Not So Extreme Lifestyle

I’ve read about a woman in New York City who has been living a zero waste lifestyle and after a year only had a quart of trash to go to the landfill. and have learned that Millennial women are leading the way with this life style.  Why them?

Well,  it seems really radical to me, and I am making a decent effort to reduce my trash in all ways. The idea of producing only a quart of trash seems to involve a lot of work to prepare items that can be purchased in stores.  And yet I cook from scratch and preserve food all year long, so why not toiletries too?  Why does that “fully deep into it lifestyle” seem so hard?

Today I visited a family in Newberg where the choice to live zero waste is definitely in place. I expected to be bombarded with so many ideas that I wouldn’t know what to talk about with you but was really surprised when Joerg Peter spent his time with us talking about two issues: sorting trash and a home construction project.

With a sense of humor and a nod to marital harmony, Joerg concedes that his wife rules on the main and upper living levels and his domain includes the basement and the attic. So we soon were down in the basement to learn about his way of collecting the trash in his house and how he sorts.

He had a kitchen sized trash can that he had carried down to his sorting station tucked next to the stairs. The trash in the garbage can was clean….no wetness, no food scraps. All cans and bottles washed clean and dry.  In the sort station there was a small table, a few bins and several other small containers. Paper was laid flat in a pile, the better way to minimize space. Cardboard food containers were also opened and then folded flat to minimize space.  Plastic bags that Joerg drops at Cascade Steel (he says there is still a collection for that there.) were separated and stuck flat into a plastic sack that used to hold potting soil.  Snack bags were  recognized as a landfill item that never will decay. (Joerg has a teenage son whose food choices were attributed as the source of  containers that could not be recycled or composted.) Metal was separated into steel and aluminum using a magnet to be sure.  Smaller pieces of steel or aluminum were placed in the appropriate container and then the ends smashed flat to reduce space and to keep the smaller pieces inside.  Small pieces of metal coated plastic was torn apart and each piece placed where it belonged.  The sort took about 5 minutes, and only because we were asking questions.

trash sorting

The point to understand here is that many of us sort very poorly which means the recycling we send in, despite feeling very good that we have made an effort, is contaminated, and therefore will probably end up in the landfill. Rinsing cans and plastic containers at the sink takes maybe a minute as part of meal clean-up. How many of us take that time?

Joerg’s also obviously coming from an place where mingling just doesn’t make sense.  Since he lives outside of Newberg he actually does not have curbside pick-up but makes a run to the Recology depot there about every other week.

The large project we wanted to admire was his personal reconstruction of his chimney. Built originally around 2001, the visible portions of the fireplace hearth and chimney appear well built with attention to detail and careful use of material.  But a problem showed up and when he inspected the construction in areas that were not easily accessible, he ran into more questionable construction technique and knew he had a project.

chimneyMost of us would have to stop right there and search for a contractor, but Joerg Peter apprenticed in his native Germany as a mason. He had learned the skills long ago, and he chucked when he told us how finally muscle memory seemed to kick in with some of the tasks.

tiles and mortarLike chipping the mortar off the bricks he carefully removed to be able to re-use them.  Yes. Re-use the bricks. And the masonry and ceramic tiles. And the mortar. Yes, he saved the mortar……..not to use again for the chimney but in other ways on his land.

mortar dust on driveway.JPGThis is the perfect time to remind us all that using something again does not have to be in the same way it was first used. The larger chunks of mortar that end up as large gravel are useful in areas on the natural driveway to help in muddy spots. The mortar than ended up as dust on his basement floor was carried out in buckets and placed at the end of his driveway where it meets the pavement. It absorbs water and becomes stable, providing a smooth surface.

Back to the basement…..Joerg Peter carefully removed the tiles around the bricks in the chimney, lowering them in a basket to his teenage son to remove and stack. The orderliness in the basement was impressive. And the materials remain in usable form this way, not chipped with indiscriminate tossing into a pile, as my observation  of similar work areas has been.newspaper and more storage

Joerg Peter admitted he has been working on the new chimney for a few years and this winter their heating was dependent on the electric system in the house instead of the wood stove.  The last bill convinced him that he would get the job done before the next winter heating season begins.

The clear take-away from this visit was that all this sustainability is reachable. While I personally do not have construction skills so I would need to hire a contractor for a similar job, I could very easily require that contractor to aim for zero waste with the materials on site. Yes, the job will take more time. It is much faster to use a pry bar and sledge hammer…and there is some satisfaction in being allowed to destroy as  we have watched as homeowners gleefully take their turn on those home improvement shows.

It is time we all slow down and take the time to plan our garbage related tasks a bit differently……and our own zero waste effort can improve.


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