By LYDIA BERGLAR
Picking up where we left off last week, let’s dive into Jennifer Blair’s explanation of the seven Rs: Reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse, repurpose, repair, and rot.
One simple way to reduce single-use plastic waste is to never buy bottled water. Blair said, “People think bottled water is cleaner than tap water, but it’s much less regulated than tap water. There’s no oversight as to what companies actually do to filter and cleanse the water. Buy a water filter or buy reusable water bottles. Water filters very quickly pay for themselves.”
Blair also keeps a reusable kit in her car. “Everybody has cloth bags, water bottles, and mason jars, and if they don’t, they can call me and I will get them some,” she said. “The trick is having them when you need them.”
In a large reusable bag, she keeps smaller reusable bags made from old pillowcases (using these in place of plastic produce bags at the grocery store), a to-go container for leftovers when eating out, a spork (she also suggests using old mismatched utensils from home), and a mason jar with a lid. A koozie made from an old sock means she can use the jar for both hot and cold beverages/goods. A thermos is also an option, but the mason jar can be used in the bulk section of grocery stores.
Blair noted that some produce comes wrapped in plastic, but there are often options that aren’t prewrapped. Pick individual bell peppers instead of the pack of three, or choose regular cucumbers instead of plastic wrapped English cucumbers.
She added, “I’ve seen people put one item in a produce bag. Then at the checkout, I see people put one item in a plastic bag.” Reusable bags easily solve this issue.
When eating at restaurants or ordering take out, Blair suggests using your own reusable container instead of take-out containers, and ordering to-go orders on regular dishes. Then, “It doesn’t take much time to transition food from a plate into your own container and walk out the door with it instead of ordering it in a to-go container that isn’t recyclable or reusable.”
Blair noted that consumers can purchase plastic-free items. For example, she buys shampoo bars at Ingles packaged in cardboard. Plastic-free products abound, particularly for toiletries and household products such as cleaners and laundry detergents. One website to check out is www.zerowastestore.com.
However, these products can be more expensive than the cheapest options available in stores. To this downside, Blair said, “If you think you’re getting a deal at the cash register, you’re paying for it elsewhere, whether it’s through labor, human or animal welfare, fossil fuel use, monoculture use, or environmental pollution, but that’s a hard sell for someone who’s living paycheck to paycheck. I don’t mean to be insensitive to that. I recognize that in many circumstances, my privilege allows me to waste less.”
Additionally, it can take a little bit of time to find the plastic-free products you want. Blair said, “I have spent a lot of time researching these products. Oftentimes, it comes down to location. Some are subscription based and you can order online no problem.”
In general, Blair recommends thinking through whether or not an item can be bought at a farmers market, in bulk, second hand, or in any material other than plastic. Of farmers markets, she said, “There are several in Chattanooga, and I know for sure that the Main Street Farmers Market on Wednesdays doubles SNAP points. If you go in with 20 SNAP points, you get $40 worth of tokens to spend on produce there.”
She explained that purchasing locally grown food not only reduces packaging (even down to the produce stickers), but it also reduces the fuel needed for transportation.
Alongside this topic, Blair added, “I love the idea of consumers who are currently using a product that they like writing to those manufacturers and saying, ‘I have been a loyal customer of yours, but I am working on reducing the amount of waste I produce, and I am no longer going to be purchasing your product because of the container in which it comes. However, if you find an alternative that is more sustainable, I would gladly begin purchasing your product once again.’ If everybody who routinely purchases products but feels guilty about the containers they come in wrote those letters, it would apply pressure to the production side. Then, the consumer side would get easier.”
She recognized that this takes some effort, saying, “You have to have the time, energy, and willingness to do that, but it’s worth thinking about.”
In addition to reusing containers, shopping second hand and selling and donating old items all fall under the “reuse” category. Blair recommended yard sales, thrift stores, salvage stores, sites like Craigslist and Ebay, Facebook marketplace, and buy/sell/trade/free Facebook pages. “All of those are excellent ways to save money, support the local economy, and cultivate community.”
Cloth scraps, newspapers, magazines, or any other foldable material can be reused as gift wrap. Blair noted that even gift bags are better than wrapping paper because people generally reuse bags, while tossing the paper.
