ROOM FOR A PONY

Exploring what life could be like if we weren't buried in clutter, burdened with too many possessions, and surrounded by chaos.

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The daily deluge of coffee cups into the landfills

August 25th, 2013 · Consumer Issues, Disposability, Recycling, Take-out containers, Trash Disposal

Three items to throw away after a few minutes of use.

Three items to throw away after a few minutes of use.

I just got back from a trip. In the airport on the way out of town we got drinks at a Coffee People. Then I had to throw away the cup. Ow! I could hardly do it. But they’re not eligible for reincarnation, so I had to.

The rule of thumb is that anything that can hold liquid is not recyclable — because the only way that it can hold liquid is if it has a certain amount of plastic content, and there’s not a thing they can do with this plasticky paper.

I don’t know about you but for me it’s getting more and more painful to use disposable items. I guess an airport is the one place I should be able to feel ok about disposables. People are on the go — they can’t slow down or they’ll miss their plane. But as for the rest of life, do we really need to be sucking on a drink every minute of the day?

What do you think we did before Starbucks came along with this idea? When we wanted a cup of coffee, we sat down and had it in a civilized manner — like they still do in the rest of the world. As far as I know, the US is the only place where we think we have to have our lips glued to a beverage at all times.

binky

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Bad News for Rigid Plastics: China sings the Elvis song.

August 1st, 2013 · Disposability, Manufacturing, Recycling, Trash Disposal

ReturntoSender

She wrote upon it: Return to sender. Address unknown. No such number. No such zone.

China’s mad.

Yes, China — the one who buys most of the world’s discarded plastics so that we can buy fright-loads of manufactured plastic doodads back from them — has had it.

Reason? They’ve been getting boat-loads of plastic with tons of garbage mixed in. They can’t handle the level of sorting that it would require to glean out the usable plastics. Plus they’d have so much garbage left over that they’d incur a garbage disposal problem of their own in accepting these shipments. So they’re NOT accepting them. They’re turning away boat-loads of plastic, and charging the sender for the cost of shipping it back.

So now nobody’s happy. Including us — meaning Lindi and I. What are we supposed to do with that big box of rigid plastics filling up in our garage? The one we normally take to the recycling center ourselves, since curbside pickup doesn’t take everything. We’re going to have to put it into the regular garbage, and it’s killing us.

It’s unclear exactly where these contaminated shipments to China are coming from. Europe? The U.S.? We don’t know. But this is a clear example of how a few rotten apples DO in fact spoil the whole bunch. Somebody’s screwing up, somewhere. A few individuals, whether it be people or countries, get sloppy and now the whole system doesn’t work as planned. See? It’s true: Every little action matters.

Every action that each person takes makes a difference, good or bad. So there.

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The Reformed Packrat: Life is one big “No” after another

July 15th, 2013 · Excess of Possessions, Packratting, The Packrat Mind

In our neighborhood (and perhaps in the country at large), a custom has developed whereby when you no longer want an item, you simply put it out on your parking strip and it’s gone within a few hours. You don’t even need to put up a “free” sign, it’s understood that it’s up for grabs. I think all of us neighbors are just trading each other’s stuff around.

This works so well that you have to be careful not to leave anything out there by mistake. Like if you’ve brought over some stuff from your storage unit and it’s been unloaded from the truck, which has driven away, and you’re gradually schlepping the items into the house. You turn your back on your grandmother’s mahogany end-table for two minutes and there it goes. And it’s not stealing — the person really thought it was a freebie.

It can happen.

So when I spotted these gorgeous library drawers on my neighbor’s parking strip across the street, my first thought was that they must be in transit. But no, then I saw she’d posted a “free” sign to quell the inevitable doubts.

library drawers

If there’s anything that turns me on as much as stationery supplies, it would be library catalog drawers. Be still my heart!

I could not believe what I was seeing. I rushed over and inspected them. Mint condition, avec cobwebs. Then I rushed back to check the internet and see what they were fetching on ebay. (Not all that much, actually.) The hell with ebay, I wanted these babies for myself. Breathless, I darted back across the street. The library-drawer neighbor was standing next to them, chatting with another neighbor. I said, “I’m thinking about taking these.” Neighbor 2 said “you might have to fight me for them.”   I said, “Ok, how about we each take a set?”

