Friday, June 1, 2007

A doctor's office made of paper and glass

Yesterday, I had an appointment at my doctor's office to have some trigger point injections. This is, basically, when they inject a local anesthetic into my aching muscle knots. It helps take the edge off of some of my back and hip pain for a couple of weeks, and I thought this would be a good idea prior to our upcoming summer road trip and camping adventure. I'm hoping a little lidocaine in my ass will make sitting in the car for hours and lying on the ground all night comfortable.

I tried to keep track of the amount of material my appointment used. The clinic has a pretty sophisticated computer system, and most of my file goes directly onto a computer, but I still left an impressive trail of paper, glass, and plastic.

There is a piece of paper and pen where I signed in when I arrived. Not sure of the point of this, since there is always someone at the desk to take my name and note my arrival on the computer before I'm done writing it.

I got a big and a little receipt for my copay (one the office receipt and one the card receipt--not sure using cards rather than cash to pay for things really reduces the paper trail yet).

I got a piece of paper on a clipboard to fill out a satisfaction survey, in which I was asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 such statements as, "The doctor makes me feel important," but not, for example, whether the office has done a good or bad job remembering to get correct insurance authorization prior to my monthly office visits and occasional procedures (they haven't, but I sure do feel like a queen when I leave the exam room).

Then they asked me to sign an electronic consent form for the procedure with a stylus on a computer screen.

Once in the exam room, I used a paper gown (though this was only because they had run out of cloth), the paper on the exam table, and all the materials involved in the injection, which included a big fat scary needle, some cotton for swabbing the injection sites, and a few glass bottles of medication, plus the plastic wrappers everything came in.

I got a prescription form, and I know all prescriptions at that office must be photocopied onto a full size sheet of paper for their records.

I also grabbed a paper cup of water while I was waiting to make my next appointment, then got a small card to use as a reminder of my next appointment time.

I used my car to drive across town for the appointment, and to drive to the pharmacy afterward. And the pharmacy gave me a bottle with medication inside, a small paper bag for the bottle, a piece of paper with prescription information stapled to the bag, and a receipt.

The garbage generated from this one visit probably equals the amount in the tortilla chip bag holding my kitchen garbage right now, though it smells better than molding taco night plate scraps.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Creative reuse of the day: The empty box as mask

My son is a natural born creative reuser. He found this beer box, put it on his head, and started walking carefully around the house. I suggested adding the eye holes as a safety feature, and there you have it--hours of fun.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Extreme cleaning

A recent Everest expedition by Japanese and Nepalese climbers had an atypical goal: collect the garbage and abandoned gear of past summit-seekers. The group apparently collected 1,000 pounds worth of cast-off junk on this trip, adding to the 8.8 metric tons collected on a previous series of clean-up climbs.

I'm always saddened by the volume of trash I encounter on a day at the beach or an afternoon hike, if not surprised. I've been around enough to realize that not all people are willing to carry a bottle around until they find a recycling bin, that some people aren't even willing to wait for a garbage can, and don't see a problem with tossing out their bottles, plastic bags, cans, candy wrappers, televisions, and mildewed couches wherever it is most convenient for them. And even if careless litterbugs didn't exist, stuff has a way of getting itself discarded. I've had a piece of paper or plastic pulled away from me by the wind. I've stupidly lost a pair of sunglasses to an ocean wave. I've generally tried to chase down (or dive after) my litter, but I've lost a flyaway bag or two on a day when my back hurt, or when my child was crying or running the other direction. Sometimes circumstances supercede a desire to tread lightly. Multiply my accidents by a few hundred or million and you have one massive Earth day clean-up job.

So although I hope that respect for nature is a prerequisite for a successful climb, it's not surprising that mounds of garbage would be left behind even by a few hundred responsible Everest climbers each faced with the individual challenges that accompany that impressive feat. Everest's tons of trash remind us that mere human presence always has consequences.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Products that make me sad: Designer trash bags

Check out these tastefully designed garbage bags, via Gizmodo. Sigh.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Worn Again

Interesting shoe and accessories line made from 99% creatively reused materials such as seatbelts and leather salvaged from old cars.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Our new garbage can

We've downsized our garbage can.

We were using a 5 gallon plastic container, but most of what we throw away is food that can't be composted. By the time the can is even half full the food is rotting.

