Gratitude makes the journey better and so does kindness

Tag: garbage

Weekly column: Let’s make the holidays this year about people, not sales

Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday, December 2, 2019.

I have this simple blade coffee grinder that I use for grinding flax seeds. It lost a knob during one of our many moves, but it still works. No points for looking pretty though. We also have another basic blade coffee grinder, which has all parts and has been fully functional for the last 20 years (OK, we had to sharpen the blade a couple of times). Donating either in favour of new ones might just mean the end of the road for both, since they look past their prime. And then again, why would we? They work just fine.

New Year, Old Problems

Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on January 8, 2018. 

As of two days ago, we are back to slush. A walk to the library yesterday had me jump over soupy snow marshes, making me pay extra attention to the sidewalk. When you do, one thing that stands out is the garbage. A straw here, a wrapper there, a disposable cup here, another one there, lids included, half-revealed by the melting snow. A couple of blocks worth of garbage.

Then come the daily walks through Peterson Creek Park. If you go far enough on the trails, there’s little or no garbage. The main trail though and the portions of trails immediately adjacent to it suffer from the same garbage litter issue. Plus, dog poop, right on the trails. ‘Tis almost the season again when it all comes out, some bagged, some not, all equally disgusting, more so if you happen to step in it. If the past years are a good reference, the worst is yet to come, I know that much.

Moving down the list, there’s the visual references from people who went up to the grasslands recently. Driving along Lac Du Bois Road takes you to a place of wondrous beauty every time, no matter the season. We are ever so lucky to be so close to the grasslands, as they truly are a wonder. They cover less than 1 percent of British Columbia and are home to more threatened and endangered species than any other habitat, according to the Grasslands Conservation Council of BC. Nothing short of magical beauty, and right in our common backyard.

The ‘common backyard’ part is where the heartache starts. It’s where I go back to the recent photos and videos I came across on social media. Loads of garbage. From pizza boxes, to diaper boxes filled with garbage, to Christmas wrappings and more, it was all dumped by the side of the road in the grasslands (could be another wild space too, such as Greenstone Mountain.) This happens every year.

Sure, there will be a cleanup organized by well-intended folks who will fill many garbage bags and remove (again!) more debris than one can possibly imagine. There will be many in fact – one in Peterson Creek, one in the grasslands, one at Riverside Park and in many other places. Thoughtful people are out there, and we need more like them. The question remains though: Will it hold?

Not really. Garbage keeps coming back. One could argue that it is worse to dump a couple of weeks worth of garbage somewhere along a dirt road outside town than it is to drop a candy wrapper in the city.

Well, size matters indeed, but mentality is the common denominator that we ought to pay attention to. It’s the care we manifest for our spaces, big or small, close to home or further away.

Single-use plastic is most commonly found out there, in town and in the back country, but it’s almost impossible to describe the worst of it all. Is it someone’s domestic garbage lying by the side of a road that cuts through beautiful landscape, or the growing heaps of nails from burnt pallets with some crushed beer cans for good measure. There’s unfortunately another shocker lying around the next bend, so you can never tell.

What can be done, one wonders? Install more garbage bins? Those who mean well already use the existing ones, but a higher density helps. Put up more signs warning of steep fines? That could work, but would be there to reinforce it? Perhaps we need to see more conservation officers and park rangers.

Yet the truth is that the most sustainable solution rests not with the reinforcers of laws and by-laws, but with each of us. Our planet is slowly but surely drowning in garbage. The more stuff we buy, the more we throw out. The less we care, the more the beauty that surrounds us shrinks and suffers. It may be that we are the ones causing the trouble, but the chilling reality is that we are also at the receiving end. If not this generation, then the next.

The writer and environmentalist George Monbiot once wrote ‘Progress is measured by the speed at which we destroy the conditions that sustain life.’ The emphasis is on ‘life’; not animal life or plant life, not wild life of any kind, but life. That means us too. It’s high time we see it that way, think it and live it, and raise ourselves and our children breathing it in as if it were oxygen. Because it is.