In the end, we both decided against it. I don’t know her reason, but as for me, I just don’t have room. And besides, I reminded myself, I already have one set of these.

“So?” my Self argued back. “Since when is that ever a reason?”

“Since now,” I answered firmly. “Where would I put them?”

“I can think of lots of places,” insisted my Self.

“Yes, but Lindi and I want to be able to walk around in our own house. As opposed to pole vaulting.”

“You are such a party-poop!” retorted my Self, stomping off in a pout.

And she was right. I’ve gotten that way, of late.

I let the drawers go. Ow. That was hard.

library drawer

Do I regret it? Well, no. I guess I’m proud of myself. But it still hurts. I love those drawers. Love.

I ran out and guzzled a large java chip milkshake. Normally I’d say “no” to a large java chip milkshake. But not today. Today I say yes. For that I have room. My stomach is stretchable. My house is not.

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A new look at rechargeable batteries?

July 11th, 2013 · Batteries, Disposability, Toxic Waste

Like everyone, I had my little love affair with rechargeable batteries. I had two sets for my camera, and a recharger that I plugged in overnight so I’d always have one set at the ready. It was great at first. The next morning those batteries would be all a-glow, ready to take on the world. But gradually the initial buzz started to wear off. Before long, not a whole lot seemed to be happening during the night. The camera was responding sluggishly by noon, and by evening it had a headache.

That was unacceptable, and I went back to my normal batteries — faithful; reliable; always available.

Of course I feel terrible about throwing them away. Rechargeable or not, a spurned battery is very toxic to the environment.

A week or two ago, darting into whole foods for some chicken-burger, I encountered Krista standing in front of a Battery.com display to explain the concept. First I’d heard of it.

betterbattery

You buy a set of batteries with a little case that they go in. When they’re spent, you bring them back to the little kiosk (wherever it may be) and dump them into the slot — at which point you insert additional money (but less than the initial outlay) into the machine and it gives you new rechargeables.

In other words you pay them to recharge your batteries instead of doing it yourself. I too was skeptical — how was this a better deal? According to Krista, the commercial recharge holds a lot better. And why do rechargeables wear out so fast, anyway? Because, she explains, the little home rechargers get the batteries too hot too fast … for some reason. Or something like that. The point being that a commercial recharger does a better job. And you pay about $2.50 for that service, for your four batteries. I’m not sure you come out ahead financially, but you do it because you love the planet. That’s their market: people who don’t like throwing away batteries.

That would be me. I haven’t bought them yet, but I’m thinking about it.

They’re hosting additional demos at both the above mentioned Whole Foods locations this Saturday, July 13th. I hope I’ve explained it properly. If not, perhaps Krista or the other people at the company will comment. For more details go to betteryinc.com. Note that it’s “bettery” not battery. And don’t just put bettery.com or the search engine thinks you’re just misspelling battery.

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What to do with spent batteries

July 8th, 2013 · Batteries, Disposability, Toxic Waste, Trash Disposal

Do you know someone who tosses used batteries back into the drawer with the NEW batteries? What’s up with this sick habit? I can explain. But first, let me complain. The next person, naturally assuming the batteries pulled from the new-battery-drawer to be new, finds that the appliance still doesn’t work and starts down a completely wrong path to figuring that out.

Now what? Do I still have the packaging for this thing? Are there instructions? Was there a manual? Where is it? Is it still under warranty? Shall I go online and find trouble-shooting instructions on their website? This is way too much hassle — is it worth it? Grrrr. I’d come out ahead just throwing the stupid machine out and buying a new one. Etc.

With luck and talent, they’ll eventually figure out the problem is a new battery that is actually a dead battery. Meanwhile there went 45 minutes of their life that they’ll never get back.

Why does this happen? We could attribute it to careless and inconsiderate behavior; or to be more kind we could attribute it to a deep-seated aversion to tossing a battery into the garbage. On an intuitive and sometimes barely perceptible level, one senses that a battery is a bad thing to add to the landfills. So, lacking a better option, one throws it back in the drawer.

batterybagFor many people, the better option has to be easy or it won’t happen. Now it’s easy. You can toss your spent batteries into a paper bag and take them to one of two Whole Foods grocery stores in Portland — the one on NE 43rd & Sandy, and the one downtown at NW 12 & couch. They’ve got Betteryinc.com — a company that is selling rechargeables, but you don’t have to buy anything to stick your AAA through D sized batteries into the disposal slot of their kiosk.

