Zero Waste Popcorn

I failed at many of my Plastic-Free July resolutions, including staying away from bagged popcorn at the office. But the journey doesn’t end with the end of July! Today I popped up some popcorn from the bulk bin to my own to satisfy my carb urges tomorrow.

It all starts with some a bit of oil in a saucepan. I love the occasional dab of butter, but popping with it hasn’t worked well for me as walnut and olive oil have. I’ve discovered by experimentation that this particular pan can handle six tablespoons of popcorn kernels, so I measure those out while the oil starts warming up.

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Stored potential

My mom has a specialty popcorn pan with a handle you can turn to keep the kernels from burning, but it’s totally not necessary. I grab the handles and lid of this pan with a dishtowel (so I don’t get burned!) from time to time and give it a good shake. Once it starts popping vigorously, it doesn’t really need to be shaken any more because of all the action going on inside.

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All popped!

If you have a glass lid for your pan like I do, it’s especially easy to see how much of your popcorn has popped. But the real determination for when it’s done is when a few seconds have passed and you haven’t heard any popping or if you start to smell anything resembling burnt popcorn. Yup, if you put in more kernels than there’s room for things can go bad. And as I mentioned before, my recent experiments with using butter for popping resulted with mostly unpopped corn. 😦

Anyhow, that’s it! You can season your popcorn if you like. Most of the time I just add a dash of salt and the popcorn disappears soon enough.

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This jelly bean container once had that nasty popcorn-flavored jelly beans. Now it contains delicious real popcorn!

For tomorrow, though, I stored most of it in this reused container. And for once, I will avoid the evil bagged popcorn, oh yeah!

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Popcorn–the condensed and expanded editions

P.S. – I know a lot of folks have always prepared popcorn this way, but I was raised on microwave popcorn and the occasional Jiffy Pop, so this is for other folks like me. For a while I also tried switching to popping the kernels in lunch-size paper bags which worked pretty well, until one day I left the popcorn unattended while it was popping and…

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Microwaved popcorn disaster

I freaked out when I came back into the kitchen and saw the microwave power was off, and then even moreso when I opened the microwave door and saw the popcorn bag on fire. This is what it looked like after I quickly grabbed the un-fire side of the bag and threw it into the sink to put out the flames. The microwave still seemed to work after that incident, but I’m much more comfortable with the stove now. And it’s way more fun to watch through the glass lid and see the kernels expand and pop all around.

Compost – a better land fill

In 2014 we were staying with my mom while saving up for a house, and there was a large backyard used mainly for the exercise of mowing the lawn. But then, I learned about composting. It was incredible. The onion skins, the carrot tops, the apple cores that were filling up the trash can every day and making it all stinky could instead be thrown out into the backyard. After the labor of raking up a yardful of leaves, instead of stuffing them into brown paper bags for yard waste pickup, they could just be piled up in the backyard messily.

Even though my mom’s not a gardener, composting piles were immediately useful as there were some dips in the yard and a couple of holes where shrubs had been dug up and wouldn’t be replaced. All the compostable material went right into those spaces. It would mound up for a while, but then it would break down or compact. Then more could be heaped on top and eventually that would flatten out also. Of course, this is similar to the concept of sanitary landfills, but without having to put all the produce trimmings in plastic bags first and then sealing them underground forever where they wouldn’t benefit the soil.

Fast forward a couple of years to this February. My husband and I had just bought our own house. One of the very first projects on my agenda was to set up a compost bin so I could have plenty of rich humus for future gardening projects. Being frugal, I found some hardware cloth that had been abandoned in the back yard, secured it into a cylinder shape with some twist ties (my husband has a whole collection that he’s saved), shoveled the grass off of its new location, and “planted” it. Success! All the food scraps we had, all the yard waste, I just threw it in there for our first five months without ever turning it, watering it, or whatever else it is that people do with compost piles.

From the outside it hasn’t looked like much has happened and I didn’t really expect much when finally turning / moving the compost to a new bin this weekend. But I was hoping, and was rewarded with this.

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Rich on the inside!

