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

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.

newshour_kitchen

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.

Positively jarring experiences

Once upon a time, I decided it’d be cool to learn how to make a gigantic flat of luscious tomatoey goodness last a long long time. I would purchase San Marzanos from my friends at Mariquita Farm and turn them into sauce that I would stow in the freezer for the winter months. Freezing was great, but longevity was limited.

I’d always wanted to try my hand at canning, but the risk of accidentally creating a lethal stockpile of botulism kept any attempts at bay. I wanted professional guidance and in 2009, I stumbled upon classes offered by a the folks of Happy Girl Kitchen Co., a local independent producer of yummy things in jars. (Trust me, try the okra sometime!)

I signed up without hesitation and took a class…

tomatoes!chopping tomatoes

tomatoes and basil ready for canningjars of tomatoes in the canning pots

Continue reading

Reminiscing about “paper or plastic?”

plastic bags knitted or crocheted into a reusable bag“Paper or plastic?” may soon be obsolete…at least in California. On June 2, the California State Assembly passed a bill (AB 1998) to ban single-use plastic shopping bags. The bill goes to the Senate later this month, and if it passes, the golden state will become the first in the union to ban the option.

In San Francisco, there is already a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags at chain grocery stores and pharmacies, and today, an expansion of the existing legislation is being introduced that could lead to more extensive city-wide elimination of plastic bags. This prospect makes someone like me very very happy.

The SF Department of the Environment provided a startling figure at their booth at a local farmer’s market last week: 380 billion single-use plastic bags consumed in the U.S. each year, and that translates to 1,500 per person. California consumes 19 billion of those bags each year – more than any other state. These numbers are astounding. Things have to change, and thankfully they are…slowly but surely. Continue reading

Rethinking the “junk” in the junk drawer

Photo courtesy of Paho Mann (www.pahomann.com)

The ubiquitous junk drawer. It is the centralized repository where a plethora of useful and not-so-useful, like and not-so-like items seems to congregate. Think about it. Where else might you find a yo-yo with a broken string, rolls of tape, keys to unknown locks, full and half-used matchbooks, loose buttons, an undeveloped roll of film, outdated menus, loose change, and questionable batteries in one place?

The junk drawer seems to be a socially acceptable place for disarray. My professional organizer ears have heard few people express embarrassment about the condition of theirs. The drawer offers regular opportunity for impromptu treasure hunts. It also serves as a safe haven for things that are in the process of finding their way “home,” or that have no place else to live until, perhaps, they eventually find their way to the trash. For many, this collection and dispersal system works just fine.

But what if you wanted to rethink the junk drawer and remove some of the junk to make way for the more functional? Continue reading

A basement full of books

Goodwill book donation signThe lure of the current occupant of the former Coca-Cola bottling plant in San Francisco brought me back for my third visit in a year-and-a-half. Here I was, again, at the processing facility for Goodwill of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin Counties. The more I learn about the incredible ways this organization is serving the community at large, the more I want to help them shout it from the rooftop.

This time the majority of my visit was as far from the roof as you could get. There in the basement – once the restroom, locker room, and shower for the plant workers – lives the department of e-commerce. What brought me here was books, and a desire to explore another piece of the recycling puzzle. (Read about my previous visit when I explored and documented textile recycling at this facility.) For here is a place where you can recycle encyclopedias, textbooks, novels, dictionaries, how-to books…you name it! Continue reading

New vroom and a little more room…

Sometimes we must say good-bye to an old friend. A couple of months ago, I ended a love/hate relationship with an inexpensive hand mixer that I acquired nearly 18 years ago. It was one of my first appliance purchases when I moved to San Francisco, and being that my apartment then, like every apartment I’ve lived in since, had the notable feature of the mostly counterless kitchen, holding onto this little utilitarian and occasionally used tool made sense. Sort of.

Over the past couple of years, apparently, I uttered a few audible criticisms of the mixer while trying to wrestle batter or potatoes from it’s clutches. It just wasn’t up to snuff, yet, I persevered. Cuisinart hand mixerAnd then came the change I didn’t realize I was waiting for: on my birthday, my sweetie surprised me with a sexy, seven-speed, cranberry-colored hand mixer. Ooooh! I literally jumped for joy when I unwrapped the birthday bundle, but not just because it was really beautiful and made cool vroom vroom! sounds. It had the inherent potential to make some aspects of cooking and mixing things fun again. Continue reading

Give your stuff away day

a free chair left on the sidewalkI heard about Give Your Stuff Away Day (today, May 15th) while on the phone with a colleague many weeks ago. She was checking her e-mail when she commented about an interesting link that had been forwarded by another professional organizer.

For those of us in the business, seeing people let go of things in order to pass them on to others is a regular occurrence, though for many, such an act can be an emotional and moral struggle. I have found that it is easiest for folks to say good-bye to anything when they realize their once treasure will become someone else’s new treasure. Continue reading