A few weeks ago, during a layover at Chicago's O'Hare airport, I bought a locally-grown salad from a vending machine. I was so excited about the concept that I only realized, with a kind of delayed horror, that it was packaged in a plastic screw-top jar. I guess I live with this jar now and forever, I thought sadly as I gazed down at my new, inanimate child.
The salad jar was only the latest in a long line of examples of how I am basically the living embodiment of that Kanye West tweet that goes, "I hate when I'm on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle." With the planet in a hellacious climatic free fall, and a trash vortex twice the size of Texas churning somewhere out there in the North Pacific, I have become obsessed with the responsibility of repurposing everything I end up with, striving to never throw anything away. Disposable water bottles have been given second lives, rinsed and refilled probably far more times than is safe, and berry containers are transformed into makeshift Tupperware. I recently even looked askance at a plastic straw that was thrust into my smoothie before I could protest; could I reuse it too...?
Yet trying to cram my umpteenth Talenti jar under my kitchen counter this weekend, I finally had to admit my plan to save the world was becoming a personal problem: Being an environmentalist has turned me into a hoarder.
In my defense, there is absolutely no excuse not to be a conscious consumer in 2019. The United States produces more than 30 percent of the world's total waste, despite having only 4 percent of the world's population, and about 30 percent of our garbage comes from packaging. Dig deeper, and the statistics begin to pile into an unruly, nauseating heap: Ninety-one percent of our plastic isn't recycled. Half of the plastic produced annually ends up in the trash within a year. Plastics take more than 400 years to actually degrade. Animals have been discovered eating plastics nearly everywhere on the planet, including 600 meters deep in the ocean. Even dutifully recycling your papers and plastics isn't nearly good enough anymore.
Rather than put "unnecessary" waste in my trash (which, in my head, is basically a chute that leads straight to the Great Pacific garbage patch), I've begun to save everything that could possibly be reused. This includes, but is not limited to: Jars; cardboard boxes; plastic vegetable bags which in turn are converted into my reusable sandwich bags; napkins; empty yogurt containers; packaging bubbles; and condiment packets and plastic cutlery that are sent to me despite my protests of PLEASE DON'T!!! written into Seamless' notes section. For awhile there, I even held onto old newspapers (hey, you never know when you might need to paint and protect the floors from splatter). Even things I really ought to replace — a plastic tea kettle that is so janky it's probably going to electrocute me before the end of the year — gets stored with a shrug, rather than swapped out for something new. But I'm starting to run out of cabinet space.
During my recent examination of my environmentally-motivated hoarding, I stumbled on to a blog post that asks accusingly, "Are you turning your own home into a landfill?" Oof, seen. In the post, Beth Terry, who runs My Plastic Free Life, speaks to Carrie Bennett of the Ecology Center at Berkeley, and Bennett nails my anxiety: That, being an aware consumer, I realize "materials ... have value. In an over-packaged, over-consuming culture, this can feel like a burden."
The solution is painfully obvious, but hard to admit: Waste delayed is not, in fact, waste denied. While I stall throwing away packaging for as long as possible (hey, that Ikea nuts and bolts bag I ripped a hole in could hold salt one day!), the fact remains: I already have it. The damage is done. Most of the things I'm clinging to are still destined to end up in a landfill, as much as I'm convinced storing them under my sink will magically result in their eternal usefulness. While keeping a certain number of jars and vegetable bags will allow me not to have to buy new containers or sandwich bags, at a certain point those 30 berry containers begin to get a bit superfluous. Who am I kidding?
This doesn't mean I should go home and throw every redundant plastic item I've gathered over the years into the trash in defeat. Rather, I've been blissfully ignoring one of the most essential and difficult parts of the adage reduce, reuse, recycle — the very first word. Even if I go out of my way to repurpose the waste I do have, I need to reduce what I am bringing home in the first place. Drastically. Squirreling away potential contributions to landfills juuuust in case does not actually mean they won't end up there eventually.
While I might not be ready to go full zero-waste, it's a goal that is admirable — maybe even morally just — to work toward. It will take a brutal shift in perspective, including seeing my salad jar child as a kind of landfill zombie, biding its time in my cabinets until someone finally lays it to rest.
Until then, it's going to make a great overnight oats jar.