Although the outside was dry and didn’t sustain any kind of life, some of the inside was rich, moist, and full of bugs helping to break it down further. So now I understand why you’re supposed to turn the pile, to get some of that other material on the inside and benefiting from this goodness. Maybe in the future I’ll turn it more than once every five months. We’ll see.

As for the new compost bin, I needed one that was just a little larger. Strolling around the neighborhood during bulk pickup week turned to my advantage when I found a perfect-sized portion of chickenwire, which I’ve used as my new enclosure.

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The new compost pile

You can see a bit of the mess I made shoveling out another section of grass and some of the heavy clay soil underneath. I should probably add that back into the compost. The pallet was used for a gardening project earlier in this year, but it had bugs around it that looked like termites so into the compost it went too! At least it’ll help serve as a support. The new bin is about half-filled from the contents of the other full compost bin. And I’ll start filling up the old bin again (it’s closer to the house) while this one breaks down. If I wasn’t so lazy, I just might have compost for the fall garden. But, meh, I’ll settle for spring. 🙂

Interested in learning more about composting in your backyard? Zero Waste Chef has a great post on Composting for the Lazy.

Staycation Day

Yes, Plastic-Free July was on my mind even on holiday. I don’t know if you can call this a staycation if it’s a single day, but my husband and I both had the day off from work and were eager to go out and see the town.

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A hearty breakfast at 24 Diner

We took the bus downtown to start the day with brunch at 24 Diner. I’ve been there before and the food is consistently delicious. With real plates, real glasses, real silverware, and cloth napkins, this place is great for a plastic-free meal. I even remembered to ask for no straw although I think that’s their default. And to be a bit more healthy I opted for the veggie sausage instead of bacon or conventional sausage. It wasn’t my favorite and they were rather large patties but I managed to eat one and fortunately my husband was game to eat the other so no nutrients went to waste. As a special bonus, 24 Diner sources their food from local farms.

Afterwards, I stopped in at the Whole Foods across the street to get a brownie to snack on later during the day. Using a clean cloth napkin from home, I was able to take it from the display case without any single-use packaging. And it was delicious. 🙂

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 Bob Bullock Museum (stock photo)

We were stuffed from the large brunch and decided to pass up a visit to the Capitol, instead heading straight for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. As a native Texan who has frequently been right across the street from the museum, visiting is something that I’ve been meaning to do for a long while, but amazingly it’s never happened until now.

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Museum admittance stickers 😦

I should have guessed that getting in would require some kind of plastic, but I didn’t even think about it until we were told to wear these stickers as proof of admittance. Fortunately, they were pretty small so not as much plastic as it could have been.

My favorite part was the mini-theater with clips from the Austin City Limits shows since 1974, but there was also a (non-Texas-specific) exhibit about food waste that caught my attention. They had a ceiling-height column filled with boxes and plastic food depicting the average amount that gets thrown out by a family each year. It’s really tragic. I’m not perfect about using up every bit of food, but I take some relief that my husband and I have made a lot of improvements on this front in the past couple of years.

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Huge screen at the IMAX theater (stock photo)

After browsing all the exhibits, it was time for a show. We had tickets to see the new Ghostbusters movie in IMAX 3D as a special treat. By filling up at brunch, we had no problems passing up the bottled beverages or boxed candy. The ginormous screen and how close we were sitting to it was kind of intimidating before the movie. The previous time I tried to watch a 3D movie gave me a bit of a headache. But this time it all worked out great. Nothing distracted me from the movie, and when it was all over we returned the 3D glasses for washing and reuse. No plastic wrappers or single-use anything.

And if you’re wondering about the movie, well, if you’re a fan of the original Ghostbusters you’ll probably enjoy this reboot. Even with the characters and plot changed around a bit, it’s very true to the franchise with plenty of goofy comedy, dangerous weapons, and original ghosts (plus Slimer, of course). If you’re not a fan of the original Ghostbusters, I have no idea what you’ll think.

After this, we headed back home on the bus with me humming Ray Parker Jr’s “Ghostbusters” most of the way. I gave into some cravings to end the day with junk food as we ate a Little Caesars pizza (no plastic tables in the box) for dinner while watching the original Ghostbusters. Not perfect, but all in all a great day with minimal waste. Even the pizza box will be put to good use feeding the compost.

