Obtain a Yield! Turning Problems into Bonuses

Problem: My roomie’s shampoo bottle, which he’s ready to throw away with shampoo still in the bottom because it’s pretty much impossible to get all the shampoo out.

Conventional solution: Just toss it in the trash! (We don’t do that around here.)

“Green” solution: Rinse it out and put it in the recycling bin. (But if I did that, I would end up having to use a lot of water to rinse out the bottle, because you know how much water it takes to rinse all the shampoo or detergent out of a bottle!)

Permaculture solution: Obtain a yield! I added water to the shampoo bottle and swished it around, creating a soapy liquid which can be used to clean household surfaces such as bathroom tile or toilet bowl. Usually I just use baking soda and/or vinegar to clean my toilet, but it doesn’t hurt every once in a while to have something a little stronger to squirt onto the tile or into the bowl, such as detergent (which is what shampoo is, it’s detergent for your hair). The shampoo bottle with the water added is good for 2-3 toilet cleanings. And at that point, the bottle really will be empty and require no more rinsing (or if it does, I’ll use THAT soapy water as a cleaning solution until the bottle is clean enough to put in the recycling bin).

Another option, of course, is to just use the diluted shampoo as shampoo! It actually works great. Same with diluted dish liquid. I can make a small bottle of dish liquid last for months.

Obtaining a yield – turning a problem into a bonus – is a great way to reduce your footprint while gaining personal benefit. “Obtain a yield” is also one of my favorite principles of permaculture design. If you look around your home and office, you can probably find many ways to obtain a yield from what appears at first to be a “problem.” Pizza-boxes and vegetable peelings become food for earthworms in the compost bin, creating rich soil. “Weeds” in the yard turn out to be edible, nutritious vegetables that grow for free and don’t need watering! What other examples can you think of?

What’s the Point; Why Bother?

Whether you’ve been on a green lifestyle path for a while or whether you’re just getting started, one of the objections you’re most likely to encounter (from other people, from within yourself, or both) is, “What’s the point? Why bother?”

This objection has multiple components. One, a hopeless feeling: Big companies and big government are wreaking all the damage; why should I as an individual bother, when my efforts aren’t even a drop in the bucket?

And two, more of a self-righteous take: “They” are the ones doing the damage; why should *I* be the one making the sacrifice?

Regarding sacrifice: If your green efforts feel like drudge or sacrifice, you’re either trying to do too much, or you’re doing it wrong (by which I mean doing things that aren’t right for your circumstances), or both. In this blog and in my DEEP GREEN book, I show you how to reduce your footprint in a manner that takes into account your needs and circumstances. My purpose is to show you how to go green while gaining personal benefits. The idea of sacrifice, eco-martyrdom and all that, goes out the window. It’s not workable. ‘Bye!

Regarding “the bad guys doing the damage,” no one acts alone. Those companies making all the environmentally damaging products and services — who’s buying those products and services? The advertisers touting them — whose eyes and ears are tuning in? And as for government policy — What is it but a reflection of our collective will? If your will doesn’t happen to be in the majority, so be it — and don’t let that stop you from doing what you know is the right thing. Doing the right thing brings its own rewards, not the least of which you’ll sleep better and have more zest for life.

Regarding “drop in a bucket,” try that argument on WalMart, a billion-dollar empire that built its success on millions of low-income consumers. Your efforts alone may not make a difference, but you are never acting alone. Also, your efforts are more than just the pure numeric measure of what you are doing. Besides cutting your consumption of something environmentally harmful by a given amount (or increasing your consumption of something environmentally beneficial by a given amount), you are also influencing the people around you by example, even if you never say a word about it. People are imitators; it’s how a trickle turns into a trend turns into a widespread craze.

By the way, just how much loss do you think a company has to see in its profit margin to take notice and make a change? Or how much of an increase in demand does a market have to see in order to attract new participants? I don’t know but I’d guess the percentage is pretty small. How much loss, percentage-wise, in your paycheck would it take for you to notice a pinch? Companies probably aren’t much different.

