Some of you may remember us from our 2006 Dumpster Diving initiative (ecologicaldesign.blogspot.com), in which we dedicated a couple of months to nourishing ourselves almost exclusively with "rescued edibles." Well, Jesse and Aaron are at it again, but this time we've shifted the focus. Instead of extracting the outputs, we've moved up the conveyor belt of waste to focus on minimizing the inputs. Waste, after all, is an entirely human concept...

Thursday, March 6

Let Me Ask You Something: How do You Feel About Frilly Toothpicks?

Those of you who appreciated Aaron's shoutout to Mitch Hedberg will certainly appreciate this one, too. For once, though, I must say I ain't FOR 'em (frilly toothpicks, that is).

To tell you the truth, I forgot all about the damn things until the frilly little thang showed up with my tempeh burger.
Thus far, eating at restaurants has turned out to be much easier than I thought it would be. I opt for places that use real silverware (though I do have a camping set in my backpack, just in case), and metal tins for sauces instead of those little plastic things. I've been getting good at ordering small, because I can't leave anything on the plate! (I'm not too into the idea of carrying containers around so I can pack my own leftovers...)

I leave wrapped condiment packets alone, and I don't order anything with bones because I can't compost them. I generally leave with a small wad in my pocket: a crumpled napkin for the burn pile, with that orange peel and parsley garnish for the compost.

Some people question my philosophy on paper napkins. I thought about carrying a cloth napkin around so I wouldn't have to use the paper ones, but I actually need paper mass to start fires with at home. I even use paper towels in the kitchen because otherwise I don't have enough paper to start fires with (my housemates and I read our news and pay our bills online). I figure its better to burn a used paper towel than a fresh one. Plus, I have this feeling they throw unused napkins away anyway if you leave them on the table.

But man, like a frilly toothpick straight to the heart, my mainstay cafe stuck me with some real-life, undeniable trash.

Monday, March 3


Always with the receipts. Every purchase I make comes with a receipt. I bought some sesame sticks the other day and they gave me a foot long receipt, no joke. What am I supposed to do with all of this paper? Sometimes I shred them up and put them in the compost, but they have this weird sheen, so I'm not sure if that's the best idea. I don't have a fireplace and since I decided recycling was out of the question for the Trash Project, I decided to save them all. The pile is growing. Receipts may not rank that high on the scale of ridiculously unnecessary trash, but do we honestly need all of these paper records? To conclude, I leave you with the wise words of Mr. Mitch Hedberg:
"I bought a doughnut and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut. I don't need a receipt for a doughnut. I'll give you the money, you give me the doughnut—end of transaction. We do not need to bring ink and paper into this. I just cannot imagine a scenario where I would have to prove that I bought a doughnut. Some skeptical friend—"Don't even act like I didn't get that doughnut—I got the documentation right here! Oh wait, it's back home in the file…under 'D'…for doughnut."

Sunday, March 2

It Was the Strangest Thing...

I was sitting on the couch talking to a friend on the phone, when suddenly water started spewing out of the cupboard above my stove. I mean just pouring. It was falling in sheets onto the hood and from there pooling on the range. Did a pipe break? was my only thought until suddenly the flow started to taper off, and then, drip... drip... it stopped.

Did a big hunk of ice fall through the roof and drain a bunch of snowmelt into the kitchen?

When I got closer, I realized that the stuff wasn't water. It was a little thicker than water. A little yellower... a little oilier. And in fact, it was canola oil. The thick glass bottle had spontaneously fissured horizontally, ALL THE WAY AROUND the middle. The bottle was still standing, looking pretty well in tact, but when I reached for it, the top half lifted right off the bottom. Nothing else was touching it, either - no evidence that anything had fallen on it. I've never seen anything like it in my life.

What does this have to do with the Trash Project? Two things:

1. It wasn't a canola oil bottle. It was a Crown Royal Whiskey bottle that I had filled with canola oil in the bulk section. Suddenly I found myself wondering if this was some sort of strange sign... somebody trying to challenge me on the trash-free thing. This bottle has quite a story behind it. It was a holiday gift from my uncle, mostly for the "ski goggle sack" that it comes in, or so said Uncle Dave... The bottle went to Chile and back with me, unopened. When it finally got consumed, it made a friend of mine really really really really sick. That same friend was on the phone with me when the bottle broke. Spooky...

2. I just increased my trash accumulation volume by like 10,000%. Broken glass is not only useless, but also dangerous, and most cities won't recycle it (because of the hazard to employees).

I should mention that up to this point, I've been carrying my trash accumulation around in the useful "ski goggle sack" that the Crown Royal bottle came in - yet another strange coincidence - and until the broken bottle, I only had 4 tiny things in it, weighing in at just over an ounce all together:
  • A little tag that came on a bunch of organic kale. I thought it was paper when I bought it, but when I tore it from the re-usable twist-tie, it turned out to be plastic.
  • A rubber hatchet-blade protector that was doing just fine until I forgot to remove it before chopping kindling. The thing split in two, becoming trash by a single hatchet blow.
  • A foil-lined envelope flap (the rest of the envelope was just paper) from a friend's wedding invitation.
  • An itty-bitty piece of plastic that detached itself from a reusable bag.
And that's it. I swear. And now the bottle. I guess that thing really wanted to find its way back to the purple sack!

So yeah, despite being bummed about getting pegged with a big bag of trash, and having to clean cups-full of oil off of a variety of kitchen surfaces, I just can't get over how strange the whole thing was.