So, we're using this little bathroom-sized can. Bonus feature: we can use surplus plastic bags as garbage bags, including large chip bags and other food bags that might not have another reuse because they are icky inside and hard to wash out.

I would guess we'll be using two or three bags per week. Stay tuned for photos of our ever-growing reusables collection.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Easter eggs dyes

Here's a great article suggesting ways to dye easter eggs using materials you (probably) already have around the house. A great way to use or reuse some food items creatively, and avoid buying a box of premade dyes and the packaging that goes along with them.

Mail failure

A few weeks ago, I received a magazine offer for a children's magazine. My mother-in-law ordered a magazine for my child as a gift a few months ago, and since then both she and I have received numerous offers for more magazines. As if ordering one magazine means you probably really want ten more.

At the time that I received this offer I was in the beginning stages of learning how to get off of mailing lists. I've since found that there are quick and easy ways of getting off of the automated credit card and insurance offers, and it is easy to get out of the catalogue loop (though just as easy, unfortunately, to get right back in).

However, there is not, to my knowledge, a centralized database that allows you to get off of all magazine subscription offer lists or charity lists.

On the day that I received the offer for the hip new children's magazine, I searched and searched and searched the offer for a phone number to call to get myself off of their list. No luck. So I took the return mailer and wrote, in large, bold letters, NO THANK YOU, and, TAKE ME OFF OF YOUR MAILING LIST, PLEASE!!!

Flash back to the present. Today, I received in the mail a big, shrink-wrapped collection of stuff addressed to my son. Inside was a big world map, a poster, an envelop full of activity materials, and, hidden among the flashy swag, a magazine. Oh, and also an invoice. For the magazine I asked specifically not to receive.

My guess is that the process is automated, and that when they received their offer back a machine read the bar code on the offer and entered my son's name as an acceptance of the offer. How disconcerting that not only do these offers provide no easy way to refuse and avoid future repeat offers, but even the snail mail refusal just generated more waste in my home.

The good news is that there was a phone number on the invoice, and I was able to speak to an actual person about the matter. I regret to say that I was grumpier than I meant to be toward the poor man on the other end of the line, who I assume is in no way responsible for the policies that annoy me. I achieved, after about six weeks, success of a convoluted sort. He said I could ignore the bill and that they would--drum roll, please--take me off of their mailing list.

And as a bonus, I get to keep the junk, shrink-wrap and all.

An update

The fr(ECO)logy project is in full home. I have been continuing to collect my reusable stuff. So far this year we haven't sent anything to recycling, and have had about one small garbage bag per week to set at the curb. The back of our garage is filling up with recyclables, but I'm also working hard on ways to reuse these resources.

My first job has been to tackle the paper piles, and, of course, to reduce the amount of paper coming in. I've taken steps to reduce the amount of junk mail sent to me, as that is the main source of paper in this house. Using what remains, I am making homemade paper, boxes, beads, and mosaics and collages with paper. I'll share the details of these projects soon.

I've fallen behind in the online portion of the project, so this post is just here to let anyone interested know that the project is still on, and to let you know I'll be working on keeping the blogs updated more regularly now that some of the logistical details of the project are getting ironed out.

If there is one thing I have learned so far it is that there is a lot of junk even in a home occupied by relatively eco-conscious people who don't buy a lot of stuff. There is so much emphasis on recycling that the reduce and reuse parts of the equation often don't get the respect that they deserve. Reduction is clearly the key even when you are trying to reuse useful objects. How many plastic bags can a person reuse between grocery store trips? I have one single glossy catalogue I've been using for beading making and collage projects. It is unbelievable how much can be made from this single catalogue. It would take just a few minutes to call the companies that send these things to get off of their mailing lists--I'm finding that most of these companies are more than happy to honor these requests. How much easier it is, though, to thumb through them--or not--before tossing them in the garbage or recycling piles. Before making the calls, I was getting three or four catalogues per week, but I know people who get ten or twenty every week.

