Sunday, August 30, 2015

A No-Trash Summer

At some point, we noticed we weren't putting a trash can out for collection. Trash day would come and go, and our modest-sized trashcan remained in its spot down the driveway. Weeks would pass before it filled. (The photo is symbolic but not inaccurate if you read the whole post.) What had happened? Had we become super eco-types, transforming our lifestyles to show the world that zero waste really was possible on the domestic front? Was it time to make a documentary about our eco-adventures and shop it around to environmental film festivals?

I could think of no conscious change in our lifestyle or thinking, no bold steps towards frugality. The kids are older, and that cornucopia-in-the-hand, known as a cell phone, has largely eliminated cravings for other material objects. We compost food scraps in the backyard, in an animal-proof container. The occasional greasy pizza box is saved to start fires in the wood stove. Our backyard chickens and garden reduce packaging from store-bought food.

Pleasure, not a conscious attempt at frugality, is the driver here. The convenience of cell phones, the radiant heat of a wood stove, the charm and generosity of our chickens and duck, the taste of home-grown tomatoes, and sending tin cans and bottles off to a new life rather than a grave--all of these bring positive energy to our lives, and also happen to reduce trash to near zero.

If anything, our impact on Princeton's trash production numbers has been negative. If I'm walking the dog on trash day, and see someone has put a perfectly good stroller out on the curb, or one of those foldable metal bedframes, I tend to bring them home, stow them until after trash day, then put them out next to our busy street to be scavenged, whether for reuse or for scrap metal.

Sometimes within the hour, they're gone.

One recent walk around the block with the dog yielded three peaches (given to me by an elderly Italian lady whose yard is planted with fruit trees) and a hulking, backyard grill whose 100 pounds of useful metal came within a minute of being hauled off to the landfill.

None of this is fervent advocacy. It's simply a desire to see things used rather than wasted, and that "wanting", embedded in one's heart like a seed, can quietly and unobtrusively transform one's lifestyle into a zero waste summer.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Leaf Corrals as Symbols

Since most people take cues from their neighbors on how to maintain their yards, the most visible approach ends up being imitated. When it comes to dealing with leaves in the yard, the most visible and therefore the most widely imitated approach is the dumping of leaves in the street. In this way, the least attractive and least sensible approach becomes the most common.

Some homeowners pile their leaves in a back corner of the property, where they can decompose and feed the roots of trees. This approach saves the town money, returns nutrients to the yard, and keeps the street clean, but it doesn't get imitated because neighbors can't see it.

How, then, do we make the more sustainable, sensible approach more visible? Cleaning out some flower beds this spring, I decided to set an example and put the leaves in a leaf corral in the front yard, tucked behind some shrubs. It's neater than piling the leaves in the street, and even oak leaves quickly settle down in the green wire corral, making room for more cuttings through the summer.

The green wire is essentially invisible. 

Our aesthetics when it comes to yards seems completely arbitrary and malleable. If windmills and silos are seen as picturesque features of a rural landscape, then a leaf corral could come to be seen similarly in a front yard, a symbol of commitment to clean streets and a lack of dependency on expensive town services. If the homeowner prefers, it can be decorated/obscured with picket fencing or shrubs. 

The main thing is to create a visible alternative approach to leaving piles of leaves and yardwaste in the street, where their visual and environmental effect turns negative.