Monday, December 17, 2012

Loving Embarrassment

This is a post I wrote for my One Hundred Steps to Zero Waste series. The articles are designed to help people learn how to make as little  garbage as possible, so they show my abilities to introduce and cover new topics.

Step Twelve: Learn to Love Embarrassment

Going zero waste can be embarrassing. I wish it wasn't so, but this is the truth. It takes courage to ask for your chow mein in a container you brought from home, to ask the clerk at the store to un-bag all your purchases because you brought your own, and to explain to your Aunt why you really don't want her plastic-wrapped make-up samples. Zero waste just isn't how our society operates. There are a lot of people working hard to change that, but for the time being we often find ourselves in potentially embarrassing situations.

One exercise therapists give their clients with anxiety is called Rational Emotive Imagery, or embarrassment-attacking exercises. These can be quite effective in eliminating shame as a knee-jerk reaction. Picture a time when you were embarrassed. Say the day you had to explain to the check-out girl what a tare is and why you don't use those little plastic produce bags when you buy from bulk bins. Really put yourself in the same mindset you were in at that moment in time. The lady is nice, but anxious for her shift to finish, the customers in line behind you are getting fidgety, and anyone you brought with you on this shopping trip is surely thinking about what a weirdo you are for refusing to make even the tiny amount of garbage a produce bag would have resulted in. Are your hands sweaty, your cheeks flushed, and can you feel a bout of stammering coming on? Good, because this is where your present self can step in and start to amend your view of the situation. Change your emotion from shame to something else, like anger that taring isn't a standard part of super-market training anymore, or frustration that we've built such a hugely unsustainable system, or annoyance that more people aren't waste-free already.

Do you feel better? Certainly no one likes to feel angry or frustrated, but it's a big improvement over feeling embarrassed or ashamed. This annoyance can be channeled into a more productive activity, like speaking with the store manager, writing a well-phrased letter, or finding a better solution to your problem.

When you're guilty and ashamed it's hard to think about anything other than what a bad person you are, and how you need to be better. Those feelings aren't helpful, even if they're what reminds you to bring in your reusable bags. Going waste-free should be a mostly positive experience; something you do out of love and desire to improve (be it yourself, your finances, or the world), not self-loathing and obligation. There will be problems and frustrations along the way, and that's okay. The point with this step is to deal with those bumps in the road, rather than cancel your journey altogether.

When you're frustrated or angry, you're turning your feelings out onto the world.  This does NOT mean you can yell at the cashier, lecture rude bystanders, or push your personal relationships to the brink with your insistence on zero waste. Instead, make a clear complaint to the store, offer the simple explanation of "I don't have a trash can", and surprise your loved ones with a zero waste meal. By being annoyed, we're trying to test the limits of the system so we know where to focus our action; by being ashamed, we're only testing our own limits of endurance and increasing the likelihood that we'll just give up.

So next time you feel yourself becoming sheepish over refusing that free bottle of water or asking the deli to fill a container brought from home, take a moment to focus on turning your feelings from shame to frustration, and then figure out the most positive thing you can do with that frustration. Often, being frustrated means you've found a real-life puzzle to solve. Those can be tricky, but not impossible. And by ditching embarrassment, you've left the problem of other people's judgments right where they belong, in their plastic shopping bags.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Here's what I look like, if I had leaves for hair, for those of you who wonder.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Biological versus Technical Nutrients

I just read Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, and found one concept in their book particularly interesting. The book primarily addresses how products, buildings, and systems can be designed to be beneficial for the earth, the population, and the economy, rather than harmful or just "less bad". Their concept of technical vs. biological nutrients is incredibly relevant.

Ideally, in the human world we would treat our resources like the natural world, where everything cycles through different systems; the waste of one system is food for another. This isn't the case with our systems, even when one considers the growing recycling industry, but we could easily make it so by viewing all materials as either technical or biological nutrients. Biological nutrients are things that are compostable and can be fed back into the natural world as a nutritious, safe resource for plants and animals. Technical nutrients are things that can be fed back into the industrial system endlessly to be reused to make new products.

Currently our recycling system is flawed, as much of what we recycle is actually "down-cycled" into products of lesser quality which then can only be made into even shoddier products. The adding of dyes, paints, or solvents to a material contaminates it when it comes to future use, and weakens it in such a way that it can't be used again for the same quality of product. So if you have a green soda bottle, that plastic is still recyclable, but only as a different, oftentimes lower quality product (like a plastic shopping bag), or a product that cannot be recycled after its use (like a plastic park bench).

