Monday, August 16, 2010

Black-hole Decision Making

I find myself faced with environmentally framed decisions which I feel completely ill-equipped to make. It's hard to make a rational cost-benefit determination when you can only guess haphazardly at what those costs and benefits might be, or at least their exact measures. How am I supposed to make decisions on no information? For instance:

1) The bathroom, kitchen cabinets, and fridge in my new apartment are full of half-used toiletries and food belonging to previous residents already departed. Whenever I can waylay both of the other current residents more or less simultaneously, we're going to cull the collection. Obviously the environmentally (and fiscally and otherwise, I suppose) responsible thing to do would be not to simply throw everything out but to spend the next few months living off the two varieties of Herbal Essences shampoos (extra moisturizing and anti-frizz, both of which, conveniently, my hair could benefit from), the duplicate bottle of my face wash, and the myriad body washes left behind (and eating lots and lots of soy sauce and mustard?) so as not to allow huge quantities of perfectly good products to go to waste. And I likely will do this (at least for the bathroom supplies—using an unseen person's leftover shampoo seems a lot less gross than their leftover food, plus the food stuff isn't stuff I'll eat, or at least not quickly enough for it to benefit the stuffed level of the fridge with any alacrity).

But then what to do with the unwanted dregs? I'm a compulsive recycler (I've been known to fish roommates' bottles out of the trash, rinse them, and put them in the bin), but I know that the plastic recycling process isn't actually all that efficient, that the water wastage required in rinsing out a container (especially one containing body wash or something that foams seemingly eternally) is a nontrivial factor in this equation, and that—oh wait—washing loads of liquid pollutants (which is what toiletries basically are when you get down to it) down the drain where they eventually end up contaminating rivers and groundwater and such probably isn't the best of ideas. So, do I simply toss the whole thing—bottle, contents, and all—into the trash, hoping the bottle will remain intact enough to keep the contents from spilling out into our (eventual) water supply, and not wasting the water to endlessly rinse it, or do I spend an afternoon rinsing out bottles of Worcestershire sauce and conditioner, wasting untold gallons of water?

See, what I need to know: Exactly how inefficient is plastic recycling? (I'm sure this is publicly available if I really looked.) How much water is required to rinse out a shampoo bottle? (I'm sure I could figure this out on my own.) But then, how much water wasted counteracts the beneficial effects of recycling? (This is possibly close enough, given the inefficient nature of plastics recycling, to be significant.) What are the environmental effects of pouring bath products down the drain? (I am aware we do this daily anyway as our daily doses of shampoo, conditioner, face wash, body wash, shaving gel, toothpaste, mouthwash, and whatever gels, pomades, or mousses are already in our hair wash out and down the drain, but just because we already do it to some extent doesn't mean it's a problem. Peeing out all the drugs we take is doing awful things to fish, frogs, and other animals, including leaving them hermaphroditic thanks to 12 million American women's birth control pills.) Does anything thrown away in its container actually remain contained after being crushed and compacted and tossed in the landfill?

2) Since I always use my flip & tumble bags at the grocery store, CVS, etc., I'm finding that I actually have a dearth of paper and plastic bags around my house. In my area, paper recycling has to be either put into a paper bag to separate it from the other recycling, or tied neatly into a coherent package with twine. The latter sounds nigh impossible (only a small percentage of my paper recycling is regularly-sized and -shaped paper—what to do about all the receipts?!), but it seems beyond ridiculous to be sure to get paper bags at the grocery store for the sole purpose of restraining my paper recycling. (This is less a cost-benefit thing than just an annoyance thing.) Until recently I was making it by on the occasional Whole Foods bag the roommate would bring home (he's slightly less perpetually armed with reusable bags since he doesn't carry a purse), the small bags his beer comes home in, and then (a windfall!), somewhat embarrassingly, a stash of paper bags I filched out of a neighbor's recycling bin one day. But now? Nothing. I appear to be the only person in this apartment who cooks, so apparently I'm the only one who ever buys anything at the grocery store. (Odd.)

Plastic gives me an even worse conundrum. The other day I went to empty the bathroom trash, but then I realized I didn't actually have any plastic grocery bags to replace the bag with. (I would just dump the trash into the kitchen trashcan, leaving the bag there, but our toilet has a weird leak that the trashcan has been living under to catch, so everything was kind of soggy and gross, and the bag actually needed replacing.) So when I went over to the old place to swap out some stuff I'd unwittingly taken for some stuff I'd unwittingly left, I also grabbed a substantial portion of the stash of plastic bags we had accumulated over the past two years in our kitchen closet. (Of course, over half of them are the somewhat less conveniently sized bags that you get when you buy clothes or something somewhere slightly fancier than the grocery store.) But someday, these too will run out, and then what? It's ridiculous to buy trash bags, at least for that size trash can. (Seriously. How thoroughly stupid is it that stuff is manufactured—and we spend money on it—the sole purpose of which is to throw away?!) But again, is it much less stupid to refrain from using my reusable bags once or twice to build up my supply of plastic grocery bags to line the trash with?

3) Composting brings me to a problem in a similar vein. I had decided once I moved I would resume collecting my vegetable peels and such to take to the compost dump. (Another point entirely is that the compost site is only for residents of my old city, but that I live much closer to it now that I've moved across city lines. I'm going to just do it anyway, since I only composted for maybe two months of the time I lived there, so they owe me a good thirty-odd months of accepting my food waste on principle. Not that they check resident status at the entrance...) But I refuse to simply use my plastic bin unlined by anything else, because as the waste accumulates, it liquifies, starting to smell and leaking putrid liquid in my bag as I carry it. So here we are again—I can line with a plastic bag, which I not only have a dearth of, but I don't enjoy doing because then I'm still stuck with the now-disgusting bag to dispose of later, or I can line with a paper bag, except I don't have any of those either. Is it better or worse to purchase paper lunch sacks to contain the veggie refuse (introducing waste, including water waste in the manufacturing process) to prevent all my biodegradable waste from entering the landfill, where it is no longer to actually decompose due to lack of oxygen and thus absence of the bacteria that break it down? (An apple core only rots measurably faster than a styrofoam cup when you bury them in your backyard for science class, not when you throw both of them away—shrouded in a plastic bag, no less!—to enter a landfill.)

Gah, I need numbers! I need data! (Better yet, I need someone else to gather the numbers and data and make a nice little website telling me what to do!)

My other option—and don't think I haven't already done this to some level on light-waste weeks!—is to sneak my paper to be recycled into an unsuspecting neighbor's under-stuffed paper bag. I'm pretty sure that's technically illegal, though, not to mention embarrassing if I they catch you. And it doesn't help with my bathroom trashcan!