Monday, March 31, 2008

Garbage day

Calgary NW Landfill - 5
Originally uploaded by D'Arcy Norman
This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately. Mainly because I've acknowledged that everything I throw "away" (where is "away" anyhow?) is something that needs to be dealt with somehow - probably hauled off to a landfill, but honestly, who knows? Additionally, everything I throw away is something that I can no longer use for something else.

We went to see some friends on Friday night. They live one town over. When we pulled into their neighborhood, it initially appeared as if every single house was undergoing a complete gutting. There were huge piles of stuff lining the sidewalks. I realized what was going on when I saw a few trucks cruising slowly by, one with a passenger shining a flashlight out the window onto the piles: this must be the local annual "large item" pickup day.

It only took a second, however, before I realized that these things are annual. Did these people accumulate this much stuff in one year? I literally shuddered to think about it. I never want to have that much stuff that I am willing to throw in the garbage.

I was slightly encouraged to see that there were some treasure seekers out there who might give some of this stuff a good home - but a lot of it will end up in the landfill. That is exactly what I am trying to avoid right now. I never want to have so many belongings that I need an annual day to deal with all my extra trash. I never want to have wasted so much money on stuff I don't need (or want).

There are a lot of things that I don't love about where I live, but trash is one of the best things about this area. Here's why:

1. We get free, super easy recycling. We put everything in one big bin. And I do mean everything: paper, cardboard, "anything that tears", plastics numbered 1-7, all plastic bags, aluminum, tin, styrofoam, textiles, scrap metal. If your bin is full, that's okay. You just leave the extras in a paper bag next to it, and they'll take that too.

2. You pay for a trash bin - and the price increases as the bin gets larger. If you are able to make a small amount of trash, you only pay for a small bin. If you make a lot, well, pay up. It saves me money to make less trash!! Unlike with the recycling, if you can't fit all your trash in the bin, you can't just leave it on the sidewalk in a bag - you have to buy a special extra bag from the city. I think it's great that somebody in my same situation who makes more bags of garbage in a week has to pay more than I do for their trash pick up. The more you use a product or service, the more you pay. The awesome, easy recycling makes it super easy to cut down on your waste. We are a household of two, who entertain often, and we've never exceeded two bags of trash in a week. Most weeks we don't exceed one. I'm shooting for a week when I don't have a full trash bag to put into the bin come trash day.

3. We don't have a "free large item pick up" day. As the city explains in their guide to garbage and recycling, this would cost money. Instead of making everyone pay for a service that only some would use, they charge a fee when you need a large item disposed of. I can only imagine that this gives people a much larger incentive to find somebody to give their unwanted items a second home rather than sending them to the landfill.

4. We have free, safe disposal for hazardous materials, including motor oil, batteries, paints, fluorescent lightbulbs, etc. I think this is a wise idea. Since these items are so small, I unfortunately have a feeling a lot of people would just throw them in the trash if they knew they had to pay to dispose of them properly. (Read why fluorescent bulbs need special handling in disposal. Does your community not offer recycling of these bulbs? Ikea can help).

This week I'm going to try to think of as many ways as I can to reuse, rather than recycle (or of course, throw in the garbage), things that are in my home. If they're here in the house already, it's too late to reduce, so I'll have to settle for next best.

I'll post what I come up with later in the week, but put your thinking caps on and let me know if you have any creative ideas on ways to keep things out of the garbage can.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Please DO NOT print this page for your records.

College Math Papers
Originally uploaded by sweetpea.loty30

Maybe nobody actually does this anyway, but it really irritates me how everytime you order something or register with a site online, there is some sort of order confirmation number that comes up on a screen, almost always with a note asking you to "please print this page for your records." I know this is a rather small thing in the big picture, but I do believe that small things add up.

I understand that if you've ordered something, you may need to have a way to refer to yourself at a later time. Most companies you do business with (perhaps unfortunately, but that's the way it is) won't know who you are if you call up and say, "Hi, my name's Melissa and I ordered something last week." I get that. But why on earth do I need to keep a full page written record of the information the company will use to find me if my order gets lost in the mail?

My simple solution to 1. save money (by saving paper, toner, and electricity from not running the printer), 2. be more green (for same reasons just mentioned) and 3. being more organized (by not having another piece of paper to file and later remember to throw out) is that I have one word document on my computer called "confirmations". When somebody asks me to print something for my records, I instead hit 'control a' to highlight the text on the page, 'control c' to copy the text in the page, then I go into my word document and hit 'control v' to paste the text into the page.

I am going to make a point to try to contact each business that I interact with if I see the "print this page" message and request them to replace it with a "make a note of this confirmation number" message.

Certainly confirmation numbers aren't the only thing that get wastefully printed. Thanks to one cool brother I now have a GPS for my car so I don't need to print directions anymore. I will admit, however, to printing out directions on more than one occasion, when in retrospect, it really wouldn't have been much more difficult to just write them down (on a much smaller piece of scrap paper) after looking them up. One additional thing I've done to make myself think more carefully about the things that I print is to disconnect the cord that connects the printer to the computer. That way, I have to think about it a little more than just to the point where I hit the "print" button. Kudos to my bank too (whatever their motivation) for now asking you whether you want a printed receipt when you make transactions at the ATM.

This is not to say I never print anything. I do (like tax returns...) but I am trying to make it a conscious choice rather than something I do automatically because a website tells me to. That, really, is the underlying goal of this whole process for me: to start being more conscious of the choices I make.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

On Books

Originally uploaded by Faeryan

Suffice it to say that there are way too many books in my house. "But there's no such thing!" some might say - including me. The reality, however, is that I am not going to read most of these again. There are even a few that I wish I hadn't read the first time around. There are so many of them that they won't all fit on the bookcase, or in the overflow trunk that I had set aside for this purpose. It was a hard choice, but I had to decide whether I preferred to remain the owner of all these titles, or have a more organized space to live in. I opted for the latter.