At my most overwhelmed moments, I've toyed with the idea of logging all of the stuff coming in, but only keeping the portion I know I can use in the near future. But having junk accumulating in my home is a constant visual and physical reminder of the consequences of waste and overconsumption. It is incentive to creatively reduce and reuse. I will probably give myself a small break by donating some stuff to my son's preschool for art projects. Donated objects will certainly be reused at least once, and the preschool is always in need of supplies. The more donated items they receive, the less they need to buy for projects. The only negative aspect of this is that donated recyclable objects may be less likely to get recycled once they are covered with glue and glitter and paint. These items are put to good use, though, and there are many non-recyclable items, or items that can't be easily recycled, like waxed cardboard milk cartons and little bits of metal and plastic food packaging, that can have a second life before hitting the landfill.

Now back to making paper.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

The consumption of consumption

We have been sick in my house. Especially my son. We are on Day 10 of the Great fr(ECO)logy Household Illness. For Days 1-9, the poor kid spent 18 hours of each day sleeping fitfully, and the remaining 6 hours staring blankly at Mama, requesting lots of make-me-better kisses, requesting food then charmingly refusing to eat it, drinking juice and tea and water, and taking medicine. At all times, I was to be no more than one inch away. Today, some improvement: I have had as much as 20 minutes at a time without physical contact with my son, and though he is now sleeping next to me again he is doing so without needing me to hold him with at least one arm, so I am able to type. Also, he's been eating bananas.

You can imagine how very little time I've had to work on being fr(ECO)logical. I have, however, had very much time to think. And remind myself of how bad television can be.

One of the things I have been thinking about but have not had the free hands to write about is the amount of stuff that has entered my home to treat or comfort my child. We have four empty and more nearly empty bottles of medicine (not because we are overdosing the poor kid; we were just scraping the bottom of a few bottles). We have bought and consumed several gallons of orange juice--the only thing with calories my son would consume for much of the week. We have bought and consumed three six-packs of ginger ale--partly a bribe for my son at medicine time, but also for me as I began to catch the tired-of-sitting-on-the-couch bug, and then the whatever-my-son-has bug. We have bought and consumed 2 boxes of popsicles.

I'm sure we could have been more conservative. I could have foregone the ginger ale. I could have squeezed the orange juice from actual oranges. I could have made popsicles in the popsicle molds we already own. I could have done all of this with my feet, I guess, or one-handed with one of those Mrs. Incredible stretchy arms from my perch on the cuddle-with-Mama-couch. Could have, but didn't.

Another thing we did not do was get take-out, though I was tempted a couple of times. I also resisted the desire to put my son in the car to get out of the house and hit a drive-through coffee place a couple of times. Going out for a drive or to get drive-through coffee is not something I normally do, but neither is taking care of a sick child. Once upon a time I had a child who rarely got sick. Now he has spent 10 days of his young life ailing.

Regarding coffee: I left the house only once during the week, to take the kid to the doctor. On the way back, I figured I'd stop to get coffee beans, since we were already out of the house, we were out of coffee, the place was on the way home, and the kid was having a relatively fever- and delirium-free moment. Also thought I could bribe him to eat something--anything--by offering him a yummy pastry. No luck. I bought the pastry but the kid refused to eat it. Just kept trying to feed it to me. Poor guy must have really been sick.

The problem with getting coffee was I forgot the coffee bean bag I had planned to reuse. And my coffee mug. No, I didn't have to get coffee as well as beans. I could have made myself coffee with the beans when I got home. But they give you a big discount on coffee when you buy beans. And did I mention I have been chained to a couch and a sick kid who keeps asking pathetically to cuddle with Mama and opens his eyes every time I shift positions to make sure I'm not going anywhere?

So I needed the coffee. Here was the dilemma: drive the mile home to get the bag and coffee mug and then the mile back to get the coffee? Or just stop and deal with the waste? I chose to just stop and deal with the extra bag and cup. More convenient; less gas and time. I'm going to stash the extra bag in my car so I won't be faced with that part of the dilemma next time. And let me know if you think of a good use for a disposable coffee cup.

Regarding the title of this post: to call my son's ailment "consumption" is overdramatic, obviously. More likely it's the flu. And I am afraid I am about to find out that the only thing worse than being well while taking care of a very sick child is being very sick while taking care of a well child.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Friday morning garbage round-up

It's garbage day again. This week we have nothing in the recycling bins. We have one tall kitchen bag full of garbage. The garbage is mainly used tissues, plastic food wrapping, and a couple of plastic food bags. It's nice, particularly when I know a few simple changes could reduce the garbage level even more. I know I could replace the tissues with cloth, for example (though the tissues were all used by my son, who refused the soft cloth I offered him and insists on using each tissue no more than once). So that leaves plastic food wrapping, i.e., the stuff that food comes wrapped in, not the kind people sometimes buy in a box to wrap their food in. I've had trouble thinking of anything to do with most of this, and it can't be recycled. Plastic bags, of course, have the potential for reuse. I am saving most plastic bags, and throwing them out only when they are falling apart. Many are the biodegradable produce bags from my local natural grocery.