Plastic-Free July Grocery Shopping

I haven’t bought as many groceries this month because of the invasion of relatives who visited and left behind so much food that I can’t stand to see go to waste. But there’s still some decent variety in this week’s grocery trip so you can see what I do to try to keep my shopping plastic-free and where there’s room for improvement.

Bulk Goods

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Peanuts, chili beans, and rolled oats bought in bulk

In Austin we’re very fortunate to have a number of stores in the area with bulk bins. I’ve found that even at the stores where they don’t tare containers, no one blinks if you bring your own light-weight bags to purchase bulk goods in. But I really do like seeing what I have on hand easily, and have been using glass jars for my bulk purchases from Wheatsville. Most of the time I can even get away with reusing the same sticker as a previous visit or rubberbanding a piece of scrap paper to the jar as a label to get the goods home without any waste. Mason jars are especially good for this because I can cut out a piece of scrap paper using the lid as a pattern and display it in the lid after screwed on.

Fresh Fruit

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Watermelon, peaches, and figs

There were plenty of delicious fruit options at the farmers market today. A small watermelon, a basket of peaches, and a basket of figs made their way home for me and with nary a produce sticker. Anything left over after we devour them can go straight in the compost bin (although I’ve been eating the watermelon seeds and saving some of the peach pits for a future peach-tree-growing adventure).

Fresh Veggies

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Mixed greens, avocado, carrots, and onion

We were already mostly set on veg too, but I needed an extra onion from the farmers market. And to fill out our salads for the week, Wheatsville has both organic carrots and mixed greens available in bulk. I just have to be sure not to squash the lettuce! Yes, the avocado has a sticker, but my husband really enjoyed it so it was worthwhile. Today I used up many of last week’s veggies by dicing them up and making a hearty spaghetti sauce–no spaghetti jar needed.

Bread

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Package-free baked goods

Yum, fresh package-free bread from the farmers market. Plus a package-free bagel picked up from the display at Wheatsville with my clean napkin. (It was a full bagel until I left the store.) Normally, I’d get more bread than this but we’re still working through frozen bread leftovers from my sister’s visit.

Eggs

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Eggs in a reused carton

Normally a cardboard carton is good enough to get through plastic-free July. But bulk eggs that you can take home in your own (reused) cartons? Even better! This is an awesome option at Wheatsville… although this carton should probably be retired soon.

Milk

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TetraPak! 😦

I know, I know. TetraPaks have at least a couple of layers of plastic, and there aren’t even facilities to recycle them in my area. I’m about to try my hand at making some oat milk again. But I got this as a backup because my husband would be grumpy if he didn’t have some kind of milk product to drink. Well, only grumpy until he went out and bought some himself, likely picking up other plastic-wrapped goods in the process. If I keep my husband away from the grocery store, that in itself is a less-plastic success.

Household Goods

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Plastic-free toilet paper

Originally I hated not getting quite as good a deal on toilet paper as was possible with the multi-packs wrapped in thick plastic. But since then I’ve grown very attached to the idea of only having to pick up a single roll or two of TP every week and never having to lug home one of those monstrocities. Totally worth it.

Well, that’s it! I told you it was a smaller shopping trip this week. What do you do to keep your groceries plastic-free?

Five Frugal Things (the Plastic-Free version)

With the folks in town lately there’s been too much food to really get down to my Plastic Free July resolutions, so instead in the spirit of the Non-Consumer Advocate here are some of my no-spend and plastic-free wins for July so far.

