Greener Than Thou?: A Self-Proclaimed Environmentalist Examines Her Wasteful Habits

As a self-proclaimed environmentalist, I reuse, repurpose, recycle and compost. I attempt thoughtful consumerism. I bring my own bags. I didn’t own a car for years. I’ve eaten a vegetarian and dairy-restricted diet for a decade. I’m water, plastic and energy conscious. I’ve grown food with pollinator-friendly practices. I’ve taught community classes on food waste and composting. I am on the board for an environmental group. There has been a lot of activism, determination, and legwork in my self-proclamation.

I recently downsized my house. During this time, I faced a mountain of evidence that my efforts didn’t meet expectations of a low-impact life. My house must have had a junk poltergeist or a waste demon, I thought. It certainly couldn’t have been me that made these piles of unusable things! As I sorted and packed, I slipped indelicately off my beloved environmental soap box for a closer look at the “hidden” wares of my home. I had to face the reality that many of my things were not easily recyclable or donate-worthy, and were eventually destined for the landfill.

The garage was a trove of “I’ll get to it later” and disillusioned “I’ll find a way to re-use this!” items. Those adorable blinky holiday lights that no longer work, the camping gear I bought on sale that broke after two seasons, the ceramic plant pots, bunk garden hose and holey rubber gardening gloves … none of it recyclable. The carpet I ripped out of the basement during a remodel, not donation worthy-or recyclable. Old paint and cans found in a closet, not recyclable (but must be disposed of properly!). Sentimental child toys not worthy of donating, not recyclable.

A Self-Proclaimed Environmentalist Examines Her Wasteful Habits

The pile of non-recyclable items destined for the dreaded landfill was becoming my personal Everest. I was frantically researching and calling my recycling center. I was even plead-posting on Craigslist Free for a trash angel to come take my unwanted stuff and make me feel better about ditching it, to have it end up in their “I’ll get to it later” pile and out of mine. The internet was full of advice on how to repurpose junk by making it into new junk-stuff, but I don’t want a pencil holder made of glued-together cassette tapes, or a holey garden hose garland for the holidays. In the end, I took a load of trash to the landfill. I had to suck it up that I was a contributor, just like everyone else.

As one of the last generations to grow up not tied to Wi-Fi and a cell phone, I’ve considered myself a “hands-on” person. When I read books, I want to hold them. I want the pages to smell of ink and paper. But, the time had come to cull the library. After a large donation of books, I wondered where might these once-cherished books go at the end of their (literal) shelf life. I discovered that some books are not recyclable in many cities because of the glue used in the binding process. I had to come to terms with the truth — that though I gave these books hope for a second life, many of them will eventually live in the landfill.

I also had a collection CDs and DVDs and found a box of childhood VHS tapes in my basement.  In an attempt at downsizing, I ditched the DVD cases for a CD binder, but was left with a mountain of old cases. I called the library — they were willing to take a portion of the cases and old VHS/CDs/DVDs, but not all of it. Some of the stuff was not even in good enough condition to donate. I called my recycling center and discovered they could not recycle any of the media, nor any of the cases. This was a sad discovery. Many of these items contain minute amounts of metals and chemicals that are no good for the landfill. I dug up the loose change and bit the bullet to ship them off to GreenDisk.

As far as my media and entertainment go, I’ve finally made the decision to lay down my analog mantel and fully enter the digital world of eBooks and streaming movies. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that it is nearly impossible to live in the modern world without contributing waste in some destructive way. I’ll keep my soap box, but might take it down a few inches as I continue learning and engaging my own habits and purchases with a newly furnished level of awareness, and a bit of self-forgiveness simply for being as green as I can imperfectly be.

Pro tips for chucking the junk in an environmentally-conscious way:

  • Always check (or find) your local recycling center for any questionable material. Not all recycling centers can take the same materials!
  • If you are downsizing your book collection, double check with your library or schools to see if they can take them. If you are able to cover shipping costs, consider Books For Africa.
  • You can send most technotrash to GreenDisk for a shipping fee. This includes CDs, DVDs, old computers, laptops, DVD and VHS players. Check out this complete list of items they will take.
  • If you are remodeling or updating your home, many cities have secondhand building materials stores. Check your local listings to see if you can donate that nicely worn carpet, tile, sink or other household items.
  • Think before you buy, re-use if you can and research before you toss it. If you are planning to downsize or move, schedule enough time to organize what items can be recycled and map out where they need to go/ how they need to get there. Not all recycling services are free, or cheap.
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