Saturday, May 1, 2010

A month in, and a continuing social experiment

It has been a month and a day since I've started this project, and here is the trash that I've generated...

...and here are the inevitable receipts (including a sugar mishap and a doily from Atlas in Detroit)...

That's it! Barely anything. Inevitables: cap from milk jar, stickers off of fruits, and receipts.

But here is a question. Is it possible to completely eliminate generating trash without becoming a social recluse? Or put another way, is trash generation (almost) a certain in social interactions? This is why I ask: I was over at my friend Kaylie's last night, celebrating her graduation with her family. We were all having a great time, when one of Kaylie's roommates brought out sparklers. She passed a few to Kaylie's brother, who was sitting next to me. He turns to me, and offers me one. I said, "No thanks, you go ahead." He replies, "No, come on, you have to have one," and he just hands me the sparkler. Now, this happened very quickly, and I basically didn't have the time to say, "Sorry, this would count as trash, and I'm living trash-free for a year." I lit the sparkler (in top picture, the thin rod-like thing on the top right), and was instantly transported back to India (Diwali celebrations).

I talked to Melissa today, who being a sociologist, is totally fascinated by how what I'm doing constitutes a quite interesting social experiment. The basic contention is this: Trash is inevitable in social interactions. I would say: Trash is (mostly) inevitable in current social interactions, under current social constructs. I will try to elaborate on this in future posts - I still need to think about it...

A clarification on my post from yesterday. Progress defined as moving towards freedom of the powerless to protect themselves from being hurt by the punches of the powerful is not the kind of progress I was talking about in yesterday's blog. This "progress," I view, as essential.

Poonam, a new board member of the Student Sustainability Initiative at the University of Michigan (congratulations!) has recommended I make a "how to" list of trash generation reduction. As she mentioned, the first thing is being aware of its existence, and accepting that it is a problem. Here's a list, in no particular order, of some of my thought processes, and "how tos"...

1) Think of what is embodied in what you buy. For example, plastic in the form of hydrocarbons/fossil fuels has existed for millions of years, and choosing to consume it within two minutes and throwing it away is not wise.
2) Think about easy cuts. You really don't need paper towels - carry about a piece of cloth in your pocket or purse if you don't want to wipe your hands on your pants (in the end, it's just water, though), or you need something to wipe you hands/mouth while eating. Ask for the waiter/waitress to bring you a fork and knife without being wrapped in a napkin.
3) Buy things in bulk. I did mention this previously, and this may be hard for people living in an area where bulk goods may not be available, but we already have all of the packaging we need to store what we want to buy. Say to yourself - I'm not going to acquire another piece of packaging, and I'm going to use and reuse and reuse and reuse what I have. The People's Food Co-op and the Farmer's Market are wonderful for allowing you this flexibility.
4) What do you really need? Bea has articulated this wonderfully in her blog. Simplify, simplify, simplify. This will save you money, too.
5) Carry around a folded-up bag with you wherever you go. This can fit in your pocket or purse.
6) The hardest thing may be being open about what you are doing, and being confident that it is the right thing to do. You will have to explain yourself sometimes. People may think you are crazy, but they may become more aware of the issue. Many will want to see someone else struggle with the challenges of social acceptance of a movement, and then once it is commonplace, they will cheerily join the movement. That's fine.
7) Try to avoid buying new things. You can get away most times with buying something used. You are doing two things - reducing demand for new things, and reducing the costs and wastes associated with new things.
8) Refuse.


  1. Because trash is inevitable in social interactions, someone trying to reduce trash use and inspire others to do the same should be compelled to interact with others, not withdraw - though maybe grace and wisdom are necessary in certain situations! At a party on Saturday, my co-worker casually and politely handed me back one of the plastic forks when I served her and her twin girls some birthday cake. Therefore, even those who don't go to such an extreme might make a quiet impact, though I'm not sure other cake-servers who weren't already exposed to such a project would have recognized her action.

  2. ...and just to keep you honest, I need to point out that - at least as far as I know - you need to add a paper plate, plastic cup, and paper napkin to your picture.

  3. There should be a single useful word to label your net-zero goal that you could use in the way people use the word "vegan". Then practitioners of this lifestyle could succinctly state- without lengthy explaination, "No thanks, I'm living net-zero." Or, "I'm a minimalist." or "I'm zeroing" "I'm micromizing" "I'm living without leaving a trace" or "leaving only footprints" or "walking on ricepaper like Kwai Chang Caine"

    Great so far! Recycle the paper items and the iron core of the sparkler. Compost those fruit stickers and the napkin too.