Further Reading
If those arguments don’t persuade you, I offer what I’ve heard referred to as the “THEORY OF ANYWAY.” Reducing your footprint and making other green changes is something you’d want to be doing anyway, for a variety of reasons, regardless of whether eco-disaster is imminent. Sharon Astyk, co-founder of the Riot for Austerity and author of several books on sustainable homesteading and low-footprint living, puts forth the most eloquent argument I’ve heard on this subject. Go here for the full article; here’s an excerpt:

“So if you told me that tomorrow, peak oil had been resolved, I’d still keep gardening, hanging my laundry, cutting back and trying to find a way to make do with less. Because even if we found enough oil to power our society for a thousand years, there would still be climate change, and it would be *wrong* of me to choose my own convenience over the security and safety of my children and other people’s children. And if you told me tomorrow that we’d fixed climate change, that we could power our lives forever with renewables, I would still keep gardening and living frugally. Because our agriculture is premised on depleted soil and aquifers, and we’re facing a future in which many people don’t have enough food and water if we keep eating this way, and to allow that to happen would be a betrayal of what I believe is right. And if you told me that we’d fixed that problem too, that we were no longer depleting our aquifers and expanding the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, I’d still keep gardening and telling others to do the same, because our reliance on food from other nations, and our economy impoverishes and starves millions, even billions of poor people and creates massive economic inequities that do tremendous harm. And if you told me that globalization was over, and that we were going to create a just economic system, and we’d fixed all the other problems, and that I didn’t have to worry anymore, would I then stop gardening?”

If you don’t see yourself as the kind of person who can make a positive difference, consider the possibility that there is a set of behaviors common to people who are making a difference. Kathy Caprino’s article in the Huffington Post outlines behaviors that you (anyone) can cultivate.

Another suggestion: Google a phrase of your choosing, regarding making a difference. (I used “everyday people making a difference” or “small numbers of people making a difference in the world.”) If you truly want to believe you can make a difference with your small actions, you’ll find the evidence. If you deep down want to hang on to the self-defeating idea that you cannot make a difference through your small actions, and that instead you have to wait for government or corporations to get their act together, then you will find ample evidence of that viewpoint also, and nothing I can say will convince you otherwise.

But you’re probably in the former category, people who want to believe their small everyday actions can make a difference. In which case you’ve come to the right place, because I’m here to help you do that.

One more on making a difference: How one man repopulated a rare butterfly species in his own backyard.

But What About Other People?

A common lament of people striving to minimize their footprint is, “I’m doing all I can, but what’s the point, when other people aren’t doing anything?”

We all know it’s no use trying to get other people to change, and that all we can do is work on ourselves and hope others will be inspired to follow. That said, I have found it can be easy to involve other people in my footprint-reduction efforts, as long as I’m providing a practical benefit that they will value. Examples of practical benefits include saving people at least one of the following: money, time, space, labor, or unpleasantness. Sometimes it’s not even necessary to provide a benefit that people recognize, as long as I’m not inconveniencing them.

Here’s one simple example. I live in a house (left-hand side in the photo, green with purple trim). Next door, (tan house with red trim) my neighbors are a young single dad and his two little kids in the upstairs apartment, and a young couple in the downstairs apartment. These neighbors aren’t particularly into recycling or eco stuff in general, but (like pretty much everyone else I meet) are not opposed to it either.

Recently I combined our garbage and recycling, so we only use one trash can and one recycling bin for our three households. It started one day when a couple of the trash cans had accumulated some of that foul-smelling liquid that’s produced when rain falls on what I call “goopy trash” (food, drink, other stuff that belongs in the compost if you are able/willing to compost). Or when people toss unfinished beverages in the can. I tipped those garbage cans over to empty out the nasty liquid and let them bake dry in the hot Florida sun. And, I just left them tipped-over! And started consolidating all our trash into one can.

