Dinner was over and I was cleaning up. It was a fairly simple dinner – ravioli, broccoli for those who would eat it, and some of that easy garlic bread – the kind that went from the freezer to the oven to the table. I rinsed the Chef Boyardee cans and set them next to the overflowing recycling area as the kids began bringing their plates and cups to the kitchen. I stood by, overseeing the disposal process, poised to direct. Glasses and silverware went into the sink for washing. Leftovers, if not sufficient to save for another meal, were scraped into the compost bucket that stood in the corner of the sink. If you did it fast enough the fruit flies were barely disturbed. The bits of broccoli trimmed before cooking have already been stored in a container in the refrigerator for later bunny snacks.
The paper plates, which we are using because the drought has dried up the well and we are on water restrictions – limited dishwashing, no clothes washing, and very little personal washing – had to be assessed. If they were the sturdy coated plates that wouldn’t decompose easily they were sent to the trash, if they were the flimsy plain paper plates, so thin that you really needed two of them to keep your food from soaking through and creating another dilemma – ought you clean up the resulting mess with an expensive ecologically unfriendly paper towel, or with a cloth towel which would require laundering – could be added to the compost bucket. And if you were lucky and your food had not soaked through then the 2nd paper plate could be placed back into the cupboard to become the first paper plate of the next meal.
The empty plastic milk jug posed another problem – recycle or reuse? In most households you could pat yourself on the back for your recycling efforts; yeah you – saving the landfill from one more plastic jug! But here recycling takes 2nd place to reuse. Anything that can be reused is reused. No need for Tupperware – that’s what old sour cream and margarine containers are for. And that pickle jar – its perfect for a collection of tacks or screws, or marbles. (I’ve been thinking about snagging one for all the marbles I’m losing.) Even things so easily recycled – such as cardboard – are better reused if possible. We’ve been collapsing all of our packing boxes and setting them aside. We will use them for mulching our vegetable garden – that along with a generous amount of compost and rabbit poop will get us off to a good start next spring. So – can we use the milk jug for something else? Sure, filling with drinking water for the inevitable next power outage, or I could cut off the top and use the bottom for planting indoor herbs. So, set it aside.
The saucepans are washed and drying in the dish drainer along with the glasses and silverware and the counter has been wiped down. I spot the bag the garlic bread came in and ponder its fate. I will fold it up into a small thing and tuck it inside the fire-starter bag. It needs to be small because the fire-starter bag is full. There’s a county-wide burn ban on due to the drought and with the heat wave there isn’t any reason for a fire anyway. But come winter those small bits of cast off paper will come in handy to light the woodstove, the source of heat, if not, as I’ve been told, for the entire house, for at least the areas immediately adjacent to the stove.
I feel a small amount of pride – another meal prepared and very little has been added to the trash container. This is good, not just because the landfills are spared unnecessary material, but also because there’s no trash pickup (or recycling pickup) around here. Everything that goes out of the house has to be hauled out by the residents.
The compost is an easy walk a short distance into the woods (providing you don’t wander off the path into the poison ivy) where the bucket (and rabbit poop) is dumped. Some of the material composts – some feeds woodland creatures. The reusable stuff is stored wherever there is room – and at some point there isn’t a lot of room and you begin to wonder whether you’ll ever come up with enough projects to reuse it all but the possibility of doing so, combined with the guilt at passing by something that could be used is enough to keep the piles growing. The trash is bagged and, when it reaches a critical level, hauled to the trash disposal company which charges $2 a bag (any bag up to 33 gallons in size so it behooves one to use the largest trash bag and to encourage your children to stand on it to compress the trash within). They also take the recycling (but unlike in the city, they won’t pay you to take it).
Sorting through things on this scale makes us confront just how much packaging trash we bring home from each shopping trip. Take for instance that six pack of top ramen soup with an overwrap and six individual wrappers and six little flavor packets – none of which are reusable, recyclable or compostable – wouldn’t it be better to buy a large package of pasta? You develop a shopping mindset that goes beyond “paper or plastic.”
It’s complicated living this simple life!