The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Plastic Waste into Resources: Exploring Ecobricks as Building Tools August 25, 2019

As I described in last week’s post, at least here in the US, we have serious challenges befalling us with plastic recycling along with a host of waste plastics that can never be recycled. A recycling infrastructure built almost exclusively on exporting masses of “dirty” recycling to China now has the recycling system here in the US is in shambles when China stopped taking recycling. Further, so many plastics simply can’t be recycled, meaning that even well meaning folks who recycle everything they can still end up throwing away enormous amounts of single-use plastics, packaging, film, and other waste. In permaculture design terms, it is time to turn some of this waste into a resource!  So in today’s post, I’d like to explore the concept of making ecobricks as a way to sink large amounts of un-recyclable waste into a productive resource and share some designs and ideas for using ecobricks for building projects.

 

Ecobricks, also known as Bottle Bricks, are a concept that has been growing in popularity, particularly in developing nations who are awash with plastic.  When we have plastic literally filling up oceans, streams, and communities, communities start looking for ways of dealing with that plastic–and ecobricks are one of the solutions that everyday people are creating. In a nutshell, you take a plastic bottle, fill it with unrecyclable plastic, and use it as a building tool for all kinds of projects.  If combined with other kinds of sustainable building techniques, like Cob, it is buildling tool can be used again and again, in the event that the original thing you built you want to dismantle.

 

Why are Ecobricks a spiritual and sustainable practice?

Ecobricks present multiple kinds of “solutions” and benefits.  Before getting into the specifics of how to make them, I want to share these benefits.

Accessibility and empowerment. The first thing I really like about ecobricks as a sustainable solution is that they are easy enough that anyone can make them.  And everyone has access to the basic materials (which are all free, and all considered waste).  Even if you choose not to use ecobricks in your own project, there is a global network of people who are making them to contribute to community projects (see more at grobrick.com).

 

Raising awareness and raising plastic consciousness. Saving up the plastics for ecobricks (and seeking out additional plastics) helps shift one’s own awareness about the proliferation of plastic.  New studies have recently demonstrated the serious toll that plastic is having in the world, from drinking water to oceans to our own bodies.  By treating it as a resource and changing your relationship to plastic, it helps you raise your own “plastic consciousness” in terms of both how much plastic you consume, but also, how much would get thrown away if you weren’t creating ecobricks.

 

Magic and intention. Making the ecobricks has a deeply spiritual side, a kind of sacred action.  Because it takes a long time to make ecobricks, as you create, it becomes a kind of meditation.  As you push the plastic into the brick, you can meditate on the world you are creating, rather than the world that created that plastic.  You can write on the ecobrick your hopes and dreams for the future, as many people do all over the world–these then become a way of doing both inner and outer alchemy through the transformation of waste plastic into a resource.  The brick making becomes a magical act to help us create a different future.

 

Accountability. When it comes to plastic, people in privileged places often have an “away” mentality.  Thus, our goal is to make the plastic go away as soon as it no longer serves us. Plastic packaging is wanted till the plastic is out of the package–then it needs to go away as fast as possible.  Recycling allows it go away (at least mentally).  But the truth is this: no plastic ever goes truly away.  We are each personally responsible for the plastic we create demand for: from being willing to purchase plastic products to forgetting one’s reusable grocery bags and asking for plastic, that plastic is now yours.  Ecobricks allows us to take a personal responsibility for plastics.   And responsibility changes our relationship not only with the plastic, but with the land, who suffers too often from humanity’s plastic addiction.

 

Ecobricks as a Transitioning Technology. Obviously, plastic is not sustainable–the very opposite. We know that plastic, out in the ecosystem, causes serious concernes environmntally and for the health of all beings.  A lot of people are moving away from plastic, into zero waste lifestyles, and really evaluating the plastic in their lives.  Ecobricks are a transition tool–the more plastic you are able to lock up in ecobricks, the more you don’t allow back into the environment.  This page explains this concept more in depth.

 

I hope that the above is enough to convince you that this is a great possibility for your own plastic!  Now let’s take a look at how to make the bricks and what projects you can build with them.

 

Making an Ecobrick: Step by Step Instructions

The process of making an ecobrick simple, and I’ll walk through it step by step.  First you gather up your materials.  Since I’m working on a “big project” that will probably require several hundred bricks, I’m being really methodical about it.  I keep every bit of non-recyclable plastic in plastic bags and keep these near the recycling, compost, vermicompst, and trash in my home.  Thus, there are now five options: vermicompost for coffee grounds and food scraps, compost for any other organic material, recycling for regular materials that can be recycled, and the ecobrick station for everything else.  This means very little goes in the trash! I also am prepared to gather up any excess plastic in other locations that I frequent–my workplace, places I hike, etc.  I’m also in the process of recruiting friends and family to help me create more ecobricks or, at the least, save me their plastic for me to create more.

 

In this first image, this is a collection of a about a month of saving plastic from the sources listed above.  Into my wheelbarrow goes everything from: unavoidable one use plastic (such as straws, plastic silverware), twist ties, bread bags, styrofoam, plastic baggies, plastic packaging, films, wraps, and so forth.  I gathered a lot of this from my workplace and also as trash along the side of the road or in the woods. Once you start collecting, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to collect and how quickly you can gather enough for one brick.  For example, a local picnic used 15 plastic tablecloths, which I gathered up and stuffed into a brick, making almost one full brick from that single picnic!

Here are two more photos of some of the selection from my most recent ecobrick making time: some food packaging that isn’t recyclable from bread, quinoa, and avocado, just to give you an idea:

Unrecyclable plastic avocado bag with preening goose in background

The world is full of this stuff!  You can find it at your house, at your work, littered in parking lots, in the woods, at the beach…you get the idea!

Once you’ve gathered your supplies, you will also need some 1 or 2 liter soda bottles.  If you don’t produce them yourself, a walk down the street of any urban or suburban area on recycling day is sure to produce many for you!  Or just ask people you know who drink soda. I usually store these in the same box I am gathering up my materials.