This greatly simplifies the task of putting out the trash and recycling at curbside for collection (saves labor). It also reduces mess and odor, because only one trash can at a time is in use. The others are stored upside-down so they don’t collect water, and also so that passers-by only have one trash can and one recycling bin to toss their refuse into (our neighborhood gets a lot of foot traffic, and it’s hard to keep folks from throwing their trash or recycling into our cans).

Most weeks, our combined garbage all fits into one can. And our combined recycling fits into my recycling bin (the neighbors don’t have any recycling bins, but if they wanted to, each household could request one from the city). Having only one trash and one recycling bin makes it easier for us to put out the trash, takes up less space on the sidewalk, and streamlines things for the trash collection workers too.

Part of the secret to how our trash all fits into one can, is that when I notice a big milk bottle, cat-litter tub, or other recyclable container in the trash, I retrieve it and put it into the recycling. My neighbors don’t have to do any extra work, and I’m just doing what I would want to do anyway. Except now instead of having three cans to monitor, I only have one!

This is just one simple example of getting others involved in green practices without it being any skin off their backs. We can extend our influence without imposing on people.

Another example: Recently when I got a new roof on my house, I provided lunch for the workers each day, and when I went to pick it up from the carryout place (which was in bicycling distance), I would refuse paper napkins and plastic utensils. Using cloth napkins, silverware, and china plates added almost nothing to my chore-load or to the volume of water consumed. (Also, when I wash clothes or dishes, I use the wash water to irrigate my yard, which is something I have to do anyway when it doesn’t rain.)

As for the workers who did such a great job on my roof, I don’t think they minded one way or another as long as they got their lunch!

Another example: At my church, I’ve had some luck implementing composting by making sure it doesn’t create any extra work or mess for others, and also by pointing out how dry and lightweight the kitchen trash can stays, rather than being heavy and “goopy”, when compostable materials are kept out of the trash. When something compostable lands in the trash, I just retrieve it and put it out in the compost bin, or toss it into our little woods as a snack for the wildlife. Without my asking, other people have begun doing this too.

I think the real turning-point came when I let go of the need to control things. I used to get really frustrated when I’d come in after being away for a few days and see a bunch of food in the trash. Now I don’t stress out about it. If I have time, I transfer the piled-up food into the compost bin. Otherwise I let it go, and just think about how far we’ve come. And, since I started the composting, multiple people have started to ask for the coffee grounds for their gardens, so these days I rarely have to worry about coffee grounds ending up in the trash (which is great because they really are goopy and messy even with a plastic liner).

The examples in this post have pertained to neighbors and others who may share common space for a limited time but who don’t have to live together day in and day out. But, for many of us, the biggest challenge is right under our own roofs. For those who feel blocked because their families or other household members are not on board, rest assured, you are in good company, and there are many ways to turn footprint-reduction into something that your family/housemates not only will be less resistant to, but actually might want to participate in. That’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post. Stay tuned!

Further Reading
• Trash is a huge aspect of our eco-footprint, both as individuals and as a society. Now that China has stopped accepting recycling from other countries, it’s even more important to reuse single-use containers and/or refuse them entirely, and reduce our overall volume of waste. (From the article: “‘This is a good wake-up call,’ adds Mark Murray, executive director of the nonprofit Californians Against Waste. ‘We should have been investing in utilizing this material domestically from the get-go.'”)
• Here are four cities that are reducing their garbage to zero.

Bad News First

This blog, like my DEEP GREEN book, is intended as a practical resource for low-footprint living. The overall tone and message of both my blog and my book is upbeat and can-do. But I kicked the book off with bad news, and now I’m going to do the same with this blog.

Why would I do that? To get the bad news out of the way up-front and then not dwell on it. Once we wrap our brains around the problem, we can get on with the business of living in a creative, proactive, solution-focused manner. Even if the solution doesn’t work out in the end, living a solution-focused life has great value.

In that spirit, I offer you two major magazine articles about why human life on this planet is doomed, possibly in our lifetimes. Both articles contend that the human race has just about certainly sealed its fate by not curbing its carbon emissions. These are the two most disheartening, and persuasive, articles that I’ve come across on this subject.

