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No Impact Week: First Days

Friends, if you saw Monday’s post, then you know I’m participating this week in the “No Impact Experiment” designed by Colin Beavan (No Impact Man), and sponsored by Yes! Magazine. The idea behind the No Impact Experiment is simple: by minimizing our negative impact on the health of the planet, we’ll live healthier and happier lives.

Each day of the experiment focuses on a different area of impact, and it also aligns with tasks in several girl scout badges. In this post, I’ll cover the first few days’ of the experiment; a second post will cover the remainder of the week’s experiment, and a third post will pull together thoughts, resources, outcomes.

NO IMPACT SUNDAY: Do More with Less

Do we really need to buy as much stuff as we do? You know, I don’t *think* I buy a lot of stuff, but maybe I do. It’s true that when I think I need an item I almost always buy it new. Why not try to get the same product used? Why not borrow it? Why not make it myself?

Per the experiment’s guidelines, I made a list of the stuff I’d need for the week, got it, and made a commitment to avoid shopping for new items this week. And in preparation for Monday’s look at the trash we collect, Sunday was a “personal trash collection day.” I toted a reusable shopping bag around with me from morning until night and used it as my own personal trash can. Lovely.

NO IMPACT MONDAY: Quit making trash!

The Environmental Protection Agency releases annual data on solid waste consumption and recycling in the U.S. The most recent data, from 2008, notes that “Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash and recycled and composted 83 million tons of this material, equivalent to a 33.2 percent recycling rate. On average, we recycled and composted 1.5 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.5 pounds per person per day.”

That 33% recycling rate is up from 6% in the year of my birth (1960). It’s a steady increase, to be sure, but it’s a lot lower than I thought it would be. We make a LOT of trash, and it seems that we’re way behind in our recycling efforts.

The No Impact Experiment looks at a few key steps we can take to minimize our trash impact on the planet.

Step 1: What’s your trash look like? No Impact Experiment participants are asked to take a good hard look at that trash they collected on Sunday. We’re asked to identify stuff that we used for more than ten minutes, versus stuff we used for less than ten minutes. The results, in glorious photos, below:

You know, while we were asked to collect Sunday’s personal trash for examination, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sundays typically yield less trash than any other day of the week for a lot of us–especially those who work outside the home and typically buy their breakfast and lunch elsewhere.

Step 2: Create a no-trash travel kit. Take it anywhere, any time. The project recommends a container for hot/cold beverages, cloth napkin, handkerchief, and a set of cutlery so you never need those plastic forks and knives. It’s grab-n-go, and it’s a great idea, and it’s done. Here’s my favorite addition to my kit — a Vapur collapsible, BPA-free water bottle. In summer, I fill it to about 1/3 and put it in the freezer. Fill the rest with tap water when ready to take a walk, clip it on your belt loop, and anyone can beat the Texas heat. I rarely recommend a product — but I really love these.

Step 3: Quit making trash. No more buying water at 7-11 (I was getting pretty good at this one already). No more paper towels, tissues and napkins, either. For this experiment, I pulled out the cloth napkins for eating, the dish towels for cleaning, and a handkerchief for sneezing. The reusable shopping bags are hanging from the front closet door handle, ready to go.

I confess, the handkerchief thing has me a little weirded out. It’s cedar fever season here in Austin, I might sneeze 100 times in a day, and I think of handkerchiefs as a fairly disgusting, germ-ridden alternative to a delicate tissue. We’ll see how this goes.

All of these steps are a reminder to reduce, reuse, recycle. As much as this previous post  on the subject may have been tongue-in-cheek, the principle remains. To put it another way, it’s time to start acting a little more like my sainted Grandmother Louise. Like many of her generation, the Great Depression taught her that there was no end to the number of times one might reuse a piece of waxed paper or foil. My husband Charles is already really good at this. I’ll follow his lead.




No Impact Monday is a really beautiful fit with one of the tasks for the Earth Connections badge in which scouts are called upon to choose one environmental issue (like running out of landfill for garbage), and look at ways we can take action to become better stewards of the planet.

In the last two generations, we Americans have fallen in love with all things disposable: razors, coffee cups, rain ponchos, batteries, lighters–the list is long, and it’s filled with plastics and chemicals that will never break down in a landfill. And as our landfills come closer and closer to capacity, there are other consequences. Landfills release methane gas, impacting the air we breathe. Chemicals leach from the garbage and pollute our groundwater.

This project reminds me that the “green conversation” has been going on in the U.S. since I was a kid. The fact that we’ve increased our recycling substantively over that time frame tells us we’re making progress. The fact that we’re still a long way to the finish line reminds us that change is always slow to come.

7 in ’11

Since I’ve sworn off buying bottled water at the nearby 7-11 (and elsewhere), here’s 7 in ’11 — seven easy, actionable steps anyone (including me) can take to reduce trash:

