Introduction

Down In The Dumps

        These damned Millennials with their organic, free-range this; locally-sourced that; eco-friendly those…  You know there’s no such thing as ZERO waste, right?  The only thing you can control is how much garbage ends up in your house.  What’s the point?  And anyway, when Yellowstone volcano blows, who’s going to care?  We’ll all be dead.  Life’s too short and I’m too busy, too broke, and too concerned with more pressing personal matters to give a damn about “global warming”.  Yeah, like that’s a thing.  Talk to geologists about the history of ice ages and global events.  They’ve happened before.  I’m not sure why you’re wasting your time, but good luck, nut job.  

 

        Now, no one has actually uttered those words to me verbatim yet, but I feel like it’s only a matter of time.  And I could try to craft up a clever reply, sure.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my thirty-two years, it’s this: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.  Period.

        So what on earth would compel me to take interest in such an extreme way of living?  There are two answers to this question. The first is that if you ask millennials for their thoughts on global warming, the majority of them will tell you we need to take actions to halt it.  There isn’t a mother my age out there that doesn’t want to leave the world a better place for her child.  Most of us are scared.

        The second reason is that I separated from my husband and am in need of a “project” for when my kids are at his house.  You know, to kill time in a healthy way – instead of sobbing uncontrollably while scrolling Facebook pictures of friends who are rocking successful marriages.  BUNCHA LIARS!  IT’S ALL GOING TO COME CRASHING DOWN!  Baaaaaahhhhh!

        I’m calm now. 

        Truly, my fascination with the zero-waste movement began several years ago, thanks to a YouTube video that popped up about Bea Johnson, the author of Zero Waste Home.  The video recounted how Bea shopped for groceries using only cloth bags and glass jars.  Then it followed as she gave a tour of her beautiful California home.  She graciously showed off her living room, her sons’ room, her closet, which contained her and her husband’s micro-wardrobes - but it was while she gave a tour of her kitchen that my heart stopped. 

        It was so beautiful.  

        So simple.  

        So organized!

        My brain was having trouble processing how little clutter there was.  Zero-waste living was the answer to my prayers for a clean home and a lifestyle that looked ‘put together’!

 

        Actually, no!  Scratch that.  

My fascination with garbage goes way back.  Like more than two decades, now that I think about it.

 

        It all started at the dump.

 

         My experience with the dump is different than most people’s.  I spent a lot of time there as a kid, thanks to my father’s interest in restoring historic properties.  

        Both my parents came from hard-working, home-steading stock.  My dad grew up the youngest of three children, raised on a ranch where the attitude was “if it couldn’t be fixed with wire, it wasn’t worth fixin”.  My mother was the only girl in a family of four kids.  She just wanted to go hunting and fishing like her brothers, so she spent a lot of time outdoors, learning about the environment and tracking big-horn sheep.

        The point is, they were resourceful. They were people of the earth.  And they wanted to pass that on to their children.  

        When they divorced after eleven years of marriage, my parents were forced to do a lot of free activities with us while they got back on their feet.  This included a lot of biking, playing games like “Guess That Spice”, learning sign language - though I’m guessing now that’s how my mom tricked us into getting some silence in the house - learning how to repair broken radios and telephones, and just being really present.  My dad even dabbled in arts and crafts when I told him that my friend’s dad got over his divorce by making a piñata - I wonder if he figured out I made that up.   (I’m sure we were big upcyclers before, but this is my first clear memory of transforming something as blah as an oatmeal container into something as cool as a candy cane piñata.)   

 

        Oh, the possibilities…

        You couldn’t argue that we were deprived as kids because we didn’t have video games like our friends.  We developed life skills before most of our peers.  Bragging rights, in my case. 

        “What age did I learn to drive?  Seven.  Stick-shift.  I win.”

 

        Where does the dump come in?

        As I mentioned earlier, my dad made his money buying run-down old properties and restoring them, often intent on maintaining any remaining historic charm.  We lived in these properties while he made the repairs.  

 

        The first weeks after a new purchase were always the best, because that’s when we’d visit the local dump most often.  My dad would load the trailer with whatever he couldn’t salvage - or fix with wire and good ol' duct tape - then call us to announce an adventure was in order.  

        Typically, a trip to the dump would play out something like this:

Dad:  Girls, I loaded up the trailer.  We’re going to the dump!

Me and my sister:  Yessssss!  What do you think we’ll find today?  

Dad:  I’m looking for a lawnmower.

 

        The drive to the dump would be long and magical as my sister and I daydreamed about what we’d find.  We rarely returned empty-handed.  We’d pull into the dump and wait to be directed to a numbered pile area by the person in charge.  Once we had our directions, the adventure began!

Dad:  Okay, I’ll unload the trailer.  You girls have fun.  Don’t let the guards

         see you.  And let me know if you find a lawnmower, will you?

        With that, my sister and I would take off in search of hidden treasures that didn’t involve too much digging, or require climbing too far up the pile where it stunk the most.  We’d steer clear of seagulls and broken glass, anything that might require us getting a tetanus shot later if mom found out, and we always made sure to look under cardboard boxes.  That’s where we’d go on to find everything from a two-thousand-dollar racing bike and cassette courses on investment banking, to… you guessed it, numerous working lawnmowers.

        We’d time our exits when the booth person was busy directing new dump-goers to their piles and couldn’t catch us.  Then, on the drive home, we’d question why people were so willing to throw away things which could so easily be repaired.  What a waste, we thought.  Then we’d rejoice about how much money we saved not buying something we weren’t going to buy anyway.  Except the lawnmower.  You always need one of those where I’m from.  

 

        So you see, I was being groomed for this zero-waste experiment my entire life, I just didn’t know it!

        Only now, as I write this, do I realize to what extent my childhood experience of rescuing and repairing one man’s trash affected my life.  How fortunate I was to see, first hand, the effects of garbage on the environment.  Sure, I liked scavenging, but that’s just because people were throwing away stuff that was so easily repairable!  It was shocking!  And sure, since the 1990s, we’ve implemented recycling programs, but there was still a dark side.

        There were no flowers at the dump.  

        There were no beautiful smells or calming sounds.  

        There were yapping seagulls, rotting carcasses, and smells so foul you were sure you’d collapse from poisoning if you took one more breath.  

        The dump was where things went to die.  

 

        Back to reality.

 

         It’s December 2015, and I’ve decided I simply must go on this zero-waste journey.  

But how?  I have to be realistic here.  I’m a single, working mother of two toddlers.  I don’t have a lot of spare time.

        I guess the easiest way to do this would be to change one habit per month.  That seems fairly fail-proof.  Right?