The first article is The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells for New York Magazine. It describes catastrophic changes in the environment — some predicted with high probability; many happening already.

The second article is Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, by Nathaniel Rich for the New York Times. It focuses on the political background of our failure to arrest climate change. Apparently people knew about climate change as far back as the late 1800s! We just kept losing the communication thread, and never managed to muster the political will to take corrective measures while we had a time window to do so.

Both articles are quite long. If you feel you already know enough about the planetary situation; if you simply want to start reducing your footprint without pondering the gravity of things; or if facing the catastrophe has a paralyzing effect on you, feel free to skip the articles or save them for another time. You can get the full benefits of this blog without ever reading about climate change, or even thinking about it.

That said, you might be interested to learn that both articles end on a note of hope.

The first article: “And yet, improbably, Ward is an optimist. So are Broecker and Hansen and many of the other scientists I spoke to. We have not developed much of a religion of meaning around climate change that might comfort us, or give us purpose, in the face of possible annihilation. But climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must.”

The second article: “It is true that much of the damage that might have been avoided is now inevitable. And Pomerance is not the romantic he once was. But he still believes that it might not be too late to preserve some semblance of the world as we know it. Human nature has brought us to this place; perhaps human nature will one day bring us through. Rational argument has failed in a rout. Let irrational optimism have a turn. It is also human nature, after all, to hope.”

Irrational optimism aside, at this point you might well ask: If we’ve crossed the point of no return as the climate scientists claim, what’s the point in striving to minimize one’s footprint? Glad you asked! Besides the fact that doing one’s part to try to avoid eco-catastrophe is just the right thing to do, there’s also the fact that a low-footprint lifestyle brings great personal benefits, including:

• radically reduce your cost of living, put money in your pocket
• free up lots of time
• lose weight, get in shape
• hone your senses
• sharpen your mind
• boost your household disaster-preparedness
• gain valuable & enjoyable new skills
• improve your neighborhood, build community
• boost your immune system
• get more joy out of life
• strengthen your intuition
• improve your relationships
• reduce doctor visits
• more effectively manage anxiety & depression
• find a right livelihood, create the means to start your own business
• boost your peace of mind

In the course of reducing my footprint for environmental reasons, I discovered I was getting all of the above benefits and more. That’s why I wrote my book and why I started this blog.

I do find it interesting that both of those frightening and discouraging magazine articles, after setting forth a dire reality, end on a note of hope. And, I share that hope. You probably do too, or at least you want to. Otherwise you most likely wouldn’t be here. Thanks for showing up! I’m here to support you.

Category Intro: Riot for Austerity

The Riot for Austerity is a grassroots movement of people aiming to reduce their eco-footprint to TEN PERCENT of the U.S. average. We help and encourage each other, and seek to take this movement viral.

The Riot for Austerity was founded in the mid-2000s by Sharon Astyk and Miranda Edel, two eco-conscious writer/educator/Moms. The movement takes its name from a phrase in George Monbiot’s book HEAT: How We Can Stop the Planet Burning.

Along with permaculture design, the Riot for Austerity is the other main framework that has helped me be successful in pursuing a low-footprint lifestyle. The Riot is also known as the “90 Percent Reduction Challenge.” You’ll get to read all about it (including where the name came from) in the posts categorized “Riot for Austerity”.

Category Intro: Permaculture

One of the core topics I focus on in this blog is permaculture design. Permaculture is a set of design principles, derived from observing nature, for designing your home and any other aspect of your life to be sustainable. By “sustainable” in permaculture terminology, we mean financially, ecologically, AND socially sustainable. And furthermore, we don’t just mean “net zero damage” to the environment; in permaculture we have a REGENERATIVE focus, seeking to give net benefit to the land and all living creatures, not just human. This may sound like a tall order, but with the basic design principles derived from observation of how nature operates, it is very do-able and indeed ONLY NATURAL. In the posts categorized “permaculture”, I’ll highlight the various permaculture design principles and some very exciting real-world applications, as well as talk about some key figures in the permaculture movement, which is a worldwide, grassroots movement.