Inconvenient family living: Reduce your trash

This is the first in a series of columns on how to help your family live greener -- and cheaper in the bargain. Check back each week for a new topic.

Is it possible to live more lightly on the Earth after starting a family? Yes it is. Is it easy to go greener with kids? Well... let's just call it inconvenient.

Living greener, trying to leave a smaller footprint, comes into ever-sharper focus when you start your family. How many children will you have? What will they wear, play with, sleep on, eat? What will you teach them? How will you ensure that, when we further our species, we're not also hastening the destruction of our ecosystem?

Big questions, and worthy of making an effort. That's why I came up with a 12-step plan to live greener and cheaper ... along with my family of three small boys and an occasionally-reluctant husband.

Let's take a look at the first step. It's a biggie. And with kids, it also takes some determined effort: Reduce your trash.

Cutting down on trash is both a process step and ultimate goal. The reasons for doing this are endless and full of heart-squeezing truths. There's the 409 million tons -- that's 818 billion pounds! -- of trash thrown away in America each year. This is only the trash that's picked up by waste collectors. It's all sitting in landfills, years and years and decades and more than a century of trash, trillions and trillions of pounds in our collective dirt.

This doesn't include the Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- About 3.5 million tons of trash floating in an eddy in the Pacific Ocean, where the plastic-to-sea life ratio is 6:1. I read this and become nauseated.

Exhausted yet? Yes, you have miles to go before you will be one of those sainted folks who can fit a year's trash into a coffee can. But this is a place to start. Let's go look at your trash can. Yes, right now.

What do you see in your garbage bin? When I first began seriously evaluating my waste after having met a woman who, along with her husband, only generated one garbage can full every six months, I was humbled. Into my garbage can went pizza boxes, plastic cups from Starbucks, eensy little Horizon milk cartons and juice boxes, the wrappings from Luna Bars and organic fruit leather. There were leftovers from dinner, sticky gobs of partially-eaten children food, the un-recyclable plastic air bags from Soiled paper napkins, little wires from children's toys, lids from soda bottles. Styrofoam leftover containers from my husband's dinner out with his grandmother. Plastic that had formerly encased so many things: multi-packs of shampoo, tiny leaves of lettuce, apples, potatoes, cauliflower, tortilla chips, cough medicine, packs of diaper wipes, tube socks, the little straws that go in juice and milk boxes.

Overwhelming it is. But pick one item to avoid using.

In my case, it meant saying bye-bye to individually-wrapped food items; plastic-infused cardboard packages especially. That meant no more Horizon chocolate milk, no more juice box, no more fruit leather, no more candy bars.

I made my boys chocolate milk with cocoa, sugar, and milk bought in gallon jugs. I stirred it with a spoon and I put it in little glasses. I drank what they didn't. And at the end of snack time, I had nothing to throw away.

No, it was not as convenient as buying individually-packaged chocolate milks and apple-cranberry juice boxes and organic chocolate chip granola bars. But it was vastly cheaper and I learned something: my children were eating far less sugar, preservatives, and chemicals I can't pronounce. And I was more involved with the boys' snacks. Gradually, bite by bite, spoonful by spoonful, I delighted in this afternoon-time slow food ritual. I would mix our own organic chocolate chip cookies on some days; on others I would peel and slice carrots into sticks, or make apple slices, or toast bread for bread-and-butter-and-honey (BABAH, as my seven-year-old calls it).

Yes, it was inconvenient. It was also better in every way.

That was step one, and it was all my steps. Delighting in the inconvenience of one aspect of your family's consumption opens your eyes to a host of others. What about the breakfast yogurt? The to-go cup from Starbucks? The uneaten food? The packaging from Each were also being examined, as I avoided the children's snack aisle, reconnected with my kids each day, and reduced my trash. I had much to do. But I already could tell, it would be worth it, for my budget, for my family, for the future of our planet.
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