Wednesday, December 12, 2012

the return of the cheeto and "the story of stuff"

Have you seen The Story of Stuff?  It's a must-see from 2007, so if you haven't, I'd say there's no time like the present! It's way more engaging than anything I might say, and you can always come back to finish reading another day (at least I hope you will!).


Daunted by the 21 minute time tag?  I'll sum it up (but watch it later!).  The gist:  we approach our need for "stuff" with a linear mindset.  That means we make it, use it, throw it away, and then repeat.  Each time we repeat, we extract new raw materials from the earth.  The problem:  using a linear process on a circular (finite) planet means we will eventually run out of both natural resources to make stuff and spaces to discard stuff. 

We know this already, right!?  I know for myself that watching something like The Story of Stuff gets me all fired up with purpose and urgency.  I start marching around, banging my drum of outrage, and ranting at the kids about change. 

Then I find out that while I was watching this 21 minute video, the dog missed her dinner and threw up on the carpet; Olivia didn't dress for a swim practice that started five minutes ago, and Gareth has been standing in front of his school for 10 minutes, wondering why I haven't picked him up from basketball. 

So I put down my drum and hop in my car (yes, burning fossil fuels with dog vomit still drying on the carpet--so much for green waste disposal).

It's so easy to lose our sense of urgency.  But guess what? The infinite creation of trash in a finite space means, in the crudest sense, that we are shitting where we eat. 

Why can't we keep that nasty reality up front and center? I think we all know the answer to that too:  the circle is too big.   When we put our trash by the curb, a truck lumbers up and hauls it away.  Out of sight, out of mind. 

I thought about this after throwing away a half-eaten bag of Cheetos that Gareth left on the counter the other day.  I begrudgingly humor his habit of walking to 7-11 for the junk food I refuse to buy, but did he really expect me to clean up his leftovers and save them neatly for another day? No siree.  I snatched up that offending package and made for the counter compost.  Just as the nuclear looking contents began to topple in with the apple peels and pistachio shells, however, I paused.

"What's in these things?" I wondered.  "And whatever it is, do I really want it in my compost?" 

You see, with the compost, we really feel the circle.  For whatever reason , the squash seeds that we put in there survive the year of bubbling and seething to sprout up in our garden (where we eventually spread our compost).   We eat that squash and throw the rinds and seeds back into the compost.  Circle!  We literally eat what we throw away!

We eat other stuff from my garden as well.  Check this out:

this one looks like it belongs in my post about "collard balls"

It's a horseradish root, not alien testicles from a Stephen King novel.  I made what I hope will be a year's worth of horseradish sauce out of it, and I admit, I take great pride in its Cheeto-free qualities. 

Yes, I know that my foolish son put those neon orange bits of puffed up styrofood directly into his mouth over the weekend.  That is his choice, however, not mine.  As I stood with the bag poised over my compost, I saw clearly that composting the Cheetos would invite "yellow 6" into my circle where it would fester and mingle with my smattering of squash, my "beautiful" horseradish, and my herbs.

Since composting the Cheetos felt only a small step away from eating them, I reverted to linear mode and dumped the rest with their bag into the trash. 

As if that would be better! 

The trashcan gave me room to pretend I had put the Cheetos (and their bag) out of my circle. 

But I had not. 

Realizing this, I took a good hard look in the kitchen trash.  I imagined that instead of disappearing at the curb, all that stuff would go into my yard.  I felt a little ill.  Seriously.  I challenge you to try it.  If you don't have a yard, then look into your trash and imagine it will go into your community common area (with everyone else's trash), or into your local park. 

Now imagine that you will also grow your food in that space.

Would we be inclined to buy a new shower curtan if we knew we'd have to throw the old moldy one into our backyard tomato patch?  Perhaps we'd check the internet for a method to clean the old one instead.  If we did, we'd discover that baking soda and vinegar work great!

And what about all that individually wrapped food?  Do we really want little 100-calorie snack packages poking up for eternity from our rows of beans?

As consumers, we have tremendous power.  Instead of buying new stuff, we can wear out what we have, refurbish and reuse what others have, and repair what is broken.  We have thrift stores, Ebay, Craig's List and Free-Cycle to buy and trade our old stuff.  And when we do shop for new, (especially at the grocery store), we can let packaging and biodegradability influence our decisions.  We can buy in bulk, carry reusable bags, bypass the plastic in the produce aisle, and support the efforts of companies that invest in green practices.

I know the kids are crying, the deadline is looming, and the dog is throwing up on the carpet.  But if we don't want to expire under the great irony that we were too busy with living to save ourselves, then we need to maintain our sense of urgency.  We need to look in the trash can for the return of the Cheeto and get fired up!
That is the circle that binds us.


  1. Oh, I love The Story of Stuff and all the other videos in that series. This is such a great reminder, though, especially at this time of year. So much waste IS sickening, and we do have the power to scale back. Another inspiring post!

    1. thanks jennifer! i'm glad you picked up on the timing. i didn't say anything about the holidays in writing this, but i definately had that in mind!

  2. it's really all quite ugly when we look at it, isn't it. not the composting :) well, maybe the composting, too. but all the waste? all the non-sustainable ways we live.

    does it ever make you want to join some ecovillage somewhere living super sustainably??

    1. yes! there is one in charlottesville. i'll see you there just as soon as the kids graduate highschool! :)

  3. That could actually happen, Deb. I've been researching places like this all over. New Mexico, Colorado, Costa Rica. And here there is one in VA, funny. Will look into it. Seriously. And I'm free to start moving after August!