As for larger batteries, such as those for power tools and laptops, that’s another story. More on that later.

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Avoiding pesky labor laws by sending work abroad

June 24th, 2013 · Consumer Issues, Excess of Possessions, Manufacturing, Philosophy, Polystyrene

See the happy factory workers, who spend their lives in rotten working conditions for extremely low pay so that we can have all the pink plastic doggies we need.

What was I saying last time? Oh yes — we send our Styrofoam to China and they make it into cheaper plastic products. So what’s wrong with that? If China can recycle polystyrene into a more inert kind of plastic that isn’t going to be breaking up into little particles and flying all over the place, isn’t that a good thing?

Well, yes, kind of. But.
This whole send-the-work-abroad thing?
There’s a lot wrong with it.

First of all, they still have to send it over there — on a big ship that uses up a lot of oil. That part’s not cheaper, right? Isn’t the cost of oil the same globally?

The fact that the total cost to us of the resulting end product we buy back — which includes the shipping PLUS the machinery, the facilities, and the labor in China — is so absurdly low — how can that be right? You know somebody in this picture is getting screwed.

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Where to get rid of Styrofoam blocks in Portland

June 13th, 2013 · Disposability, Packaging, Polystyrene, Recycling, Trash Disposal

I have to admit I’ve been feeling somewhat holy about going to the trouble of schlepping our huge Styrofoam blocks out to one of the only two places in Portland that will take them. I feel less holy after what I’ve just found out. …. which I’ll tell you about in a minute.

But first I want to emphasize that we still have to schlep — because presently there is no better option besides the One and Only better option, which is that this horrible stuff must not be manufactured in the first place. Meanwhile, this is the only acceptable thing we can do with it. Take it to Total Reclaim on Columbia Boulevard, or to the Foster Road location of another company, called Recology.

But the sobering part is: then what? What do they do with it? Well…  I suspected this but I’d never followed it through this far. Are you ready?

After they densify it, by melting it and squashing it down so that it takes up less space on the ships, they send it to places such as China and Japan where it’s used to make cheaper plastic materials such as: toothbrush handles, picture frames, and…. pen casings.

Pen casings? eeek! Toothbrush handles? Picture frames? How many of us have those items in our homes?

“Go away, Styrofoam. Take a slow boat to China.”

So when we buy those items, we’re actually buying styrofoam? I feel stuck in an impossible loop.

And when we eventually take those items to the recycling center, aren’t we then actually throwing the evil polystyrene into the rigid plastics recycling bins?

And what happens to it from there? Metro Recycling sends their rigid plastics to China. Is that bad? I suppose as long as we have this hideous stuff, we might as well get as many uses out of it as possible. Eventually it will end up in the landfills, but at least we’ll have used it as many times as possible.

But it looks like as the items are recycled into multiple incarnations and the plastics are combined with other plastics, the content of the cheaper plastics becomes less and less known. So how do they decide what recycling number to put on the end product? and is that important?

This is getting really complicated. My brain hurts. I have to stop now.

Next time I’ll address this nagging question: If China can “recycle” styrofoam, isn’t that a good thing? And, the dumber and more obvious question: Why can’t we do that here in the U.S.?

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Why we don’t want to be inhaling or swallowing Styrofoam

June 10th, 2013 · brain theory, Consumer Issues, Disposability, Trash Disposal

It’s not rocket surgery.

All you have to do is watch the surface of any hot liquid in one of those Styrofoam cups to see it forming a slick on your drink.

When every cell in my body goes “Ew!” I pay attention. I may not be a scientist, but my body knows a few things on its own. It was right about smoking. Even in my infancy I knew that was bad. (“Suck this stinky grey substance into my lungs? um… no thank you.”) I don’t know what was wrong with everybody else, but I did not need to wait for the Surgeon General to publicly declare it harmful in 1964.

And yet I see all these people smoking — friends, relatives — and guess what? They’re smart people too! At least as smart as me, and in some cases smarter. So I remain completely stumped about why everyone didn’t have the same reaction to smoking that I did.

But it’s the same thing with Styrofoam. How can anyone with a set of eyeballs and taste buds see and smell and sip a hot drink in a Styrofoam cup and proceed to drink it?

