A vote to opt-out of e-waste

I’m going to get a little political without getting political. The California primary is two days way. Voting guides arrived weeks ago. That’s it.

Sort of…

Below you’ll find the voting guides from the San Francisco Department of Elections and the California Office of the Secretary of State that were delivered to a visually impaired client. The former was delivered via a thumb drive and the latter was delivered via an audio cassette. That’s right, two different formats. At least one, if not both, arrived in bubble mailers. (Grrrr…)


Whether or not she and thousands of others have the technology or technological know-how to listen to the content contained on these is an entirely different topic for discussion. At issue and the point of this brief post is that the recipients of these cassettes and drives are now responsible for disposing of these inherently single-use items. Most will be tossed in the trash because that’s what most people do.

In this case, the cassette will be added to a bag of e-waste I’ve collected from clients over the past month for proper recycling/disposal. The 8GB thumb drive is reusable. I deleted the voting information and renamed the drive. It’s ready for action in my office.

Do our municipalities and state offer an opt-out of these delivery vehicles? Could there be a program for taking these back for re-use? How about phone-in options where folks can listen to a recording. The recordings already exist as evidenced by the above.

It’s time to make some calls to investigate the alternatives. I’ll wait until after Tuesday.

The day I threw away my journals

When you’re in the throes of a drought and a rainy day is but a far off promise the meteorologists continue to dangle in front of you, you have to take matters into your own hands. This past weekend, I gave myself a rain day.

A couple of stay-indoors-and-focus kind of projects had been gnawing at me for quite some time. They were never in the way, but they managed to push their way to the front of my mental line. These were purge-y kind of endeavors, but they were far from urgent. In fact, they’d been out of sight for years, contained in bankers boxes on a shelf in the back of the closet. It was decision and action day. My initial targets: a series of journals. Continue reading

Giving things away by passing them along

tiny violinistMy great aunt took great joy in giving possessions away during the latter years of her life. I recall one afternoon when she told me she’d had “a talk” with her long-deceased mother-in-law, and that they agreed it was time for the old German chair – a bit of a family heirloom I long admired – to go home with me. She insisted it leave that very day, despite my uncertainty as to whether it would fit in the backseat of the car. (It did.)

She loved knowing the chair had a new home and would frequently ask about it. The chair continues to make me smile, and it gets used every day. But this story isn’t about the chair.

When she passed away I acquired a handful of meaningful items I continue to enjoy. The smallest of these was a tiny silver violinist.

During the years I visited and sipped many cups of tea with my aunt, this little guy and his instrument sat behind me atop the mid-century modern buffet and china cabinet. To me, this was the material manifestation of the proverbial sad song on the world’s tiniest violin. (You know it: the song you mime by rubbing your thumb and forefinger together while making a faux sad face as a friend tells you a story that is far from pitiful.) But I also found it to be quietly uplifting and inspiring. My great aunt and her husband were fans of classical music and loved attending the symphony. Her father (a.k.a. my great grandfather) was a violin teacher.

Up until a few weeks ago, the figurine lived on a ledge above my desk, fiddling a tune for an equally diminutive dancing Ganesh. When I was presented with an invitation to a dear friend’s middle school graduation party, it took no time for me to ponder and determine the perfect gift. A passionate and dedicated violinist since her single digit years, I had a hunch she’d appreciate the story attached to this slightly tarnished fellow. It’s better than anything I ever could have found in a store. Passing along this little token from my biological family to someone who is part of my chosen family felt like the right thing to do. After opening it, she decided it needed to live on top of the piano.

Thank you so much for the tiny violinist! It’s very motivating and it will definitely be a good reminder to practice the violin, in addition to the piano.

Did I mention my great aunt played the piano, too?

The gift of connection

The countdown to the year-end ritual of flocking to malls and online stores is upon us. Care to guess where you’ll find me? Dashing (as usual) in the opposite direction.

When the holiday freneticism is unavoidable at every turn, there’s something wonderfully delightful and perhaps a little bit deviant about choosing to swim against the mainstream current. I actually manage to avoid stress and languishing in long lines, all while fully embracing the season’s spirit of generosity on my own terms.

I’ve never understood why, as a society, we collectively wait to the last minute – or in this case, the last month of the year – to squeeze in all the big-heartedness and giving we possibly can that could have been applied liberally throughout the previous eleven months of the year. Continue reading

Airing my trash on PBS NewsHour

Of all the things to get me excited, who knew the prospect of talking about my trash on national television would be one of them? Early last month, a crew from the PBS Newshour came to the house to interview Sven and me about residential composting for a story they were producing about San Francisco’s journey toward zero waste. Sven wrote about the happening, its genesis, and more in a most read-worthy blog post, Talking trash with PBS NewsHour.

Five adults and a large TV camera on a tripod in a 10×12′ kitchen was nothing short of cozy. Scrambling eggs and making breakfast while said camera (off tripod) and cameraman followed us around the kitchen was strange and amusing, but I have to say the most anxiety-inducing aspect to this whole experience came a few weeks later when we got the call notifying us the story, San Francisco on Track to Become Zero Waste City, would be airing that very afternoon. We wondered if our reflections about how simple and normal it is to participate in the city’s municipal composting program would make the final cut.


