Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The World Is Not Your Trashcan
Look closely at the photo above. Yes, that really is a dirty diaper laying on the line between the minivans in a parking lot. Gross, no doubt, but the symptom of a much bigger problem.

First of all, this is at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis--a place where thousands of parents bring their children each day. A large number of these children wear diapers. A place where there are trashcans all around for rubbish such as this to be deposited in a sanitary manner. Not to mention, this diaper belonged to a child who was taught today by their parent or caregiver that if you don't feel like throwing away your trash where it belongs, just anywhere is fine. But again, this is simply a symptom of a much greater problem.

As a society, we're really numb to the effects of our trash. As I drive through my neighborhood on trash day each week, I imagine the lives that my neighbors live. Clearly our lifestyle is not the norm. When I see 5 trash cans regularly on some curbs or 7 big black bags stacked up on another, my mind wonders how one household can regularly produce this much trash. Our family still has a long way to go to reach my goal of less than 1 kitchen-size bag/week, but our 2-3 kitchen bags/week seems excessive to me. I try to think of how the six of us could regularly fill 5 trashcans and am lost.

Now, while it's hardly an excuse, because it's still trash that has to go to the nebulous *someplace*, there are times of purging that we've filled 2+ trashcans in a week. However, once I realized that the refuse workers don't just make the trash disappear, it's impossible for me to not analyze every item before it goes into the kitchen trash bag. There are several categories of places where unwanted items in our home go before something reaches the trash, and even our 3-year-old knows these procedures--and our 15-month-old is learning.
  1. Is it something that's in new or great condition and someone else could use? If so, we sell it, either on Craigslist, consignment, or set it aside for a garage sale (only saved for a garage sale if we have one scheduled), or give it to a friend that we know could use the item.
  2. Is there still some life in something that someone could clean up, fix or re-purpose? If so, we set it aside to re-purpose if we have an immediate idea that we will promptly re-use it for, offer it on Freecycle or donate to Goodwill or another similar agency.
  3. Is it broken, used up, or otherwise ended its life in its current state? If so, there are a few options before an item hits the trashcan:
  • Recycle Bin: We don't pay for curbside recycling, but several Indianapolis parks have recycling bins that accept ALL PLASTICS #1-7!!!, glass, steel, aluminum, empty aerosol cans, phone books, magazines and newspapers.
  • Paper Recycling: Indianapolis also has paper recycling dumpsters around the city that are fundraisers for the facility where they are located. These dumpsters not only accept newspapers, but also office papers, magazines, junk mail and some even accept cardboard.
  • Compost: Food scraps are put into the compost pail and are dumped onto our compost pile to be added to our garden during growing season.
If an item gets past all of these check-points and still doesn't have a better place to either be reused or recycled, then and only then does it find its way to the trashcan.

Now, if you were in elementary school in the 80's or 90's, you surely learned the 3R's in science class or at least on Earth Day. If you notice, I've covered the re-use and recycle options of the 3R's, but the first and probably most important R is to reduce. Reducing our waste starts with the point of purchase. Do we buy what we need, or what we might need someday? Do we buy the plastic-wrapped "perfect for baking" potatoes, or the loose russets from the produce bin? Do we purchase the toy that is hermetically sealed with its plastic ties in the box that is 3-times the size of the toy, or do we purchase the toy that is in no package at all from a resale shop? All of these decisions add up and even a few minor changes can really make a difference in our ability to reduce our overall trash consumption.

Something else that makes a huge difference that takes minimal effort is to actually use those reusable shopping bags. We all have a surplus, after the deluge of every store and every group handing them out over the past few years, but what if we all used them?

I rarely shop without mine and have eliminated plastic grocery bags from coming into our home. I'm starting to make the move to try to remember to bring them to other stores when I'm shopping, and have noticed a significant difference in our surplus of other shopping bags around our house this way as well. Again, I have a long way to go in this area, but it's a start. I know most grocery bags can be reused for dirty diapers (see above!) or mini trashcan liners, or recycled, but if we reduce our consumption in the first place, we'll make an even greater impact on our environment.

So, while it was definitely gross to step over a dirty diaper in order to load my child into our van this afternoon, it made me more sad than anything. Sad that this was an acceptable act to the person who left it sitting in the parking lot. Sad for the disconnect between what happens to our trash after we are done with it. Sad that a child or children were taught that this is an acceptable way to live in society--the society that I'm raising my children to live in as well.

I did, however, try to give the benefit of the doubt that, perhaps, this diaper errantly fell out of the trash bag that was inside the van. So I did what any thoughtful citizen would do. I returned the misplaced item to its owner. I'm sure that they will silently thank me later for doing so. And if they don't feel particularly thankful, perhaps they will at least be aware, if only for today, that our trash does affect those around us, and ultimately it has an effect on our own quality of life as well.

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