14 June, 2010

Conservation in the City

My New Year's resolution for 2010 was to produce less trash. I started collecting envelopes that I received in the mail to make into new postcards for friends and family. I reused scrap pieces of paper until they were wrinkly and illegible. I ate questionably dated yogurts and unidentifiable meals in tupperware to avoid throwing away food. Most importantly, I started using recycled bags for food shopping, and tried to keep every plastic bag I came into contact with: shopping bags, the little plastic slips that newspapers come in, the plastic bags over bread, plastic I saw on the street. It wasn't pretty, but I was a woman determined: by producing less trash, I wanted to know I was making an impact in the total volume of trash in the world. That impact may be small, and yes, my friends would probably make fun of me. But my mind was made up, and with that attitude I set about reforming my ways.

The only person this vow actually affected was my roommate, Ryan. She held a polite but critical eye on the increasingly tall stacks of plastic that I was going to "re-purpose," a fancy term conservationists throw around to refer to the act of recycling trash by turning it into something new and useful. Or at least new. (I'm mostly thinking of recycled bag friendship bracelets here. "New," but "useful?" Meh.) Ryan was the only one that had to deal with the ever-growing pile of plastic bags in the corner of kitchen, Plastic Bag Mountain.

"What are you going to do with all those?" Ryan asked me back in February, pointing at the stack of plastic bags crammed together between our garbage can and the window.

"I'm going to turn them into a plastic tote bag." I told her. "It'll be a giant plastic bag, made up of many smaller plastic bags, all ironed together. Very meta." I wasn't quite sure what meta meant at the time, but I had heard it used on television, and it just felt right.

As it turns out, the word "meta" is used to indicate a concept that is an abstraction from another concept, and is often completed or added to from the latter concept. Huh. But more importantly, what I really discovered was that there are very real considerations one should take before embarking on this kind of conservation adventure. (Conser-venture). On that fateful New Years night when I pledged to reuse all of my plastic bags, I couldn't visualize just how many plastic bags that volume might amount to. 50? 100? 200? But it's hard to imagine that one girl can collect over 500 plastic bags in just a few short months. It's even harder to fit those 500 bags into a small, two-bedroom, zero-closets kind of apartment, even if one were to account for the fact that plastic bags can be squished and stacked together inside other plastic bags. And so, Plastic Bag Mountain was born. While the roommate was not exceptionally pleased with my collection, I was a woman on a mission, set on “re-purposing” every plastic bag within my reach. Some work on their opus. Some write a novel. I was going to tackle Plastic Bag Mountain.

Regardless of how easy they make it seem on conservation blogs, making a plastic bag tote of other plastic bags is not a walk in the park. After 10 hours of forcibly willing plastic to meld together with only a lukewarm iron as a tool, I decided that I could make just as much of an impact by recycling them at our handy Whole Foods plastic bag recycling bin. If there were some way to gauge this, I would bet good money on the fact that I am the largest single-time contributor to the Cambridge Street Whole Foods Plastic Bag recycling bin. And while I felt slightly defeated at the time, it was reassuring to know that at least those bags got recycled. And in the absence of Plastic Bag Mountain, our kitchen not only looks fabulous, but my roommate is much happier with me. So it's really a win-win.

I have tried to look at my material consumption in other ways, too. Working as a nanny, I come into contact with many stickers that fall by the wayside during sticker time. I began collecting these cast-away stickers and thought that maybe they could have some use in scrapbooks or homemade notes. Admittedly, it is a very small gesture, but I think this quote by Hannah More that was sent to me a few months back sums up my thought process nicely:

"One kernel is felt in a hogshead; one drop of water helps to swell the ocean; a spark of fire can help to give light to the world. None are too small, too feeble, too poor to be of service. Think of this and act."

And with that, the sticker crusade began. I set about collecting the ones that were discarded, the torn stickers, the smushed stickers, the stickers awkwardly stuck to themselves or to the undersides of socks, and the stickers stuck on backpacks that are discovered hours later after you've already taken public transportation home. I kept a box in my bedroom that I affectionately thought of as "Sticker Graveyard," like the elephant graveyard in the Lion King. But with stickers. (So therefore happier. Or more tragic, depending on whether the song "Tears of a Clown" makes you sad.)

Again, as with the plastic bag adventure, I learned that even if one is to collect only the unwanted ones, in six months time one can collect an impressive amount of stickers. After decorating my favorite mug I hit an artistic block. So for now, Sticker Graveyard lies under my bed, waiting to be re-purposed.

Then I shifted my focus to the idea of plants. I didn't only want to take away trash, I wanted to add something into the world, something beneficial and maybe even beautiful. However, living in a city there exist certain ordinances and regulations against people planting trees and flowers willy-nilly. Working within my restrictions, I decided that I would get a plant instead, and then try to plant some bigger plants outside once I could work out the paperwork. Baby steps.

As a vegetarian, you would think that I would have an innate connection with plants. Isn't that how it's supposed to work? I wasn't envisioning a world where anything that my fingers grazed would grow magically fruitful and abundant like I was some King Midas of plants, but it didn't cross my mind that I would be a brown-thumb, either.

My small plastic pot of delicate purplish blue petunias sits in the sunniest spot of my apartment, a windowsill on the north wall. In the past four months I have killed those petunias six separate times. Each time, the plant has appeared beyond saving, demonstrating a complete lack of color, worrying signs of decay, and a questionable odor. Each time, I have been overcome with guilt. And each time, in a last-ditch attempt to save its life, I've spent ten minutes huffing on those very same petunias with the hope that massive amounts of direct carbon dioxide would remind them that there was so much to live for, don't die on me now, little plant! I'm sorry! Again! It felt especially cruel to purchase a plant under the guise of adding some beauty and oxygen to the world only to maim it repeatedly. That was probably worse than never buying a plant at all.

Miraculously, each time I thought that I had killed it for sure this time, the petunias would revive. Not just revive, they would thrive as though nothing had ever happened at all. This little marvel not only absorbed any guilt I had about killing my plant (again), it also gave me a sense of pride and power; if I could bring back plants from the dead, why- I could do anything. Anything!

As it turns out, that is not the case. But it is still a cool parlor trick, and I make a point of telling all our apartment's visitors of the plant's special vitality.
"Jesus plant," I whisper to it, late at night when I remember to, “you are a true survivor.”

He is the Lazarus of the floral world and he is helping me with my New Year's resolution, one day at a time. As a token of my gratitude I will remember to go water him right now, even though any plant that survives death six times in its life should probably try for a seventh. It's a much more impressive number. Just saying.