The issue is stark: Pollution from plastics and other waste is harming all creatures, all over the world. It is affecting human health, from residents of the wealthiest countries to children living near scrap yards.
“We cannot recycle our way out of the problem,” states a 2019 report from environmental organization Greenpeace.
Some recycling takes place at facilities in the U.S., but our trash is also being shipped overseas. In recent years China and several other Asian countries stopped accepting waste to recycle, including from many U.S. cities.
There are larger-scale solutions to pursue, such as petitioning supermarket chains to reduce plastic packaging. While my household will continue recycling, we need to get serious about reducing the items we put in the recycling bin. We’ve been striving to curtail our plastic use more generally, but we’re also trying to decrease glass, paper and other materials that can become contaminated.
After months on the library waiting list — nice to see that it’s popular! — I checked out Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home. To the familiar three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) she adds refuse (declining plastic bags at the grocery store, free samples, plastic straws) and rot — composting as much as possible. Recycling is a last resort.
I’m not attempting to go as far as Johnson’s household. If I knew that would tip the balance toward ending or slowing climate change, I would do it. But even if every Mennonite produced less than a pound of waste at home per year, it wouldn’t be enough. So I’m going to focus on incremental lifestyle changes that are an enjoyable challenge. It isn’t all or nothing.
Reading the book, I felt good about what my household is already doing, such as making our own vegetable stock — a great way to get flavor from the ends and peels of onions and garlic. Since I put them in the Crock-Pot without salt, I can toss them into the compost bin with a jump-start on decomposition.
Zero Waste Home inspired me with recipes for items such as cough lozenges, probably one of the most packaging-heavy items I sometimes buy. And the book nudged me to continue researching what I can compost, like parchment paper, and to pay for pick-up of materials I can’t compost in my backyard bins.
One of the biggest obstacles to reducing our trash and recycling is mail. Beyond junk mail and advertising, we receive a lot of paper we didn’t ask for, much of it with plastic windows. I hope nonprofit organizations will not be offended when I ask to be removed from their mailing lists and keep up with them online.
And while many of Johnson’s suggestions are applicable anywhere, some are difficult to do outside of California or similar locales. Living in the upper Midwest, I grow a lot of produce during the summer, preserving some, and I buy from local farmers as much as possible. But I do get some fruits and vegetables at the grocery store to ensure we are getting enough variety. I don’t see a better option available right now.
I also have no interest in stirring up shame for anyone who needs to collapse on the couch after work or simply isn’t interested in learning how to make their own mustard.
While we can’t solve the waste problem at a household level, we can make doing more possible for a greater number of people. Our congregations can be a place where we share ideas and solutions, overcoming obstacles and increasing joy.
Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.