  1. My sister and her family left behind tons of leftovers after their visit to my mother’s so my husband and I have been doing or duty of eating them up the past few days and still have plenty to go. What we didn’t expect to eat soon enough, we stuck in the freezer. That’ll keep any of this food from going to waste before we can get to it.
  2. This evening I was entertained for a good half hour by watching the trees outside our bedroom window swaying in the wind. If you look around, you already know that often nature can be much more entertaining (and relaxing!) than anything on tv.
  3. I’ve eaten two canary melons from the garden in the past week and enjoyed every bit of them. Although critters got to most of the cantaloupes, I was able to save the last one and it’s waiting in the fridge now to be eaten. Last week I also planted more melon seeds to hopefully get some more delicious zero-waste, plastic-free, local, and organically grown fruit this fall.
  4. The two Roma tomato plants that we grew this summer produced way more fruit than we could possibly consume, so last week I took care of most of them by blending them up and then cooking them down into tomato paste, which has now been divied out into (appropriately enough) old tomato paste jars and stashed in the freezer for future use.
  5. Our tv was in bad shape. It was turning off on its own and creepily also turning back on on its own fairly regularly. I was ready to take it to be repaired rather than abandon it to be “recycled” and then have to replace it, but fortunately neither option turned out to be necessary. We left it unplugged for a week (we have a second tv set so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice), and since its long siesta it has been working great.

Now your turn. What frugal things have you been up to?

PFJ Day 1: Plastic Everywhere

Plastic Free July has started! And started as a collosal failure. 😦

It started when I went to visit my folks since my new nephew is in town for the week. They wanted to have lunch at Whataburger, and I was content that I could get a burger with just a paper wrapper. Sure, there’s also a plasticy sticker on the wrapper, but not too bad. And since we were ordering together, it was just one line item on the receipt instead of a whole separate receipt. Unfortunately, while I went to grab a table while others were still ordering, the cashier was unconvinced that I didn’t need a drink and insisted that I have one. On her. And my folks still up there ordering were happy to accept the extra foam cup and even pick up a packaged straw to go with it before they reached my table. This has never happened to me before. For the past year, I’ve been able to make sure I had a bit of water before going out and have never had any problem having a light meal without an additional drink. But there you have it, a foam cup and straw that ended up going straight in the trash.

More folks were coming over in the afternoon and it had already been named Rudy’s day. We placed the order online for what seemed like a ton of food, and it all came in foil trays with foil lids or foam cups with plastic lids, everything totally wrapped up in plastic wrap. Plastic serving utensils included as a bonus, plastic-wrapped of course. Decent enough quality to be reused but probably won’t be. And in the end less than half of the food was eaten. But that may be because my visiting sister and her family will be happily eating barbecue leftovers the rest of the week–when they’re not trying out other barbecue places, that is.

So no, I didn’t break any of my own rules for Plastic Free July, but I may have taken a step backwards. The next time I go over to visit this week, I may just take my own food as a backup. At least there’s usually watermelon too. 🙂

Can “package-free” be sustainable?

This month Josh Blaine, manager of the in.gredients grocery store here in Austin, stopped by at the beginning of our Talk Green to Me book club to discuss zero waste and other efforts. The discussion tied in with many of our read books including this month’s The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom, and of course Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free.

in.gredients was launched in 2012 as a package-free neighborhood grocery, which is pretty awesome. Of course, Beth Terry heard about this, and Josh describes her as “like a kid in a candy store” when she came to check out the shop.

I hadn’t heard of the store before reading Plastic-Free as it was nowhere near my neighborhood. When I visited the store about a year and a half ago, I think getting there on the bus took nearly two hours. It was definitely not my neighborhood grocery and visiting was anything but sustainable. It was a bitter-sweet visit too because this was after in.gredients had made the difficult decision to also sell packaged goods.

At times I’ve fantasized about opening up my own neighborhood grocery store (not too seriously) which really is package-free, but after Thursday evening I have a much better understanding of just how difficult that might be. Josh explained that they wouldn’t have been able to stay in business as a package-free grocery. When customers bring in their own containers, they’re less likely to pick up other things. Potential customers may skip a visit to the store or go elsewhere if they don’t have the right supplies on hand. And some things that customers want may not be available package-free, like coconut oil or soymilk.

Package-free food also doesn’t always last as long, which sometimes is irrelevant but sometimes is really important like for beer which is only at really good quality in kegs for a couple of days. That means it has a much shorter time frame to sell within. in.gredients is also a smaller neighborhood store, so having something things packaged like in kegs means that there’s going to be a lot less variety for customers to choose from. Unfortunately, there are so many reasons why packaged goods can be better for business.

