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This is the power you have

August 12, 2011

This past Monday, I forgot about garbage day (again). When I heard the truck rumbling down the street, I ran into the kitchen, grabbed my garbage bag, and prepared to run down to the street in my bathrobe (again).

But I looked at the garbage bag. There was little over a fistful of garbage in it.

This is how much garbage I produced this week! I have been putting a lot of effort into reducing the amount of garbage I produce – but even so, I actually surprised myself!

Yes, it definitely takes extra time to not produce garbage. Just like it takes time to undertake other initiatives that are good for our environment, such as walking or riding a bike rather than driving. I am not saying that it doesn’t take time. It takes time.

But honestly, I am tired of hearing people tell me how busy their lives are, and how they just don’t have the time in their busy days to cook real food rather than heating up something from a package, or walk (or make their kids walk) instead of zipping around in their cars. Many of those people can talk about TV shows that I have never heard of, and keep up a pretty active social life online. It’s not only a matter of time – it’s a matter of priorities.

The garbage thing, the consumerism, the waste… to me, these are important. They are important to our future and, especially, if you care at all for kids, even more important for their future. So I make the time for it. It’s a priority.

I am not trying to be preachy here, or to say that I am perfect and you guys should all do what I do. I screw up too – you will notice in my garbage bag there are a few paper teabag wrappers that I should have put in the recycling… but I got lazy. I’m just trying to provide encouragement and inspiration by showing that each individual’s actions do add up, and the collective action of many individuals add up to even more. We each really do have the power to make a difference. But we have to exercise it.

So I am going to share some of the strategies that have worked for me:

Reject packaging, reject bags:
Remember we were taught the three Rs? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Well there are actually four. Number one is Reject. Recycling is last on the list, the worst option of the four. It encourages the manufacture of single-use disposable items – plastic bags, plastic packages, metal tins, glass jars – exactly what we should be rejecting. All these substances required energy to extract the resources from our natural environment (trees, petroleum, rock, metal), and energy to manufacture, and energy to transport to your home; they will still use up more energy to transport away again and to recycle them.

I have posted before that recycling is evil; all it does is make people feel good about their consumption. It’s not actually helping the big picture.

So, Refuse. Refuse to buy anything that your grocery store over-packages – for example, when peppers or cherries are plastic-wrapped on a styrofam tray. Don’t buy it. And tell the produce department why you are not buying it. If your store doesn’t listen to you, find other sources.

I know a lot of people justify getting plastic bags at the grocery store because they say they use them for garbage. And fair enough, to use one or two a week for garbage (because hopefully you are not producing more garbage than that). But if you find yourself with a kitchen cupboard or drawer jammed full of plastic bags, well… here’s my way of remembering to take my reusable bags to the store….

Punish yourself:
Yes, it is definitely hard to change habits, or to acquire new ones. Like remembering to carry those reusable bags. But if you let yourself off the hook every time you forget, you’re not going to learn, right? You have to punish yourself.

Usually I am on my bike so I have a backpack with me anyway. But when I am in a car, if I have forgotten my bag, I punish myself for it: I do not allow myself to accept a bag. I make as many  trips back and forth, from the store to the parking lot – tomatoes  or limes or whatever tumbling out of my hands – as I need to to get everything in the car. And same thing when I get to the house, multiple trips. It takes extra time and it’s a pain in the butt. But by punishing myself, it reminds me for next time. It’s a way to change my behaviour. Just saying “Darn, forgot the bag again!” and accepting the store’s plastic bags doesn’t change anything.

Make garbage a hassle:
I deliberately make it a real pain in the butt to have garbage. So I don’t really have a proper garbage bag in my kitchen. Instead, I reuse some food packaging that I was forced to buy (no, not plastic grocery bags – we are not forced to use those, that is a choice). Usually it is something like a potato chip bag (you just cannot buy potato chips without the bag) or a bag that pasta came in, or one of those thin plastic bags from the veggie department (I don’t use them at all for large or dry things like tomatoes, beans or broccoli, but I do for small things like cherries).

The little bag sits on the counter, and it gets in the way. It makes me not want to have garbage, because it is just a pain in the butt to have around. And even more of a pain in the butt if it gets full, and starts tipping over.

The garbage bag on the counter is a hassle. It makes me not want to produce garbage. But look at the photo: it’s working.

The power of the masses:
I know that it can feel like all of these small actions hardly make a difference. But this is where the power of the masses comes in. For a bit of a humorous example of that, check out this article in the Onion from last year: ‘How Bad For The Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?’ 30 Million People Wonder.

This concept, how the small actions of many individuals add up, was demonstrated to me in reverse a few weeks ago. I happened to have a lot of house guests over a period of two weeks. They are all fairly environmentally conscious people. But still, each one brought a couple of plastic bags into my house. By the time the last group left, my kitchen cupboard was stuffed full of plastic bags! No one had gone overboard with what the amount of plastic they brought in. But when you added it all up, it was a lot.

And that is what I mean: the power of the masses. It all adds up. Individuals’ small actions make a difference in the big picture. For the better, and for the worse.

So there, that is the power that we each have, that you have. Your actions may seem so small that they seem to be mere tokens. But they really do add up. Yes, it takes time. But this is important. These problems are not going to fix themselves.

Use your power.

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