  1. Recycle, and recycle some more. The more we can repurpose the trash we create, the less goes into landfills. Our city has single-stream recycling. If your city or town doesn’t recycle, that’s a call to action. Until then, check out Earth 911 for your nearest recycling center.
  2. Avoid purchasing products that aren’t recyclable or biodegradable. No more styrofoam cups, ever. Replacing styrofoam plates at our next picnic with paper ones is better, but why not use “real” plates and wash them off? Look! No garbage!
  3. Choose to purchase products that don’t have wasteful packaging over those that do. You know what I mean — I’m talking about the small flash drive that comes packaged in a square foot of hard plastic and requires a machete to open. The best way to reverse this trend in packaging is to stop buying those products. Yep, I’m happy to boycott this packaging.
  4. Building off of that last one, why buy new if we can buy comparable quality used? Visit Craigslist or eBay to shop around. Or pay nothing if we can find what we need on Freecycle.
  5. Brown bag it. In addition to saving money, we won’t be throwing away those paper plates and plastic utensils. No time to do it every day? How about twice a week to start.
  6. Most/many household paper products may be biodegradable, but we’re still losing forests to make them and still creating trash when we thrown them away. As this experiment has reminded us, there are a lot of dish towels that work quite well and cleaning counters. And yes, as a result of this experiment, I’m staring at a handkerchief on my desk right now, not a box of tissues.
  7. Compost food waste, as well as grass clippings and leaves. Compost as much organic matter as possible. Try a little bucket in the kitchen to collect scraps. Try a simple compost pile or bin in the back yard. Try composting with neighbors. Try making a science project out of it for the kids. One hours’ worth of research online provides a wealth of composting alternatives. And the resulting compost will make landscapes and gardens healthier without adding chemicals. As we attempt (yet again) to grow our own vegetables this summer, composting is in.

I’d like to recommend one more action, based on today’s No Impact Experiment. I’d like to recommend that we gather our families around the garbage can before it gets picked up next week. Let’s take a good look inside it. See what we’ve produced. What didn’t we need to waste? How’s it feel to think about all this waste ending up in a landfill? Sometimes a picture’s worth a thousand words.

NO IMPACT TUESDAY: Burn calories, not fossil fuels.

In some ways, this day is both the easiest and hardest and for me. Tuesday’s experiment focused on choosing alternatives to driving–biking, walking, skateboarding–anything that relies on your own power to get you to your destination. In lieu of self-propelled transit, participants can look at public transportation as a viable alternative to getting where they need to be.

This day issue feels easier for me than it might feel to others. I’m fortunate enough to be a telecommuter. I work from home, and when allergy season is particularly bad, like it is now, I’m happy to stay in the house for days at a time. Tuesday brought a chilly rain, and I was more than happy to move as little as possible. “Move as little as possible” was the key phrase there, and that’s my real challenge.

It’s been years since either Charles or I owned a bike, and though we started talking about getting a bike in hushed tones a few months ago, I’m not crazy about riding on busy streets. I was hit by a car while on my bike about 25 years ago, and you never really forget the feeling of flipping over a few times after a major impact–you know it’s happening cause the sun pops in front of your eyes a couple of times until you quit flying and smash into the pavement. So I have some residual anxiety over the bike thing.

But biking is certainly not the only alternative mode of transportation. I’ve got two perfectly good legs, and they can carry me the full mile-and-a-half to the supermarket. The city has bus routes with stops only blocks from our house, and there’s nothing stopping me from taking the bus. Both are viable options, both could get me where I needed to go, both are affordable, both are better for the planet.

Except (and this is a surprising, nagging exception to me), who has the time to travel more slowly?

Whether or not it’s actually true, it feels as though it will always be slower to do anything but drive. We run to the store, we dash off an errand. When is the last time we felt free to saunter about? By gosh, we have schedules to keep!

So that’s the big takeaway for me on this day. The mental barrier to choosing an alternative form of transportation is time. That’s what I’ll be thinking about next time I need to get somewhere.

In the spirit of slow but steady change, I checked out our city’s bus routes and let me tell you — our city could measurably improve its ridership if it were easier to wade through the information on that page. Yes, there’s a trip planner on the home page, but there’s no way to get an easy overview of routes and options. May I recommend that CapMetro develop a smartphone app like this one for the D.C. metro system? This little thing has helped me get around really well.

(Another note to CapMetro: those of us on the south side of town would love to see the light rail line head this way. Just sayin’…)

Finally–and I don’t want to shortchange this incredible new alternative to car ownership–there’s another fantastic way to get from Point A to Point B in Austin. It’s called Car2Go. A fleet of small smart cars is available for short term rental, on the spot, across much of the city. Get a membership, locate an available smart car near you (I’d have to use a bus to get to one, but it’s doable), and zip through the errands you need to run. When you’re done, you park it anywhere in town; it’s ready for the next customer who needs a car in that area.

Car2Go rents by the hour or the day. Day rates are higher than the cost of a normal car rental, but the REAL point is that we’re talking about a fleet of shared, fuel efficient cars. Take this model to scale across an urban environment, couple it with good mass transit, and it’s possible that individual car ownership can go the way of the dinosaur.



3 thoughts on “No Impact Week: First Days

  1. Pingback: World Spinner

  2. You always get me thinking, Jean. Have to say, groaned when I read you were doing this this week, first week of January, and encouraging others to consider it. Massachusetts is so cold right now, and our heat is cranking. BUT – I have been working at 63 all week instead of 65, with my warm sweater on, and I washed a bunch of dishes by hand, to avoid the dishwasher. Have been committed to no trash lunch, where kids go to school with a lunch packed in containers that all come back home. Saves money because you can buy bigger sizes and if you use clips to hold packages shut, and allot cabinet space, is no big deal. Will take on the “personal trash” experiment – am dreading it.

    • Really something when you step back and take a look at what you’re really doing isn’t it? You know, we had our dishwasher repaired last week, and while the repairman was here, I asked him how many gallons of water the normal dishwasher uses during a cycle. I was thrilled to learn it’s about 1-1/2 to 2 gallons, which isn’t much at all given the number of dishes in there. Not surprisingly, less water is used with a light cycle; more with a heavy duty cycle.

      As for the personal trash experiment, I’m certain that Sundays produce less trash for me than just about any other day of the week!

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