I have also been throwing away chip bags, though, and a fr(ECO)logue commenter noted that these could be reused to hold other food. Of course they could, and if I am really supposed to be saving anything I can conceivably reuse I should be keeping them. Especially those that are heavier and not slimy-greasy. I think I have not done this because I already have so many plastic bags to reuse. An overabundance of resources and not enough stuff to do with them. This means I have to get more creative. Or cheat and get more food to store in them.

Overall, though, great victories on the garbage front. Meanwhile, my paper and other reuse piles and bags collect in the laundry room and garage. I have only succeeded in minor bits of reuse so far. On Sunday I began organizing the piles a bit to try to create a more manageable system. I planned to gather some tools for reuse on Monday (to make paper and to create some things from the glass beer and soda bottles we are accumulating). Then my son got very sick and I've been basically couch-bound taking care of him. Maybe next week...

While chip bags and plastic wrap pose my main garbage dilemma, drink containers are the main reuse pile issue. I haven't tried to make paper yet, but this seems like a relatively simple solution for the paper piles. But bags of glass beer and soda bottles, and, this week, orange juice cartons are accumulating, with no obvious simple in-house solution.

Except, of course, not to buy them. I don't need chips, or beer, or soda, and I could squeeze orange juice from actual oranges if I wanted to. In fact, it is more often my husband who buys the chips and drinks. I could ask him not to. I could refuse to drink from the containers. But this is side-stepping the larger issue. Of course reduction is a great option, and every bit of reduction helps, but mine is not the only household bringing in glass or plastic drink containers and chip bags, and I am not about to convince a few million people to give up their wine and coke. And Cheetos. So the question becomes, are we doing the best we can to reduce the impact of drink and snack containers on the environment?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Reusing your vegetables

On Wednesday, I made a big batch of vegetable soup. Carrots, onions, celery, potatoes, tomatoes, and broccoli were the main ingredients, but I also used two large vegetable bouillon cubes, leading me to throw away two cube wrappers, and bringing me one third of the way to having a small bouillon cube box to reuse. A small contribution to the week's half-bag of garbage, sure, but today I've taken a step toward eliminating even that. I used the scraps and peels from the soup vegetables and a few others that were ready for the compost heap to make my own vegetable stock.

I sort of knew this was simple, but having tried it I can now officially say: Making your own stock is really easy. I just threw the scraps into a pot, covered them with water, added a few spices and salt, and simmered for about an hour and a half. I got about 12 cups of stock from this--the equivalent of a box of vegetable bouillon cubes. It's a small victory--probably an hour's worth of work to save a few dollars and the small amount of waste generated from that small box. But I am excited to be getting an extra use out of something on its way back to the earth. I'm freezing the stock tonight, and the soggy scraps are headed to the compost tomorrow. Another bonus: the boiled scraps should take up less space in the bin and take less time to break down into worm food.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Junk mail

As is clear already from my fr(ECO)logue posts, junk mail is a frequent visitor at my home. I normally receive one or two pieces of mail each day that are bills or welcomed or solicited in some way by me. The rest--sometimes two or three times as many pieces--is trying to sell me something or solicit something from me.

This is not just my personal dilemma. As this list of statistics from the Native Forest Network show, the junk mail bounty is commonplace, and its effects spill out of our home and into the landfills.

Cutting back on junk mail is possible, by calling/mailing/emailing the perpetrators, and by getting off of mailing lists. It is a time-consuming prospect; on one of the first days of this project, I spent a couple of hours calling each of the senders of eight pieces of junk mail I got that day. But I am putting off the rest of the calls not because I don't relish the hours of phone calls in my future, but because I would like to give myself a month of relatively normal mail deluge to compare with what I hope will be the post-call mail dribble.

