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Our modern life: garbage

A couple of weeks ago, our son’s class had a project to count all the garbage their families made in a week. At the outset, that seemed pretty simple. We put checklists over the major garbage cans and recycling bins in the house and attached a pen to each. Theoretically, we’d be able to count what we threw out and into which bin.

Then the questions started to arise: When you rip a tiny plastic tab off a container and throw it out, is it to be marked “garbage, tiny plastic tab”? Or can it go into the recycling? Or can we mark it as part of the larger packaging that we’d be throwing out later? For example, I opted to mark a bandaid as one thing, though I threw away the wrapping and the bandaids at different times.

Also, the observations were immediate: One day I had a hankering for a caffeinated beverage while out and about, but I’d not brought my mug. So yes, I had to mark a disposable cup on my garbage list. Darn! How often does that happen? If I plan to get a drink while out, I bring my mug, but even then, I’ve been known to forget things. And these days, a good number of cafes don’t even offer real glasses.

At the beginning of the week, I was sure that we’d look pretty good by the end of the week. We have the smallest size garbage bin we can get (though because of this project I found out that you can get an insert to make it even smaller, and that a friend of mine has that insert and never fills her can, darn her!). We always recycle things when we know we can. We are really good about collecting cardboard and taking it to Grey Bears because we are much too lazy to package it the way the garbage company wants.

Yet I started to notice things: Yes, we avoid packaged foods with the most egregious over-packaging problems (my children have never even tried the perennial winner of the bad packaging award given by Californians Against Waste, Lunchables). Yes, we are conscientious about recycling.

But we don’t do as well as we can. My children simply love those Annie Chun’s noodle boxes. They have such a feel-good label, which says that it comes in a compostable bowl! Wow! But, wait. First of all, can I put that compostable bowl in our green waste bin, since we don’t compost at home? (I know, I should compost at home. I’ll tell you that sob story another time.) And if a compostable bowl goes into our plastic garbage bag, doesn’t that effectively make it a non-composted bowl? Furthermore, the bowl is one thing: what about all the little non-recyclable plastic bags? The sauce, the toppings, and the noodles each come in their own bags, plus the plastic wrap on the outside of the whole package.

So there’s one problem, though I do limit their consumption of those noodle boxes to one or two a week. But what else? I started cringing at having to mark as garbage things that I know I could get with less packaging. Why must everything from Costco be triple-wrapped? Is it a law that the cheaper you go, the more packaging you get?

Another thing I noticed is that since our county changed to Green Waste, I hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention to the new recycling rules. Coincidentally, Green Waste sent a newsletter that week and had some recycling tips. Did you know that small plastic pieces get put through the shaker and end up as garbage? Did you know that you can recycle plastic utensils even when they don’t have symbols on them? I didn’t. Green Waste’s newsletter said to put small plastic pieces and plastic utensils into a bag so that they don’t get separated out as trash.

But wait, when I go to confirm these things I remember from the newsletter that I read and recycled….it’s not on their website. Their page about what can be recycled in Santa Cruz County clearly says what I’d always thought: Don’t leave the caps on plastic containers, and only hard plastics with a recycling symbol on them can be recycled. So what about what they said in the newsletter about screwing caps back on and putting small plastic items (which are invariably not printed with a recycling symbol) into bags so they get recycled?

Other confusions arise. I’ve read that you should never rinse out recyclable containers because it wastes water since they clean them at the facility anyway. Yet the Green Waste website says of plastic containers: “Empty and rinse first.” All the recycling sites say that styrofoam is not recyclable…then why does it all have a recycling symbol on it? And they say that paper contaminated with food waste isn’t recyclable: so why do we now put all our recyclables together in the same bin?

This is what it comes down to: You want to do the right thing, then you find that facts of life conspire against you: First of all, no one agrees on what the right thing is. Second, you read conflicting information from the same people. Third, sometimes it’s pretty darn hard to live a modern life (in which you don’t make all your own artisanal pasta!) and be at the mercy of companies that stick so much garbage in their packaging.

So, yeah, in one week we threw away a lot of stuff. More than we should have. But after looking at the list, I’ve come to the conclusion that although we’re not doing the very best we can, we’re doing pretty well given the constraints. My friend who doesn’t fill her half of a trash can brings cloth napkins and her own dishes to school events and uses washcloths instead of paper towels in the kitchen. She’s doing the right thing, and I have to admit, at least some of the time, like most Americans, I’m doing the convenient thing.

But at least I’m trying, I’m thinking about it, and I’m attempting to get some answers! I highly recommend this exercise in your home. It may make you pause when you reach out for your favorite noodle boxes at the grocery store.

Read some recycling stats from Green Waste. parenting, green, eco-friendly, santa cruz, family

Posted in Culture, Parenting.

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