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The Good, the Bad and the Stinky

Tess' Trash Talk: Blog entry #1

Our border collie Kiara is waiting to help drag the trash bins to the street... She helps by watching.

So here's a first thought about carrying my family's trash around for two weeks: It stinks! At least I expect it will after a couple of days...

But in the service of Marketplace — and you, dear listener — I'm launching the experiment this weekend. This is something of an opening salvo for a project American Public Media shows have been working on all year. It's called Consumed, and it explores whether our consumer culture is sustainable. The series launches this fall.

The EPA says Americans generated 245.7 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2005. That's 20 percent more than what we tossed away in 1990, and 102 percent more than what we generated in 1970. Yuck.

But is it a crisis? Garbage critics say we're going to run out of places to put it, and that even if we had enough space, all we're doing is encouraging consumption. Others argue the landfill issue has been greatly improved because of technology — it's not the old city dump anymore.

Either way, there's no debate that we all use, and waste, all kinds of natural resources. We chuck things into the garbage can without a second thought. So in the interest of shining at least one small light on the problem, I'll be airing my dirty garbage bags in public. It should give me a very personal — and gross — appreciation for what my family's consumption is doing do the planet.

I do have some self-imposed restrictions, though. I will not be bringing my trash bags into restaurants. And I won't be carrying them around in malls, where I could be mistaken for Winona Ryder. I also will not be including our dog and cat poo because of the potential health risks. And I will be using far more Ziploc-type bags — yes, more plastic — than I usually do when tossing out smelly food scraps. Otherwise, my colleagues might ban me from the newsroom.

What we're going for here is a concept called Zero Waste. And there are all kinds of Web sites, like Zero Waste and Zero Waste America, devoted to the idea that you can get yourself to the point where you send no garbage to the landfill. In my household, we recycle probably 80 to 90 percent of the glass, paper and plastic we use. And I make every effort to feed my compost bin with all my vegetable scraps, paper towels and garden detritus. But what about things like chicken bones? Or fish skins? Or (used) kitty litter? Maybe someone out there has some answers for me...

For the most part, I think we're already on the right track — forced there (in a good way) by my city, Pasadena. I mentioned our recycling efforts, and among our several trash bins the green-topped one is the smallest. That's our bin for household trash that isn't recycling (blue) or yard waste (black).

In Pasadena, we are charged by the size of our garbage container. Our family uses the smallest trash bin available, 32 gallons, for which we're charged $12.08 per month. There is no charge for the recycling and yard bins of any size. That's a great incentive to cut back on the amount of trash we generate, but we'll see if we can do even better.

Want to join me? You don't have to do it for two weeks... Try it for a day or two. And click on the "comment" button below to share your experiences — the good, the bad and the stinky.

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Hi Tess
I immigrated from India. I think India is the land that reuses everything.
We used plastic bags till they faded or ripped, even milk bags were recycled and this is 25 years ago.
We sold newspapers by the kilos, and a man came home and collected cans and bottles for a price he paid us !!!!
I am glad that the USA is finally becoming aware of the waste it creates. Surely one cannot expect another country to keep on accepting US crap.
I am sorry, India, as an action of progress is getting Westernised, using toilet paper instead of water and disposable cans of cola for example.It appears as if all have to go wrong before one realises what is right. C'est la vie.

I have been considering sustainability and its impact on our economy. A year or so ago I decided I would do my part by not buying as many things. I am using up what I have (translated this means I am wearing old clothes til the holes turn up in embarrassing spots). I consume less and create less trash.

Later I saw a story about some folks in SF who took a year long challenge to do the same thing: buying used instead of new, or not buying at all.

What would happen if all of us cut down our consumption by 10%-25%? Since our economy is about 2/3's consumer-spending driven it seems like it would be important.

How much of the consumer economy is "stuff" and how would reducing our consumption affect the economy? What sorts of changes could we make in our spending so the economy becomes stronger and more sustainable?

What is the difference if I spend $50 on a dinner or $50 on clothes or toys or new yard equipment? And if the product is made overseas, how does that change the equation? Alternately, I could save the money I would have spent on "stuff" - or some of it, anyway. I still need to have some fun spending.

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