Sunday, April 29, 2012


"Why are you reading that?" my husband asked.  "It's only going to upset you."

"No, I heard the author on NPR," I said.  "He made some great points and sounded really factual.  It'll be fine."

"I think you're crazy," my husband answered.

He had a point.  I've had more than one meltdown over green guilt in the 4 1/2 years that we've lived in the Bay Area, where going green sometimes feels like a competitive sport.  My anxiety about doing the right thing hit an extended high beginning in February 2010, when I discovered The Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson.  Johnson's family of four produces about a quart of trash annually, and I tried to eat the elephant by jumping in where she was rather than where I am in the whole zero waste householding business.  It made me an exhausted, emotional, self-hating wreck.

I have since scaled back my efforts quite a lot, and our family of five now makes about one kitchen-sized bag of trash per week (but lots of recyclables).  I'm pleased with our progress, but before I determined what our next steps ought to be, I wanted to be better informed about what changes would have the greatest positive impact.   Which is why the NPR interview of Edward Humes, author of Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash caught my attention.

In the interview, Humes was talking about Bakelite, an early plastic that was used for billiard balls, piano keys, and telephones  -- things that were meant to be durable, and have long, even heirloom-length, lives. He was calm and reasoned, not casting blame but describing a shift in the way materials are used as being problematic.  It was impersonal, informative, and assumed intelligence from the audience.

Still feeling cautious, I downloaded a sample onto my Kindle.  Humes opens the book with an anecdote of elderly hoarders, Jesse & Thelma Gaston, who had been trapped in their own home, by their own trash, for three weeks.  He moves further into the story of trash by describing other hoarders, the condition of hoarding, and the media attention it has received in the last few years.  His punchline is startling:
But little if any thought is given to the refuse itself, or to the rather scarier question of how any person, hoarder or not, can possibly generate so much trash so quickly.
Of course, there's a reason for this blind spot: namely, the amount of junk, trash, and waste that hoarders generate is perfectly, horrifyingly normal.  It's just that most of us hoard it in landfills instead of living rooms, so we never see the truly epic quantities of stuff that we all discard.  But make no mistake: The two or three years it took the Gastons to fill their house with five to six tons of trash is typical for an American couple.  (page 3/location 106)
He follows this assertion with a discussion of how much trash the average American generates daily, coming up with an average lifetime production of 102 tons of trash.  There is a reasonably detailed discussion of how one estimates that amount, and multiple illustrations for how much 102 tons really is.    Aircraft carriers are involved.  Which is kind of scary, when you are talking about one person's trash.

Humes then poses three questions:  What is the nature and cost of that 102-ton monument of waste?  How is it possible for people to create so much waste without intending to do so, or even realize they are doing it? Is there a way back from the 102-ton legacy, and what would that do for us... or to us? (pages 11-12)  These three questions form the organizing principles of the book.

Part 1: The Biggest Thing We Make describes how America deals with trash, how it has been dealt with in the past, and some "paths not taken" in the history of American waste management.  He talks about the concept of waste and wastefulness, how our natural sense of thrift was overcome by early mid-century advertisers (fans of Mad Men might find this familiar territory), and how the political climate defeats promising policies.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is discussed in (rather depressing) detail.  Humes corrected my misconception, a common one, he asserts, that the Garbage Patch (not to mention the other gyres collecting plastic trash in the other oceans) is not an "island" of trash, but a chowder of plastic bits with floating detergent bottles and milk cartons and old toys floating around what ought to be a pristine blue surface thousands of miles from anywhere.

Part 2: The Trash Detectives was perhaps the most depressing section of the book.  It's the shortest, because it's the area involving the greatest number of unknowns.  It goes against what we might assume, that "someone out there" knows what happens to the cans we put in the recycling, or the printer cartridges that we drop off at Office Depot, but in fact there is not really a clear, readily followable chain for where stuff goes when we're done with it (except the landfill) as there is for how to get it into our hands.  Humes does a great job of detailing exactly what is and is not known about trash after its useful life, and although the information itself is depressing, his prose never is.  It's informative and occasionally incredulous, but always readable and factual; he is one of us, which is to say, he doesn't exempt himself from the problem.

Part 3: The Way Back was... maybe not so much empowering, given how thoroughly Humes detailed the scope of the problems our trash poses, but certainly hopeful.  "Pick of the Litter" details a San Francisco dump and artist-in-residence program that talks about how much is found in the dump, but also how much potential there is for the stuff in there as actual materials.  "Chico and the Man" recounts the efforts of a small entrepreneur to create a new kind of reusable shopping bag, and to educate people on the environmental benefits of avoiding plastic shopping bags -- and the gigantic lawsuit that was mounted against him by the plastic bag industry -- and how it was defeated.  The remainder of the section talks about the efforts communities around the world and one Marin County, California family of four (Bea Johnson's family) has been working to reduce their waste, one innovative idea at a time.

If you're interested in treading lightly on the Earth, this book will be interesting and informative.  If you've never thought about it before, it's a reasonable place to start; Humes makes a very good case for remaking ourselves into a less wasteful culture as being good for us personally, as well: with less stuff, and better stuff, we can do more, save more, be financially more secure and nationally more secure.  The materials we have in our landfills are resources we've paid for and then discarded as though they are valueless.  Humes makes a powerfully readable case for the value of our resources, and for renewing our natural tendency to thrift.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Laundry is My Emmamy

At the very end of 2009 the obligatory Facebook app made the rounds, summing up a year's worth of posts with cloud labels.  Coming off a high-low year that contrasted the demands of running a household with three children aged six and under with the incredible experience of training for and completing the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3 Day, I installed it.  I expected to relive all the satisfaction of the work I did for the 3 Day, something that reflected my hard work and success.  Which I did.

