Jun. 12th, 2010

So, about that oil spill.

Don't worry, this isn't going to be a rant about BP, the EPA, or anything else so grandiose. To be honest, I'm trying not to think about it too much, because it's so easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless, not just about the spill, but about less publicized issues like the damage being done to countries like Nigeria, which remain impoverished and polluted despite their oil production (thanks to [livejournal.com profile] faerieboots for the link-- the comments to which, for once, actually add to the article by illustrating some of the complexities of the problem).

But of course, I'm bad at not thinking about things, and so I have. One opinion that I've seen cropping up here and there, but not getting nearly enough attention, IMO, is that this is a lot bigger than BP being too cheap to properly test and secure their oil rigs. Ranting about how evil BP is, even if that's true, is a cop-out because it avoids asking questions that are harder, but more important. Why were they there in the first place? Why the reckless pursuit of this one commodity at all costs? Why does the issue of drilling in ANWR keep coming up? Because they are satisfying demand. Our demand. The demand implicit in our way of life. Maybe what we're seeing here is proof that that way of life is not sustainable, and as demand grows, the companies in the business of (literally) fuelling our lifestyles get more and more desperate to meet those implicit demands. We rant and rave when BP et al screw up, but people would also rant and rave if production went down, causing prices to go up. In short: the system is broken.

So, ok. I'm not pretending to be the first person to make these observations, though I do think they deserve a signal boost. I do, however, think I have a relatively novel proposal for what regular folks can do about it. And by "novel" I mean not related to how fuel efficient one's car is or how often one drives it, though of course I'm all for less driving and more fuel efficiency. No, instead I'd like to talk about packaging.

Try doing an experiment: For a day, a week, or for however long you can stand it, when you open a "disposable" container, wrapper, or any other plastic product you would normally discard, don't. Keep a bag with you and put it in the bag. It's shocking how quickly the stuff piles up. Also kind of gross, but then that's sort of the point. For one thing, of course, this stuff doesn't just disappear. It goes into a landfill where it will stay, out of sight and out of mind for a gazillion years if we're lucky, which we're not, but that's a whole other environmental issue. More relevant to my point than where it goes is where it comes from. Plastic products are derived from petroleum just like like gas. All those wrappers? All that "disposable" stuff? It's part of the problem, too.

So all the attention that the spill has been getting has given me the impetus to kick a personal project I've been doing in bits and pieces for the last year or so into high-gear. I am making a personal goal this year to reduce the amount of waste (recycleables included) that I produce. I'm not a chemist and I haven't done the math, but I'm guessing all that stuff adds up and, in addition to walking and biking more often, maybe I can make my own small bit of difference. Maybe I can set some more sustainable expectations with my lifestyle and still enjoy it as well. I'm finding that when one considers that maybe the things one is "giving up" are things to which one was never entitled in the first place, it's not that hard.

Here are some of the things I'm doing, and which I'd like to challenge others to do, too. Post your own suggestions!


  • No "disposable" water bottles. This is one I've been doing for years. Cheapo rubbermaid bottle + one backpack with side pockets = no need. More water, less expense and less waste. Win. Plus my backpack has a second pocket for my re-usable tea cup :)

  • No "disposable" utensils. Went to the sporting goods store and bought a set of camping utensils. They live in my backpack alongside the water bottle. Any time I'm at a restaurant that uses disposable utensils, I'll use mine instead. A quick trip to the bathroom afterward to rinse them off and they're good as new.

  • Fewer "disposable" dishes. These are tougher to carry with me, but for example, whenever I'm in the office for work, I have a salad for lunch at the cafeteria. About a year ago the number of "disposable" salad bowls this amounted to started to get to me, so I went to the local market and got my own bowl, which now lives at my desk. The people who run the caf were even kind enough to weigh it for me and deduct the appropriate amount from the cost of my salads.

    Another easy one is eating in at restaurants more often than I do takeout or delivery

  • Fewer "disposable" wrappers and containers. This one would be dauntingly hard to fully eliminate, but I want to at least raise the bar for the circumstances under which I use them. Another example from the salad bar: they provide almost all of their dressings in those little Newman's Own packets, so I've switched to using oil and vinnegar for dressing, which they provide in re-fillable glass containers. It helps that oil and vinnegar turns out to be a lot tastier than I'd given it credit for, and I get to use exactly as much or as little as I want.

  • More bulk foods. I really wish more stores had those bulk bins where you take as much as you want, and use a simple bag, or ideally your own container for it (yes, [livejournal.com profile] sandrylene, I know Whole Foods does ;). Hell, there are so many products that could be sold that way (in fact, I can think of very few products that couldn't), but that aren't, even by the places that sell granola, et al in bulk. Looking at all the tiny little plastic bags and boxes we buy things in at the market, only to toss them a few days or weeks later, is starting to really bug me.

  • Fewer plastic bags. Yes they can be re-used, but if you're anything like me, the darn things reached critical mass a long time ago. I've bought the re-usables that pretty much every store has nowadays, but I keep forgetting them. Two things have really saved me on this front:
    First, not using a bag if I don't need it. It has really started to bug me when I buy a single chapstick and the grocer immediately goes to put it in a plastic bag, so "no bag, please" has become almost automatic for any small trip. Even if I have to stuff some pockets, I can get things to and from my car without needing yet another bag.

    The other thing was given to me as a stocking stuffer by my parents, and I don't think they even know that it's the single most useful present I've gotten in years. Whole foods makes these collapsible bags, which fold up into tiny little duffels about the size of two rolls of quarters. I keep two in my backpack and voila: any time I have my backpack, I also have everything I need for even a largeish trip to the store.

  • Make more food from bulk ingredients. This is one I'm not great at now, but I have some ideas. For example, I recently developed a taste for fruit salads, and had been getting them from the grocery store in these flimsy little plastic containers, which weren't even good enough quality to re-use. So this most recent time, instead of getting the pre-made stuff, I got plain-old-fruit and made my own. Portions are a problem, since that makes a lot and it goes bad quickly, but that's where housemates come in handy. :) I'm having similar thoughts about the canned soups that serve as one of my staples. I just need to find a recipe for reasonably healthy, vegetarian soup that is simple enough I won't be too lazy to bother. That last bit is, of course, the really tough part. ;)


  • ...so yeah, you get the idea. I'm sure there's more, and I want to keep adding to my (re-usable) bag of tricks, hence the invitation to share other ideas. I still fall down at this a lot, and I expect that'll continue, so don't think me a complete hypocrite if you ever see me with a take-away container in hand, but every little bit helps... I hope. I also might look a bit silly at first (I have seriously gotten the funniest looks when I've said that I don't want a bag for my shampoo, for some reason), but if enough others do the same, that will change. So, what do y'all think?

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