Goose inspection of my bottles

I usually gather stuff up for a while, and then make a few ecobricks at the same time.  Once you hvae your material, you can begin stuffing your bottles. You might want to include some nice colored plastic on the bottom of your bottle. The reason you might want something nice colored is that when you build with them, if you choose to let the bottoms be seen, you can have different colors! Certainly, you want something soft so you can stuff it into the cracks, so don’t use any hard plastic for this purpose.

Bottom of bottle

The technique is very simple, however, there are a few tricks to make really good bricks. First, you want a stick or dowel rod so as you get almost full, you can shove it down and keep stuffing further.  Ecobricks need to be carefully compacted without much give or when used as a building material, a poor brick can compromise the structure. Stuffing the bricks as full as possible and using some muscle to push down the brick is necessary. Sometimes, larger materials can be twisted into the bricks. Other times, I’ve found I have to cut them into smaller pieces to have them fit (especially true for thicker plastics).

Stuffing an ecobrick with Widdershins’ supervision

 

Twist method for a plastic bag

Fill up your ecobrick with plastic, stuffing down with the stick several times as it gets full. When you can’t add any more and the brick is firm, you can finish it by adding a cap. Your brick is done!  If you want, you can register it at GoBrik.com and it will keep track for you of how much plastic you stored and how much C02 you saved.  You’ll also get a brick number label and you can contribute your ecobrick to any number of ecobrick projects (or start one of your own).

Three recent ecobricks!

I have found that each ecobrick takes maybe 20 minutes to make, once you sit down and do it.  I usually only make 2 at a time because it takes a lot of muscle to make them!   They also take a lot more plastic than you would think–the last few I made, I counted and they took between 35-50 distinct pieces of plastic, depending on the size.  You can also invite others to gather up their plastics and come over and have an ecobrick party!

 

 

Travel Ecobricks

What is fun about this process is that it has been deeply empowering.  Rather than lamenting each piece of plastic I threw away that wasn’t recyable, I’m now seeking out waste plastic for my bricks.  For example, during a recent trip to Lake Erie with friends we had a few opportunities to do some beachcombing.  I was picking up plastic all over the beach and stuffing it in a found 2 liter bottle, which I brought home.  While I used to pick up trash only to recycle what I can and throw the rest away, I now can lock up that plastic in a brick that will be a resource.  Just this past week, I had a picnic lunch for work as part of our opening year activities and I gathered up everyone’s waste straws, plastic bags, and chip bags for my brick.

 

There’s lots of ways to easily collect plastic. Take an empty 2-liter bottle and a dowel rod with you when you go anywhere or anywhere you might spend time that generates plastic. A small one can fit in a purse or bag, even.  Thus,  I now have an ecobrick in my car, I have one at my workplace, I have one in my purse.  I recently went camping and took one with me (and finished it in one weekend by collecting plastic out of the woods!) I am now handing out sticks and bottles to friends and family, and asking them to make them for me (yes, I need a lot for the project).  For Lughnasadh recently, we had a grove event and the grove helped make part of a brick.

 

What I love about this is that everywhere I go, I am leaving the world a bit better by collecting that plastic and putting it to a productive use.

 

Building Projects

There are great resources online that share different kinds of things you can do with the eocbricks.  People make walls from them, benches, raised beds, furnature, even whole structures!   Pintrest has a number of excellent boards where people are sharing ideas for using ecobricks, such as this one!   

My long-term plan is to create an outdoor kitchen using ecobricks, which I am estimating will take at least 100 ecobricks in total. The ecobricks will help me create the basic surfaces on which I will build a cob oven and will also help build counter spaces and benches.  Ecobricks, combined with cob (a natural building material of clay, sand, and straw) and with a good roof, will create a long-term structure that will offer us many years of use–for druid grove events and simple family meals! Ecobricks will be part of the entire kitchen, and I estimate that I will need at least 100 to complete the project!  Here are some of my initial plans.  Some of these things I’ve had the opportunity to build before, but others are new!

Outdoor kitchen plans

Cob oven plans

 

In terms of how to build walls, seats, and more, two such videos that offer a good introduction:

 

 

If you plan on making some ecobricks, please share your ideas and plans here!  I would love to hear of anyone else who has a project in mind.  Blessings!

 

A Spring Ritual: Trash-to-Treasure Fairy May 21, 2016

A typical "trash" pile full of perfectly good stuff

A typical “trash” pile full of perfectly good stuff from the move out day ritual.  Working fans, mattresses, bags of unused clothing, shoes, organization units, dishes, etc.

At the end of the semester in my quaint college town, a spring ritual of sorts takes place. (I know, I know. Spring rituals in college towns are rarely a good thing!) It is a holiday dedicated to the gods of consumption and waste, called “Move out day.” This day takes place the same day as graduation, and after graduation ceremonies, students and their families eagerly pack their cars and whisk themselves off to unknown destinations. Unfortunately, not everything that they brought, or bought here, goes with them. In fact, the primary activity of the move out day ritual is making one’s sizable offering of new and lightly used goods on the sidewalk or in a series of dumpsters and then to drive off into the sunset.

 

As you walk up and down the streets in the aftermath of this ritual, the carnage and enormity it can be overwhelming. To give you a sense of it, I’ll post two lists from friends and the “haul” they got from move-out day:

 

“End of the semester means move out day! This year’s haul includes a Weber grill, a metal bathroom shelf, an IKEA shelf unit, brand new Tefal fry pans, new cutting boards, a six month supply of laundry soap and fabric softener, clothes, a fan, a folding chair, and two bikes.”

 

“I got two boxes full of dishes, a leather rolling chair, two brand new garbage cans, a sound system, two digital voice recorders, an Xbox with 5 games and controllers, a almost new scanner/printer unit, a vintage metal chair, a whole bag of clothing with the tags still on, three pairs of jeans, towels, crystal plates and cups, a box full of plates and cups, two small throw rugs, a wooden jewelry box…and probably some things I forgot.”

 

I think these two lists help you get the picture–this is not ordinary garbage, but a ton of perfectly good stuff, or brand new stuff, that for whatever reason, students no longer want in their lives.

