It's Thursday night, and I'm elbow-deep in trash, trying to make the gnarled heap of non-recyclable objects in my garbage can seem less, well, menacing. The slim kitchen bin seems to be overflowing with shimmering landfill-bound packaging, and I'm struggling to recall where it all came from. Last night's tofu nuggets and a bag of spelt bread can't be to blame for all this.
With all the diligent blue- and green-binning my wee household does (between us and the family upstairs we rarely fill two trash cans every other week), we're still left with an ever-morphing pile of plastic, and tonight it's slapping me in the face. It's time to purge the packaging - even if it comes with local organic bean sprouts - and go 100 per cent garbage-free. Well, at least for a week. Maybe two.
First, some ground rules: Packaging is to be avoided at all costs. If for some reason an unpackaged substitute can't be found, the container the product's sold in must be recyclable. Otherwise, said item must be forfeited. Simple as that. To be fair, all packaged rations already in my possession are to be avoided like the bubonic, too: that means not using the year's supply of brown rice, pasta and dried lentils in the cupboard.
Of course, no sane person would embark on a garbage-free challenge without a visit to the bulk store and lots of good old-fashioned planning, but sanity and time are not my strongest suits.
Between a climate change rally and a visit from the in-laws, I have 15 minutes at the nearest health store before it closes, and today that store happens to be Whole Foods. Though the place is a paradise of green consumerism, a quick scan of the aisles reveals a sea of shiny plastic wrap.
I'm annoyed. Isn't this a health store? Why is everything wrapped in petroleum? Why is the "naturally raised" beef sitting on unnaturally extruded styrofoam? I haven't eaten meat in 15 years, but that's beside the point. I scold a poor grocery boy for the lack of biodegradable packaging.
My nattering dissolves into red-faced shame when I come face to face with the bulk aisle and realize I didn't bring any damn bags. Well, I do have one big shopping bag to toss everything into, but no containers to funnel flour into, no reusable sack to hold couscous.
Flight, I decide, is my best strategy, but not before I spend 10 minutes negotiating with the cheese guy to slice me a chunk of goat Gouda without the plastic baggy or waxed paper. I toss a dozen organic bagels and a crusty bun into my bag and cut my losses, having made out with rudimentary lunch supplies for the week.
Day one. Birds are twittering outside my window. What's for breakfast? Ah, yes, yesterday's bagel supply and organic peanut butter I can refill anywhere. It's like taking candy from a baby. I snag some leaves from the salad spinner, toss my cheese and bun in a bag and make a run for it.
It's now an hour since lunch. My body's twitchy, but I can't quite place the itch. Then, panic. Gum, I can't buy gum. I know it's puerile (not to mention an ecological faux pas), but it's taken me well over a decade to wean myself off the stuff. I used to chew a jaw-busting pack a day back in high school. Now I'm down to two pieces.
I need my fix, but even the health store kind comes in some sort of non-recyclable packaging. No matter what, I'm sure spitting out wads of gum, even the natural kind extracted from Mexican trees, violates garbage-free laws. Do they make a patch for this?
Chewing craving passes, starvation sets in, and my desk is starkly lacking in snacks. I decide to dash to the Dominion up the block, tucking the thick plastic bag I've been reusing for months under my arm as I go. I need substance. But bulk almonds can't be purchased without a vessel of some sort, so I head four aisles over, pick out a reusable container and fill it up.
If dozens of Ryerson kids weren't jamming the lines I would have pre-weighed the thing, but instead I choose to suck it up and pay for the weight of the container. As I explain this to the cashier, who chuckles at my garbage-free neuroseis, he starts to pour the almonds into a disposable produce bag.
"Stop! No!" I cry, slapping the nuts out of his hand.
"But I don't want you to pay for the price of the container," he sputters meekly.
It's a lovely gesture, really, one that makes me look especially loony after I realize I must have dropped that big old bag that was under my arm. Great, not only have I littered, but now I've got a basket full of organic apples, pears and leafy carrots that are screaming for a bag. I tell the cashier to discount what I said about being waste-free and ask for one solitary bag that I vow to honour and rewash until death takes me. I head back to the office, plastic bag between my legs, stewing about how I've utterly failed day one of garbage-free.
Day two: Can I already be malnourished? I'm not getting nearly as many greens as I used to now that I've given up the great eco sin of purchasing - gasp - boxed organic lettuce. (I'll be damned if I can find an easier source of pesticide-free nutrients when I'm lunching chained to my desk!) Plus, there's no way I can make it through two weeks on white bagels alone. Why is it that all the healthiest sugar-, yeast- and refined-flour-free breads in town come in plastic? I call Future Bakery at the St. Lawrence Market to see if I can special order a brick-heavy pioneer loaf without plastic. No problem, I'm told. It'll be there tomorrow.
