Archive for waste management

Teaching Our Children Well – Not Wasteful Behavior

A few days ago I had a ripped plastic bag in my hand that I picked up from the ground. As I walked past a dumpster, I tried to throw it away, present to the strange feeling of throwing plastic toward a landfill. It literally stuck like glue to my hand, whose fingers would not unfurl to release the plastic item in an “away” direction. I puzzled over the plastic bag for a moment, wondering if it had become possessed with some kind of intelligent mind. I tried again to assert control and toss; same result. Some kind of program had written itself into my neural pathways that knew good and well: polyethylene plastic film is recyclable. Maybe that program got written during my classes in the City of Portland’s Master Recycler program. Perhaps it started writing itself when I helped my friend Jennifer restart our high school’s environmental club. However the viral program found its way in, the difference between leaving a plastic bag blowing in the wind across a sidewalk to eventually clog a storm drain, sending it to a thousand year doom in a landfill, or returning it into the resource stream seemed pretty profound.

On the walk home, I mused on behavioral change and the adoption of environmental values. Especially as I prepare myself to work more with youth in environmental programs and build “green job” skills and training, I am interested in the process by which we make the kinds of decisions I had to face with the “intelligent” plastic bag. Indeed, the intelligence doesn’t belong to objects; it belongs to the humans who make, consume, and eventually dispose of them. Every step of product stewardship is a choice. Our ancestors certainly build their homes, cities, and whole civilizations without plastic. The notion that we “need” material goods is competely debatable, yet I still hear children telling their parents they “need” a particular toy or good that doesn’t contribute directly to the “hierarchy of needs” – food, water, shelter, clothing, nurture, support. Why, then, are children absorbing the “other” kind of viral program early on, the one that eventually, among many other actions, allows the plastic bag to be produced in the first place, and then end up in the storm drain?

I’m not a psychologist, an expert in human behavior, a sociologist, anthropologist, or any such “learned scholar” that hones his/her skills around answering these kinds of questions. I do care about how we use and waste energy and resources at an alarming rate, and demonstrate to our children that it’s perfectly fine, no harm no foul, to live out of balance. Far be it from me to project my value system onto the rest of the world, but evidence of the outcome of turning a blind eye is so striking and so commonly publicized these days that they almost don’t bear mention.

What’s our children’s place in this situation? I believe it’s to generate the solutions and demand a different way from their parents. If the problem can’t be solved in the same level that created it, then parents running about inventing tradable carbon credits seems hardly compelling. At a time when kids are dropping out of high school at ever increasing rates and falling into apathy, it hardly seems fair to project our “solutions” into arcane corners of the intellect that require a Ph.D. to unpack, understand, and meaningfully apply to the real world. I had to pause for a moment listen to Crosby, Stills and Nash on the matter:

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

What’s our job? Encourage them and show them our dreams. Kindle their interest in nature, the outdoors, animals, plants. As they grow older, teach them about stewardship, care, community, and gardening. Explain the importance of reducing consumption, reusing items and finding durable alternatives, and recycling and composting what’s left. Leave the question open why we make things that must be disposed of “permanently” for their own inquiry. I see how that song’s lyrics change around:

Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

Our children are the ones who are most likely to rise to the occasion and make our dreams real and manifest.

There are many resources online about plastic bags, factoids, and ways to reduce consumption. Here’s one from Worldwatch Institute.

Here’s a video my friend Geoff and I made on plastic bags (please excuse the harp).

I also kicked this thread off awhile ago in a post about the role of mentoring in sustainability.

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Recycling Depots Take Stuff That Doesn’t Belong Curbside

Miss Burrows reminds me about recycling depots. Most folks in the Portland metro area aren’t aware of “depots” – facilities where you can take recyclable refuse that has a market but isn’t suitable for curbside pickup (and, in many cases, will be rejected if placed at the curb). Metro has a “Find a Recycler” website that will help you locate the right taker for your material. You can also call Metro’s very helpful and useful Recycling Information Hotline at 503-234-3000.

recycleFar West Fibers has seven depots located throughout the metro area that accept a wide range of materials, from plastic lids (which don’t go in your curbside rollcarts or bins, only the body of the container) to plastic take-out clamshells (clean only, and apparently they’re a pain to deal with).

Eye-opening factoid: Portland metro residents throw away about 20 tons of material per day in curbside recycling that doesn’t belong there, and has to be removed and landfilled. Some of that material can be recycled at depots, though it never ends up in the right stream.

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The Story of Stuff

Yesterday I finally got around to watching “The Story of Stuff.” Even at its totally ADHD-digestible 20 minutes, I hadn’t made it a priority because some part of me kept thinking, “I already know that.” But Annie Leonard’s disarmingly simple presentation hits home the message that our linear, unsustainable relationship with Stuff is coming apart, for better and for worse, and that we have a fundamental opportunity right now to redefine that relationship, close loops, create sustainable cycles, and change the way we do business. If we don’t, the results will cause (and to some extent already are causing) cultural indigestion and crises of gargantuan proportions in the health of human society. Alarmist? It only sounds alarmist to anyone who’s addicted to the functioning of the linear model of Stuff and who, like an ostrich, pretends not to see what comes out the back end.

Click here to watch The Story of Stuff, and please leave a comment with your thoughts and impressions.

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