 

Each of these items have a cost: an environmental cost, a social cost, a financial cost. So many resources–directly from the living earth–natural materials, fossil fuels and the associated environmental tolls, environmental pollution from extraction sites, factory waste and runoff. Further, the social cost is also often extreme: workers and their families, near-slave labor in factories, chemical poisoning of workers, birth defects, poverty, and more. When we think about these costs, and the cycle of purchasing and disposal, it is very hard to see mounds and mounds of stuff going completely unused go to the dump. At the dump, it has a final environmental cost as it slowly decays, especially with all of those electronics leeching heavy metals. I don’t think that students participating in their spring ritual really think about what I’ve outlined here–it is the simplest action just to leave stuff on the curb on your way home.

 

I’m not going to go into there reasons this happens (see my earlier post on “disposing of the disposable mindset“) but instead, with the inspiration of permaculture ethics, I’m going to share the inspirational story of the Trash-to-Treasure fairy.

 

Clothes wtih the tags on in the trash

Clothes wtih the tags on in the trash

The typical response to those on the sidelines of this spring ritual are: 1) ignore it is going on and go about your business; 2) shake your head and move along; or, 3) take advantage of it to see what stuff you can salvage, use, and take off the streets. I have found myself most often in the 3rd category, and I never considered taking it a step further. In fact, there are a lot of people out and about during the move out day ritual, participating in a counter-ritual of sorts, sorting through the piles and  looking for stuff they can use (hence the lists above). Others are scrappers, looking to see what metal they can salvage to scrap for bit of cash.  In fact, I have a lot of nice new dishes here, including an awesome enamel saucepan, from this year’s haul. I was personally not going out much, because, shamefully, I didn’t want to be seen as the professor digging through students’ garbage. And then, I saw what the Trash-to-Treasure fairy did, and in the upcoming years, I have decided that I am going to put that sentiment behind me in the future and take his lead.  And maybe solicit the help of some others in furthering the cause.

 

The trash-to-treasure fairy, summoned by the spring move out ritual, decided that none of the three typical responses above were sufficient–and they aren’t. The first responses two allow a problem to happen,and don’t do anything about it other than have a non-response or levy judgement. The third response is much better in that some of what would otherwise wasted goes to use, but its also a very personal response problem, in that the larger problem still remains. But still, 95% of what is thrown away is still going to thrown away, going to the landfill to spend 2000 years or more decomposing.

 

The fourth option, which the Trash-to-treasure fairy enacted, was using a different set of ethics: the permaculture ethics of earth care, fair share, as well as the design principles of “produce no waste” and “the problem is the solution.” In simple terms–because everything that is on the curb came from the earth, and the fairy honors the earth, he decided he wasn’t going to let it go back so easily. And so, he began working his magic. The fairy spent a number of hours filling his car with anything he found that was perfectly good and made runs to one of the local thrift stores.  He selected his store very carefully, avoiding one of the national chains, but a local place with more sound ethics, who directly put on the floor what is donated, and who directly feed the needy with the sales.  The thrift store manager was thrilled to see carloads of perfectly fine dishes, brand new clothing with the tags on, video game consoles, fans, and more–and often of a higher quality than the typical used donations. The fairy’s blessing extends to the shoppers, of all walks of life, that visit that particular store.  This simple solution was able to do car-loads more good than bringing it to your house or turning away from the problem.

 

Lots here that can be used again!

Lots here that can be used again!

I’m also inspired in another sense to take the Trash-to-Treasure fairy’s actions a few steps further.  For one, it seems that in the future, perhaps we can encourage the thrift stores to be there, in person, with donation trucks and make it really convenient for students to make a donation to their store instead of the curb. (We are in a small town, all of the stores are within 2 miles of where this is happening…but still, a lot of people can’t be bothered to drop stuff off on the edges of town). I’m also wondering if more education and a push by the university could help move more of this so-called “waste” into the hands of people who need it. I think there are lots of possibilities here, and I am thankful to have been so inspired by the Trash-to-Treasure fairy and to share this with all of you.

 

The Trash-to-Treasure fairy wasn’t content to take only what he needed, and instead, took it a step further. He stopped thinking about himself and his own needs, and instead, thought about the good of the earth and the community. I am inspired to continue and extend this tradition and help reduce the waste produced by my own campus community. The following week, a very similar spring ritual of my hometown, where my parents live, was taking place: “spring clean up” and I went with the trash-to-treaure fairy to see what we could salvage and give away. So many of us have an opportunity each day to do these little, yet powerful things. May the inspiration of the trash-to-treasure fairy be ever-present in your life!

 

Disposing of the Disposable Mindset, or Dealing with “Waste” November 6, 2015

In my hometown of Johnstown, PA, a famous spring ritual takes place. Its known as “spring cleanup” week. This is one week a year where the garbage company allows you to put out anything and everything on the curb to get rid of it. People end up with mounds and heaps of crap on the side of the road: TVs, appliances, furniture, boxes of junk, more and more boxes and bags, piles and piles of stuff. Part of the problem with this practice surrounds the consumption of stuff (a topic I addressed last year in this blog here) but another problem is the waste mindset.

 

Forest near my home in the process of composting. No waste!

Forest near my home in the process of recycling nutrients at Samhain. No waste!

In permaculture design, a number of design principles help us design and enact better living spaces of all kinds. Many who practice permaculture also see these as mantras for living. From Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability the mantra about waste is simple: “produce no waste.” As with the other permaculture principles, I’ve used this as a theme for my AODA discursive meditations, and I have worked at various points to bring this to the center of mindful and conscious living and enact permanent change within my own life.  So today we are going to talk through the issue of “waste” and the work towards disposing of the disposable mindset!  This blog will examine the waste mindset both from the outer and inner perspectives and conclude with some suggestions for reducing or entirely eliminating waste.

 

I’d like to talk about waste using the framing of the hermetic magical adage as above, so below, as within, so without (or, more directly, “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing”).  It is through this principle that we can not only deeply understand the effects of waste in our lives and also recognize some solutions for eliminating waste with the goal of living more earth-based, regenerative lives.

