“Trash is America’s number one export.”
I recently had the pleasure of reading Year of No Garbage by Eve O. Schaub. The book is a great source of well-researched information regarding the huge problems surrounding our waste crisis. I found myself laughing out loud at the many humorous and relatable stories, which help make very real topics like plastic pollution feel more approachable. Especially when those topics can be so complex and depressing!
“Our garbage is everywhere, all around us, in our very bodies, and we don’t even realize it. Microplastics have been found in humans’ blood, lungs, the placenta of unborn children, and, most recently, breast milk.”
Garbage is a Problem For Everyone
Garbage doesn’t go away, it just goes somewhere else.
Even the most extreme environmentalists and zero-wasters have found objects for which there is no way to upcycle, recycle, or reuse. Nobody knows what to do with them, so they must go in the garbage. Many environmentalists often don’t talk about these types of items, but Schaub puts those stories front and center.
For example, in Year of No Garbage, she included a hilarious story about a Styrofoam-filled beanbag that her cats had peed on. There was no saving or repurposing it so she had to trash it. Her husband thought her blog readers would ‘crucify’ her for having something like this that was dumpster-bound. But she thought this was the point entirely! “I mean, I have to talk about this, right? This is what the whole thing is about. I mean: look at this. Things like this should not exist.”
The stuff – meaning the plastics and Styrofoams and disposables – pervades every part of our lives. It is almost impossible to not come in contact with them constantly. In fact, Shaub tried just going a single day without touching plastic and found it nearly impossible. That is, she had to avoid the toilet, the soap dispenser, her cell phone, pen, computer, yoga mat, light switches, etc. “I couldn’t drive anywhere, because cars are 50 percent plastic. This was probably just as well, because I also couldn’t wear my glasses.” Even books and magazines often have a plastic coating on the covers. On her blog, she commented:
“I still hate plastic and everything it is doing to us, but this impossible day gave me a newfound understanding of what we are really up against. Who knew that in only a few short decades our society could have so thoroughly encased ourselves in mysterious plastic chemicals, to the point that doing without them immobilizes us? Recently I had happened upon an article in the New York Times, ‘Life Without Plastic Is Possible. It’s Just Very Hard.’ I beg to differ—and I speak from experience.”1
One way the author attempted to reduce her family’s garbage was to recycle everything she could. But this wasn’t easy as just throwing it in a blue bin. One of the chapter titles, “I Become the Sherlock Holmes of Recycling . . . or at Least Watson,” referred to the vast amounts of research it took to recycle many items. “There are so many things about recycling that we just don’t know, that prevent us from doing it correctly and efficiently, and I was pretty much spending every waking moment trying to figure them all out.”
Plastic’s rate of recycling used to be just 9%, but has fallen even lower to between 5 and 6 percent. And that’s typically only plastics with a resin code of 1 or 2. The rest is often shipped off to other countries, where they often do not have the infrastructure to deal with these plastics. “No matter what your garbage service provider is telling you, numbers 3, 4, 6, and 7 are not getting recycled.”
Schaub noted that recycling programs are flawed and often don’t work. That includes everything from single-stream/curbside to extreme recycling programs like TerraCycle. “But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. What I am giving up on is the myth of personal responsibility…it took me an entire year of looking and asking and researching to finally accept what so many have long suspected…Plastic recycling does not work. Extreme ‘recycling’ programs are not trustworthy.” She wrote that legislation (with enforcement) regarding plastics, chemicals, and waste will be what makes the most difference. That is how we can get corporations to make better products and packaging, as well as use less toxic ingredients.
“Before the Year of No Garbage, did I love that I could buy a package of lovely, sealed, organic ground beef at the supermarket that would keep good for much, much longer than other, mere mortal organic ground beef? Of course—it’s convenient and efficient. It reduces food waste and saves money. Longer shelf life probably even made my supermarket more likely to carry organic meat in the first place. But where Intergalactic Space Plastic reduces waste of food, it creates waste of something arguably even worse: permanent, forever garbage. At least wasted food, if composted, can degrade back into the environment.”