I remembered a few of my book club members talking about a site called paperback swap so I decided to check it out. It really is very cool. You post books you are willing to part with and others do the same. They don't have to be paperbacks; they even have audiobooks. When somebody wants a book of mine, they request it, and I mail it to them. The website even creates a wrapper with the other person's address already on it to be used in mailing the book. I get a credit for each book I mail that I can then use to request a new (to me) book.

There are a lot of things I like about this idea. You're reusing a book that somebody else will probably never read again, and can then pass it on again when you're done with it, and in exchange get another brand new (to you) one. If you don't want to part with it, that's okay too, there is nothing that says you have to re-post the book when you are done. The only thing you pay is postage to send your used books (usually between $2 and $3 US Media Mail).

I'm not thrilled about the wrapper that needs to get printed and the ink that gets used as well, but I guess this is where I remind myself to recycle my toner cartridges. Either way, I can't imagine that the toner, two sheets of paper, and tape that I use is more resources than what it takes to get a book from Amazon to me. Especially since I live less than a mile from the post office, so I usually walk there. Not to mention that by not buying a new book, I don't need somebody to cut down more trees to make more paper to print the thing on. Making paper, incidentally, also requires the use of enormous amounts of water. There is a lot of good information about the environmental and social impact of the publishing industry at the Green Press Intiative site.

Also, it's way cheaper than buying new titles. One of the features of the website is that it tracks your savings (based on average cost of a used book, postage you've spent mailing items to other members, gas prices, distance from post office, etc.) It estimates that I've saved over $80 in the month that I've joined.

There is one drawback to paperback swap, which is that for some newer titles, there is a very long wait. The have a waiting list, and it's first come first serve, but right now I am 795 of 853 in line for Khaled Hosseini's latest book, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Assuming I want to read the book in the next decade, I probably will find another source for this particular title. In fairness though, there are over 2,000,000 very good titles posted at the moment. Another very cool site for used books online is Biblio. They are a marketplace for used books, but they also do a lot of cool things, including building libraries in places that probably wouldn't have them otherwise, and investing in wind power to offset their carbon footprint.

Of course, there is always the library too. I'm not really a library person myself; they never have the title I want. You can do the recall thing, but it feels rude to tell somebody else to hurry up and finish the book just because I want it. Then I feel like I'm on a deadline too to hurry up and finish.

A final thought: since I am not actually buying anything, I can swap as many books as I want without breaking my rule number one! Hooray!

Friday, March 28, 2008

where to begin...

I don't know exactly what has brought me to this point, but I'm glad I'm here. I think it's a combination of some recent traveling, watching people around me bring beautiful promising little people into the world, having a lot of time on my hands to think, and just generally feeling sick and tired of knowing that I'm not doing what I know is best a lot of the time. I'll confess...I'm cheap. So a lot (most) of the time, I end up not buying organic. Food is expensive even when you buy the stuff sprayed all over with pesticides. I have a huge stock of cleaning supplies filled with nasty chemicals - because they cost less. I hope my sister doesn't pass out when she reads this, but I don't think I own a single pair of organic cotton underwear. Too expensive.

The interesting paradox here, however, is that I definitely let myself be lured in by the marketing gurus out there. For the record, I'm not a huge impulse buyer of flat screen tvs or new furniture, but I often come home with lots of little trinkets that I DO NOT NEED. I am sick of seeing and cleaning all this stuff around me, I am sick of thinking about the environmental impact of getting this stuff into my house, and then again when I throw it away because it's cheap crap and it broke, or because it's not useful and I don't know why I bought it in the first place, I am sick of worrying about money because I'm spending too much of it on things I do not need.

I have often felt that it's too expensive to really be environmentally friendly. What I have finally realized is that this just isn't true for the most part. What is sadly happening in our country is that the people in charge of selling us stuff have realized that a lot of people out there want to be more environmentally friendly. A lot of these people have a fair amount of disposable income. So the people in charge of selling us stuff have found a way to capitalize on our desire to buy stuff AND our desire to do the good/green thing at the same time! I don't think I really need to spend more money to clean my house in a green fact, I think I can do it for less. So this is one of the areas where I am starting this journey. The organic cotton undies still seem expensive to me though. But I'll think about it.

My new life mission then (which sounds more serious and weighty than I intend it to), is to make a better life for me and everyone I share this world with, by living greener, more simply, and more frugally - a trio that I think complement each other so well, I don't think I can do one without the others creeping in.

I'll keep a few lists to track progress and keep thoughts and mind organized. Organization is a key part of all this for me. Just one example, but how many times have you bought something at the grocery store, come home, started putting food away, and realized you already had two or three of that item in the back of the cupboard? I know I waste money and resources when I'm not organized.

One of the first things I will do is establish a new set of life rules. I've been playing by the "buy stuff...more...still not enough" rules for too long. So I think it'll be helpful if one of my lists is comprised of new rules I make for myself to live by. The good news is that if I make the rules, I can change them at any time. I'll post updates on the new rules, as well as the old ones, how I'm implementing them, and how that works out for me.

My rule for today comes straight from the pages of everything ever written about how to save money on groceries: Make A Shopping List. I'm going to do this too (I already do when I shop for groceries, actually), but I'm going to do it for everything. I think I need some seasoning time too...maybe two weeks? Every non-grocery item has to remain on the list for at least this much time before I make a purchase. This includes online as well as in-store.

Also up on the agenda today is trying out the VTA, our local public transportation. I have a feeling it won't be easy to use, but be that as it may, I will try it at least once before dismissing it!

Enough out of me for now...enjoy the day!