Well over an hour of filming was edited to 55 seconds (far more than we ever imagined) of airtime and soundbites. My line about putting Qtips* in the compost and Sven’s comment about his inability to toss an apple core in the trash when there’s no compost bin in sight have generated some awesome conversations both on- and offline. What was it about these two nuggets of  revealing insight? They show how awareness and shifts in thinking can impact reflexive behaviors and habits.

Adhering to San Francisco’s Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance has enabled us to reduce our landfill-destined waste to almost none. It’s affected our choices of what we buy (nearly all purchases are daily essentials) and how we buy it (with no or as little packaging as possible). This was most clearly illustrated in the lingering shot our compost/recycling/trash zone received.

residential compost and recycling

Allow me to make introductions: Compost, the most frequently used and emptied receptacle, is on the left. The recycling container is the largest bin in the system. San Francisco’s single stream recycling allows us to collect all paper, glass, metal, and approved plastics in one container. Trash is often a landfill-destined crunchy plastic bag that’s attached to the side of the recycling container with a binder clip. The day the NewsHour crew came to visit, the trash bag was a Newman’s Own pretzel bag. Other weeks it might be a cereal box insert or a paper bag that a loaf of freshly-baked bread came in. It can take us two weeks or more to fill the “trash.” The milk cartons and takeout container have been rinsed and are waiting their turn to be filled with compostables. The lower shelf holds a ceramic planter that we use for collecting wine corks and spent batteries (mostly batteries from client’s homes that I empty from my work bag). These can be recycled at the local grocery co-op, a destination one or the other of us visits each week. And finally, the multi-purpose dishpan is where future trash and compost bags reside until called for duty. When needed, the very same dishpan is used for hand washing delicates or large stacks of dishes. Everything pictured above is a reuse of items we each purchased or acquired at least ten years ago and used for other other purposes.

Establishing a kitchen compost/recycling/trash zone is different for each and every household. Assessing available space and how you move through it, your aesthetics, lifestyle, and what your municipality requires all contribute to the choices to be made. It took us a few tries, over a couple of years, to perfect this setup. Lidless receptacles eliminate extra steps and effort, but they are not for everyone. We realize going lidless is a luxury in a pet- and toddler-free household. Because we regularly cook from scratch, food scraps add up quickly and force us to empty the compost bin a couple times a week. As such, even after a couple of days, the compost doesn’t smell. When there’s a risk that it might, a little sprinkle of baking soda will neutralize the possibility. During these winter months, orange and lemon peels do the trick!

Since the NewsHour story aired, Sven and I have found ourselves talking trash with friends and colleagues on the sidewalk, at parties, and in restaurants and stores. Some have come to us with composting and disposal confessions, while others have declared new shopping and disposal aspirations: several people will stop buying trash bags and others declared have a personal challenge to reduce their actual trash to match ours.

We knew compost was nutrient-rich, but what a surprise to discover that talking about it could nourish our community and beyond in so many ways.

newshour_deb72 newshoursven72

*Next time, I’ll be sure to say “cotton swab.”

Credits: Screenshots (three color photos) ©PBS Newshour.

Trashin’ up the holidaze

Few things made me roll my eyes more than the media reports of a woman who pepper sprayed her fellow shoppers in what is now a toss up between self-defense and defensive shopping. I find it hard to imagine why on earth one would ever put themselves in the situation where the ritual of gift shopping for loved ones becomes a life or death struggle and race to the cash register. This is not sustainable in any sense of the holiday spirit. Continue reading

I thought I knew what “quilt” meant

A long ago discarded pair of pants are hanging over my desk. Well, that’s partially true. To be precise, parts of my pants and parts of two other peoples’ pants are hanging over my desk in a wall warming creation called The Traveling Elephant Quilt.

quilt hanging on office wall

detail of elephant quiltdetail of pants in quilt

The elephants are parading through space to an unknown destination, but the “traveling” part of the piece hails from my insanely talented, creative, and silly friend, Sharon. Throughout the earlier part of this year, I received sporadic emails from her that read, “Now where? Hee hee,” and “Elephants in Orleans, CA?” Continue reading

Capping off the recyclables

As my home inches closer towards zero waste and we attempt to reach the goals set forth by the City and County of San Francisco, there’s been one baffling piece of the puzzle: what to do with the caps and lids from recyclable containers? I realize that in the grand scheme of things, these are small details, but you know how it is: the devil is in the details, I love the details, AND I got stuck.

Think about it. What do you do with the lids from milk, juice, kombucha, vinegar, olive oil, wine, and beer bottles? And how about the wee tops from tubes of toothpaste, mustard, and tomato paste? Ooh, and the larger lids of the variety that “pop” when you open the jars from store-bought sauces, pickles, and sauerkraut? Do these go in the trash or the recycling bin?

My inquiring mind needed some answers, so I approached the source – San Francisco’s Department of the Environment – with my dilemma and a group portrait of lids and caps I collected just for this purpose.

bottle tops and jar lids

Continue reading