There are so many things that most of us absent-mindedly throw away because we don’t know what else to do with them. This book teaches us to think about trash differently – whether we recycle, give items a second life, or avoid buying certain items in the first place.
Schaub’s family was able to greatly reduce their garbage, mostly by paying closer attention to what they bought. They made incremental changes, such as “eliminating paper towels, instituting a burn pile for small and unrecyclable paper, collecting wine corks and plastic caps to donate for school craft projects, composting all food scraps (not just some),” collecting plastic film for the bin at the supermarket, washing and recycling their aluminum foil, and avoiding the purchase of disposable items as much as possible.
Schaub recommended not using garbage bags. “Garbage bags are black holes, I realized. They encourage things to be thrown in them, things we’d rather not think about or deal with. Not having a bag in the bin means no messy organic material (which should really all be going into the compost anyway) but it also means, when I empty it, that’s one more time I think about my garbage and what it is composed of.” She uses pet food bags to bring trash to the dump.
“Instead of that ninety-six-gallon trash bin we used to fill each and every week, today we fill one-half of a kitchen-sized garbage bag every week, always composed pretty much entirely of single-use plastic food packaging that I couldn’t figure out how to avoid. We have gone from 96 gallons of trash per week to 9.”
Zero Waste Is Extremely Difficult
“There’s a lot of stuff out there masquerading as useful and sustainable, when it’s really just more stuff…As the Zero Wasters like to say, the most environmental purchase is the one you didn’t make.”
It is very difficult to go completely zero waste in our modern society. “Zero waste is a lovely idea,” Schaub wrote. But “the number of people who are both willing and able to genuinely go full bore zero waste under our existing system is so small as to be statistically insignificant. Which means, effectively, that even though it is technically possible, it is not realistic. And it’s not going to fix anything.” Fossil fuel companies are the biggest drivers of emissions and plastics production. They don’t have any plans to put themselves out of business.
But we have to keep trying.
“I’m not suggesting that just because personal responsibility will not solve the problems of garbage and plastic and climate change, we should all just throw in the towel. Forget it! Hand me that plastic straw! Turtles be damned! No. What I’m saying is that personal behavior changes are never going to be enough all on their own, because the forces at work are so enormous.”
Schaub wrote that being intentional is key to making any great change, whether it is at home or through legislation. We can all do better if we know better. We can all become more intentional in our lives. This is one of the greatest lessons we can learn from minimalism even if we are not minimalists. She wrote:
“If the unexamined life isn’t worth living, it follows that living mindfully gives us purpose. I hope my kids will live life with a sense of curiosity about the world and our place in it. I hope that if something doesn’t seem right, they’ll know that blind acceptance is not their only option; that even if one person might not be able to solve the problems of the environment, global warming, racial and environmental injustice, we can start the conversation, change minds, reveal a wrong, by the simple act of slowing down and taking a closer look.”
Read the Year of No Garbage!
I highly recommend reading this book! It’s fun, interesting, and full of well-researched information and first-hand experiences. A Year of No Garbage resonated so much with me because I have run into many of the same roadblocks and situations with plastics and garbage. I have struggled with replacing my plastic shower curtain with non-plastic. It was difficult to find alternatives to take-out containers made from Styrofoam (polystyrene) because of their toxicity. I also stopped paying for garbage bags and now just reuse dog food bags or I upcycled my own from shipping envelopes.
Understanding some of the problems surrounding waste in our society is the key to being able to change it. Schaub wrote, “As I’d learned with our other two projects, even when you are supposedly ‘done,’ you are not done at all. In fact, in some ways, that is when the hardest work begins. After all, the whole point of the crazy year-long project is to change how we do things so dramatically that it changes us.”
I had the opportunity to interview Eve O. Schaub, and I look forward to sharing that with you in my next article! In the meantime, you can check out her blog. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!
All quotes from this article are from Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, by Eve O. Schaub, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2023, unless otherwise cited.