I coast into my late-night deadline shift with a trusty reusable container in hand, filled quite happily by the Jamaican joint up the street with a steaming heap of curried veggies. I swear people give you extra when you bring your own container. Why doesn't everybody do this?
Day three: I hop the bus to the St. Lawrence Market before work, fantasizing about the fresh, moist loaf awaiting me. "Is there a special order back there?" I ask at the counter like a kid at the Sears Christmas desk. The young girl looks around and pulls out a loaf in not one, but two plastic bags. My jaw drops. There must be some mistake.
"Oh, it has to come in plastic," she says. "That's company policy."
Then why do the white loaves sit freely in the bakery window while the dark loaves are kept under wraps? Seems like bread bias to me. She tells me policy forces her to pick the loose loaves up with plastic, too. I start to argue about how I could hand her a bag of my own that she could handle the bread with, but it's futile.
A little defeated, I decide to boost my spirits with a bit of produce shopping. A market's the perfect place to scan for fruits and veggies without stickers, elastics, plastic boxes or bags. But even here they're an endangered species. Where are the real farmers? The only lettuce I can find that doesn't come in some sort of plastic isn't organic and still comes all the way from California. Why can't Ontario's armful of greenhouses cough up a little organic greenery?
Day four: Breakfast and lunch go off without a hitch. Now it's late, I'm still at work and I've got 45 minutes to get to an hour-long appointment at Bloor and Jane. There is absolutely no way I'm going to make it till 8 pm without some sort of energy source. Waiting for a train on the Queen platform, I rummage through my bag and find a half-eaten, week-old Ruth's hemp bar at the bottom. It is, unfortunately, wrapped in cellophane.
Would it be cheating if it's already open? I mean, I once blacked out at a chiro's office when he asked me to hold my arms in the air and I had yet to eat lunch. Then there was the time I fainted in a massage chair.
"Fuck it, I'm eating it," I mutter. I'm goddam hypoglycemic and this is an emergency. Sorry.
Day five: I'm off to Montreal for a friend's celebration. Packed my Sigg bottle and portable coffee mug as well as a sandwich tucked into a reusable food container. Garbage-Free: Travel Edition should be a piece of cake.
Fourteen hours later, despite the debauchery involved in a long night with old friends, I've had the good sense to order drinks without straws all evening. At least those I remember. But sometime around 3 am things go wrong. I find myself in a loud, garishly lit pizza joint shovelling a gooey, hot substance into my dehydrated body. Damn, this is good. Then I look down.
I jump out of my seat as though I've come face to face with a ghost of garbage past. I'm eating poutine from a styrofoam container! This not only violates garbage-free in a really bad way, but I can't eat cow cheese and there's no Lactaid pill in sight. Shit.
Luckily, the rest of the weekend goes by uneventfully. Or without garbage anyway. But I'm halfway to Toronto with a sackful of bagels and Tupperware rammed with leftovers from my organic B&B when I realize I'll be getting home after all the markets and bulk stores are closed. That means starting another week off on the wrong foot. Great.
Week two: Hunger is a problem. So is protein. I crack open a can of organic chickpeas at dinner one night (the can's recyclable so technically allowed) and worry about the hormone disruptors I'm likely ingesting from the can's lining. Too bad I can't dip into my supply of dry beans sitting in a bag in the cupboard. That would be against the rules, of course. Where's Kensington when you need it? Really, I just have to try to make it home before the stores close one night. Otherwise, it'll be another week of sweet potato dinners.
The weekend arrives like it's the second coming. Time to hit the bulk stores in style. I raid my cupboards for containers of all shapes and sizes, toss them in cloth bags and run out the door with a skip in my step. I feel liberated refilling PB, face wash, grains, pastas, you name it, and everyone's happy to pre-weigh my containers. It's like I've been scavenging in the woods for weeks and just happened upon an all-you-can-eat buffet. There should be some triumphant Danny Elfman music playing.
Alas, there's just me in the checkout line thinking, You know what? I'm gonna go for week three.
• Avoid the stickers, elastics and plastic boxes that come with produce by shopping at farmers markets.
• Save light plastic containers of all shapes and sizes (i.e. yogurt tubs) and bread bags. They're great for quick refills in the bulk aisle when the shop's too busy to pre-weigh your container. Just transfer it all to glass when you get home to avoid storing in plastic.
• Look for refillable cleaning products. (Grassroots has a big bulk section for this stuff.)
• Skip the pipe-clogging floss and buy the biodegradable kind from the health store. (And toss that in your green bin. No flushing floss!)
• Get a toothbrush with a changeable head instead of tossing your whole brush every few months.
• Drop off wine corks at various LCBOs as part of the Ontario Girl Guide Bag-A-Cork recycling program (www.bag-a-cork.org).
• Tom's of Maine toothpaste tubes can be mailed back to the company for recycling.