To get more customers, in.gredients switched from all package-free to a focus on local foods 18 months after it opened. But that’s not just lipservice. Food sold at this store may be as local as vegetables grown in the garden in their front lot. They also work with many local farms like Urban Roots and Green Gate Farms. After hearing Josh talk about how closely in.gredients works with the vendors I’m more tempted to go back just because I know I’ll be able to pick up anything I see and buy it knowing that some really good people have already done the hard work of finding vendors with earth-friendly and community-friendly processes.

Josh is part of the Austin Zero Waste Alliance, and zero waste is definitely still one of the core values of the store. I don’t remember the specifics, but I think he said that the average amount of trash created by a person per day is five pounds, which is what their store creates in a month! They’re able to do this by making it a priority. They even work closely with local vendors to arrange for deliveries in reusable packaging like buckets of granola that go directly into the bulk bins before being cleaned and swapped out during the next delivery.

There’s so much more that was discussed, like involvement in the community or fair pricing, but my current dream is just to be able to buy what I need without getting a lot of extra trash as part of the deal. They still have a bulk selection filled with good food, though, and fresh local produce free even of stickers. So if you’re in Austin, stop by in.gredients to pick some up or other local goodies.

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Plastic Free July Planning

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We’re just a couple of weeks away from Plastic Free July! The goal is to give up single-use plastics for the month. Generally, people choose a few swaps they want to pay close attention to during the month so they end up being a habit afterwards. Fewer single-use disposables means less trash or recycling to deal with. It means fewer resources needed for making single-use containers. Less petroleum needed to be extraced from the earth. Less plastic ending up in the ocean. And more. plasticfreejuly.org has all the info.

If you’re new to PFJ, they propose the TOP 4 to look out for: plastic bags, water bottles, takeaway coffee cups and straws. Ready to sign up for the challenge? Sign up for a weekly email with tips, tricks, and support throughout.

Since I’ve tackled the TOP 4 in a previous challenge, I’ll be tackling some custom goals for my Plastic Free July. You may notice these are all food-related challenges since that’s what I purchase most frequently.

  1. Quit bagged popcorn
  2. Make milks
  3. Make veggie burgers
  4. Make pasta

Goal 1: Quit Bagged Popcorn

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Plastic-free popcorn?

At the office, there are dispensers of already popped delicious popcorn. With a reusable bowl, it might seem at first glance to be a plastic free-indulgence. But then you figure out where it came from…

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Double-bagged in plastic and plastifoil 😦

At this point I’m an addict. I eat several bowls of this popcorn a day, even though I know it goes against my less plastic goals. For Plastic-Free July I’ll have to bring more alternative snacks to the office to help me quit this cold turkey. A month without this stuff should cure my unhealthy addiction too.

Goal 2: Make Milks

I buy alternative milk for my husband from the grocery every week. And it generally comes in those stupid part-plastic / part-cardboard / part-foil bottles. Worse than most plastics, they’re not at all recyclable and by weight are probably half of what ends up in our kitchen trash bin.

So, the goal is to not buy any such milks in July. Instead I can try my hand at making oat milk, rice milk, pecan milk, almond milk, or whatever other varieties look promising. This one will take some investigation.

Goal 3: Make Veggie Burgers

Not bean burgers. Not mushroom burgers. But burgers filled with all kinds of delicious garden veggies to add something new to my repertoire. A few burgers for immediate consumption and some for the freezer for my husband’s burger fix. This will swap out one of the vegan “meat” products that I buy for my hubby (in plastic) each week.

Goal 4: Make pasta

Okay, this one is a stretch. Not sure if I’ll get this far. But we regularly buy pasta in plastic bags because to the best of my knowledge there is no bulk pasta available here in Austin. (If you know of such a thing, please let me know. Then this goal will be updated to try out some bulk pasta instead.)

I won’t use a pasta stretcher or anything elaborate. There are lots of instructions online about simpler pastas to make. It’s worth trying at least one time.

Free Paint, Recycled Paint

In Austin, anyone can stop off at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off center to pick up some totally free ReBlend paint. Paint isn’t supposed to be thrown out in the trash, so people who have left over paint take it down to the Drop-off center, where it’s blended into one of three color combinations and repackaged for anyone in town to pick up. The blending process releases any VOCs in the paint, so while it may have had VOCs originally at least they won’t be released in your home. And did I mention that this paint is free?

