Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, I was the youngest out of three daughters. It is joked that I was a mistake or an accident or as my mother says, a joy (That one isn’t a joke. She really thinks that. It is my middle name, after all). But regardless, I certainly wasn’t planned. My parents were always mistaken for my grandparents while I was growing up. They were a lot older than the other parents. My parents were born at the tail end of The Great Depression. So, they grew up learning to use what they had, reuse what they had and make it last. My sisters and I rarely went without, but recently a lightbulb has gone off in my head with what my parents have taught me.
My mom grew up in a one bedroom home off SE Foster Road. From what I remember as a child, it was a tiny run-down shack. My mom slept with her two sisters in the one bedroom, her brother slept on the couch in the living room and my grandparents slept in the kitchen alcove meant for a dinner table. My grandmother use to give me Grandma’s oatmeal raisin cookies and I can remember hating them because I didn’t like raisins and they were stale. But like a good little granddaughter, I ate them. At least, that’s what I think I did. My grandmother, Lucile, would save up pennies in a plastic cough drop tube with a red lid that said “HOLD” on the top. I don’t remember how I felt about this, but I imagine that I was pleased to have someone give me a tube of money.
As an adult, my mom liked to save everything. She hardly had any trinkets from her childhood and she learned to value and save things “just in case.” She would buy several of something if it “was a good deal.” You never knew when you’d need something. As a child and then a teenager, I was mortified. Our house was so messy that the only place to make any kind of meal was the pull-out bread board. And of course, you couldn’t eat anywhere, but on a TV tray in the living room. The kitchen table and counters were constantly covered in recycling, paper clutter, boxed or canned food, items she got on sale. You name it, you would probably be able to find it there. I couldn’t have anyone but my very closest friends over to our house without wanting to die (not an exaggeration). If anyone not in my tiny circle of friends came over, I would say we were “rearranging” and that’s why the house was so messy.
I spent a lot of my teenage years and adult life blaming my parents for the way our home was. I didn’t have a bad childhood. My parents didn’t beat me, I never went without. But my childhood memories are often clouded by the mess we lived in. It was a huge ordeal just to put up a Christmas tree. We had to “clean” and move a ton of stuff out of the way, which just meant shoving it behind the couch. I could go on and on.
What I’ve been learning about myself and my parents over the past few years is that, regardless of the anxiety and dread I have felt over my life about having “too much stuff” or “clutter,” that’s how my mom felt with a lack of “stuff.” For me, if our coffee maker breaks, you shrug, fork over $40 for a new one and throw the old one in the trash can. That wasn’t even an option for my mom while she was growing up. I’m not saying I want to suddenly save everything and that I suddenly don’t feel a giant ball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach whenever there are more than two things on our kitchen counter. What I’m saying is, maybe I did actually learn something from this experience, but it took me 37 years to realize it.
Ever since I can remember, my mom has recycled and she taught me to do the same. This was way back when you had to separate everything. Years later, I learned that some states don’t even recycle. At. All. What? The first time I saw someone throw away a tin can, I was horrified. A few years ago, Portland started doing garbage service every other week instead of every week and accepting compost. The idea was that it would encourage people think more about what they are throwing away and try to be more thoughtful. But all it has seemed to do is make people run out of room in their trash can and start throwing their trash in their recycling bin. Like diapers and other non-recyclables. So, why is it that we aren’t getting it? Is it because we haven’t been educated properly? Is it because we are lazy? Or that it isn’t convenient? Sure, it isn’t convenient, but neither is a plastic straw shoved up your nose.
In 2016, my husband and I bought our first house. We started getting monthly mailers from the City of Milwaukie. One month it included a 2 page spread of what you could and couldn’t recycle in your recycling bin. To my surprise, you can’t recycle clamshell containers that salad and fruits come in, even if you wash them out! What?! You can’t recycle food boxes that frozen food comes in? No Pizza boxes either? Paper coffee cups and lids? Nope. What. The. Eff. Come to find out, all that recycling I thought I had been doing over the years is just “wishful recycling.” For years, we have been sending our recycling to China. But this year, China has stopped taking Oregon’s recyclables because most people don’t recycle properly and don’t clean out their recycling. We dirty, folks. So, what is happening with all of our recycling? I still don’t know the answer to that. I do know, however, that it pains me to throw away a perfectly clean clam shell container, but I do it anyway.
Then I started researching and learning that I can do small things in my everyday life that eventually will add up. I know, it seems like a “duh” moment to me, too. Look, I’m not going to promise that we will become a zero waste household or that we will get rid of or stop using all our plastic. The reality is, we have a ton of crap that is made out of plastic, for example, the mouse to our computer, measuring cups (that I’ve had my entire adult life), the power strip that all of our electronics are plugged into, etc. If we were to remove all of those items from our home, I think THAT would be wasteful because we still use them all the time. But what I can do is be more thoughtful about the products we purchase. I’m not going to throw out all of our products we have that come in plastic bottles, but I can use them up and then make a better choice next time.
Regardless of your political views or your belief in global warming, I hope we can all agree and admit that we are a wasteful society. But we aren’t powerless. We can make better choices. We vote with our dollars. I’m not saying you have to stop buying plastic all together or change your habits completely. But we can all make small changes that add up to big changes overall. That is what I intend for this blog to be about. This blog is the beginning of my journey to waste less. Not zero waste, but less waste.