An Experience in (Mild) Communal Living
Overview History Meetings Cleaning Eating Food Shopping Recycling Worm Bin

Personally, I recycle because I don't like the idea of trash. I don't like to think about this stuff I'm using and throwing away, which will end up in hole in the ground. Most of this stuff I could dig up and show my grandchildren, and that's a s****y heritage.

I grew up with different messages about this, though. My father was good about picking stuff up, and I remember lots of times seeing him pick up trash that had fallen in a park or area we were sitting. I follow him in that. On the other hand, I grew up in a culture that doesn't care about how much waste is generated by consumers, so I will routinely throw away mounds of trash myself.

So recycling was an important part of the picture at the collective. But as you will read, there were compromises we made.

San Francisco supported a pretty good recycling program. The service picked stuff up once a week. Since we lived in a building with flats, we have two large bins (paper and plastic/metal/glass) in the basement. The recyclers picked stuff up directly from there.

One problem in general was with cardboard, like cardboard boxes. The recycling program will pick up cardboard, but if it doesn't fit in the normal bin, they ask that you separate it and either a) cut it down and tie it up or b) fold it and put it in a large paper garbage bag. Routinely, though, people ignored this and just dumped their cardboard boxes behind the recycling bins, where they sat--the recyclers just wouldn't touch them.

About twice a year, the city also sent a service around to pick up random large goods--sofas, excercise equipment, TVs--whatever wouldn't fit in the regular weekly disposal. Seeing all that stuff made me blink, I tell you. You'd think the city could do that about twice and then all the goods would be taken up, but no. People always seemed to have more.

At the colletive, we recycled as much as we can.

We collected our recycleables in the back room, the pantry. We had two main boxes, one for paper/cardboard, and one for plastics, glass and metals. Whoever cleaned the living room was also supposed to take the recycling out to the basement when it filled up.

We drank soymilk and rice milk on a regular basis. Most brands of these style of drinks come in aseptic containers. Aseptic containers are sealed and can be shelved for long periods of time with no ill effect. Unfortunately, they use a combination of plastic, paper and aluminum to seal them, and in California at least, recyclers have given up on recycling these boxes. We had a growing pile of used-milk containers piling up, which we didn't want to throw away.

We (ignored) examined the problem for quite a while. Even though we lived in a collective with high ideals, we had a conflict we didn't want to resolve. We didn't want to drink cow milk at home, since we had a house commitment to veganism, but we did want something for cereal, cooking, and so on that takes its place. So we had one ideal conflicting with another. I guess we could have been holy about it and called it a paradox.

We tried some powdered substitutes for soymilk and ricemilk, but didn't find anything that makes us happy to use it.

We held out to see if we could find some recycler in the local area--since some groups used to take aseptics--but that looked like a wash.

We did get rid of one shipment of the containers when a friend in Arcata, CA (North of SF) told us someone up there was looking for a bunch of these containers for a home improvement project. Turns out the guy wanted to roof his house! Right on! We sent up about four boxes stuffed with flattened containers. We never heard from him again.

In the end we gave up and just threw away large lots of empty containers.

One way to generate less trash on an ongoing basis is to make what you have last longer. It's not just a matter of delaying the inevitable. It's more like not generating the need for something new to take its place.

For example, we ate a lot of bread at the house. A lot. Like, 16 loaves a month. That means 16 plastic bags added to our trash pile every single month. When the bread was eaten, we washed the bags our and let them dry. We filled the dry bags on our grocery trips with vegetables, fruit, bulk grains, beans, tofu--whatever fit.

This worked pretty well. Pete came up with a scheme a while ago to dry the bags out. We have 2 x 4 chunks screwed into our back pantry wall. We inserted coathangers into these bent into an elongated 'U'. Two coathangers are crossed over each other and tied at the center. The effect is to form a support structure for the plastic bags. We drape the wet bags over the coathangers. In summer, they'll dry in a day, in winter, two days or so. Sometimes we need to turn them inside out to get both sides dry.

You can reuse these bags for quite some time, though I've never counted how many. I usually throw bags out when they've had food rot in them--like lettuce you never got to--or when they start getting "cloudy" (the plastic, that is) or when they develop holes. I used to be pretty stingy about throwing the suckers away. But at 16 bags a month, it was hard to find a reason to keep them.

Some reuse efforts aren't as fruitful. For example, we didn't throw away twist-ties for our bags. Now, you may think, well, that's good, you can always use a twist tie. Somehow, we never did. When housemate John was with us, he could (and would) throw away large handfuls of twist ties with no noticeable effect. Basically, we had lots of twist ties and there were more every time we shopped. I tried not to think about it.

One pretty beautiful way we reused goods was through free-boxing. A free box is basically a box with stuff you don't want, but think others might want. So you throw the stuff in a box and put it on the street. Anyone walking by can just pick stuff out. A downside is that for unwanted items, they can get scattered on the sidewalk if people pick them up and drop them. Also, you do have to take care of those items that absolutely no one wants. There's always some of that, which I take to the thrift store.

I know some people who make a habit of getting all their goods in free-boxes (and dumpsters, for that matter). Personally, I think it's the most wonderful way to reuse what you don't need anymore.

We also reduced by shopping (food.html) in bulk. Every time we buy 10 pounds of loose oats (mmm..) in our bread bags, that's probably two or four Quaker Oats containers we are avoiding. Ditto for rice, beans, miso, tofu, tamari, oil, all our spices and teas, sugar, flour, etc. It's amazing how much you can buy in bulk these days. It's very cheap, high quality, and, best of all, less wasteful.

The downside of buying all this bulk stuff is you have to cook it. In fact, all our cooking was from scratch at the house. But it's definitely not pop tarts or StoveTop whatever, unless you like to live on quick peanut butter sandwiches all the time. So, we reduced by shopping in bulk whenever possible.

We also reduced by using a worm bin (worms.html) for our vegetable an fruit remainders.

I'd say we had to throw out a 10-gallon container of trash about every three to four weeks, which seems pretty good to me.

Sometimes our zeal for reduction takes us to strange places. For example, we had plastic shower curtains when we moved in. The curtains didn't look too great. The clear one was already turning cloudy, I think. Anyway, as these things go, the curtains would gradually grow moldy, and we'd haul them out to the backyard every few months and scrub them down. They also began to tear slightly; we tried taping them with some success.

Personally, I couldn't bear the thought of throwing these things away. They were so large! and plastic, so they were a forever gift, like diamonds only moldy. So we pushed on and kept them.

Finally, Dan grew grossed out. We stopped cleaning them outside since it was pretty laborious, and the end result still left them looking pretty dirty (although the mildew was gone each time). When we stopped the cleaning, the curtains grew slimier and slicker until none of us liked the idea of even touching them during or after a shower.

Well, we did finally ditch the things. As I said, there are compromises.

We all liked our new curtains better.