 

The Outer Problem of “Waste”

We’ll start exploring the “outer” problem of waste, that is, waste in our landscapes and lives. Waste streams, completely non-existent in nature, are ever-present in modern America (and truthfully, the consumerist model depends on waste streams to encourage everlasting consumption of new products and goods and a “waste industry” based on these systems).  Yes, waste today is intentional; it is a matter of design. We think of it as a bi-product of living, but that’s not really the case. Consumerism was designed so that everything is disposable and designed with “planned obsolescence” or the idea that a produce is planned to automatically fail after a certain period of time. Other kinds of waste are simply “generated” as part of doing business or living, and there is no impetus to change this at present. The billions of plastic cups that are waste generated by the airline industry daily, for example, or businesses that serve food in disposable containers. And since waste collection and processing itself is an industry, there is little impetus to change it from a larger collective standpoint.

 

The world is currently drowning in waste. From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to Kerug K-Kup that is non-recyclable and consumed in almost every office and one in three homes in the USA, to food waste (on the order of millions per year –up to 40% of the total food produced here in the USA), to waste water from fracking, who farmers now are putting on their crops (the problem is such that California is considering labeling crops grown with fracking wastewater). The list goes on and on. And its not just America–we have a waste problem most industrialized societies globally. Waste accumulates in the ocean, micro-beads from face scrubbers end up inside fish and then back on your plate, the waterways are full of toxins and pesticides.  Waste in the form of agricultural runoff ends up creating algae blooms and dead zones thousands of miles across.  Waste and debris is even up in orbit surrounding our planet–this is how bad our waste problem has become.  We have waste streams that are invisible to us–the waste in manufacturing processes are unknown because they are proprietary–but when you buy that product, you buy the waste stream of that product. I’m a fan of science fiction, and when you really think about it, this paragraph reads like the start to some dystopian novel.  But its not, its here, right now, and present.

 

Outer waste goes well beyond just stuff.  We have wasted energy–everything from heat leaking from our houses in winter to wasted clean water running down our drains and into our municipal sewage systems.  We have wasted time in front of the various screens of our lives and wasted potential while housed within the boxes that we inhabit.  We have so much waste in our lives that its difficult to wrap one’s head around it.

 

You might say, more than anything else, this culture produces waste.

 

If we return to the hermetical principle that is helping frame this blog post–we can see a very serious problem here. Not only are we destroying our planet with pollution and waste, but we are in essence destroying our inner worlds as well. Since what is reflected on one level of reality (the physical) happens on other levels (the mental, the emotional), the garbage we have in our lives is not just staying there–its working on us both within and without.

 

For a simple example of this many of us have probably experienced, let’s take a look at cooking. Consider the difference in trying to cook dinner in a messy kitchen with excess garbage, grime, and stinky dishes piled up in the sink vs. a clean kitchen where everything is in order.  Which leads to a healthy state of mind? Which leads to the better meal?  The same example works when thinking about relaxing for a nice cup of tea and a good book at the end of a long day–can you fully relax when your house is trashed with garbage piled up around you, or do you feel better when its clean?  Could you take a vacation and stay next to a factory polluting a river or would you prefer to be in a cabin somewhere in the woods?

 

These simple examples illustrate this point nicely–what is in our environments becomes part of what is reflected within. What is reflected in our inner realities when we living in a world piling up with garbage, pollution and waste?  These certainly aren’t the questions you’ll see on mainstream discussions of waste, but this magical perspective is, I think, important to consider.

 

The Inner Problem of Waste

There is no such thing as away!

Just as our outer world impacts our inner world, what is within us also reflects outward. It is in our inner world where the unconscious behaviors of waste generation lie and are generated. And it is within that we can raise our awareness, be mindful of our actions, and begin to shift towards producing less or no waste.

 

Throwing “away” is a mindset and a set of parallel behaviors so ingrained, at least in the US, that they are at first quite difficult to even recognize, much less overcome.  I recently had to travel by plane for my work (a wasteful activity), and, since I am ever mindful of waste streams,  I carefully observed the endless waste streams on the airplane and airport–plastic cups come out, drinks are consumed, plastic cups and paper and various other “waste” is collected and whisked off so quickly. These actions of disposal are so embedded, so thoughtless, that they happen automatically. Most people hardly realized they were throwing things away.

 

As a learning researcher, I understand social conditioning quite well–and automatic behaviors are the strongest kind, they are the kind that you repeat in over and over again and are extremely difficult to recondition. You devote very little to no mental resources to engage in these behaviors. Social conditioning for waste in a throw-away society is so pervasive that a few things happen.  On the extreme end, we simply buy and throw things away without thinking about it (in the same way people mow their lawns without thinking about it, or turn on the TV without thinking about it, etc.) Even if someone has conscious awareness, however, social conditioning still functions via Freud’s “herd instinct.” People will often “follow the herd” rather than be ostracized from it by deviating in their behavior. Its not just simple peer pressure, but the idea that deviance in behavior leads to isolation. And since we are social creatures, this can be a real issue for making change (I’ll also mention there is great value in deviance, but that’s a subject for another post).

 

How is this automatic behavior triggered with regards to waste? Let’s take a few quick examples. If you have a problem, what is typically the first thing you do? Buy something to fix that problem. The nature of the problem is hardly important: too much stuff = purchasing home organizers rather than avoid the clutter to begin with; something breaks = purchase something new and throw away the old; mental problem = buy some drugs or therapy; the list goes on and on. Its automatically ingrained within each of us to do these things, because, well, that’s just how things are done here.  If you want a drink, you don’t even think about the waste generated with that drink.  You just drink it, throw away the cup, and go along your way–no big deal.  And because there is so much waste being generated all around us at every given moment with these consumptive behaviors, to think about it requires a great deal of mental energy that most people simply don’t have.

 

Again returning to our hermetic magical adage, we might think about the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.”  Many minds are drowning in detritus at the moment (from television, advertising, politics, smartphones, etc.).  If this is the state of our minds, why wouldn’t we be filling the world with the same detritus? If our inner world is trashed, it becomes so much easier, I believe, to accept waste and trash in our outer world.

 

(I do realize that some readers may point out the “chicken and egg” issue happening here with regrades to my discussion of magic–but I think wanting to assign causality in either direction is a mistake–and the causality assumption is not present in the adage.  Our inner and outer worlds are always informing and influencing each other; the relationship goes both ways).

 

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaves – nutrients AND enjoyment!

A final inner issue with waste within is the terminology we hold in our minds. My town tells me its picking up my yard waste and I should leave it on the corner like any other trash.  Even the bags you can get to put your leaves in are labeled yard waste or leaf litter. But what they are actually referring to are the nutrients and carbon the trees are dropping to create a rich layer of hummus for more life to grow. That stuff isn’t waste, its part of nature’s perfect system–I call it a resource, and eagerly seek it out each fall for my garden. But when it is framed as waste, we see it only as thus. What about our own urine and feces, which is considered human waste and treated as such (we flush it away).  For thousands of years, urine and feces were considered resources–if treated properly feces becomes rich soil and urine can be used to provide nitrogen for our plants to grow (see the Humanure Handbook and Liquid Gold books). The term disposable implies that we can get rid of it, to send it away–but as my experiences worm composting several years ago illustrates, this is simply not true. The problem with language like garbage, waste, dispose, and throw away is that in our minds we hold these words to be true–we believe the meanings that have been constructed around them. When something is labeled with these words, its easy to engage in the associated behavior. These concepts are given to us by consumerist society–and its in all of our best interest, and in the best interest of all life, to question them and to come up with new terms.

 

Shifting away from the “waste” mindset.

The problem of waste is a problem both within and without–in our minds, in our language, and in our the design of the systems in which we live. Because everything is designed as disposable, it takes considerable effort to dispose of what really needs thrown out, that is, the disposable mindset. So a great part of this shift must take place in the mind: how can I reuse this? How can I not participate in this waste stream system?  How can I, at minimum, recycle this? Now I’m going to talk about some ways of breaking these patterns and helping us shift out of the disposable mindset.

 

Mental Decluttering. As waste is a product of both inner and outer worlds, I want to start by suggesting that decluttering and sharpening the mind is a great way of manifesting less waste in your life externally. Meditation is the best kind of decluttering practice I know, although regular daily magical practices (like the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual or OBOD’s Light Body exercise) also pack a nice punch. The idea here is that if your life is full of wasteful patterns, eliminating some of those wasteful patterns internally will help you get the rest of the waste in order.

 

The other piece to mental decluttering is also monitoring what comes in–eliminating the wasteful chatter of various screens, in particular, is an exceedingly useful practice.  This has the added benefit of reducing wasted time and bringing creativity back into one’s life–and yes, I speak from firsthand experience!

 

Waste Monitoring. To begin working on the outer world, I would suggest some waste monitoring activities. A good one to start with is one I assigned my students when I was teaching an interdisciplinary research methods class with a sustainability theme: for one week, try to track all of your waste. Track every time you get a throw-away cup, a take-out box, a pen that’s out of ink. What are you putting on the curb? Look at every item you throw away in the trash. Look at any waste produced by your family or workplace (the left-over food that gets thrown away; the waste of office paper, boxes, handouts that don’t get used, pens and pencils, packaging from shipped items, plastic in the trash bins, etc). Look in the trash bins–see what other people are throwing out. Pay special attention to if someone is moving out or retiring and how much stuff they want to unload. You will be appalled–even if you thought you were managing your waste streams effectively. Write every bit of it down (one of the things we know from behavioral research is the act of writing something down helps shift behavior because it makes us more conscious). I’ve seen and experienced firsthand the transformative aspects of this–just doing this practice raises your awareness about waste.

 

Repurposing other people’s waste. To return to the “spring cleanup” ritual I began with, I want to talk about the trash-picking counter culture. On the positive side to this yearly ritual, a whole counter-culture arises with regards to this waste stream: people, often in old pickup trucks and rusty vans–go out “junking” or “trash picking” through the piles.  I, too, go out when I have the opportunity as I hate to see so much waste. So while some of the stuff on the curb ends up in the landfill, much is also reused. One should, after all, never be embarrassed to dig through someone’ else’s trash–its the person who is throwing good things away that should be ashamed of their behavior. I have salvaged rakes, pots, spades, canning jars, beads, paint brushes, tools, solid wood end tables, yard furniture, cardboard boxes for sheet mulching, lamps, rugs, grills, windows for cold frames, a small boat (yes, for real), and a working refrigerator–all from the side of the road.  At first, I was nervous to dig in other people’s garbage, but I realized that that, too, was something my culture had given me that wasn’t my own feeling–so now, I freely do so!

 

Avoiding Excess Waste in Your Own Life. I have found that excess waste comes from a few sources–buying crappy stuff that quickly wears out (solved by learninghttps://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/soil-regeneration-lawn-reclamation-creating-a-sheet-mulch-bed-from-seedy-garden-weeds/ how to mend, also by purchasing better products), take-out containers (easily solved by bringing your own), and excess gifts. I wrote a post a while back about how to deal with excess stuff, and I have some good suggestions there!  In a nutshell, its worth trying to train friends and family not to bring any excess stuff into your life that is unwelcome.

 

Composting. If you aren’t already doing so, composting is a great way to begin to address that 40% food waste (and fallen leaves, etc) that we have in our culture. I have information on indoor (vermicomposting) and outdoor composting. And if you have gerbils, I have a post on using gerbils for composting; and a post on chickens and composting. And you can compost using sheet mulching techniques to setup new garden beds! Something for everyone!

 

The Closed Loop System. With the addition of other sustainable living strategies, I think the ultimate goal is to work towards a closed-loop system, that is a system that is truly sustainable.  Closed loop systems mean that everything cycles through perfectly without any waste–a forest is such an example.  Everything that in inside the forest is reused and recycled continuously.  Indigenous cultures are well worth studying here for they provide the best examples.  Every step we take towards cycling nutrients and materials, however, is a good one.