The Folly Of Planned Obsolescence

Originally published as a column in NewsKamloops on September 16, 2016.

20160901_201806Every week on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays there is a pile of newspapers which my eldest son delivers to people in the neighborhood.  Size-wise, Tuesdays are ok, Fridays are occasionally daunting and Thursdays are downright scary. The number of flyers is scary. They cover everything you could think of: food, clothing, cars and trucks, lottery, toys, appliances, furniture and much more.

20160907_135715My son aptly remarked that many people only want their Thursday paper because of the flyers. There’s an inch or so that he lugs around with each paper on his routes. It adds up. But every week that many? How much new stuff can there be on sale every week?

A while back someone shared a few stories of entire sets of furniture and all related being taken to the dump due to remodeling or after inheriting an old house with out-of-style-everything inside. I wrote on more than one occasion about thrift stores bursting at the seams with so much stuff, not to mention the merchandise that gets sent to the landfill because it is not saleable anymore.

Still, sales advertised in weekly flyers promise more and more at low prices. A basic scientific principle dictates that matter gets transformed into something else but never disappears. That we have seen it with objects around us is an understatement.

Garbage in landfills and oceans increases by the day and we put it there. The promise of new and better beats fixing the old and reusing or repurposing all that you can. Holidays have been enhanced out of proportion to make room for more saleable stuff most of us won’t even consider buying. That is not the issue though. Whether anyone buys it or not, it is on the shelves and when the season ends, it becomes garbage.

Yes, Halloween is coming with plastic carved pumpkins at a mere $23 when the fun of carving a compostable local one comes with a lower price and loads of fun. Styrofoam cadaveric heads? Let’s not even go there. From an environmental perspective, Styrofoam is evil whichever way it comes to co-exist and unfortunately outlive all of us. Because it will.

You see, I grew up in a most idyllic way that I came to appreciate even more so recently since attempting to provide my sons with a similar one. Across the street from our house lived an old Hungarian guy who fixed shoes. I don’t know if he had ever been a cobbler, all I know is that from the time I can remember he fixed shoes, lots of them and my parents always said he did an amazing job. The rows and rows of shoes in his workshop stood proof.

The room where he had his workshop was facing the street and I could see him at work all the time from our yard. Whenever I had to drop off or pick up shoes that he fixed I would take some time to sit on a little wooden stool and watch him work. His hands were moving swiftly and expertly and I remember that before starting to work on a shoe he’d always weigh the shoe in and feel it from one end to the other. Then he’d know where to start.

My Dad was keen on taking care of the family shoes. He would regularly polish them and encourage us to keep them clean. It makes for a pleasant appearance, he would say. I liked sitting and watching him apply thin layers of various shoe polish and then use one of his brushes to get a good shine going. Between my Dad’s careful maintenance and the cobbler’s expertise at fixing the soles, shoes lasted quite a while and looked good too.

There were no flyers coming our way so my parents bought things as they needed them and made good use of all that we had. Someone suggested that people who lived through the post-war era like my grandparents likely learned the value of everything and made sure to reuse and repurpose. It may be true, but just as well, many people continued past the war time memories. It made sense to not waste and not reach out for the next one-use that would become obsolete too soon.

I have read about some cell phones being sold with ‘planned obsolescence’. Ironically, that matches our rather ephemeral human existence and even more ironically (yes with a hint of conspiracy theory if you will) big companies are planning both.

The concept of lifetime warranty (sounding more cheerful than ‘cradle to grave’) is what’s becoming obsolete. It shouldn’t. Approximately 20 percent of the national methane emissions rise from our landfills. Landfills already occupy a lot of space and the materials that fill them are here to stay. Exponential growth laws be gone, it makes no sense that we still reach for the next flyer, ready to buy more and add to the mounds of garbage.

