“We have met the enemy and he is us.” Pogo
Living in Eugene, Oregon, in the early 70s, while attending the University of Oregon, I volunteered at the first Lane County recycling center, housed in an old warehouse. People dropped off bags and boxes of glass bottles outside the warehouse all hours of the day and night. Boxes and bags of bottles piled up. My volunteer shifts were spent hoisting cardboard boxes of glass bottles over my head, dumping them down a chute into a huge, noisy, glass-crushing contraption. Crushed glass was literally everywhere. It was unsafe to say the least! But those of us who volunteered were dedicated to recycling.
On the first Earth day in 1970 I was living and going to college in Washington DC where the event gathered a large crowd to hear inspiring speeches. I remember the educational booths of various environmental organizations and early “green” businesses. When I attended this event I didn’t know Earth Day had been proposed by Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin determined to convince the government the planet was at risk. It was a bipartisan supported campaign that resulted in the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts being passed later in 1970. Nelson had announced his Earth Day idea in the fall of 1969 at a conference in Seattle, the city of my birth.
Washington state, where I live, is my “homeland”. Most of my relatives live here, my parents grew up here. Northwest roots shape my values and attitudes about Nature and the planet. My dad, an active member of the Sierra Club later in life, had backpacked in the Cascade and Olympic mountains in his youth and from infancy until we moved from Washington when I was 4, our family spent summer vacations and weekends at a family owned cabin on Dabob Bay on the beautiful Olympic Peninsula. When we moved to the east coast we continued to camp weekends and summer vacations from Canada to the Carolinas. My parent’s love of the outdoors was instilled in my brothers and I early in life. Also instilled in us were their depression-era values and the values they both inherited coming from farm based families (dad grew up on a small chicken farm, mother’s mother grew up on a dairy farm). Those values include reuse. Don’t create waste. Keep and fix what you have. Be frugal.
How do you instill these values in people who missed that early “programming” to appreciate Nature and to not be wasteful? Because in the decades since that first Earth Day, in spite of large municipal recycling programs, in spite of environmental education taught in schools, in spite of a multitude of public awareness campaigns, and in spite of science based warnings that go back further than Earth Day, we as a society continue to destroy resources (our own and those of “developing” nations), to litter, to pollute our waters, to make and consume cheap goods that eventually break, become unused and are tossed into landfills. (Landfills! What a term, fill the land, the earth, the planet we live on with our garbage. What were we thinking!) How do you teach people who never have felt connected to Nature that everything they do, every choice they make, impacts the planet they and all future life is dependent on?
Like the people leaving those bags and boxes of bottles outside that early recycling center, people feel good recycling but do not stop and think – what happens to all this stuff. Nor do they change their consumption practices. They think they are doing good because they recycle. And they are, sort of. Recycling is not enough, it never was and now recycling itself has become an international waste disaster.
My commitment to living a planet-friendly life sometimes gets eroded with a sense of “what difference does my small effort make”, an unfortunate attitude shared by many people. As aging and health challenges drain my energy I often let things slip, making decisions based on what’s “easy” but not necessarily the best for the planet, and thus, ultimately for myself. There is stress when our actions do not reflect our values, and I feel that stress.
What we need to remember is communal and global shifts occur when many people do small things. Positive action, repeated every day by millions of people, creates the energy of change.
So here are the 5 Rs, popular guidelines for making personal decisions that make a difference and help focus on values important to all of us who care about the Earth:
Refuse…..Consume less, don’t buy things you don’t need, don’t take freebies just because they’re free, say no to single use items, i.e. plastic utensils in the deli or plastic produce or grocery bags. Purchase and use reusable items. Say no to plastic packaging. When possible, purchase items with the least packaging. Buying local eliminates added packaging when items are shipped, as well as the energy used to transport it. Tip: A great place to say no – don’t upgrade your cell phone just because there’s a new model, they consume huge amounts of valuable, some rare, resources.
Repair……Fix or have fixed what you can – clothes, furniture, appliances, etc. Buy quality, the best you can afford (buying less overall allows you to purchase better quality items you need to buy). If something is made better it lasts longer and is more likely to be fixable.
Reuse……..Up-cycle clothes, building materials, containers, etc. If you can’t reuse it, someone else might, so give it away and look for used items yourself rather than always buying new. But only give away what is truly reusable, a lot of charitable “donations” end up in landfills.
Recycle……A last resort, because there isn’t much true recycling going on. Currently most plastic is not being recycling. Find places that truly recycle before thinking you are doing good when you might just be passing on to someone else the act of tossing it in a landfill.
Rot…….Compost everything you can, which is most kitchen scraps and even some paper. Choose products that say they are biodegradable, and be sure they are. If you doubt it (like something plastic that says “biodegradable”) it probably isn’t. Get a worm bin (there are kits designed for people in small living spaces). Employee these tiny recyclers!
I add to this list Recreate, in Nature, because I believe we care for and feel more connected to that which we are familiar with. Connect to the Earth, then remember her when you make decisions.
If this list represents the values of our parents and/or grandparents, how did so many people in the “baby boom” generation turn away and exploit Nature, ignoring the consequences of their actions? It can be attributed to self-centeredness, greed, and campaigns to encourage consumerism, such as one that was implemented following WWII to boost the economy and create jobs.
At its core it is a disconnect from our spiritual selves, the part of us that knows we are interconnected to a bigger web of life and need to, want to, care for it. Reconnecting to Nature helps establish a relationship which, like all relationships, we need to nurture.
A few daily choices I make:
Using cloth bags for small produce items that need bagging, i.e. peas, green beans, etc., bulk grains and nuts eliminates plastic bags. I make bags from fabric I have (including vintage cloth rice bags). If you want to buy bags and can’t find bags locally, you can buy cloth bags on line, if you like cute home made ones check out Etsy, there are a lot!
Buying bulk household items, i.e. dish soap, using the same container over and over (which is an old plastic dish soap bottle, but a glass pump bottle, like we use in bathroom, works too) reduces plastic bottles. Next on my list is to make dish soap and cleansers, a relatively easy process. We also purchase sponges made from nature materials, like walnut husks, that are biodegradable.
Making simple personal care products, i.e. healing and moisturizing salves. It really is simple, if you want to try find a recipe using basic ingredients – a good quality oil such as coconut and/or olive and a little beeswax. I use herb infused oils for salves, but plain oils work fine for moisturizing lotions. In fact plain coconut oil works well as is! Many recipes include essential oils for fragrance, but some skin can be sensitive to essential oils so I don’t use them. (You can usually buy chemical free products made locally by small businesses who package them in glass jars.)
I’ve suggested to an herbal supplement company we buy many products from that they consider switching to glass bottles. Whenever possible we buy glass or cardboard containers. We have found a rice pasta we love that comes in a box, no plastic. (Glass “recycling” isn’t as determental to the environment as plastic, but the production of glass is not chemical free so reuse when you can.)
These are just a few ways we try to live our values. We are not ‘zero waste’, but our efforts not only contribute to the whole, but feel good to us and simplify life. I have a list of steps yet to take, i.e. making shampoo or finding a bar shampoo I like and making laundry soap, also relatively easy.
Share your suggestions and ‘action steps’ in comments below. There are many resources on-line for “zero waste” living, for following the 5 Rs (sometimes it’s the 4 Rs), for making simple home products, many similar to those previous generations used. You can find blogs by younger people who will still be here when I and my generation are long gone, who understand the crisis and are working against time to clean up the planet by changing values. I find their passion inspirational and it helps me remember my own passion….the one that made me crush glass when I was 22….. for earth friendly living.
Happy Spring cleaning as we clean up this planet together!