You want to know what’s known about it so far? You can read about it here. And I think we can safely assume that we don’t know the extent of it yet.

But think about it: So many perplexing illnesses in the world, and we’re ok with ingesting styrofoam? So many people suffering, from both mental and physical illnesses, and we have no idea why?

Really? Can we please start with the obvious toxins? Do we need the scientists to study something as icky as styrofoam for a few more decades before we believe that this is just BAD? Or can we use our own brains RIGHT NOW and JUST SAY NO TO STYROFOAM!?

Next post I’ll tell you where you can dispose of it — which makes us feel a little better, but of course, as I discussed in my last post, it’s not going anywhere. We need to stop it at its source. More on that soon.

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We’re all eating Styrofoam

June 6th, 2013 · Consumer Issues, Decluttering, Disposability, Packaging, Polystyrene

See the big blocks of Styrofoam cluttering up your garage or basement. Does the thought of taking a big bite out of one of them repulse you? Surprise! — we’re already essentially doing that.

Styrofoam, a brand name for polystyrene, takes 500 years to decompose. When we throw it away, it doesn’t break down in the sense of rotting. As far as our little lifetimes are concerned, all it does is break apart, into smaller and smaller chunks, then smaller and smaller particles, until it becomes a fine dust. Being extremely light, it’s carried by air into the rivers and oceans, where it mingles with the plankton and looks exactly like it. The fish can’t tell it apart, or if they can, there’s no way they can ingest one and not the other. So if you eat fish, you’re eating styrofoam.

But if you think you can avoid it by avoiding fish (which contain the crucial Omega 3 fats, among other nutrients), you’re going to have to quit all that breathing too, since it floats right on into your body when you inhale. Why wouldn’t it? It’s lighter than all those pollens and dust mites and all the other junk we inhale all the time. We can’t filter it out of our respiratory systems any better than the fish can.

And you’re going to have to give up drinking anything at church coffee hour. Every single Sunday, churches all over the nation hurl billions of styrofoam cups into the trash after serving up bad coffee and fake orange juice in those awful cups. Not to pick on churches, but come on, how holy is that? Of course, far outrunning churches in styrofoam use, we have all the business meetings that happen all day, every day, where beverages are slurped. Schools use polystyrene cups and plates daily in their lunch rooms. And of course take-out food services use them constantly.

Portland (my love) is one of more than a hundred U.S. cities that have banned styrofoam food packaging in restaurants. In other words, polystyrene containers can no longer be used for take-out food. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still being churned into the landfills by the businesses, schools, grocery stores and churches.

Anybody need a mission? Feeling stumped about how to “make a difference”? It’s a project that could lead to greatness (not yours, silly, the environment’s). Make it small or make it big. If it feels too huge to take on your whole city, start with whatever organization or institution you belong to, and STOP THE STYROFOAM!

For those of you secretly wondering “but why can’t I eat styrofoam?” I’ll explain that in my next post. And in my next next post, I’ll tell you where to take those big stupid blocks filling up your garage. I hope you haven’t put them in the trash already.

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Grandma: not so crazy after all

May 29th, 2013 · Excess of Possessions, Hoarding, Re-using, The Packrat Mind

In the Depression years, our grandparents saw need all around them, and probably found constant satisfaction in having saved just the right thing. In the last few years of my grandmother’s life, we sent for the items she pined for in the storage unit in New Mexico so that she could at last be reunited with them. Rather than list here what exactly was in that storage unit, I will summarize by saying that very little of it would’ve been useful in any kind of disaster, economic or otherwise.

At least not to me, or most other people. But she would’ve found a use for things like squashed sandals from the thirties and petrified vinyl purses. In an emergency, she could’ve woven them all together with the balls of twine to make a raft that would’ve gotten the whole family across the ocean in the nick of time.

But there was another reason my grandmother saved stuff — for the same reason I do — she had an aversion to waste. Just like I do, she had a problem with the notion of tossing a plastic fork into the trash after using it for ninety seconds. Or knowing it was going to get thrown away if you left it on the airplane food tray, even unused and still in its cellophane wrapper.

When we were little, we loved the stuff she’d bring us. Then as as we got older and snarkier, we kind of made fun of her. Now, though, I understand.

I’m sorry, Grandma. We were idiots. You had the right idea.

Raphael Dunne Laflin
1900 — 1992

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