That we made it to this day with a planet that can still sustain our lifestyle (yes, I am referring to the western ways) is thanks to those before us, most of whom took what they needed, when they needed it, because their connection to the communities they lived in and the land they lived off of was strong enough for them to know what road to follow.

What’s the answer then? Perhaps a return to a simpler lifestyle, smaller spaces to fill and better connections with our own selves and our values, and more time spent with our loved ones; fewer things to buy and more time spent out of doors and getting to know the very earth we walk on. Our journey here is a short one if you look at the big picture, so making it worthwhile not based on weekly sales but on what’s actually essential to have – time and connections with people and nature – is a challenge worth pursuing.

Simplicity is where it’s at. And truth is, it doesn’t come with sacrifices but with being liberated.

Why Half-Assed?

“In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.” The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations

It’s venting day. Part of life. Before I go on, I’ll offer a disclaimer: If you expect me to be happy or calmly pensive or simply relate about things that make my heart jump and dance, well, there’s a lot of that in here, but occasionally I will rant and stomp my feet and I think my words, even though I might not put any in caps today, will be loud enough. OK, that’s done.

Today found me and the boys at the beach on a “Keep Vancouver spectacular” clean-up-the-beach mission. A mouthful, I know. Bear with me though. Rain pouring down like someone punched holes in the sky, we make our way to the beach and meet the others – kids and parents. We each get rubber gloves, tongs, giant tongs, lots of plastic bags that come individually wrapped plastic pouches and with a piece of cardboard inside to keep the good form of each of the plastic bag that have Glad written all over them. Bad form, in fact, as Captain Hook would say, and accurately so. Bad form.

After we get equipped we start our mission. The beach was clean, having been cleaned up just a couple of days ago as a lifeguard explained later on. No worries, the kids can still get a good lesson in how to care for the place they live in. Their city. A pouch in what we collectively call “the environment”. We find cigarette butts, a few pieces of old wet paper, some beer caps, two short pieces of string and a soaked and sandy tennis ball which we leave on a log for the next dog who forgets his toys at home. Barely a handful of garbage. Kids switch to a hunting mode and fight for every piece of garbage they could find. It’s a competition, you see, who collects the most.

We return to the parking lot bedraggled and rather empty-handed. At least ten bags lie on the grass. almost empty, except for two of them. One kid found a seagull skull, another a pineapple crown. It’s cold. Where will all the bags go, I ask. In the garbage bin. No, how about we dump the garbage from all in one bag and save the rest? Overruled. Too complicated or too dirty. Well, it’s garbage. The dump hates plastic, we know that by now yet we still send it that way. Come on. I’m behind a glass wall or something, no words make it through.

The kids are comparing the collected treasures, who got more – it was a competition after all – and they are given hats to remember the event. And the idea. The gratification factor? The “what’s in it for me” worm has to be satisfied or else. Now I’m bitter. They are given hot chocolate – a most welcome treat, but – GASP! in Styrofoam cups. Cruel joke (at the expense of what we collectively and absent-mindedly call “the environment”), irony, lack of proper planning, call it whatever we want but the message is the same: It’s wrong! It dirties the day, the mission and everything about it. Styrofoam is evil, one of the least biodegradable man-made materials out there, it leaks chemicals into hot drinks that happen to have a certain content of fat and the idea of drinking from them on the day when the kids fight over a small piece of biodegradable piece of wet paper like their lives depend on it, well, it’s wrong. WRONG on all levels and if you don’t think so please feel free to share your reasons. So my big fat screaming question is this: Why do we do it half-assed instead of going all the way. Why not use every opportunity to teach our kids about how to really do it the right way? Why not go for the least amount of stuff left behind, especially when you’re out to collect garbage left behind by others?