There are exceptions to this, but system-wide we don't have a good method for recycling materials into products of equal quality and value. Even materials which should be easy to recycle, like metal, are often contaminated because of current recycling methods. For example, aluminum soda cans are often lined in plastic, and cars are crushed into a large block of material, rather than being disassembled to retrieve their copper, steel, and other resources.

While our recycling systems, local and national, are in desperate need of revision and renovation, we can separate and recycle our biological nutrients from (what should be) our technical nutrients.

As it stands now, unless you participate in some sort of recycling program, technical nutrients and biological nutrients are mixed together in your trash, then buried in the ground at a landfill where they are sealed off from soil and air. What this means is that even the biodegradable waste like banana peels and newspapers won't break down because the right aerobic (or air-loving) bacteria won't grow in this environment, and so there's nothing to facilitate the composting, or rotting, process. I wish every city had a composting program and was vigilant about separating out its waste, but this just isn't the case.

If the city won't do it, it's up to the citizens to make it happen. By all means write letters to your mayor, attend city council meetings, and make phone calls to your city's waste management department, but in the mean time, take matters into your own hands and start composting. Puteverything you can into your home compost bin. If you know of neighbors or apartment dwellers who are unable to compost, offer your bin to them as well, it will only enrich your compost and make for a more beautiful world.

I think the idea of technical and biological nutrients is brilliant, and I intend to explore it further. But in the mean time, I know exactly what to do with all my biological nutrients to make sure they are returned safely and responsibly to the earth.

Bill's Close Shave

My friend Nolan was required by his Nursing Program to make a video of himself shaving a patient. He decided to shave his brother while wearing a mask and playing a character his family has come to know as "Bill". His mother and sister did the camera work, while a friend and his other brothers watched, and occasionally participated. What resulted was a thirty minute shot of shaky footage, bad sound, and brotherly hi-jinks. This would not do for Nolan's class, so he asked me to edit it down to something usable, and this is the result. I know it doesn't look like much, but this after is light-years better than the before, and where I feel my editing skills have best turned unwatchable footage into something that can be enjoyed.

Suitors at Seventeen

Every year I make birthday videos as gifts for my sisters. They get to pick a theme and some elements they'd like in the film, and I write, direct, shoot, and edit it. For my sister's seventeenth birthday party, she chose a Jane Austen theme, so I made this movie from found footage, a few Jane Austen film clips, and video I took of her actual party.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Composting: The Basics

As I've firmly stated many times before, I truly believe that composting will save the world. If everybody composted, either in their backyard or through a municipal program, we could cut our waste by at least a third, and possibly by one half. Composting is the ultimate form of recycling, as it takes your waste and turns it into a rich food for the earth through an all-natural process that has no harmful effects or toxic by-products. I understand that composting can seem time-consuming and difficult at first, but as long as you have a diverse, well-aerated pile, you'll have no trouble at all.

To compost you just need a pile of organic material, but it’s easiest to put this in some sort of bin or container. Examples of compost bins are in the resources section at the end of the article. Once you have a bin set up, either indoors or outdoors, contribute all biological material to it. This includes kitchen scraps, hair and nail trimmings, yard waste like grass clippings and leaves, the contents of your vacuum cleaner, pizza boxes, and any wool or cotton cloth that’s been worn out.

Never layer more than six inches of one kind of material into the bin, otherwise the bacteria that break everything down won’t have a diverse enough food source and the pile will start to stink. Properly done, compost never smells of anything more than the forest floor. Shovel the pile around once a month so that the stuff on the top is now on the bottom and vice versa. This ensures that the bacteria have plenty of air. Without it, aerobic (air-loving) bacteria move out and anaerobic (non-air-loving) bacteria move in. This is bad, because anaerobic bacteria are the ones that stink.

After six to eight months, you should be seeing a rich, dark material that looks like the mulch or compost you see in all those Better Homes and Gardens pictures. This is finished compost, and is the best thing your garden or yard could ever get. Spread it around in your vegetable beds, flower gardens, and even in a thin layer over your lawn. You can fork it in if you like, but the worms in the soil will go mad for it and dig it in for you if you’re willing to wait a week or so.

Compost returns important nutrients to the soil, helps keep moisture locked in, and encourages all sorts of good bacteria, fungi, worms, and insects to move into your soil and start working for your benefit. After composting for years, I can’t imagine doing anything else with my biological waste, and wouldn’t want to.

The current contents of my composting bin.