Reduce, Reuse and Recycle…
My Responsibility or My Reward?
On a balmy summer afternoon five years ago a young German girl walked off an airplane at the Salt Lake International airport. Accompanying her were two suitcases and boundless enthusiasm for a foreign exchange experience in our home. That subsequent school year would be one that neither she nor our family would ever forget.
Knowing Salt Lake City was the home of her host family, Jenny considered it likely that this family was Mormon. After a quick, but frightening Google search about Mormons, she was not quite sure if her wardrobe would consist of an Easter egg colored long dress or if she would be able to wear her hair in anything other than a long french braid. With very little information about the place she would call home for nine months, her courage ultimately overcame her apprehension.
When it was all said and done, we had more in common than we had differences. Yet, a significant difference was quickly apparent to me between our American lifestyle and her German one. That difference was in the level of personal consumption. Germans don’t have Costco, they actually have very few big box stores, they don’t drive 80 miles for a birthday party, they don’t decorate their homes at Christmas-time like Clark Griswold and they certainly don’t buy powdered sugar in 25 lb. bags…just to name a few!
Everything is disposable in America - a single use and into the trash it goes. For the first time I became quite self conscience of how much plastic and packaging we use at every turn. My explanation was that although we may use a great deal, we always recycle - Gulp! Our garbage cans that we haul to the curb each and every week are just slightly smaller than many German automobiles and the “more consciences” Americans have two cans; one for refuse and the other for recycling. Well, aren’t we something!
As we tried to represent our American ways with our best foot forward, there were many things that were truly impressive; but how we treat our planet was not one of them. Our level of consumption is excessive and so is our waste. Not only did we pretend to eat a large variety of vegetables instead of sweets, but those same vegetables became the garbage we threw away each week because we just didn’t get to them. Eating out, of course - we are busy people! As Americans, we overindulge, overspend, overeat….just to name a few!
Because of this numbing and embarrassing situation, I was shamed into making a few changes. The notion to leave a smaller carbon imprint landed solidly on my radar. The differences between our disposable world juxtaposed against cultures with very little actual waste is staggering - even in other highly developed countries. Americans have not always been like this. Is the “God of convenience” our new master? Have we lost our common sense making “urgent things important” rather than “important things urgent”? Have we dismissed responsibility altogether?
A devotional given back in 1983 at BYU by Ruth E. Brasher asked very pertinent questions for our time.
“Am I rich? The answer depends on the comparative basis I choose to use - but in my heart I know that I have enough of this world’s material blessings and that I will be accountable for my use of them. Are you rich? Do you have enough and some to spare? How can that determination be made? When we use more than our share of the earth’s resources, are we rich or are we greedy, or are we both rich and greedy? Are we greedy in our demands? Are we accountable?"
The Pope recently published his new encyclical, Laudato Si where he admonished all of humanity, and not just those of the Catholic faith, to focus on “intergenerational solidarity…and reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences” if we continue to overuse and abuse the world’s diminishing resources.
Did you know that the average American dinner table contains food from five different countries? A great deal of energy is used to bring that food to our tables. Is this putting energy to its best and most effective use? Just because “we can” does not mean “we should” continue to use more than our fair share of earthly treasures. What will we leave for our children and grandchildren? Will we be able to say that we have been good stewards? Have we been greedy? If we have, and I would say that most Americans have (by the world’s standards), is it too late to do be redeemed?
For the first time last year our community offered a green can for yard trimmings and compostable items. Europeans have composted for years and even levy fines if you don’t. My curiosity provoked an experiment to see just how little waste we could generate using our new green can. My husband and I started out with the obvious yard clippings and grass; graduating to table scraps and all those vegetables we continue to buy with optimism and good intentions.
While I am not necessarily proud that the two of us living in this home have three garbage cans; I was surprised at how much of our trash was in the green and blue cans. Imagine what a difference it would make if most families cut their real garbage by one third? My experiment turned into a bit of a personal challenge to see how little rubbish I had left over for the black can.
Our family has made some strides - not perfection, but progress. However, I feel incensed every time I pull my energy report from my mailbox showing me that I consume 70% more than all my neighbors. Greedy, irresponsible gluttonous members of humanity! Really??? Who are they comparing us to - the multiple apartments in our area?
How is this possible? We are empty nesters, we only run one of our two furnaces, we watch very little t.v., and don’t even listen to the radio. We turn off our lights and use those ridiculously ugly spiral lightbulbs that make us appear ten years older than we really are. Does our 35 year old freezer push us over the edge of glutinous energy consumption? It is hard to justify replacing a trusty appliance with a new appliance that is only made to last 5 years or so. Where do all those appliances go? Don’t they fill up the landfill just like everything else?
Conservation is ultimately left to individuals. Unfortunately, we are not required to take many measures to insure the health of this planet. The reminders are not consistent, nor do they provide us with enough beneficial information. That energy report could list a few different things each month to help to educate me in ways to improve. While inadequate, there are enough reminders. I can and will do better! A little research produced many ideas of small things we can do to improve. Never underestimate the power of many people engaged in small ways.
“…that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass…”
A recent interview with a New York City woman (who adopted a lifestyle that produces absolutely no waste) offered a brilliant solution - or at least a place to start. She suggested that you look through your garbage and see what is actually there. What clues can be found in your very own trash can?
Could washable rags or microfiber cloths be substituted for mass quantities of paper towels? Would air drying your hands in a restroom rather than drying with paper serve the same purpose? How about eliminating paper plates and plastic utensils? Terminating junk mail by emailing dmachoice.org? Reusable shopping and produce bags? Installing dimmer switches to customize need? Refills instead of a new paper or plastic cup with every drink purchase? This is my personal walk of shame. I could probably circle the entire planet twice with cups lined end on end.
Below you will find several links with a great deal of information to help customize a plan should you choose to jump on this bandwagon of going forward with kindness toward our planet. I am not suggesting that we can all live making our own deodorant and brushing our teeth with bamboo toothbrushes, but I would venture to say that we can all do better. How? A little effort, a little commitment, a little progress, a little responsibility…just to name a few!