By Shaun Randol
In 2006 I read Elizabeth Royte’s Garbage Land (Little Brown, 2005), wherein Royte traces her trash through the labyrinthine American waste system. Royte asked, after we toss it into the garbage can, where does it go? What is the impact of the item’s life post-use? What does the vast and growing collection of too-easily disposable products in our landfills say about American lifestyle, priorities and, yes, morals? Since reading Royte’s accounts I have been composting all my food waste, and I strive to maintain a higher conscience of wasteful purchasing habits (e.g., I try to buy used or pluck from the trash rather than buy new). Because of these small practices in my life I have taken real pride in the fact that I only need to empty my trash can once every six weeks or so (meanwhile the average American produces 4.5 pounds of garbage every day). Garbage Land is one of the handful of books that have had an actual impact on my lifestyle.
Colin Beavan’s new book takes it up a notch. Or five.
Colin Beavan is No Impact Man. Dismayed, worried, and angered at worsening global climate conditions, and sorely confused and frustrated about what one individual can do to alleviate—or reverse—such threatening trends, Beavan decided to do something. His choice: to lead a life of no impact for one year. That is, in everyday living his goal was to create no negative impact on the environment. In New York City. And he dragged his Starbucks-addicted wife, one year-old daughter, and trusty dog along for the ride. A no impact transition meant no transportation use that required the power of fossil fuels (subways, taxis, planes, elevators), no takeout food (wasteful containers), no bottled water, no new purchases, no use of disposable items (like razors), and eventually, no electricity. Big things (travel) and little things (cooking) and private things (hygiene) and everything in-between fell into this phased-in project.
Along the way, Beavan blogged about his trials. His book, No Impact Man (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009), made of recycled paper and produced by a plant powered by biogas, tells the tale—at turns comical, revealing, and emotional—of a family at first hesitant, then fully embracing of this project. It is also peppered with startling, eyebrow-raising statistics on global manufacturing, consumption patterns, and waste production. (The documentary on the project is out now too).
I began reading this book on Sunday. I finished on Monday. On Wednesday, I gave it as a gift. Beavan is not polemical. He is not preaching. He is inspiring.
I already try to do some things in my everyday life in a responsible way. I try not purchase anything new (my last two apartments have been furnished with items plucked from the streets, given as gifts, or second-hand goods). My toothbrush is made from recycled yogurt cups. I wash and re-use my plastic baggies. My drinking glasses used to be peanut butter jars. I use sponges and linen napkins rather than paper towels (needing to purchase a roll of paper towels once every six months or so). My books are used. I make some of my own cleaning products, and when I purchase toothpaste, soap, or shaving cream, for instance, I try to make sure the ingredients are organic. I recycle everything under the sun.
But, I can do better. I can do more. But what of disposable products I do use? How can I mitigate my impact here? For instance, I use toilet paper, and I want to continue to do so. Granted my toilet paper is made of recycled material (i.e., not very comfortable), but it still requires energy and water to produce it, and oil to transport it to my local store. And I subscribe to a couple of periodicals—should I cancel the physical subscriptions and read only electronic versions? And I live in Queens but I work in New Jersey. Should I ride my bicycle to work instead? Already it takes about 45 minutes to get to work via the train; by my calculations a bike ride would easily double that time—and that’s on a clear summer day. Beavan had an easier time than many New Yorkers would in living a no impact lifestyle (his job was, after all, to write about it), but he knows this. He does not implore Americans to drop everything immediately and live the same no impact way. At various points he calls for sensible public projects and collective action—building smart, efficient, quick, public transportation infrastructure, for instance, that discourages driving cars. Oh, and that unplugging your television will improve your quality of life dramatically (to this I can personally attest).
After reading No Impact Man I have noticed some slight changes in my lifestyle: appliances and gizmos not being used are now unplugged; at work I let my dishes air dry rather than using the paper towels to dry them, and I also turn off my computer monitor and desk lamp when I am away from the desk for a length of time; and I have refrained from instant gratification purchases. Well, almost. Yesterday morning, on the way to work, I purchased two chocolate croissants and a small cup of coffee. The croissants I did not feel too bad about—the bag they came in is recyclable. The coffee, on the other hand, grieved me. Almost immediately after pouring the cup I felt bad—besides the liquid deliciousness I also purchased a paper cup (killed a tree) printed with colored ink (polluted a river) and topped with a plastic lid (polluted the land). Oh man did I feel guilty about that. I didn’t really need that coffee, I just wanted it. Lesson learned… I hope.
No Impact Man, then, I think, does have the opportunity to change the world, one person at a time. As Beavan alludes to in the book—the straw that broke the camel’s back was not the most powerful straw, it just happened to be the last straw. It was like all other straws; had just one of the previous straws been absent, that camel would have remained standing. Or, to use another analogy, in a row of dominoes, each one pushes the next one forward. The row will not fall without the participation of every other one in line right behind it.
Perhaps Beavan has pushed me just a little bit further. And in my giving the book to another concerned citizen, I have nudged her. And who knows who she will nudge… and so on…
This is one of several "quick reviews," a series that provides a snapshot of international arts and culture.
Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol