In the dream, my two children have grown up and are walking in a landfill that extends for hundreds of miles in all directions. They appear to be lost, wandering aimless-ly among the mountains of discarded exhaust pipes, tuna fish cans, and tennis shoes. Suddenly, out of a sea of toxic waste emerges a foul-smelling dragon with a head resembling a plastic Sprite bottle. Ryan and Rachel try to escape, but Rachel trips, and the dragon snatches her. Helpless against the hideous creature, Ryan falls to his knees, sobbing: “If only Mom had used cloth diapers!”
Okay, I admit to being a tad wasteful in the past. I gave cloth diapers a two-hour trial before ordering a year’s supply of Pampers. I bought paper towels in 12-packs at Sam’s Wholesale-weekly. My husband shaved with disposable razors, my kids chugged juice in disposable boxes, and 1 sipped Evian water in plastic bottles. In essence, we were trash junkies.
But that was before I started hearing about such atrocities as the Greenhouse Effect, acid rain, and glutted landfills. The more I read about how our throwaway society is destroying the earth, the harder it was to throw anything away without feeling guilt.
My real nightmare began after I read Newsweek’s “Buried Alive” cover story. You may remember the cartoon drawings of a family of three next to their accumulating pile of trash. The caption read: “Garbage anthropologists say that the average American household is a round-the-clock trash factory.” Hold on. Are there really people who get degrees in garbage? Is it true that the average American throws out 3.5 pounds of garbage each day1.
I decided to do some investigating on my own. We moved from Dallas to Austin more than a year ago to a lovely residential area near Lake Travis. Though we live inside the city limits, we have a private disposal company that supplies us with a 92-gallon Roll-A-Waste that is emptied once a week. And every week. I find, we fill the thing to the brim. The grim figures are right: Each of us contributes at least three pounds daily. Not to mention those trips to McDonald’s.
So we decided that the four of us would take whatever steps necessary to reduce our trash by at least half. Actually, 1 made this vow, and the rest of the family-my husband Steve. Ryan. 6. and Rachel, 4-went along for the ride, hoping this too would pass, like all of Mom’s other crazy ideas.
For the first week, I sift through our trash bags and analyze just what it is we throw away. This is certainly an educational experience. There’s a forest’s worth of paper, but the real villain is packaging. Everything, it seems, comes wrapped or boxed or covered in something, and that something is usually plastic. Most of it is related to food: plastic milk cartons, Styrofoam meat platters, plastic bread bags, and cereal boxes with plastic prizes. In addition, every meal requires a mountain of paper towels, paper napkins, aluminum foil.
wrap. Steve suggests we eat out more ofte so someone else can worry about the trash
I begin in earnest by separating all th items that can be recycled. I’m no strange to recycling, having contributed to pape drives and turned in soft drink cans and bot tles. But it has been a haphazard effort am rarely very organized. So I establish a smal area in the garage with paper bags ready to collect glass, cans, and aluminum. Paper are stacked in the corner. Plastics go in ; large plastic bag. It is one of Rachel’s friend; who notices the strange odor while hunting for a Barbie shoe. Her actual words are “What stinks in here?” Lesson one; If you plan to store garbage in your garage, wash i first. Especially milk jugs.
As with all my other causes, I soon be come obsessed. On a busy road, I screech to a stop to rescue an empty six-pack. M) morning jog becomes a search mission to find abandoned cans and bottles. One Sun day I hit the jackpot and sprint home juggling an empty Jack Daniels bottle and a couple of beer cans. “Good Lord,” Steve moans as stumble in, smelling like a bad hangover. “Did anyone see you?”
I now view the world around me in terms of what can be recycled. On New Year’s Eve, we party with friends at a popular Austin nightspot. Everyone is having a great time, but I can’t take my eyes off the bartender. In less than an hour, he has thrown 46 bottles into a trash container behind him.
“Excuse me,” I scream over the music. “Do you recycle?”
“Recycling is for sissies,” he says with a grin, but I sense I’ve struck a nerve. His grin fades as he realizes I’m dead serious and not trying to flirt. “We would recycle,” he adds, “but it would be really tough to separate all the cigarette butts and napkins.”
I continue to glare at him as bottles sail into the bag.
“Look, it’s not as bad as you think,” he stammers. “We get a lot of bums who go through our trash containers out back and dig out the bottles and cans to get spare change. Okay?”
At midnight we celebrate with champagne. I take home the empty bottle.
With our recyclables happily multiplying in the garage, I decide to deal with my real weakness: the paper towel habit. I dust with paper towels. I wipe up spills with paper towels. I clean windows with paper towels. I try cutting down, but it doesn’t work. I must go cold turkey. I savor the last few, reusing them if possible.
Eliminating paper napkins also takes some getting used to. When I bring out the cloth variety. Steve asks, “Are we having company for dinner?” It takes three days for my children to actually use them to wipe their hands. At breakfast, I ask Ryan if he knows why I quit buying paper napkins. “Because we can’t afford them?” he blurts. So much for my lectures about saving trees and overflowing landfills. But a few days later I notice he offers cloth napkins to his friends when they eat a snack after school. “Why are we using these?” one asks, and Ryan answers smugly: “We’re not wasting paper anymore.”
Now there’s a great kid. Unfortunately, his dad still thinks I’ve gone too far.
“Where’s the Windex?” Steve calls. It’s time for the monthly car wash.
“Under the sink.”
“Where are the paper towels?”
“We don’t use paper towels anymore, remember?” Long pause.
“How can I wash the windows without paper towels?”
“I made a bunch of rags. There’s a pile in the utility room.”
The next sound is a groan followed by grumbling. Steve stomps into our bedroom.
“Is this my Bruce Springsteen T-shirt?” he demands, holding up a rag with part of the Boss’s head on it.
“Steve, you haven’t worn that shirt in 10 years. It has grease stains on it.”
“It has, pardon me, had, sentimental value,” he shouts.
The garage is beginning to resemble a mini-landfill. Steve has to rearrange the lawn equipment so he can park the Blazer. A stack of newspapers threatens Rachel’s bike. So I head for the nearest recycling pickup area. For eight miles I listen to the tune of cans and bottles clunking together. When I get there it takes 45 minutes to separate three different colors of glass. A sign requests that labels be removed and that aluminum cans be flattened. After 40 minutes, two broken nails, and a cut that may require a tetanus shot, I finish. I feel virtuous. And even better, I realize that in one month we’ve reduced our weekly trash output by four bags.
My big break comes when 1 discover that while the city’s recycling center accepts only ; newspaper, some private companies will ’ take boxes and office paper. Another bag is | added to the garage to collect junk mail, cereal boxes, and computer paper.
By the end of six weeks, we have reduced our weekly trash load to three small grocery-size bags. Of course, there’s still a lot to do. I have stacks of magazines and catalogs with nowhere to go and 15 bags of leaves to convert to mulch for our garden.
But I brag about our accomplishment to anyone who will listen. My friend Doug, an environmental architect, quizzes me about our methods. He nods with approval until I mention the new garbage disposal that chews up everything. He frowns.
“You realize what that’s doing to the water?” he asks. “It’s organic food,” I insist. “That can’t be harmful.” He shakes his head and explains that if I’m really serious about! the environment, I need to put organic matter back into the earth.
“You don’t mean. . .”
He nods. “A compost pile.”
But that’s another nightmare. I mean,another challenge.