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In April I made my way out there to pick up paint for some ugly walls in our new house. Taking the bus was a bad idea because it was a lot further to the bus stop carrying a few gallons of paint, and my carrying bags weren’t quite right for the job. Fortunately, by walking I had the opportunity to enjoy this railroad to nowhere.

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Nature victorious!

When I visited only the dark beige color was available, but any paint would have suited my needs. While there, I checked out the Reuse Store (free stuff that other people dropped off but still has a lot of use in it) and got a hammer, screws, a nice Italian planter, and possibly other things that I don’t quite remember.

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Recycled paint!

My mom had given me a few paint roller supplies, but I made a trip to the hardware store and picked out a couple of quality brushes that should last the rest of my life–a 1.5″ angled brush for detail work and a 3″ paint-all-the-things brush. (I had been hoping the Habitat ReStore would have some used paintbrushes, but sadly it only sells them brand new.)  Plus, I picked up a short ladder at a yard sale in my neighborhood because I had no other good way to reach near the ceiling. Holding the small amount of paint for each day was simple with a reused plastic container. I’ll probably give away the paint roller supplies on Freecycle in the near future.

(Note: If I had decent carpeting I would probably need to invent a dropcloth also but fortunately, or unfortunately, the carpet that came with the house is permanently stained and at some point in the non-distant future should be removed.)

This is the closet in our guest bedroom before it got its new paint job. It was off-white and doesn’t look too bad there, but the other walls had many spackle spots and smudges which didn’t make it look very friendly. I couldn’t bear to take a picture of them.

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Before

And here’s our happily repainted guest bedroom.

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After. Non-nasty walls!
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With contrasting white trim

My husband was so happy at the improvement. At some point I’ll probably be making another trip to the Reuse Store to pick up a small jar of white paint to touch up the trim. (They have so much free stuff!) But in the meantime I have a half a bucket of paint left and will be working on the hallway and bathroom cabinets, which are the two things that most need it.

At this point, even though I have several other rooms that could benefit from it, I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be getting another large bucket of paint anytime soon. While working with this stuff I’ve realized that I’m pretty much just putting a layer of plastic on my walls. Not sure how I feel about that. The greenest solution is obviously to live with smudgy walls, but nope. This warrants further investigation. Do you know of any good alternatives?

80% of Austin trash isn’t trash

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The city of Austin adopted a Zero Waste plan in 2009 with the goal of diverting 90% of waste from landfill by the year 2040, and they’ve just released the results of the 2015 Community Diversion Study. This is the first study of its kind done here in Austin. I haven’t read the full report yet but wanted to share the overview of findings.

Unfortunately, we didn’t meet the 50% diversion goal for 2015. Only 42% of waste ended up reused, recycled, or composted this year. But it may give us some of the information we need to forge ahead.

“I’m extremely encouraged by the results of this study,” said Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert. “The report has provided us with valuable data that shows us how we are doing and where we need to improve as a community in order to reach Council’s vision of Zero Waste.”

Here’s the breakdown of the material analyzed on its way to be landfilled. 18% could have been recovered and reused as is. 26% could have been recycled. And a whopping 37% could have been composted. Less than one-fifth of the load would have gone to landfill if those resources had been sorted to the right place.

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Fortunately, there are several steps already lined up to help us improve.

  • An ordinance already exists to require recycling for multi-family properties in Austin with at least 10 units, but as of this fall it goes into effect for properties with at least 5 units.
  • Also starting this fall, businesses over 15,000 sq. ft. will be required to divert organics material for composting, and over the next couple of years all food businesses will have to take part.
  • Austin is also hosting the 2016 Zero Waste Business Conference in June, which should both get some much-needed attention on the subject and present more ideas for improvement.

There are also some hopes to roll out curbside organics collection for more than the pilot group of residential customers, but I don’t think there’s any budget allocated yet for it.

Personally, my guess is that at least half (probably much more) of the big number above could be reduced by source reduction–that is, buying less stuff and using less packaging for the stuff that is bought. It’ll be an interesting read to see how reduction is handled in the report.