2012); Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte; and The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters by Rose George.
by Mica Habarad