But What About Garbage? 

Further Complications of a Plastic-Free Life

I hadn’t planned on doing another column on the Great Plastic Scourge, but I’ve gotten a LOT of emails from readers, and I’ve been asked for answers to some specific problems. So, once more into the breach…

A huge issue for many readers has been what to do with garbage, and what to use instead of plastic garbage bags. Of course, reducing the amount of trash you produce will reduce the amount of bags you need. Most folks have a pile, or drawer, or bag full of plastic shopping bags — these make excellent “garbage” bags, until your supply runs out (because you’re carrying your own reusable bag whenever you shop, and no longer taking plastic bags…right?). Living on a low-rise block in Brooklyn, I am lucky enough to sometimes find bags of bags sitting atop my neighbors’ garbage cans. Voila! Garbage bags for a month or two.

But I can understand that not all of you will be willing (or able) to scrounge around in the rubbish for garbage bags. There are always Biobags: 100% biodegradeable bags made from corn, they come in several different sizes for small to large trash cans, dog poo and compost collection. But I don’t really believe in spending money on something that is going directly into the trash, no matter how environmentally sound. So this week I bought two recycled “bucket” bags from Gecko Traders, at Fuego, a lovely store on Grand Street in Williamsburg, and am implementing a new system. The Gecko bags are fair trade, made by disadvantaged workers (ill, impoverished, or developmentally disabled) in Cambodia, out of durable, water-resistant recycled feedbags. I’m using one for trash, one for recycling paper, and one for recycling containers. When the bags fill up, I walk them out to the appropriate garbage can outside my house, empty, and voila! Bag-less trash.
All my wet, stinky, food-y trash goes into the compost, or in extreme cases (that pot of soup that goes off faster than you can eat it), down the john.  A couple of readers have asked me how (and why!) to compost in the city, citing limited numbers of places to put the finished compost. Composting isn’t just the recycling of organic waste into free plant food: it’s important that organic waste be kept out of the waste stream, and landfills, for another, less obvious reason.

When food (or anything organic: dog crap, leaves) goes to a landfill it’s pretty quickly buried, and decomposes anaerobically, aka without air. Anaerobic decomposition turns the organic matter into a bunch of stinky stuff, and, also, into methane. Methane, when it finally escapes from the landfill, will hang out in the atmosphere as yet another greenhouse gas — a gas 21 times more effective at trapping heat (global warming) than CO2, the greenhouse gas we’re all always talking about.

In other words, uncomposted organic waste can contribute significantly to global warming.

If you don’t know where, or how, to compost, poke around. Many community gardens compost, and those that don’t could be persuaded to. The city sells compost bins at reduced rates for anyone with a bit of outside space, and the Lower East Side Ecology Center runs regular workshops in both indoor and outdoor composting,  and collects compostables at the Union Square greenmarket. I know it’s hard, but as with most things, the more of us that do it, the easier it will become.

Many have written to ask me where they can recycle those plastics that aren’t part of the city recycling program. It’s almost universally disregarded (judging from an informal gander into my neighbors’ recycling bins,) but NYC only recycles bottles made of #1 and #2 plastic. Everything else is supposed to go into the trash. On selected days, at specific times, the Park Slope Food Coop (Foodcoop.com) collects #1 and #2 in non-bottle shapes (tubs, take-out containers) #4, #5 and plastic film — just make sure they’re clean, and dry.

Remember that while recycling is great, reusing, or not consuming in the first place are better. I hope that this series of articles has helped you take a realistic, and skeptical look at the role of plastics in our lives, and given you a few useful tips for lessening your use of this environmentally disastrous substance. Plastic free!


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