It's Not Easy Bein' Green in a World That Likes to Waste

Recently I was in a public bathroom where a young woman was brushing her teeth, letting the water run while she methodically stroked each tooth. When I reached over and turned off the faucet, she glared at me as if I had just tried to snatch her purse. Then, she defiantly turned it back on and continued to waste gallons of fresh water while she slowly massaged her gums.

There was no way for her to know she was committing my biggest pet peeve, of course. I wouldn't ordinarily take action, but the sight of so much precious water going down the drain to absolutely no purpose pushed me over the edge.

'Queen of the dumpster divers'

The fact is, most of the time, trying to make any ecological effort is a lonely job. When I started a recycling program at a public beach in my neighborhood, I naively thought that my neighbors would be delighted to have the opportunity to recycle and have someone else do all the work.

Instead, among the many unsavory items I routinely had to separate out were dirty diapers, rotting trout, and maggoty hamburger. Even worse, in the adjacent trash bins I often found the greater quantity of recyclables. Once, as I was collecting the cans and bottles, I overheard a neighbor tell her friend in a pitying tone, "I guess she needs the money...."

Smiling store clerks who offer me a bag with my purchase stop smiling when I decline it. I ride my bike to do errands around my small town. Once a shopkeeper who saw me ride in commented, "What's the matter? Your car broke down?"

When I noticed a friend was going to throw away 50 pounds of outdated order forms, I offered to take them home with me. If I used the backs, they would make excellent scratch paper. Her face registered shock as she said, "I can't believe you're so cheap."

Because I have a wholesale import clothing business, I use about 200 cardboard boxes a year. For the past 11 years I have never bought one box, finding plenty of them discarded on sidewalks and in dumpsters. A man watching me load boxes into my truck one day said, "Dumpster diving again, eh?" He laughed heartily.

I do occasionally meet a kindred soul out there - as when I was remodeling my house and taking trips to the dump. I noticed that the supervisor there had a mini-recycling center next to his little office. In neat piles were copper pipe ("87 cents a pound," he explained), aluminum windows, lawn chair frames, useable furniture, electrical wire, even a child's bicycle. From then on, I saved him every scrap of reusable metal from the house and in exchange he helped unload my pickup.

Yes, I'm queen of the dumpster divers and I don't care what anyone thinks about it. After all, I'm not doing these things for shock value. And it's not about brownie points. I make these small efforts because I can. I have little control over the world, but I can preserve my own little corner of it. I can single-handedly save thousands of gallons of water. At least my own yard can be pesticide-free. If I use biodegradable cleansers, my wastewater won't pollute the rivers. Hanging up wash while it is damp saves the electricity needed for drying and ironing. From composting and xeriscaping (a type of landscaping that requires minimal water) to reusing aluminum foil, there are hundreds of simple things everyone can do at home to make a difference.

Try going strawless

So why must I feel like I'm swimming upstream? I thought we all agreed to "Save the Earth." We're all sharing the house yet some of us aren't doing any housekeeping.

It's terribly P.C. to target major corporations and demand they reduce their polluting waste, but unless we make the same effort in our own homes our talk doesn't match our walk. Yes, it's wonderful that the big fast-food chains have replaced their white sacks with brown ones and switched from styrofoam to paper, but the stupidest and most avoidable waste is perpetrated by customers who routinely take three napkins when one will do; take three times as much sauce or ketchup as needed and then trash the unused portions; and sit idling in their cars in the drive-through lane. And incidentally, do we really need straws?

Sure, it takes a little work to reduce, reuse, and recycle, but it's a labor of love.

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