 

Larger Action. We only have a small amount of individual control over waste streams, so this is where awareness raising, information gathering, and community action come in. By learning about what waste steams flow through (and into) one’s community or workplace, we can take action, raise awareness, repurpose waste, and generally make our communities better places to inhabit. Its surprising how small initiatives make big differences, both for people’s consciousness and in actual action.

 

 

When you begin to shift your mindset, you will see how trash picking, upcycling, composting, closed-loop systems, mental decluttering, and other forms of creative repurposing require just that–creative, out of the box thinking. It becomes a game you can play with yourself and your surroundings: how can you put X item to another use? What’s in your neighbor’s trash heap this week, and how can you put it to use? And how can you reduce the size of your own waste pile? How can the various waste streams in your life become resources that reused and adapted?  So by all means, let the awen flow!

 

What To Do With All That Stuff? Breaking Patterns, Eliminating Excess, and Downsizing April 18, 2015

Americans, in particular, although a good big of the Western industrialized world, have entirely too much stuff. Annie Lenoard’s “Story of Stuff” tells the tale of the linear process in which stuff enters our lives–from natural resource exploitation to factory production to the store shelves to our homes, and rather quickly in many cases, to the landfill. She discusses “planned obsolescence” whereby products are specifically designed to break or wear out after a short amount of time (think about those expensive hiking boots that you bought new that only lasted one summer); or “perceived obsolescence” where stuff is perceived as no longer useful (for example, any technology over 2 years old is “out of date”). Despite these perceptions, the clutter and stuff seems to dominate our lives and new stuff is circulating in and out at all times. But a lot of it also gets “stuck” in our lives rather permanently, taking up unnecessary space, and causing us issues. We hear stories of hoarders who can’t let go of anything–but really, how many among us can say that we don’t have too much stuff? And when this stuff leaves our homes, it creates waste streams and pollution.

 

About two years ago, I began making a serious effort in my life to reduce the amount of clutter and stuff I had accumulated and–just as importantly–to prevent more stuff from entering. I wanted to share that process with you and talk through some of the issues surrounding stuff. At this point, I’ve cut out 70% of the stuff from my life–and feel much better for it.

 

Problems with Too Much Stuff.

Wasted resources. A lot of people not only have a house/apartment full of stuff but also a storage unit. A larger house to hold all that stuff, plus a storage unit or whatever else, is a serious waste of space and resources (and in this time of dwindling resources, is this even ethical?) We should live in our spaces, not fill them with useless stuff that just takes up room–and requires heat, maintenance, and so on.

 

Physical Clutter is a burden, in more than one sense. This brings me to physical clutter. Physical clutter is emotionally draining and can sap one’s motivation and energy. Just walking into a cluttered space gives one a feeling of helplessness and being overwhelmed–and if you are living in this constantly, its really unhealthy for you. I have a good friend who had so much clutter in his physical space that you could hardly walk through there, it wasn’t pleasant to visit. I watched him spend all of his time–for literally years–rearranging it, thinking it would just take him another few weeks to get arranged and once it was, he could do real work up there. But he ended up in this vicious loop where he’d shuffle the stuff from one area to the next, and it was still cluttered, and he spun his wheels in other areas of his life all the same. And he never really realized it was happening, or at least, seemed powerless to stop it. When an extreme event forced the stuff out of his life, it was amazing to see his creativity return, new jobs and opportunities open up, and his general mental state of mind and happiness improve.

 

Art studio clutter--apparently it doesn't bother kittens!  A cleaner, clutter-free studio = more creative energy!

Art studio clutter–apparently it doesn’t bother kittens! A cleaner, clutter-free studio = more creative energy!

The Energetic implications of clutter. As my friend’s story illustrates, there is, of course, an energetic side to having too much stuff. Stuff holds energy–and very frequently, not energy you want in your life. If you’ve ever tried to do a house cleansing, even a simple one with some salt, water, candles and smudge sticks, you probably know how hard it is to clear a space that is full of stuff–it just doesn’t work. Also, other people’s stuff holds their energy, and that can be a real problem depending on whose stuff it originally was. Stuff also holds the energy of the processes used to create it–which can also be an even bigger problem if it was created in a way that caused suffering (I spoke about this at length a few years ago on ritual tools, but it applies more broadly). So when you have all this stuff everywhere in your life, its influencing you on multiple levels.

 

The most stuff that enters your life, the more demand there is for it. All that stuff had to come from somewhere–and when it enters your life, it was acquired somehow. This acquisition is part of the basic laws for supply and demand: the ore “stuff” that is purchased in a system, the more perceived demand there is for that stuff and the more stuff is produced. This leads to even more drain on natural resources, more waste produced, and more energy expended.

 

Excess stuff keeps us captive.  I think this last point sums all of the above–stuff keeps us captive.  Some people have houses or apartments so full of stuff they feel they can never leave (I know a lot of people who say this). Others have stuff from loved ones who have passed on, and by holding onto that stuff, they are holding onto their loved one–which prevents healing and release. When you go to an area that has too much stuff that you really don’t want, you get this sense of burden–and its a form of captivity. The stuff has its hold on you….so how do you break free?

Understanding the Problem: “Automatic” Acquisition and Disposal

To return to the “Story of Stuff” above, we might think about the two automatic behaviors that literally drive the consumptive system: acquisition and disposal. When I say “automatic” here, I’m using a term from learning theory that refers to behaviors that are ingrained, require no thought, and are often engaged in without any critical reflection.

 

Purchasing, accumulating, and disposing of stuff is all about automatic conditioning. We are literally conditioned by television, advertising, even our school systems, our culture, to buy, buy, buy and toss, toss, toss. Purchasing something is our culture’s solution to any problem or need: needing to demonstrate affection, needing to solve a problem, boredom, a way to smooth over a disagreement, and so much more. When we don’t want something, out to the curb or into the trash bin it goes. We don’t even give this whole process a second thought–we just engage  in it, over, and over, and over again. And in the process of engaging it it, we support a system that is literally destroying the land and desecrating this glorious earth that sustains us.

There is no such thing as away!

There is no such thing as away!

 

Recognizing this conditioning for what it is, injecting some critical thinking in the process, and eventually breaking the conditioning entirely puts us on the path to a clutter-free life.

 

Solutions to the Stuff Problem: The Mindset Shift

Before I talk about how I eliminated 70% of the stuff in my life (and continue to eliminate even more), I want to talk about to engage in the mindset shifts that help you prevent new stuff coming into your life and help you make better, conscious decisions surrounding stuff.

 

Wants vs. Needs. We have a serious problem in our culture in separating our wants from our needsMaslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start: the actual needs for human survival are food, water, air, basic clothing, and shelter. Needs above the base needs are not more stuff but rather safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. It is these basic things that are needed for happy human living–and I think a lot of our culture tries to replace these things with stuff…and fails miserably. So when we really take a few steps back to think about what we need vs. what we want, we can start making priorities in our lives.

 

While my mindset shift concerning stuff came from a lot of places, it was highly motivated by my teaching of an ongoing community-service based course in Pontiac, Michigan, where many people live without their basic needs being met (like adequate food, warm clothing for winter, or shelter). Seeing children in our program without gloves or knowing they were getting their last food for the day with the “snack” at center 5:30pm, really shifted my own view about needs. The goal of my course was to help improve children and adolescent’s literacy skill–but more than once I saw that kids couldn’t work on their reading or writing when their basic needs weren’t met. This really led me to a long series of meditations on the nature of stuff, wants and needs, and more–and lead to this blog post and the resulting change in my life!  When you encounter people who really don’t have all their needs met (or you’ve experienced that in your own life), it makes you be more grateful for what you have–and helps put a want and a need  in perspective.

 

A No New Things Policy. Another mindset shift, and series of conversations that can really be helpful is to tell friends and family that you have a “no new stuff” policy. There are different ways you might go about it.  The most extreme is to tell them that you aren’t interested in any new stuff, period, and refuse to take stuff when its offered. Less extreme is gently reminding people about your “no stuff policy” when they do give you something, but taking it anyways the first few times as everyone is adjusting to your policy. You can also setup meaningful alternatives: for example, if they want to give you something, baked goods, handmade things, or natural things (beautiful shells, etc) are welcome, as is a helping hand around the home. I have found that this has really led to some interesting and productive conversations. It was also met with some serious resistance depending on who you are trying to talk with (and for some, especially older family members, it takes years of conversations to make it work). Having alternatives to gift giving at holidays and birthdays (see next post) is a really helpful way of helping others make this transition.

 

Reseeing Gift Giving. A while back, I talked about sustainable alternatives to gift giving for the holidays–this is something my family has been doing for years and its really successful: we by a few gifts for one person, we only buy what they request or need, and we are conscious of waste throughout the process. Since the holidays and birthdays produce an excess of stuff, eliminating that stream of unwanted stuff makes a huge difference.

 

Gifts come in many forms. I would also add to my suggestions about gift-giving is that there are other gifts that are more valuable than stuff bought with money. What about an hour or two of your time to help someone clean their house or accomplish some other task? What about a song, piece of writing, or artwork you created? What about a nice backrub? What about some fresh veg from your garden or a jam made from berries foraged in the forest? What about teaching a friend something new? What about conversation over a really unique tea? There are all kinds of gifts that we can give that are of our time and our creative expressions that do not require purchasing stuff. When you look at this list, it makess going to the store and buying something look kinda lame.

 

Eliminating other sources of stuff. Stuff seems to sneak up on you, and in many different ways and forms.  Spotting the stuff creep is another step in preventing future problems. Consumerism is designed to send a lot of stuff our way–from free “gifts” of no value sent to you in the mail to swag at work to gifts nobody wants to a culture where shopping is a primary hobby. So working to look at how else stuff enters your life and eliminating those sources helps.

 

Reseeing existing stuff and avoiding perceived obsolescence. The other thing here that’s important with a mindset shift is getting ourselves out of the consumer mindset and avoiding the “perceived obsolescence” that plagues our culture. Electronics are the worst offenders in this regard, and they have been one of the focus points for my own re-seeing of existing stuff.  Given the serious ethical issues under which electronics are produced and the environmental hazards of disposal, I’m trying to get the most out of them, stretching them way beyond their typical two year cycle. There is this perception that anything that is older than 2 years is useless in terms of electronics. I’ve found that this is simply not the case: with careful maintenance and maxing out the RAM, my 6 year old iMac is running just fine and is still able to handle anything I throw at it. My  computer before that is still being used by my parents for web browsing and word processing. I don’t have a smartphone and have been using the same standard phone for 4 years now. These are conscious choices that put me at odds with most of conventional thinking and behavior, but that’s ok (I’m not one for convention anyways).

 

Recognizing what stuff IS important. Some stuff is important to us, and there is nothing wrong with that. I think that recognizing what we value and want to keep and cherish is also an important part of this process. For me, I realized that my herbalism supplies, my art studio, my books, and my gardening and homesteading supplies were important: these were the things that enriched me creatively and spiritually and allowed me to live sustainably. So while I did make cuts in these areas, I allowed myself to keep these things guilt-free.

 

Eliminating Stuff and Reducing Clutter

Good stuff for Craig's list!

Good stuff for Craig’s list!

By now, hopefully I’ve convinced you that excess stuff in your life comes with its share of serious problems. And while the mindset shifts above can help new stuff from entering your life, its not going to really solve the problem of the existing stuff in your life. And the existing stuff is a real problem, because it often has energetic and emotional holds upon us. Let me say this: if you take on the mindset shifts and be vigilant about the stuff you don’t need, you will only need to do the following (painful) process once. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Let’s talk about how we can engage in sustainable, sacred action even in the process of removing excess stuff.

