Zero in on waste-free living

The zero-waste movement is challenging but necessary

Ed Begley Jr. encourages students to reduce their waste.

Ed Begley Jr. encourages students to reduce their waste.

Photo Courtesy of Crocker/Riverside Elementary school

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Environmental activist and film and television star Ed Begley Jr. tosses out a glove compartment’s worth of trash each week. Add his wife and daughter to the equation, and you’ve got a family who waste only a couple glove compartments’ worth of trash weekly. Not bad for three people.

Begley lives by a “cradle to cradle” philosophy, in which “human activities should mimic nature.” Whereby old things should come back in new forms, and landfills don’t fill up with non-biodegradable, wasted resources. He lives the American dream; but his white picket fence is made from recycled plastic milk jugs; his toaster is powered by his stationary exercise bike; he skips the garden hose in favor of water collected in a giant plastic rain barrel. In short, his solar-powered home is “self-sufficient.”

He expanded on his sustainable philosophies as fourth, fifth and sixth graders from Crocker/Riverside Elementary School in Sacramento sat on the lawn nearby, eating lunch in late April.

But this wasn’t just any old lunch with plastic-wrapped sandwiches and milk cartons stuffed in paper bags. This lunch was absolutely waste-free, part of an event organized by the California Department of Conservation and The children enjoyed fruits, sandwiches and more packaged in Laptop Lunch Boxes, a series of small, recyclable, plastic containers inside a plastic lunchbox. The food can be consumed or composted, and the containers can be washed and used again.

Begley’s television role on St. Elsewhere and his film roles in A Mighty Wind, The Accidental Tourist and The In-Laws have put him in the celebrity spotlight. But his reality television series Living with Ed documents a different passion in Begley’s life: sustainability. The show, which has aired since January of 2007, captures scenes from the life Begley shares with his wife Rachelle Carson and their daughter in their super-green home. And though the Crocker/Riverside youngsters might not tune in to HGTV to watch the show, his outreach to them represents the importance of educating youths about sustainability. They are, after all, the future of the environmental movement.

The state of California considers “zero waste” a goal for that future.

“The success of zero waste requires that we redefine the concept of ‘waste’ in our society,” said a press release from the California Integrated Waste Management Board’s Zero Waste California initiative. “In the past, waste was considered a natural byproduct of our culture. Now, it is time to recognize that proper resource management, not waste management, is at the heart of reducing waste sent to landfills.”

But is it possible to eliminate trash completely?

Last June, the CIWMB estimated that California enjoyed a 54 percent waste-diversion, or recycling, rate for 2006. Last month, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that his city had achieved the highest waste-diversion rate in the nation at 70 percent of its total waste stream. That’s up from 35 percent in 1996. But viewed from a different angle, it means that San Francisco still trashes 30 percent of its waste—not zero percent.

To achieve zero waste, you must assess your daily routine and find ways to reduce or reuse, and then if all else fails, recycle. Why use a paper towel when you can dry your hands with a washable rag? Why throw your food scraps away when you can compost them into fertilizer for your garden? Even the zero-waste luncheon at Crocker/Riverside can be subject to this line of reasoning: As Department of Conservation director Bridgett Luther suggests, parents should “use a discarded butter container” or other consumer-generated plastic and glass containers to pack their children’s lunch items. “People have those containers at home.”

“The challenge is making it second nature,” Begley said of the zero-waste goal. “When asked ‘paper or plastic,’ your mind should say ‘neither,’ because you already have that canvas bag in your hand.”

But the question remains: Is reducing your waste to zero truly possible?

As Begley, a man obsessed with sustainable living, articulated, “I’m committed to the goal of zero waste. I’ve certainly never achieved it.”

But if commitment can take our trash level from the size of a sidewalk garbage can to a glove compartment, then we’ve moved toward the zero-waste goal. And who says it has to stop there.