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On Waste; My Experience of the ‘Year to Zero’ Challenge by Jessica Prince

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.” -Sigmund Freud

This dubiously attributed quotation belongs to a refrigerator magnet in my home. Though I often delight in its ridiculousness and spare truth, the past month has increasingly revealed the beguiling power of its reaching implications. What is waste?

In July I participated in Lopez Island Solid Waste’s “Year to Zero Challenge”, attempting to reduce my trash to, theoretically, zero for one month. In preparation I toured our recycling facility, greatly increasing my knowledge of what exactly can be recycled (more than you think). But when almost everything can be recycled or composted, repurposed and reused… the rest remains. And the rest is trash. And the rest is not insignificant. My struggle against this reality, for one month, resulted in the following revelations.

The first, and essential, shift was an increased awareness of the ubiquity of plastics in our world. This was a matter of simply tuning into it and beginning to see what had been there all along. Next came the internal bargaining process: which of my habits I was willing to change based on an assessment of their practicality and longevity; cost to me in time and resources; and impact? This was the comic calculus of the performance, and ran the gamut from googling “can you compost tampons?” (possible, but yuck) to agonizing over whether or not to stop eating cheese (no, sorry not sorry).

The particulars of this process have been well documented by others who have taken part in this challenge, so I won’t linger. The upshot is that the experience of attempting to produce zero trash-waste is enlightening enough to permanently impact buying practices. Make no mistake, trash-waste is almost entirely about buying practices. This was my second revelation: trash first enters our lives, almost exclusively, by way of the items we purchase, and the choices we make around what to use and possess. I came to see the world through trash-glasses; “I want/need ____, but I also have to buy the trash it is wrapped in, the trash it will be shipped to me in.” Every item became inseparable in my mind from the future-trash to which it was forever bound. Once I choose to own it, that trash belongs to me as well, for all time. I essentially purchase immortality in a plot of landfill somewhere, as well as that landfill’s ecological effects. I marry that trash. I adopt it as my legacy. Taking this view to heart had the greatest impact upon my personal shopping decisions, from the foods I chose to eat to the all-cotton (compostable) futon I chose to sleep on. Some decisions made me feel good about myself, but increasingly an inescapable and more sinister culpability began to haunt. 

The most troubling revelation came as my month wore on, in three satori-like flashes involving the purchase of a simple household fixture, a trip to Costco to grocery shop for my family reunion, and a volunteer shift at our very own Lopez Island “Take It or Leave It”. Even if I go to extreme lengths to minimize my own individual waste, even if we all do, the fact is we live within an economic/cultural/political system the body of which is pumped to life by the blood of moving goods, far across seas. An inconceivably vast and complex system, centuries in the making, which relies upon the consumption of and the moving around of “future-trash”. Setting aside all judgement, this system is entrained with our livelihoods, bound to our psychological conceptions of identity. It is as consequential as the physical infrastructure all around us, connecting continents, reaching to space. No matter what I do, I cannot escape this system. None of us can.

The implications of this realization for trash reduction are demoralizing. I continue to ponder my future role; in action, in responsibility, in acquiescence, in grief, in forgiveness.

And so I return to my refrigerator magnet musings... What is waste?

Waste is more than an “unwanted byproduct”, as defined by the dictionary. Waste is a potential and implicit quality-state residing in all things, material and otherwise. Waste is not in the thing alone, though. It must by catalyzed. Waste is in the action which activates the potential, or fails to do so. Waste is born when the intrinsic value of something is not utilized. Anything, therefore, can be wasted, or not wasted, depending upon how it is used, but first by how it is seen. A banana peel can be wasted if its nutrients are not used to help other plants grow. A fishing reel from 1950 can be tossed in the trash, or it can be repaired and used for many more years. A moment can be wasted if it is not experienced to its fullest. Time can be wasted. An opportunity can be wasted. An education can be wasted. A life can be wasted. It is all in the approach and the follow-through. The alchemy is in a state of mind. It is in the long-game. And it is utterly arguable and subjective.

Whether as insignificant cogs in the machine of modern industry, or as omnipotent titans of that industry, each of us choose, wittingly or otherwise, to affect all that touches us at the place where we intersect with the machinery. But we can only truly make choices regarding that of which we are first aware. 

I invite you to consider that our trash has something paramount to teach us. Strive not to waste. Waste not your money, or your love. Draw out the value that lives in every single thing. Seek that value, always. Waste not your power. Let not your agency be buried, married to that plot of landfill, your legacy for all time. Don’t settle for tossing things aside. Let the story your trash tells about you be one you are proud of. 


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