Watch your waste
CN&R contributor Ryan Laine lets it all hang out during the Zero Waste Challenge
It began the way most days do for me: the Internet glowing in my face, my favorite view from Meriam Library out of the corner of my eye, and a disposable cup of steaming mahogany brew within quick reach.
“If I ever see you using one of those things again, I promise to no longer speak with you,” said my friend Max. I had been expecting him, but not to hear that. It felt like an intervention. I looked over at my seemingly innocuous paper cup and knew this was my formal invitation to take the Zero Waste Challenge.
That was 14 days ago. Now, a plastic 2-gallon trash sack awkwardly swings from the loop on my messenger bag. During these last two weeks, my bag has steadily swollen with everything I could not reuse, recycle, compost or otherwise outmaneuver during the colossal cycle of goods and waste that shapes my routine. The contents of the bag include every binge, addiction, preference and purchase I’ve made to sustain my daily needs and wants, serving as a constant reminder that, for me, green still isn’t very clean.
A group of Chico State students known as the Zero Waste Taskforce had posed the challenge of carrying around—in plain sight—everything that would otherwise get thrown into the trash. The idea began with the question of how to raise awareness about the amount of waste produced on campus.
The taskforce’s long-term goal is to divert—and ultimately close a loop on—the estimated 885,703 pounds of solid waste flowing from the campus to the landfill each year. The students aim to accomplish this by reducing post-consumer waste and encouraging a responsible purchasing plan throughout the university.
Despite the Styrofoam to-go container in her Zero Waste bag, Robyn DiFalco is a staunch advocate for waste reduction. “Zero Waste is not just about recycling, or just about how we eliminate waste,” she said. “It’s the big picture of restructuring how waste is dealt with completely.”
As the interim sustainability coordinator and full-time recycling coordinator for Chico State’s Associated Students, DiFalco is in tune with the campus’ waste stream.
She pointed out that average Americans produce roughly 4 pounds of garbage every day. This quickly becomes a mighty heap once we account for all the shipping, packaging and manufacturing that connect us to the products we use. In fact, the production process itself generates nearly five times the amount of waste created by the used goods we eventually throw into the dumpster.
“Most of my waste doesn’t even reach my hand,” said DiFalco. “It’s made on my behalf.”
It was day four and amid a cafeteria’s afternoon rush I slowly unpacked my waste-diversion kit of Tupperware and chopsticks. I got the “aren’t you a smug hippie” look from my take-out attendant as I humbly requested to use my plastic tableware over his paper plate.
While eating, I watched as others crammed wax paper, water bottles, corn-based candy wrappers and super-sized Styrofoam boxes into a bloated trash receptacle. Witnessing the pile grow, I began to wonder about the costs of convenience and just where all this garbage goes once we throw it away.
It’s not very difficult for us to find “away” in Butte County; it’s an unusually tall butte before the foothills on Neal Road. According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, nearly 83 percent of our collective lifestyle eventually goes down this road. With access to one of the lowest tipping fees in the state, we can unload up to 667 pounds of waste into our landfill for a paltry $10—no questions asked.
In some places on Earth entire social classes depend upon the refuse of others, but in Butte County gleaning from the landfill is prohibited. And unfortunately, jobs like Robin DiFalco’s simply do not exist.
“We do not have my counterpart on the city side, and that is something that is sorely lacking in the city of Chico,” said DiFalco.
Meanwhile, other California communities have adopted Zero Waste as a guiding principal used to respond to a limited geography and increasing populations. Several cities in the Bay Area have transformed waste into opportunities for creating green jobs while reducing waste streams from their restaurants, businesses and homes.
In San Francisco, for instance, SF Recycling & Disposal’s recycling program helped the city divert 67 percent of its waste from landfills in 2004. Another example is Berkeley’s Urban Ore, which provides jobs to 30 employees while also giving new value to used building materials, electronics and home and office furnishings.
Lucky helps keep me caffeinated. “Ya know it may not be such a good idea to keep reusing that cup,” he tells me with a wry grin on day 10 of my challenge. “Especially if you’re going to be using cream. Look in there; the seams are a breeding ground for mold.”
I shamefully peered into my wrinkled and soggy demitasse set and tried not to think how good it would feel to see a clean cup again. Lucky pointed my attention across the street—the coffee shop is housed in an old traincar in the heart of a student neighborhood—to an embarrassing pile of wreckage spilling from the dumpsters of an adjacent apartment complex.
“They just threw everything to the ground from the second floor there,” he told me with sickness in his voice. “Entire furniture sets, desks, bed frames, everything—they destroyed it all.”
We watched a man pull up beside the mess in a half-cab pickup and begin scouring the stack.
“Look at that!” said Lucky, now laughing. “That’s a perfectly good rug he’s got now. Steam clean it and it’s like new. People have been in and out of there all morning.”
Pensive, I began staring at the evidence of my environmental impact dangling beside me, and started to wonder about our place in ecological history.
Going about my business as usual, I could use up to six coffee cups in a single day. I asked myself, “How is living unaware of my effects on the environment any different from the life of someone who blatantly demolishes otherwise useable materials?”
By the end of the Zero Waste Challenge, the lesson for me has been giving forethought to the consequences of my actions, and honestly assessing what it is I need and what I simply prefer. If you are curious to learn more about yourself, try saving everything for a few days. It’s my challenge to you. But if you do, heed my advice: start a compost pile, and please—get a coffee mug.