All That Glitters Ends Up on the Curb: Lessons From Zero Waste Families

I once lived in a rainforest in Madagascar where about the only things people owned were a few pots and pans, a couple of knives and a change of clothes for market day and funerals. When I showed up with more things in my backpack than the average rainforest household will amass in a lifetime, I learned a lesson or two about consumption and waste. That's "learned" as in "I learned Spanish," which is to say, "The only thing I remember is taking the class, I can't for the life of me remember what I did with that knowledge, but it must be laying around in the back of my brain somewhere. Oh, here it is! No, wrong. That's algebra. So that's where that went . . ."

No sooner had I moved into the village and unpacked my stuff than all my trash took over. When I asked where to dump the garbage, my new neighbors looked at me as if I had asked them where to park the airplane. They looked at each other with those faces that say, "Is she for real? What's a garbage?" Assuming they just couldn't make sense out of my grade-school Malagasy, I flourished my empty sardine tins and the plastic wrapper from the pre-moistened wipes I'd brought along to keep me clean. A crowd had gathered around me and they smiled joyfully. Oh, yes, now we get it! Pass it here! I handed over a big bag of my trash, confident they'd dispose of it in the nearest dump, as if that was the end of it.

I soon discovered that the sardine tin had been turned into an oil lamp, the dead batteries set in the sun to recharge and the plastic wrapper from the moistened wipes had been tacked to the wall of someone's mud home because she thought the smiling white baby was adorable. Clearly they hadn't sent this garbage to a proper dump where it belonged.

Seeing a whole pile of garbage being divvied up by excited villagers, I intervened. "No, no!" I cried, as if they'd done something wrong, "It's garbage!" Then, to emphasize the point, I grabbed a shovel and pantomimed burying it. They looked at me, dumbfounded, then at each other, puzzled. As I passed the shovel to a strong young man, he took it with a polite smile, and dutifully began to dig a hole in front of my house. Everyone crowded around, and the remains of the garbage were reluctantly dumped into the hole and covered up, while I smiled stupidly and thanked them, happy to have solved my problem and done my best to keep their culture that much more authentic.

Within a few hours, the pigs came along and rooted up everything. They ran through the village with all my trash, scattering what they didn't eat and leaving me scratching my head like the village idiot wondering why I couldn't get rid of my garbage. Then it slowly dawned on me that there simply was no such thing as garbage until I had come along. This idea took some time to permeate my skull, as the concept of no garbage was incomprehensible to me, having grown up in the land of plenty where the only things that got recycled were Coke bottles and the giant plastic eggs that pantyhose once came in.

But in the rainforest where the average annual income was less than the cost of my high-tech hiking sandals, people owned so little that there was nothing leftover to throw away. What no longer served its purpose could be used for something else. The dried milk tins were perfect for storing food and soap so the rats couldn't eat it, and chicken bones were fed to the wild dogs (who kept the rats in check). Empty bottles stored oil or moonshine and the paper I would otherwise wad and toss could be smoothed and flattened and covered with new words or lovely pictures. Nothing was garbage, not even the garbage.

I learned this lesson one afternoon when I tossed a rotten tomato into a grove of coffee trees, and a woman ran to retrieve it. "But it's rotten!" I cried, pointing to the disgusting worms that were crawling in and out of the dark and bitter spots of rot. "There's nothing on it that's edible!"

"But the seeds are still good!" she scolded me, "Why would you throw away perfectly good seeds? People need food here!" She looked at me as if I'd tossed out the last of the whiskey just when the family holidays began. I was so ashamed to be reminded of something that should have been so obvious, and swore I'd never be so selfish and wasteful ever again.

Then I moved back to the States and got right back to it. Every week I'd set a bin of glass and plastic on the curb to be recycled, while towering over it would be a trash can the size of my refrigerator filled with crap headed to some Third World landfill. What I found utterly bewildering was the realization that no matter how many garbage cans and recycling bins I set out on the curb week after week, my home continued to be filled with more and more stuff until I ran to the store for a box of garbage bags to fill with things to haul off to Goodwill. Bags of clothes that never should have been worn and boxes of books that never should have been written were tossed in the car and hauled to the nearest drop box, and I'd drive home feeling so good about my accomplishment and the space I'd freed up in my home that I'd reward myself with a new starter wardrobe and a few books about living simply.

I simply couldn't live simply, I slowly realized, as the rainforest year of my life faded into the past and I returned to living hip deep in material comforts, scrambling for more money to buy more future garbage. Then I was forced to downsize and live a new kind of life. I recycled my paper and plastic, ate healthier food and drove a better Hybrid. But still, every day I hauled the trash outside, becoming ever more stealthy as if being seen tossing out so much crap might reveal a streak of madness best kept under wraps. Does everyone throw so much trash away, I wondered? Apparently, they do, from the looks of the garbage trucks that pass by every day, filled to the brim with all the stuff once defined as "needs" but soon perceived as "waste."

Then one afternoon I found myself waiting to get my plastic fingernails ground off and replaced with marble veneers. As I waited, I browsed through one of those tattered magazines about famous people I'd never heard of. And that's when I learned about the No Waste Family. Whereas entire societies are comprised of people who have no waste, in some societies the concept of not wasting anything is so bizarre that when a single family of four lives without wasting anything for a year, it's real news, right up there with famous people and what they wore to the Oscars. As I read about the family who buys only in bulk, stores food in glass containers, uses rags instead of paper towels, and simply doesn't buy things that come in packaging, I realized that this "normal" lifestyle of mine is no more necessary than are my plastic fingernails.

Living with waste is a choice, a choice of convenience that enables those of us who consume the majority of the earth's resources to worry about abstract environmental problems like the loss of rainforests, while learning nothing of the lifestyles of those who live in the rainforest. For all the talk of people in the rainforest burning down their trees, the truth is, they more than likely consume in a year less than the average American environmentalist consumes in a week.

Humbled as I read about the changes one family made to their lives in America, I thought back to my own experience of waste-free living on the island of Madagascar. I realized I am unlikely to stop buying anything new, start wrapping my daughter's lunch in reusable towels or swear off makeup packaged in glossy plastic. But I can make substantial but ever so simple changes. I can donate all my plastic food containers to Goodwill and start using only glass. I can make the bulk bins at the grocery store my first stop. And I can stop buying things that have more packaging than purpose. Living simply means making simple changes.

There's nothing like watching the pigs run off with your trash to show you how embarrassing it is to have it in the first place. And there's nothing like reading about a family that recycled their garbage cans to show you we don't really need them.