The GOOD, the Bad and the Wasteful

Still from the movie Trashed.

Over at GOOD magazine, July’s 30-day Challenge is to Waste Less. (Twitter hashtag: #30daysofgood) Here at GRACE, we've been having a great time checking out the the GOOD staff updates and the responses to the questions they've been putting to their readers.

Of course, we know that food waste not only makes up the lion’s share of solid municipal waste, but is particularly problematic in landfills, because as it breaks down it creates methane–a greenhouse gas over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide–and it diverts food trash from its organic destiny as compost, to be returned to the land on farms and gardens, where the soil can make good use of it.

A recent UN report (which found that 1/3 of the food produced globally is wasted, which means that the resources – including water and energy – used to produce it were also squandered) focused on the connection between food waste and water waste. This got us thinking, as we often do, about the interconnections between food, water and energy, and how, when we talk about wasting any particular item, whether it be leftovers or packaging or even old electronics, there is always unseen (and untold) water and energy behind those items.

Here, a few members of the Ecocentric team take on a few everyday items and explore the waste embedded in their production and use, and share tips on how to waste less.

Jeans (and other clothing) by Dawn

Ugh, waste. It shows up in everything we do, including getting dressed in the morning. I happen to be wearing a vintage dress today, so I'm feeling pretty proud of myself as I write this. But yesterday? Tomorrow? Jeans, jeans and more jeans. I live in them spring, summer, fall and winter. I love jeans. Thinking about the environmental impact of something as seemingly simple as jeans really gets me down. As it turns out, my jeans are guilty of multiple environmental offenses.

Consider cotton:

  • Cotton crops are heavily subsidized (which is not an obvious environmental offense, but does help to set the stage for the following offenses).
  • Cotton is often grown in arid environments using an enormous amount of water to grow.
  • Cotton is often genetically modified to resist pests, and yet…
  • Cotton is considered the dirtiest crop due to its heavy reliance on pesticides.
  • Cotton pests are developing resistance to certain pesticides.
  • Cotton crops are destroying our soil, air and water, and harming workers.

And that list doesn’t include the waste of fabric from when I toss old jeans out, not to mention the poor conditions in sweat shops where most of the world’s jeans — and other clothing — are produced.

The reality of sustainable clothing is that it’s expensive, there aren’t many styles (or at least not very stylish styles – though that seems to be changing, and it isn’t available in many stores. Look for organic cotton, bamboo and hemp clothing wherever you can. Sometimes it shows up at stores like the Gap or H&M.

If you can’t splurge or don’t want to spend extra on sustainable fabrics, here are some tips:

  • Buy vintage/thrift/recycled clothing.
  • Sell your clothes on eBay or at a consignment shop. If that is too involved, donate them to a charity like Goodwill, Salvation Army or Dress for Success.
  • Have a clothing swap with friends/co-workers/strangers and donate the leftover goods to a charity.
  • Consider whether or not you really need new clothes (this applies whether the item was sustainably-produced or not).

According to Earth 911, Americans throw away 68 pounds of clothing per person per year! In addition, we waste tons of water and energy cleaning our clothes, but we can easily reduce that by using cold water and line drying clothes – not only does that minimize energy waste, but it also makes your clothes last longer.

Iced Coffee by  Robin

It’s hot out, you're sweating and thirsty and looking for a little pick-me up, so you pop into a cafe for a tall, creamy glass of iced coffee. Just thinking about the sweat running down the side of that glass of dark-roasted, milky, sweet deliciousness makes me want to run right out and get one. Wait, did I say glass? I meant plastic cup, of course. Now that I think about it, that iced coffee comes with a few issues.

First of all, unless you're bringing your own cup to the cafe, that plastic cup will almost surely end up in the trash (because most recyclers don’t take that type of plastic). It could quite possibly end up in one of our many waterways, from your local creek all the way to the Great Garbage Patch out in the middle of Pacific Ocean. Also, the coffee, sugar and dairy (not to mention ice cubes) that go into that cup have a lot of water and energy embedded in them, thanks to all the production and processing steps it took to bring them to you. So the next time you crave an iced coffee, bring your own reusable cup and make sure you drink it all so you don’t waste all that energy and water it took to get it into your grateful hands. You might also think about brewing your own in the first place, that way you only make what you need.

Cell Phones by Peter

There’s a common element to all cell phones that makes them unique: the little battery icon. That reminder that all those 4G apps are draining your phone’s battery turns cell phones into a 24/7 energy consumption and management challenge. There are plenty of ways to extend your battery life, whether you have an Android or an iPhone. But how can you take advantage of that powerful little cue to use electricity more wisely, and in the process waste much less electricity and water?

Obviously, the less you recharge your phone battery the better, because it saves electricity. Perhaps less obviously, it also reduces pressure on water resources. It takes hundreds of gallons of water per day to provide electricity to the average family of four because power plants withdraw water – lots of it – for cooling (harming a lot of fish and wildlife in the process).

How you recharge your phone battery also matters. There are a lot of energy efficient chargers to choose from on the market, but more importantly, when the battery is done charging, don’t forget to unplug the charger. Phone chargers are energy vampires because on average, only 5 percent of the power that a charger draws actually powers up the phone. The other 95 percent is simply wasted when it’s left plugged into the socket 24/7. If you want to go a step further, consider buying a solar cell phone charger or even make your own.

Finally, as our friends at GOOD recommend, always recycle or donate your old phone instead of adding it to the country’s rapidly growing piles of e-waste. You might even get a few dollars in return that you could use to buy a–gasp-–used phone.

Take Out Lunch by Tami

Every couple of months I embark on an epic quest to green my lunch. I load up on all the necessary brown bag ingredients and supplies, but after a few weeks my enthusiasm wanes and the buffet near work begins to beckon. Maybe it’s their delicious tofu dumplings, or maybe I'm just not cut out for the packed-lunch lifestyle. Either way, I've decided to get real and go green by reducing the waste that comes with my takeout:

  • It’s easy to load up on everything that looks good, but this lack of foresight can lead to empty wallets and bulging landfills. The USDA estimates that 27% of our food gets thrown away (along with all the oil and water that went into its production)! Avoid contributing to this stat by looking before you take: consider all your options first and be mindful of how hungry you actually are.
  • Styrofoam (or polystyrene) is a popular material for takeout containers, but it’s also a well-known environmental hazard. Polystyrene is manufactured with petroleum, is hard to recycle and releases at least 57 different chemical byproducts during combustion. Opt for sustainable take out containers whenever possible and be sure to tell your favorite restaurant how you feel about greener choices.
  • Use a sustainable and reusable water bottle instead of buying glass or plastic bottled beverages. You'll save money on your beverage budget while reducing waste. Plus you can find some seriously cool designs out there that reflect your personal style.
  • Restaurants love to dole out forks, knives, salt, pepper, plastic wrappings and a huge chunk of napkins, all thrown into a plastic bag for your convenience. Painlessly solve this problem by foregoing the plastic bag: you can’t take all that extra waste if you have nothing to carry it in! Keep some real cutlery at the office so you won’t have to waste plastic utensils.

Living a waste-free life can be difficult given the way many of us live our lives. We appreciate convenience and comfort. Here at Ecocentric we certainly don’t make any claims on perfection but we have found that a little thoughtful preparation and planning can help us avoid waste, especially by consuming less in the first place. Check out some of our suggestions, think before you buy and feel GOOD about living a more sustainable life.