 

In my case, I had a largish house where a lot of stuff was mine (like a well-stocked art studio and too many books); I also had stuff I had been holding onto for sentimental value that I hadn’t used or touched in years (like old video games, instruments, old clothes, various kick-knacks). But I also had a lot of stuff that people had unloaded on me: friends’ s who had stayed with me for periods of time and left “a few things” to come get later; excess stuff from my divorce (where my ex took only what he wanted and left the rest), things people brought over thinking it would be useful for me (and wasn’t), and so on. When I started wanting to reduce this stuff, I was overwhelmed with the amount of it.  These are the principles that helped me through this process:

 

Producing No Waste. When people get overwhelmed with stuff, the most likely thing that they do is turn to the automatic behavior of disposal–that is, they throw it away. While this is certainly a response to deal with the immediate problem (too much stuff), it creates ethical dilemmas of its own because you are putting more waste into the system, especially when that stuff could have another use.  Not to mention, you are perpetuating the cycle of consumption and disposal. One of the permaculture design principles that I’ve been working with really seriously for the last few years is “produce no waste” and if we think about eliminating stuff from this perspective, it becomes more challenging, yes, but certainly more rewarding.  Our stuff may not be wanted by us, but it can still be used in a great many ways by others, and tossing it in a dumpster shouldn’t be on the table.

 

Eliminating Ethically and Consciously.  Thinking about eliminating stuff ethically, then, leads us towards “alternative” movement streams that don’t end up in the landfill. For household goods and clothing, you might look for alternatives, alternatives even beyond the Salvation Army and Goodwill (a lot of your stuff ends up in their dumpster). We have a local center (the one I mentioned earlier) that accepts household items and clothing; they give all of this freely away to anyone who is in need. If you have no such center, you can also use Freecycle and Craig’s List: giving stuff away for free is an easy way to meet new friends, give someone something they need, and remove stuff from your life that you no longer need. You may also think about friends or family who need the stuff you have: when I cut down my art studio by 30%, I gave nearly all of it to two places: a local community center for kid’s art and a good friend who was looking for some supplies. Musical instruments I had had since I was a teenager also went to the community center–I had difficulty initially letting go of them, but when I heard they would be used to start a band to keep the kids off the streets, it was joyful to give them away. A few years ago, I gave my big screen TV away to a friend who is a caretaker for a disabled person: the disabled person’s TV was going out and he needed another one. What options you have really depends on your circumstances and local area, but do ask around to family and friends–you’ll be surprised how many people are in need of something you may have to give. And when you can make a difference with that stuff–it makes the process all the more enjoyable.

 

What to keep. Rather than think about what you want to eliminate, think about what you want to keep–and the rest can go. I mentioned above the things that I valued: I put those on a list, and I worked to eliminate anything that I didn’t hold in that kind of value. This made the decision process much easier. For me, a lot of this ended up being stuff from my life-before-sustainability: gaming supplies, electronics, DVDs, and more. Once I realized what was important to me now, I was able to find better homes for what wasn’t.

 

Create a “staging area” for Letting Go Because stuff is overwhelming, I found that it helped to create a “staging area” where the stuff could sit for a time while I mourned its loss.  Stuff would go into the room I wasn’t using, and I would have time to let it go  before moving it off to its new home. There were things in my life that I would never use again (like gaming books, etc) but I couldn’t bring myself to let them go for many years.  But when I had the staging area, I could let them sit there for a while until I did my mourning and then pass them on to someone else who could–and did–make use of them.  This is especially a useful strategy for things that you have either had a long time or had a deep emotional connection with. This worked really well: I was able to spend a lot of time going though every space in my home and then, once that process was done, was able to rehome all of it fairly quickly.

 

Enlisting help.  Other people don’t feel about your stuff the way you do–finding the *right* friend or family member to help you eliminate is a good idea. You don’t want someone who will talk you into keeping anything–you want someone who is ruthless and firm, who will convince you that you don’t need what you think you do. It may take a few tries to find the right friend, but when you do, he or she will be invaluable in helping you eliminate clutter.

 

Going, going, gone. After you have started this process and gave away the first lot of stuff, you’ll find that subsequent reductions of the clutter are actually much easier.  Now, I have very little emotional attachment to any stuff, and I can easily give it away (and can be that ruthless and firm friend who can help others do the same).

 

Other Ways of Managing Stuff

In addition to eliminating stuff and making sure new stuff doesn’t enter our lives, there are at least three ways of reseeing our relationships to our existing stuff that can also help:

Making conscious purchases of higher quality. Purchase carefully and consciously can help slow down waste streams. I still do buy stuff, but I try to think about my purchases, plan them in advance, and when possible, allowing several days or weeks between a decision and the actual purchase. I generally try to never buy anything on a whim. There are exceptions to these rules, of course, but they are good general principles to follow for daily living. The other issue here is to purchase things that do not have planned obsolescence–rather, purchase things of higher quality (and usually higher price) that will last longer. Iron skillets are a great investment, as are a good pair of leather boots taken regularly to a cobbler and regularly oiled.

 

Making it last and taking care of it.  When stuff is cheap and plentiful, it has less value.  By making less purchases and making them carefully, your stuff takes on more value to you.  You can also make a conscious effort to take care of what you have better so that it doesn’t wear out or break easliy.

 

Repurposing.  Creative repurposing can take many forms–one of the ways you might think about solving problems or using existing stuff is to see it in new ways.  This helps us purchase less and also gives our stuff a new lease on life.  There’s the whole movement of “upcycling” or taking old clothing, books, and other items and creating something from nothing.  For example: I took a bunch of old jeans that couldn’t be donated and made a rug; I gave that as a gift to a friend who had cold floors and liked handmade things. This repurposing is especially useful for stuff that isn’t high quality or is worn out….trying to find a use for it can be a creative, fun challenge.

 

The Move to Simple Living

The more space we have, the more space we have to fill. Choosing to live in smaller spaces, with less gizmos, gadgets, and clutter, can lead to more fulfilling lives. I’m doing that as we speak–leaving my homestead of 5 years  and moving into a space less than half the size of my previous house.   While this move was for other reasons (described in my earlier post), I’m also using it as a chance to make some “stuff changes” in my life that will help. Moving to a smaller space will help me continue to be conscious of my space and storage, will allow me to have a smaller environmental footprint, and live a more meaningful and simple life.

Apparently, I had a lot more to say about eliminating stuff than I first realized!  Its been a very important part of my own transformative process, and one that I’m glad I endured.  Even though eliminating stuff was hard at first, the challenges were worth the rewards!  Thanks for reading 🙂