Scott Blogs on No Impact Week

Former YES! intern Scott Gast navigates No Impact Week in small-town Massachusetts.
Sunday Consumption

Click here for more stories from No Impact Week.

So far this week:

Live a fuller and happier life by buying less stuff.

Click here for more stories from Day 1: Consumption.

Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Scott Gast

It's Day 1 of the No Impact Project, and my lips are chapped. This is bad: I live in New England, the chapped-lip capital of the world in winter months. But abstaining from consumption—from buying stuff—means no Burt's Bees chapstick for me; I'll have to drink a glass of water instead, and hope for the best.    

Today's challenge entails curtailing consumption, and promising not to visit a store has thrown my lack of self-sufficiency into sharp relief. As an American—with a car, living in an apartment—I realize I'm pretty dependent on others for my daily comforts. And by “others,” I mean businesses, companies, economic entities. Even here, in a town with a relatively vibrant local economy, many of these “others” are globe-spanning corporations. I think it's safe to say that “no impact” doesn't exactly jive with CVS's, or Wal-Mart's, business model.

I have also made a list of the things I'd planned to buy this week. Thankfully, it is a short list. But apart from food, a number of these items already appear frivolous. Some of the more flagrant offenders include:

  • New running shoes
  • Book ends
  • A dental floss threader
  • Christmas lights
  • A jump rope

Hmm. The difference between “need” and “want” becomes apparent.    

A barbershop copy of Men's Health tells me that fresh “gel padding” in a new pair of sneakers is necessary for injury-free jogging. But wasn't there a Nike ad next to that article? Seems a little suspicious. I decide to go without.

Next up: Book ends. I'll just start stacking my books vertically—or, better yet, I'll poke around for two heavy rocks near the river bed behind my apartment. A dental floss threader? I'm not sure I can even spot one of these things in a drug store, and, having flossed all my life without this mysterious device, I decide I can skip it. Christmas lights? It's January, buddy—time to move on.

But I'd rather not sacrifice on the jump rope. I don't always have time for a long run, and skipping rope for 20 minutes in the a.m. is something I've done for years. Normally, I'd order one online, but I think I'll try to improvise with a cut of rope from the garage, weight it with some duct tape and rubber bands, and see how long it lasts.

Now, if I can truly manage to avoid these purchases, dealing with the trash ought to be pretty easy. Wish me luck. Anybody know how to make chapstick from scratch?

Monday Trash

Discover how wasting less improves your life.

Click here for more stories from Day 2: Trash.

Sandwich envelope photo by Scott Gast

What about when the trash comes in your mailbox? Forgo the plastic and wrap your lunch in a used envelope.

Photo by Scott Gast

I have a bean question. What generates less trash: beans sold in metal cans or beans sold in plastic bags? This is an important question, as I eat a considerable amount of beans. During my last grocery outing, I erred on the side of bagged beans—but these must be soaked in water and cooked, and the plastic bag doesn't appear recyclable. Canned beans are edible right away, of course, but the extra energy burned hauling these things around has to be considerable.

These are the kinds of questions I'm faced with today, as I 1) try to reduce my trash output, and 2) am forced, in the process, to consider the kinds of consumption choices that lead to that trash. This second bit turns out to be important—much of today's refuse had a useful life of about 15 seconds. And some of it appears unusable—almost comically unusable, as if it had been designed to give the No Impact Project a particularly hard time.

Old bus tickets, for example. These particular bus tickets are printed on some kind of waxy paper that refuses to be written on—in ink or pencil. They're useless as scratch paper. Or those little crinkly, plastic rings that come stuck to the rim of mayonnaise jars—what do you do with those?

At least three classes of trash present themselves in my pile. There are the recyclables, like glass bottles, plastic of appropriate chemistry, paper, aluminum, and so on. One hopes, of course, that much of the 15-second use stuff finds its way into this category, but it seems to attract larger items like milk jugs, newspaper, and wine bottles.

Category Two is all the junk that doesn't have to be junk. Salsa, for example, comes in a glass jar of unbelievable thickness (why salsa needs such fortification is beyond me). When washed, it doubles as a drinking glass. I snag a peanut butter jar of similar quality and fill it with my extra dimes and pennies and other end-of-day pocket detritus. Paper items prove a little trickier, especially when all of my scratch paper needs have been met. Instead of aluminum foil, or Tupperware, I slip my sandwich into an opened mail envelope. This proves just fine, so long as you don't mind the taste of newsprint with your cheese sandwich (an acquired taste).

And then there's food waste. Like most apartment dwellers, I don't have room for a full-on compost pile. I've discovered a decent short-term option, though: the freezer. I scrape compostable food waste into bags stored in the freezer, eliminating smells and consolidating anything wet, until I can transport them to a public compost pile near my work.

To stare at a day's waste is to confront both the extent to which I'm complicit in an unsustainable system—and the limits of my ability, as an individual, to untangle the problem. Sure, I found a use for that salsa jar this afternoon. But how many empty salsa jars do I need? And that crinkly mayonnaise lid thing? Forget it.

The point is, correcting an economy's—even a household economy's—lethal waste production system is more than a one-person job. Today's trash exercise demonstrates as much: dealing with waste will take all the creativity we can muster. Not just you or me. We.

Tuesday Transportation

Airport photo by Curran Kelleher

In the waiting line.

Photo by Curran Kelleher

Burn calories, not fossil fuels.

Click here for more stories from Day 3: Transportation.

Ah, transportation. I'm happy to report that my routine transportation needs are essentially non-existent. I live a ten-minute walk from work, a grocery store, and a laundromat. The toughest part of my “commute” involves not getting road salt in my shoes. In short, I'm lucky.

But around here, where fields and woods and long stretches of state highway separate many folks (who don't live in town) from work and food, a car is seen as a necessity. Biking is possible for some, but only in the milder months when snow ceases to blow and the roads are friendly and warm. There's a bus system in the region, yes, but unlike the dense, teeming city to the south, public transportation in Western Massachusetts is less than convenient. All this simply means I leave the area less, which is fine—but visiting a big city, seeing a friend, or catching live music in a neighboring town really does require some form of motorized transport.

Here's the point: As with my trash, I am deeply embedded in a series of systems that often make the right thing the hard thing.

So, rather than dwell on the minutiae of today's ten-minute, carbon-free walk to purchase celery and a box of Raisin Bran, I'd like to reflect on the larger transportation situation small town life has thrust me into. Basically, it's this: I am guilty of flying places. Take, for example, the recent Christmas holiday. All of my family resides in the Midwest, and I face a decision: heave more carbon into the atmosphere, or experience glares from relatives so intense they are felt through my cell phone's ear holes. I'd like to say I have little choice.

Rewind about a week, and there I was, standing in Detroit's Wayne County Airport, at the ticketing area, in an enormous line, while a blizzard whited-out any chance I had of getting back to the East Coast in time for work. Here's what occurred to me while standing in line:

An earnest attempt at reducing my carbon footprint involves a seemingly endless list of cost/benefit analyses. Drive to work and leave a trail of ecological costs—or leave extra early, dress extra warm, carry extra stuff, and bike there? Fly to Detroit to see my family on Christmas—or stay home, leave the carbon in the ground, and think a whole lot about the effects of geography and a globalized economy on family life?

Here's the point: As with my trash, I am deeply embedded in a series of systems that often make the right thing the hard thing. But would it be “right” to skip Christmas and not fly? I don't know. But I do know that I'd rather deliberate about this stuff than not—and it's good to be awake to the bigger processes we're all involved in.

It's hard. It's strenuous. But it's worth it.


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