Our theme for the month of July is “stunt journalism.” Writers were asked to try something new, take on a challenge, or perform some other interesting feat strictly for the purpose of writing about it.

This is Geneva’s last post with us, so a special thanks and a warm goodbye goes out to her today. Geneva has been writing with us since the very beginning in July 2013.

Trash. Waste. Garbage. Refuse. Junk. Rubbish. Detritus. Municipal solid waste, if you want to get all technical about it. Whichever moniker you choose, tomorrow’s archaeologists will know us by the masses of this unwanted material that accumulate around the edges of modern life.

I don’t want those archaeologists to know me very well.

Thanks to my conscientious parents and an adulthood spent embedded in various eco-savvy circles at Calvin and the University of Michigan, the mantra to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is practically tattooed on my bones. I proudly present my hippie card along with a reusable mug at coffee shops. Walnuts and oats travel from grocery store bulk bins to my glass storage jars in cotton drawstring bags. I’ve been known to dabble in guerilla composting. I darn my socks, refill my water bottle, and get most of my veggies from a local CSA farm. There’s even a pack of bamboo utensils and a washable glass straw nestled next to the reusable Chico bag in my purse.

Even so, a steady stream of waste slips through my fingers (and into the appropriate bin). It’s okay, I try to convince myself as I shake a half-full bag of liquefying spinach into my curbside municipal compost container. Sure, you ate another plastic tray of frozen Thai noodles from Trader Joe’s for lunch instead of using up this spinach in a healthy salad. But the spinach isn’t really getting wasted if you compost it. Right?

According to U.S. EPA statistics, the average American is responsible for 4.4 pounds of garbage every day. About 1.5 pounds of it wind up in the recycling bin or compost heap, which are certainly better destinations than the landfill (though even that perspective is fraught with its own set of conundrums. But that’s a post for another day). What about me? After I’ve weeded out the plastic grocery bags and single-use cutlery, just how free-flowing is my waste stream? I decided to use this month’s blogging challenge to find out.

Day 1: Monday

Some ground rules: I’ve committed to collecting every piece of trashable, recyclable, or compostable waste I generate for a full week. Toilet paper gets a free pass, because, duh. Rather than create a festering garbage pile in the corner of my apartment, I’ll nab a photo of each day’s spoils, then properly dispose of everything.


So far, so good. I’ve read that plastic films (like the one that topped my lunchtime tray of frozen Trader Joe’s tikka masala) aren’t usually recyclable at conventional facilities and often end up clogging machinery and generally ruining the lives of the humans that work there. So I default to trashing them. (Don’t worry, I won’t compost the Ziploc bag—I just don’t want to be picking red pepper seeds out of the floorboards for the next week.)

 

Day 2: Tuesday

Paper towels. I completely forgot about paper towels. I keep unconsciously pitching them in the trashcan at work, then backtracking to pull them out. I start feeling guilty about using so many of these bleached white sheets (hey, I drink a bucketful of tea at work, so I make plentiful trips down the hall). There’s nothing like stuffing two soggy paper towels into your pockets to convince you that maybe just one is enough. I get used to leaving the bathroom with slightly damp hands.

The brown paper nest and heap of deflated plastic air pockets come from a box of discounted eco-friendly cleaning supplies I’d found online. Today’s trash stash also includes an ungodly amount of junk mail.

Day 3: Wednesday

Dinner with friends generates some unlined cardboard takeout containers. I cross my fingers and mush them for the compost bin. A third day of collecting sodden paper towels begins to take its psychological toll. I cross my fingers again and drop them on top of the takeout containers.

In hindsight, I realize that not all recycling facilities can process plastic-lined cardboard packaging like my coconut milk carton. Oops.

Day 4: Thursday

Tonight marks the start of a weeklong house-sitting gig for a friend in Ypsilanti. When I stay at her place, I typically commute into Ann Arbor for work, park at my apartment, come home from the office to make dinner, then head back to Ypsilanti to keep her two kitties company for the night. I decide not to claim any subsequent cat fur, kitty litter clumps, or hairball-filled paper towels for my trash stash.

Day 5: Friday

For lunch, I splurge on a sandwich and ginger tea from a Vietnamese deli counter near work. The tea comes in compostable corn-based plastic cups, so only the paper sandwich wrapper and some Post-It notes end up in the recycling pile.

I have no idea what I ate for dinner.

Day 6: Saturday


Potluck lunch at the park today! I took the “Sorry, can’t cook—I’m house-sitting in an unfamiliar kitchen” excuse and brought lemonade from Trader Joe’s (see: receipt in recycling pile).

Day 7: Sunday


It’s a double-pasta day. I also had the new experience of trying to smuggle a wet paper towel out of the church bathroom without arousing suspicion. I’m fairly sure the mission was a success.

Results

When archaeologists of the future study me, they’ll find a heap of grocery store receipts, gum wrappers, tea bags, plastic packaging, junk mail, and oh, so many paper towels. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the proportion of my junk destined for the compost pile and recycling bin.

As I write this, I’m sipping a mug of floral tea from a coffee shop near my house. The tea comes in a ceramic mug, but the tea bag is conspicuously absent. When I get up for a refill, I consider asking the barista to leave the bag in so I can take it home for composting. But I don’t. I’m not quite there yet.

Geneva Langeland
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.

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