Blair said that recyclable paper, natural elements like flowers or pine cones, and twine can make beautiful packaging in place of store-bought wrapping paper that is often made with plastic. This also falls under the “reducing” category. Blair explained, “Now, you’re not buying something and you’re not storing it in your house. You get that closet space back from your giant tote of wrapping paper rolls and ribbon, and it’s an excellent way to reuse something.”
Regarding recycling, Green Steps Chattanooga writes, “While recycling is a necessary component of responsible waste diversion, it’s far from foolproof and is not as efficient as you may imagine…Did you know that the chasing arrow symbol with a corresponding number on plastic items does not actually mean it’s recyclable? This is a resin identification code that the plastic industry developed to make their products appear recyclable. Most facilities in the U.S. only recycle plastic bottles, jugs, and certain containers. This is not to say other types of plastics aren’t recyclable, but the infrastructure does not exist on a large enough scale.”
Recycling is a worthwhile pursuit, but it comes with complications.
Refuse refers to saying no to plastic bags, napkins, straws, or any unnecessary item that would then be thrown away. Blair explained that, for example when ordering drinks, you can ask for no straw or napkin.
Repurpose refers to transforming items into fresh items, and repair is simply fixing them rather than throwing them away. Blair expanded, “As long as people aren’t consuming more in order to repurpose and repair, go for it. Let’s say you have something that you really want to repair, but you only need a little bit of some kind of material or a certain tool that you’re only going to use once. When you’re done fixing it, can you find someone else who also needs those materials?”
She continued, “Some things are easy to repair, like a button on a shirt. Some things are irritatingly out of our control because of planned obsolescence and the ways certain industries need you to continue purchasing those things. I would say, simply do your best, try to implement some creativity, and at least think twice before you toss it.”
Rot refers to composting and decomposing paper and cardboard. Blair said, “In addition to being so problematic and connected to issues with our diminishing topsoil, food waste is essentially people spending money on something and then throwing it in the landfill.”
Blair noted that our trash reveals the truth about our habits. “Archeologists have inventoried municipal trash and found that people overreport their healthy diets while underreporting their alcohol consumption. They buy healthy foods so they think they’re eating a healthy diet, but it spoils and ends up in the trash.”
For those who live in apartments or have little access to land, Blair suggests finding a friend who gardens or has land. She also wants to see a compost bin at the transfer station for all residents to use, saying, “The county could put shredded paper in it if they couldn’t find a buyer for their paper recycling. They could also put wood chips and yard waste in it.”
If choosing a place to start seems overwhelming, Blair suggests a household trash audit to identify the largest offender. “Dump your trash out in your driveway and categorize it. Tackle the largest category first. If it’s food waste, can you start a compost pile or afford a subscription with NewTerra Compost? If it’s plastic single-use water bottles, can you buy a filter instead? Just tackle that one thing.”
For small businesses who want to reduce waste, Blair noted that they can incentivize the use of reusable bags by offering a discount or, like Aldi Grocery Stores, charge for plastic bags. She added that you can ask customers if they need a bag instead of automatically using one.
She added that local restaurants could compost, even if only composting the pre-consumer food items (rather than leftovers from customers).
OakLeaf Cottage, a wedding venue at the base of Lookout Mountain, incorporates sustainable practices throughout its operations. The owner, Cris Angsten, is happy to speak with any local businesses seeking advice about these practices. She is considering putting together seminars for local businesses and other wedding venues, saying, “We’d love to help other businesses see the benefits of low waste/zero waste.” Visit www.oakleafcottage.com to read about their commitment to sustainability, and email firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
One resource for anyone interested in further waste-reducing tips is the book “Zero Waste Home” by Bea Johnson and her website, www.zerowaste.com.
Blair quoted the oral constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, called the Great Law of Peace, which says, “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
She contemplated, “We talk a lot these days about our kids and our grandkids, but native people were thinking seven generations out. The trash and litter they produced – their discarded pottery and cast-off flint points – are things we put in museums. At some point in the future, if someone does an archeological study on our landfills, what will they think about us?”