I'm holding off also inspired in part by a fellow compacter, who is weighing her entire mail pile week by week (or maybe month by month) to compare the decrease by weight. I won't be doing this, because I don't own a scale and don't want to acquire one, and because I'd like to move the stuff I don't need into the correct piles more quickly than that. But I should get a similar effect from counting the number of letters per day.

The above link (to the Native Forest Network) also gives a few ideas on how to stop junk mail, for those interested.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Pre-ground or whole bean?

We had a small gathering at our place last night and baked bread and made dip, hummus, etc. This meant a fair amount of stuff to discard or reuse, but aside from the beer bottles actually not a horrible amount because of the amount of bulk foods and fresh produce we used to make everything except the chips from scratch.

I like making food from scratch, especially with bulk and fresh ingredients. I generally assume that homemade is better in many ways. For one, I have complete control over each of the ingredients if I make something from scratch, and can use fresh, local and organic ingredients, often more cheaply than buying a fresh, local, organic product made by someone else. One of my resolutions for the year (alongside the less drastic resolution that eventually became this project) was to try to eat and cook with single ingredient foods as much as possible, and particularly to avoid anything with more than five ingredients.

But since I am focused here on packaging, and on minimizing and reusing said packaging, I began comparing yesterday the amount and types of packaging used for prepared foods versus homemade. For example, to make hummus I bought bulk garbanzo beans (using a "biodegradable" plastic bag), a lemon, and a jar of tahini, and used some oil and spices I had around. I think this is better than buying a plastic container of hummus--besides being fresher and (I hope) tastier, a bag of bulk garbanzo beans makes a huge amount of beans, and a jar of tahini can make several batches of hummus. In fact, I see now that tahini is pretty easy to make from scratch, basically from sesame seeds, oil and spices, so that the tahini jar purchase could have been avoided. Other ingredients are in pretty miniscule amounts or from fresh produce. So I think the amount of packaging used for my own batch of hummus, when compared to a store-bought container, is at least comparable, the ingredients cheaper, and the result as good or better. Plus packaging for homemade is mainly the glass holding the oil, tahini, and spices, and glass is a material I would prefer over plastic if I am reusing.

On the basis of packaging alone, sometimes it is difficult to choose between prepared and homemade. I made two loaves of bread yesterday. Most of the ingredients were basic bulk ingredients, but one of the loaves had an entire jar of kalamata olives in it and the other had half a carton of buttermilk. Had I bought these prepared I would have brought home two paper or plastic bread bags; as it is I will have an empty buttermilk container and an empty glass jar. Here I have to remember that any food production will result in containers being discarded along the way. I guess, in general, the fewer intermediate steps the food takes on its way to my house the better.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The inaugural post

This year, when I wrote my resolutions for the year, one of the things I resolved to do was to think carefully about the items that I use, and to try to reuse things at least once rather than throwing them away or recycling them. In the days after I made this pledge, as I thought about the potential uses for things I would normally have thrown away or recycled, I quickly realized what an enormous task keeping this pledge would be. I was faced with a choice: give myself a break and water down the pledge, or really go for it. I've chosen, with some trepidation, to not only try to keep the pledge, but to push it to its limit (or, at least, to my limit).

I will be posting daily on my other fr(ECO)logy blog, fr(ECO)logue, giving the mundane details of my daily acquisitions, discards, reuses, and piles of potential reusables. This log is for transparency for those who want to see it. It is what I would otherwise be doing in my notebook. I'll be more likely to keep doing it if there is some chance of someone checking up on me.

I intend to use this blog for my thoughts and discussion of issues that come up along the way. So if you are interested in the project but don't care to know what I got in the mail or threw away today, this is the place. This blog will be personal; I'll continue to post about general news commentary, including stuff pertaining to ecology and environmentalism, along with essays about compacting, feminism, language, and anything else I feel like writing about at my main blog, the lucky achiever. I am also working on a website of some sort to centralize information about my project and all the things I learn this year about garbage, recycling, resources and resourcefulness, and creative reuse throughout the year.

I am posting this process in blogs because I hope doing so will keep me motivated, because I tend to think things through best by writing my thoughts down, and because I have a feeling at least a few people may find reading about this project as it happens interesting, thought-provoking, informative, or even inspirational. Feedback, support, and information from readers, along with comments from anyone who would like to call me a freak is welcome.