But the mentions of the laundry were a lot huger.

I'm going to backtrack a bit to a Cute Thing My Kids Said a couple of days ago.

Me, serving dinner: "Quentin, would you like any grape tomatoes?"

Quentin (age 4), looks up: "No." Looks back at his plate.  No expression.

Duncan (age 6), astounded: "But why not?  They're the most delicious things ever!"

Quentin, deadpan: "Vegetables are my emmamy."

Which is it, in one.  Laundry is my emmamy.

Now, I do try not to be Debbie Downer on Facebook.  So I use little euphemisms, like "I'm off to tackle Mount Washmore!" because it really was the most interesting thing going on in a day that is typically filled with various potty responsibilities and the making of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Also, I think just lurking is sneaky and Facebook was, at that time, pretty much my only adult interaction for days on end.  On a really good day I might post "Mount Washmore is a molehill!" but by the next morning somebody would have wet the bed and I'd be in silent despair as I contemplated the loads of bedding to be dealt with.

I don't expect many men to have made it this far into the SAHM's lament, but just in case my husband's eyes haven't yet glazed over, and also to enumerate the pain of fellow laundry haters, I will spell out exactly why I loathe a job that is primarily done by two (mostly) automatic machines.

First is sheer volume.  In my household there are two adults, three children, and a cat.  Now, though I don't actually dress my cat, he does generate more than his share of laundry... if you get my drift.  He's old and not as spry as he used to be and, like the children in 2009, he doesn't always get there in time.  Which is fun.  I expect the rest of the family is self-explanatory, but what it all amounts to is that there is a lot of laundry and it's generally very disgusting, especially in 2009, when my children were 6, 3, and 1.

Second is my own idea of a job well-done.  Apparently there are a lot of ways to separate laundry (one friend divided them into "whites, reds or pinks, and everything else") and I use one of the more elaborate systems, involving not only color but fabric care. So nobody else is allowed to separate the laundry but me.

Third is the amount of time the machines take and the nature of parenting.  The washing machine takes just under an hour, but the dryer takes just over an hour.  This means that if I start the washer and the dryer at the same time, the washer will have to sit, completed, till the dryer finishes.  Except, if I put a load of line-dry only clothes in, I can squeeze two loads into the washer before I have to move the second one over to the dryer, so theoretically I get more done.  Except, when you are the only adult in the house reponsible for three children under six, inevitably there's going to be some reason to forget that you are supposed to go back and move everything over, and you certainly can't babysit the machines when you have to prevent the children from killing each other, or poisoning themselves, or when you have to fetch them from school or take them to baseball practice or... take your choice.  Children are distracting... as is Facebook.

Then there's the folding... the endless, monotonous folding.  It's not so bad when I can watch a lot of TV while I'm working at it, but I can't really watch TV while the children are around if I don't want their brains to rot in their heads and leak right out of their ears, so I inevitably end up taking 2 nights a week with a gargantuan mound of laundry next to me and watch something like 4 episodes of Star Trek Voyager until I get it all done.  Which is fine, I guess, although we are now a one-TV household and my husband really likes his xBox.

I won't talk about lugging it all around to the five rooms in the house where it is all stored.

Are you tired yet?

So in 2010, when my youngest son was 2 1/2 and we judged that my parents wouldn't hate us if they kept the three children while my husband and I took a long weekend to ourselves, we went to stay at a resort in Jamaica.  We went there to sit on the beach and just rest.  I exerted myself far enough to get a pedicure.  While I was at the salon, just me and the aesthetician, there was a terrible thunderstorm and the power went out.  She opened all the windows and we had enough light for her to keep working.  It was quiet, really, really quiet, and peaceful, and she was a very beautiful woman.  Not magazine beautiful, but character beautiful.  Someone you could really like.  And in that peaceful setting, with her working on my feet, we got to talking like women, sharing about our families (she had two teenage daughters) and how things were in Jamaica, which at that time was experiencing a lot of unrest in Kingstown, on the other end of the island.  (Now that I think about it, I don't know how or if or when that worked out, and I'm a little ashamed).

She said, "Three children, that's a lot of work."

And I, feeling rested and relaxed after two and a half days of enough sleep and nobody begging me for anything, said, "Yes, they are a lot of work.  But they're a lot of fun, too.  The laundry is the worst part."

She was surprised and we got to talking about laundry.  She never even thought of it as a chore, she said, because nobody has a washing machine, let alone a dryer, you just wash all your clothes in a tub, and it takes maybe ten or fifteen minutes.  You put it out on the line and a couple of hours later you bring it in and that's all there is to it.

So it got me wondering.  Has our labor-saving device turned what could be a short, quick job into something that requires hours of thought and effort?  If I did all my laundry in the bathtub instead of in a high efficiency front loader would I be able to make peace with that chore?

But then I look at Mount Washmore.  And I think of putting all that in a tub, and scrubbing it by hand, and hauling it out to the clothesline my neighborhood won't permit me to have, and how long it would take to dry in the San Francisco Bay Area fog belt even if I had one, and I think, not bloody likely.

So, laundry is, and shall remain, my emmamy.