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…)

vote

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.

This is not (only) a basket

basketloadedAs the Earth makes another trip around the sun, we find ourselves arriving once again at that day for collectively celebrating and honoring her awesomeness. And it is on this occasion that I’ve chosen to share a little tale about how we can become mindful and respectful of her resources while we connect with one another.

The story begins with a visit to southern Germany shortly after my partner and I started dating. One of the things that struck me was the sight of women carrying baskets to and from the village bakery for their daily loaves and pretzels. There was something so old world and quaint about these containers, while at the same time, their use made so much modern-day environmental sense. They were decorative, multi-functional, and they  eliminated the need for paper bags and the accompanying accumulation and storage of the latter.

IMG_5246Back at home, I kept re-noticing the beautiful Ghanaian Bolga baskets I coveted so much on the arms of my fellow farmers market shoppers. Oh, how much I yearned to have one, but it was impractical to walk to and from the market with a full and often heavy load hanging from my arm. Those baskets are great for someone who walks just a couple of blocks or drives. Our forays to the farmers market are on foot, by public transit, or by bicycle. Sturdy reusable bags or a backpack are ideal. Once I started pedaling there, panniers became the carrier option of choice.

The idea of integrating a basket into my life never left my mind. One day I had an aha moment: we visit the bakery down the street with enough regularity to warrant a designated receptacle for transporting and storing our purchases. Finally, I had a reason to acquire a fair trade Bolga basket! Beyond bread-like things, it gets used for transporting goods to parties and other social gatherings.

But let’s get back to the bakery for a moment. More often than not, the worker-owners at the bakery cooperative down the street express gratitude whenever we bring and use our basket. A brief conversation often ensues at the register while the transaction is completed. They wish more people saw the benefit of bringing their own bag or container, and all we can say them is that we hope our basket will inspire and motivate others who see it in action. One cashier, complimenting me on the basket, told me it reminded her of the market baskets used Mexico where she grew up. We chatted about that for a bit. It was then and there that I realized the basket is more than a device for carrying or storing things. It’s also a catalyst for communicating with others and sharing our stories. In fact, whenever he sees me with the basket in tow, the owner at the corner cafe gets a kick out of what he calls my mushroom hunting basket. I hadn’t thought about becoming a mushroom hunter, but there’s an idea…

 

 

Perfectly imperfect: Coming to a Grocery Store Near You?

hugging carrots

 

hugging carrots

Food was the gateway to a more mindful and sustainable approach in my life, and it happened very much by chance. Shortly after my move to San Francisco in the early 90s, I found myself having adverse physical reactions to a wide range of fruits I had always eaten. When a roommate suggested I try their organic counterparts from the corner market five blocks from our flat, I was set on a new path. Around that time, too, I was introduced to Whole Foods. The retail chain didn’t have a location in San Francisco just yet, and someone brought the then car-free me to their understated outpost in Mill Valley, CA, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. “Beautiful food for beautiful people,” was how the store and its customers were described to me.

And my, oh my, the produce was beautiful. Similarly-sized and arranged in impeccable formations, it seemed sacrilege to interrupt the peppers and heads of lettuces – many varieties which I’d not seen before –  in order to selections to my basket. But more than beautiful, the produce was kinda sorta strangely perfect. Perfect produce? How on earth was that possible?

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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.

Chicken in a jar

This is a post about changing a habit. Habits take time. They require practice. Practice makes almost perfect. Why almost perfect? I believe that perfection is a perceived destination and that the journey is the actual destination.

If you’re like me, I’m on several journeys at any given time. This is about my journey to deepen a habit: to reduce my consumption of unnecessary waste and single use items. While this is something I’ve been working on for years and have gotten very good at, I was inspired to up my game after meeting Beth Terry, blogger extraordinaire and tireless crusader of My Plastic-free Life, in 2010. At the time, Beth interviewed me for an awesome piece she wrote about bringing our own reusable containers out into the world.

When I saw her April 17 post on Facebook announcing she would be attending the Lunchbox Project SF, a pre-Earth Day “large-scale Day of Action in which San Franciscans will order lunch in our own, reusable containers,” I kept my schedule clear so I could meet her for lunch with the very thing that brought us together in the first place! Continue reading

Before and after

I am often asked about the lack of before and after photos on my website. I’ll be frank and say it: as a genre, they all sort of look the same, and without context, I find them to be quite uninteresting.

Generally speaking, before and after for organizers illustrates various forms of disarray transformed into various states of tidiness, and predictably, organization. To my eyes, these “results” are partial results as they simply show physical and surface alterations that have occurred. Little is told about what has happened and not a thing is said about why.

When I use photography in the course of working with clients, it is a tool to document a process — before, during, and after. When I choose to share the photos, it is to tell a story about the journey — the benefits and changes for the client and the decisions and observations we made along the way. Oftentimes, the physical changes barely scratch the surface of the shifts that manifest for and/or within the people themselves.

For example, here is a set of before and after photos of the area beneath a client’s kitchen sink…

What do you see? A little less clutter and a little more organization? Yay! We like that. Mission accomplished. Were some containers moved or removed to make it look better? But of course! As before and after images, they do the trick, right? To make my point, the answer is “not really.”

Here’s the story: 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

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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

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