For the Conservation Curious

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Spring Cleaning of Too Much Stuff March 28, 2013

I normally don’t take spring cleaning to heart.  I try to keep my place as tidy as possible throughout the year so I don’t have to spend a lot of time one or two weeks in the spring playing catch-up.  However, this week I must have caught a de-cluttering bug, because I have been going through all my dressers and closets, paring down on clothes and shoes I hardly ever, or never, wear.  In just one night I filled one large trash bag with stuff to donate to charity, and another large pile of things to try and sell at a clothing consignment store.  That doesn’t include the shoes, purses and jeans, which I plan to deal with tonight.  I counted over 20 pairs of jeans of the same size.  I tend to wear the same three pairs over and over again.  What was I thinking?!

When all is said and done I’ll probably have three large trash bags full of still wearable and mostly still fashionable goods.  It will make a considerable dent in my closets but still leave probably more than an adequate supply of clothing.  I could get rid of more, but there’s always that slightly too tight shirt you think you’ll be able to fit into this summer if only you could talk yourself into working out more.  Who am I kidding?!

The reason I am blogging about my spring cleaning binge has to do with consumption, or overconsumption to be more precise.  It seems as if we are trained from a young age to want to buy, buy, buy and own, own, own as much stuff as possible.  I can remember back to junior high when if you were seen wearing the same shirt two weeks in a row (or even twice in the same month) people made fun of you.  If you weren’t wearing the newest designer labels you were marked as uncool. 

Unfortunately that doesn’t end once you become an adult, although it may be a more subtle pressure.  Now it’s the cars we drive and phones we hold in our hand that mark how far we’ve “made it” in life.  If you have a cell phone from 2010 you are so uncool, and if it’s a “dumb” phone, well than you might as well go back to the 80s with your bag phone, loser!  Keeping up with the Joneses has taken on epic proportions!

The Story of Stuff (www.storyofstuff.org) is an amazing website and I highly recommend that you check it out.  It’s full of resources, videos, blogs and tweets that help people worry less about having stuff.  Or, I should say, it helps people realize they don’t need quite so much stuff in their lives.  It is a very valuable resource. 

I do like “stuff”, I have to admit.  I enjoy getting compliments on a new pair of shoes and I can’t wait to start reading books on my new Kindle Fire, but I will start paying more attention to what I have, so that I can buy less unnecessary stuff and start filling my life with more of what’s needed.  Never again will I allow 20 pairs of jeans to pile up in boxes in my closet.  I will make sure they go to good, new homes (certainly not to the landfill or incinerator!!) so that others can buy used “stuff” rather than buy brand new “stuff.” 

Oh, and yes I am a “loser” with a “dumb” phone and proud of it!  And I still love CDs, don’t own an MP3 player, have a 9-year old car and walk to work.  So maybe you don’t want to take advice from me, but I’d be happy if you did! 

Thanks for reading.

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Toxic Butts to Treasure? June 8, 2012

This morning I read an article about how TerraCycle, a company out of Trenton, NJ that is well-known for upcycling products, wants to recycle cigarette butts and turn them into plastic pallets and other items. 

My first reaction was, “That’s great!” since there are so many butts on the ground and in our rivers and streams.  Trillions a year to be exact.  The chemicals trapped in the filter can leach into water bodies and kill off aquatic life.  So if we could incentivize people to not litter with their cigarette butts and rather send them to a recycling plant, aren’t we doing a good thing?  Sure, it would be best if no one smoked at all, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

And as someone who does trash pick-ups in her community several times a year, I know that cigarette butts account for the majority of trash in some areas (along with chip bags – which TerraCycle recycles, fast food wrappers, bottles, and of all things, small packets of soy and duck sauce from Chinese restaurants).  Why people do not think cigarette butts are litter is beyond me.  People I know who claim to care about the environment and would never throw a bottle out the window seem to have no problem throwing their used cigarettes on the ground.  Why is that?  Where did that mentality come from and how can we change it?

But I digress.  As the article points out, there may be a major problem with recycling cigarette butts.  If all those toxic chemicals are concentrated into the filter, how can you make a product out of them that would be safe for people to use?  And what happens when that product reaches the end of its useful life?  Will it then contribute its own form of pollution to the environment?  If used cigarette filters are essentially toxic waste, can they ever be safe to handle? 

I would like to think that we have the brains and technology to figure this one out.  If TerraCycle can recycle cigarette butts (and used chewing gum, which is another thing the article mentioned) then I will see a lot fewer of them mucking up my city.  If turning toxic trash into treasure is possible, then maybe it’s not impossible to hope that my dad will quit smoking.  I will cross my fingers for both!

 

My Beef with Bottled Water March 18, 2011

The Story of Stuff tells the tale of bottled water best – http://storyofstuff.org/bottledwater/ – but in honor of the upcoming World Water Day (3/22) I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the conundrum that is bottled water.

I work for a natural resource organization, yet time and again I see my colleagues carrying around bottles of water.  Sometimes they’re reusing old bottles and filling them up with tap water, which is ok, I guess.  But it still means that they had to have bought a bottle of water at some point.  And I am not 100% innocent in this either – although it’s been years since I’ve spent $ on individual bottles of water I have purchased a gallon or two for camping trips in years past.  It seems like we can’t avoid bottled water. I go to a conference – that’s what’s offered, I eat at a restaurant – that’s what they try to push on me.  Even when we’ve organized events with “sustainability” in their title, the event planners can’t understand why we ask for pitchers of water, rather than bottles.  Because it’s not sustainable, I want to shout!

I could tell you that bottled water is less heavily regulated than tap water, which it is.  I could tell you that many bottled water companies just filter tap water anyway, so you’re paying $2 for what comes almost free out of your tap, which is also true.  Or I could tell you that so much petroleum is needed to create a bottle of water – from making the plastic for the bottle to shipping it to the store – that it’s helping to fuel our addiction to foreign oil, which it is.  But what I am most concerned about our the impacts our addiction to bottled water has on the natural world.

When a bottling company withdraws water in state A, but then ships the water all over the country, the water doesn’t end up back in the watershed from which it was taken (in the form of wastewater treatment effluent from, you guessed it, your toilet).  This can lead to aquifer depletion in state A, because the water is taken out but not replaced at a fast enough rate from precipitation (enhanced by all our black top parking lots and roads that impede infiltration).  Without enough groundwater, not only do local residents have troubled getting enough water out of their tap (forcing them to rely on bottled water!) but the plants and animals that rely on that water are also at a loss (and they can’t go to the grocery store to buy some water). 

Another problem I have with bottled water is the bottle itself.  It’s made of plastic.  Some bottles are recycled, which is good, but most end up in a landfill where they won’t decompose, or worse yet, they get washed into a stream and end up in our oceans.  Eventually the bottles will break down in an oxygen-rich environment, but break down into easily eaten pieces of plastic.  Sea life can’t tell the different between tiny pieces of plastic and their normal food source.  The plastic may or may not kill them.  Companies are experimenting with plant-based plastics and recycling is becoming more common place, but we still have a long way to go.

I’ll get down off my high horse in a second.  Thanks for reading my rant.  If I can leave you with any parting thoughts it’s that I encourage everyone to cut down on their consumption of bottled water (and other beverages in plastic bottles, for that matter).  If you live in the U.S., chances are your tap water is very clean, very tasty, and very cheap in comparison to bottled water.  Buy a reusable stainless steel water bottle, fill it up at your sink, and make a statement that you like saving money and protecting the planet.  It’s not just a tree hugger thing to do, it’s a savvy saver thing to do.  And in this economic climate, who could use a few more dollars in their pocket?!