We Need to Redesign Garbage. Here’s One Humble Solution

One environmentally conscious consumer’s struggle with the mounting trash we produce

What’s wrong with this picture? I asked myself surveying a midden of empty plastic bottles that had once—and only once—contained the fluids that keep home and body clean and buffed to a rosy glow. The containers of lotions (specific to every body surface between head and sole), laundry detergent, dishwasher soap, hand dishwasher soap, hair shampoo, rug shampoo, hair conditioner, shower gel, all-purpose cleaner, fabric softener, hand soap, face soap, alternative bleach, and scrubs for bath, toilet, and sinks were all destined for the recycling station, but I had stockpiled a six-week supply to gauge how much plastic detritus a couple can accumulate in the pursuit of personal and domestic hygiene. Depending on your system of measurement, the total came to the equivalent of two large trash-bags, 2.5 laundry baskets, or 4.3-paper shopping bags.

I had a simple—if radical and harebrained—solution. Rather than fill separate containers for the consumer’s personal use, manufacturers could deliver vats of their products to filling stations, where, with the twist of a spigot, the consumer would refill the same container ad infinitum—much the way we fill up the car with gas. The very essence of sustainability, the system would eliminate many of the steps between fabrication and consumption and would be especially welcome in a city where owning a car to do bulk shopping is a greater liability than keeping a St. Bernard in a 5th-floor walk-up studio.

One quickly gets in the habit of sorting and depositing the weekly—or monthly—accumulation of bottles, cans, plastic, paper in its designated drop off site, without giving it a second thought. Somewhere, perhaps in the North Pole, little elves sort through the undifferentiated mass of used containers and paper to make separate piles of each according to its composition: bottles here, plastic jeroboams of laundry detergent and travel-size bottles of shampoo there, a separate pile for metal cans, and last week’s New York Times (minus the Magazine with the crossword you’re still working on) next to the stack of collapsed cardboard boxes from Amazon. Empty plastic bladders of “spring” water are in a class, and a mountain, by themselves.

Happily reunited with members of its own family of origin, all of the recyclable materials that have passed through our domestic habitat are whisked off to the next avatar on the great chain of transient being, until finally reaching nirvana: a bench in Central Park bearing a plaque certifying that 99% of it was made from your recycled bottles of Seventh Generation fabric softener.

Metropolis Magazine, December 1988

Plastic, the generic name we give to a wide variety of synthetic organic solids, is largely derived from petrochemicals. So, if you really want to think about it, you are doing the fossil fuel industry a great favor by buying fluids in plastic containers and getting new plastic shopping bags every time you go to the grocery store. But its chemical composition is only a small part of the plastic bottle’s carbon impact on the planet. Add to that its manufacture and transport before it gets filled and packaged and hauled by diesel-powered trucks, to a warehouse and later, by other trucks, to your neighborhood Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Oh, don’t forget all the energy spent at each station on its way from the factory where it was created to your bathroom.

Add it all up, and that little innocuous tube of Creamy Body Wash (however laudable its absence of gluten) is leaving the carbon footprint of a mature tyrannosaurus rex, even if you do dutifully deposit the empty receptacle in the recycling bin.

Lately, eco-minded innovators of industry have been creating plastics that are derived from plants and are, hence, biodegradable. This means that if that bio-plastic cup you’re drinking from is destined for a landfill—as opposed to the incinerator—it will over time decompose and return to its maker. I don’t presume to know where New York’s non-toxic (one hopes) garbage finds its final resting place—whether it is buried somewhere in Queens, along with most of our relatives, or cremated, its ashes used to re-fertilize the depleted earth of a neighboring state.

I could do extensive research to answer that question, and I might amass fact-based figures to bolster my argument that the ubiquitous bottle of liquid soap is an unnecessary waste of limited resources, even if we congratulate ourselves for the “personal virtue” of recycling, to quote Dick Cheney (who is now alive thanks to a recycled heart).

His actual words: “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”

Let’s give the devil his due. We might not agree that a comprehensive energy policy is based on fossil fuels, an industry for which Cheney is a major stakeholder and shill, still less that such a policy is sound, but, let’s face it, recycling is not the answer to the earth’s problems, and it probably won’t slow global warming by much, if at all.

My brilliant idea of the refill station, while original to me, is by no means original or particularly innovative among purveyors of essential fluids. To cite one example, for millennia Italian peasants have been filling and refilling huge basket-covered bottles, called fiascos (fiaschi, if you want to be pedantic) of olive oil and wine at local vineyards or town-run filling depots and schlepping them by donkey or Vespa. By now they may have added fiascos of Dr. Bonner’s to their load.

Nor is the idea new to the treehugger trade. Since the notion of a facility entirely devoted to cleaning products first popped into my consciousness, I have seen several variants at health-food stores and other eco-conscious retailers. The most notable was in the Brattleboro Food Coop, where an entire section of the store had been turned into a bulk liquid refill station.

Closer to the New York-centric world, I am scouting different refill stations that already exist to see which seem to be the most promising models for the future. So far I have visited one in Fort Greene (more on that later) and intend to get to others while there are still few enough of them to rate three stars in the Michelin guide to nutty ideas.

Meanwhile, the founder of Method cleaning products, Adam Lowry has written a compelling piece in the Huffington Post on why such an idea will never take hold. Spoiler alert: it’s us.

Dorie Bakeran expatriate New Yorker, recently retired from the press office of Yale University; she’s on Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, Instagram; find her at @doriebb.

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