Sunday, February 24

Potty Talk

The question has become inevitable: what about toilet paper?

Toilets, much like curbside trash pickup services, have this uncanny way of whisking things away and allowing us to believe they've disappeared. But we all know that's too good to be true.

The ideal setup for the Trash Project would include a composting toilet - a wonderful flushless contraption that turns human waste, as well as toilet paper, back into soil. Some look like outhouses, but there are plenty of models designed for indoor use in standard home bathrooms, and they look just like flush toilet without the lever. And believe it or not, composting toilets are completely odorless.

Unfortunately, my house doesn't have a composting toilet, so I'm forced to flush my share of TP. But my very own composting toilet is the first thing on my wish list. Maybe next year...

Monday, February 18

It's a little salty......

...the toothpaste that is. One thing I love about this project is that it forces you to make things that you would otherwise buy, like toothpaste for example. Toothpaste usually comes in a non-recyclable tube (except for Tom's of Maine!) encased in a small cardboard box. In order to avoid this inevitable trash, we decided to make our own toothpaste. Here's our recipe:
  • 6 tablespoons baking soda
  • 1/3 tablespoon salt
  • glycerin - enough to transform the powder into the paste-like consistency we all know and love
  • peppermint oil - 15-20 drops, or more
The conclusion: Well, it looks like toothpaste, and it smells like toothpaste, but it tastes pretty darn salty. (Apparently the salt is critical for teeth-cleaning grit.) The glycerin and peppermint help a little, but it's still significantly different than store-bought toothpaste. A week after converting to the home remedy though and it's getting better. The salty, ocean fresh quality is still there but I'm getting used to it and trying instead to focus on the fresh and clean baking soda/peppermint combo.

Friday, February 15

THE STRAW THAT BROKE THE CAMEL'S BACK: Tales of Bars, Cafes, and Airplanes

"NOOOOOO!" I screamed as the bartender reached for the plastic straw. But my holler dissipated into the lively chatter of our local pub.

In a flash of flying arms and red plastic, my friend Beth dove across the bar pulling the straw out of the drink and, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, started chewing on it. "I needed a toothpick anyway" she said, winking at me. Before I could decide whether I should sigh in relief (because I didn't have to leave the bar with any trash), or tell Beth she shouldn't rescue me like that (because really, that's totally cheating, right?); the bartender looked back at the drink, and with a confused I-could-have-sworn-I-just-put-a-straw-in-that-drink look on her face, reached for another one.

"No-no-no-no-no," I tried in a renewed frenzy, this time with Beth hollering along with me. The bartender startled as our shrill cries broke through the uniform buzz of the bar. In a swift panic she released that second straw - because apparently somebody's life depended on it - straight into the trash.

Suddenly, in an earnest attempt to save one straw, I had actually wasted two. What a bummer.

This kind of event is actually quite common. I can think of a few times in the past that I've gone to a coffee shop and handed over my own mug, only to have the barista make the drink in a paper cup, transfer it to my mug, and throw the cup away right in front of my alarmed eyes. But my favorite story has to be my mother's recent account of proudly holding up her thermos for a flight attendant, asking for some hot water. "Sure thing!" was the response from the attendant, who returned promptly with a big smile and not-one-but-two Styrofoam cups full of steaming hot water to be poured into the thermos.

Though it may be a no-brainer to us that bringing our own containers is a great (and increasingly common) way to reduce our dependence on disposables, it's not automatic for everybody. I've found it helps to drop a hint as to why I'm offering my own container, right as I hand the thing over. Even just a passing "trying to do what I can to throw less away..." goes a long way. Otherwise the server's muscle memory is likely to take over.

Think about it: the poor broke college kid who takes your order probably reaches for literally hundreds of disposable cups/straws/whatevers each day, usually at a frantic pace, glancing up to take the next customer's order as they mindlessly drop that finishing touch of plastic into your order. Either that, or they're shouting your order to somebody else, who's not likely to have seen that you brought your own mug. A deliberate comment or explanation is usually all it takes to get them to register the idea behind the gesture.

Last night I had another opportunity to order a cocktail without a straw, so I just told the bartender I had given up trash for Lent, and asked if she could please forget about the straw. Of course she said yes, and now that she had a background reason, I didn't have to worry about her busy bartender muscle memory taking over when it came time to reach for that li'l ole piece o' plastic.

By the way, if you just don't feel like explaining the whole thing to one more bartender, a local beer on tap is always a safe choice.

Tuesday, February 12

Gettin' Saucy

I decided to play by Aaron's rules and count recycling as trash. Between hygienic seals and lids, it's almost impossible to find a "recyclable" container that doesn't leave you with some form of trash anyway. The one exception to this is tin cans, but I kinda figured I could live without those, too.

It wasn't until I opened a cookbook that I realized how limiting the no-tin-can thing could be. I had already figured out meat's out of the question, and dairy products are pretty hard to find without trash also. But without tin cans, most recipes get eliminated. It's hard to find even a basic soup recipe that doesn't require either veggie stock, canned tomatoes, or beans, all of which I usually get in tin cans.

My mission for the weekend became clear: to cut out yet one more middle-person in the soil-to-consumer food chain and make my own basics from scratch - there are tons of recipes online. Veggie stock and tomatoes turned out to be surprisingly quick and easy. Beans are certainly easy, too, but they have to soak overnight before going in the pot. The biggest bonus is that all of these goodies turned out tastier than anything I could have found in a can, and filled the house with an amazing aroma.

Stay tuned for more tales of forced creativity...