What then, you say, what can satisfy the finicky and frowning Miss Criticism? I won’t go overboard but I’ll say this:

  • There’s biodegradable plastic bags made by companies with a stellar environmental stewardship like Seventh Generation (no, no money for me here, I simply like the ideas they play with and the stuff they sell). Let’s buy those. A few only, making sure they’re fat and plump before heading to the dump.
  • There’s bring-your-own-mug-if-you-want-hot-chocolate kind of policy to enforce (an effort, I know, but are we not supposed to teach our kids that all things that are worthy come at a price. Are we not yet ready to teach them that the “have your cake and eat it too” is a lousy fallacy)
  • There’s opportunities like the one today to teach kids that it all starts with buying less, relying on less, and definitely not going for the one-use-only articles anymore. That’s so last century. A nasty joke.
  • Today was a good opportunity to teach them about plastic bags, the plague of today. We used so much plastic today it makes me gag. Why not? Why stop mid-sentence?

Rant over. Do as you please, but I invite you to leave a comment. If you feel like it of course.

Why The Big Picture Stinks

I’m reaching the end of this particular rope here. It’s the garbage, you see. I am not a big consumer but somehow I am sucked into producing garbage. I am trying to buy food that does not come in a package, I am trying to buy only what I need and I aim for items that do not come with overwhelming packaging yet somehow the future garbage material finds its way into my home and my life. And ultimately the landfill via my raccoon-loved garbage container outside. Enough then.

Why do we need our stuff packaged like it’s some explosive device? Toys come all tied up to hard to open boxes made of non-recyclable plastic. Most of the food comes packaged and overpackaged. Styrofoam trays and takeout containers are still grinning at us as we stand perplexed trying to figure out whether to put the white foamy material in the recycling box or the garbage bin. Try to imagine this: What if for a month or so everyone in your neighborhood will throw their garbage out in the street instead of of the garbage bin in the backyard? How much would that be? An itty bitty mound of nothing or a considerable sized pile of things that should not be there in the first place. Because you see, garbage trucks come and take it away every week but it only makes it to the landfill. Out of sight is out of mind but it’s not out of our world.

I remember a birthday party that Tony was invited to when he was four. At least 15 kids were invited. The gifts were all wrapped, bows and all, piled on the grass at Jericho beach, waiting to be attended to. And the time came. The wrapping came undone, ripped by impatient tiny hands. Lots of wrapping. The owner of the little hands did not care at all about the fancy wrapping. Why should he? By the time the party ended a couple of garbage bags took the place of the gifts. Everything from gift wrapping to paper plates, plastic cups, forks and dead balloons went into the black bags. The child, merely four, had a gargantuan environmental footprint after just two hours of fun. If you’re trailing back a child’s footprint from the time he/she makes it into the world… Yeah, it’s a tough one.

Not to be a party pooper (though I can hear you say just that), but all I could think was that the kid got robbed after all. And mine with him. How many birthday parties went on that day in Vancouver? See? All of a sudden you wish you did not know how to do math. The big picture stinks all of a sudden, no pun intended. The black garbage bags looked more menacing than an army of hungry crows. Should we not rethink our strategy then? Keep an eye on your garbage output for a week if you don’t believe me. Very few things should go in the garbage bin, yet you might be surprised. Not that you’re lacking good intentions. If there’s no the accommodating triangle of chasing arrows with a number in it then it’s the landfill. Think coffee lids, your kid’s latest toy and its packaging, the good old VHS and audiotapes that you have finally decided to let go off, expired carseats – yes, they have an expiration date and most municipalities do not recycle them, rubber boots and umbrellas, the broken blow dryer and toaster oven, old phone, burnt old Christmas lights, damaged decorations and all the good-for-a-bit-but-useless-overall stuff that came in the kids’ goodie bags along the years… the list goes on and on with no end in sight. Awareness is a relentless beast, isn’t it?

This story has no ending. We’re very far in the game of convenience but I’m willing to give my throwaway habits a makeover. There’s a triangle of chasing arrows here too, I’d say. Stuff we buy –> stuff we use/not use + packaging  –> stuff we throw away. If I’d connect the first and last you’d say I’m being sarcastic. But for the majority of time I’d be just pointing at the obvious. I’m ready then. Care to join?


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