Ecobloggers bring the landfill home

"Garbloggers" seeking to lessen their ecological impact refuse to throw things away.Photos: Green bloggers stash trash
Written by Natalie Gagliordi, Contributor

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Ari Derfel likes living with his garbage. He hasn't thrown anything away in more than a year, but he insists he doesn't suffer from any compulsive hoarding disorders.

Rather, Derfel views the bins of bottles, boxes, leaflets, cartons, and wrappers he's stacked in his Berkeley, Calif., home as fruits of a continued meditation about sustainability.

"Something inside me doesn't feel right every time I throw things away," said Derfel, who runs an organic catering company. "When I look around at the piles, it's like, 'Hey, man, here's your life. Here's what you spend your money on and put in your body.' It has a profound impact."

Derfel, 35, is joined by a handful of bloggers who are going to extremes to keep their trash out of the landfill. Motivated by global warming, they say they are fed up with promiscuously packaged, toxic products and other evils of conspicuous consumption they say are trashing the planet.

These pack rats are stashing their trash at home and then writing about, photographing, and even weighing it. They belong to a growing cadre of "green" lifestyle bloggers who provide a personal angle to broader issues covered by big-name ecoblogs such as Treehugger.com.

Although blogging about green topics is not new, there does appear to be a shift in the tone of some of that discussion. About 43 percent of the bloggers tracked by market research firm Umbria describe sustainability as the responsibility of individuals before corporations. Derfel agrees. And these personalized takes on green blogging that he and other green lifestyle bloggers offer up are a growing part of that larger online discussion surrounding environmental issues.

Photos: Green bloggers stash trash

"The days of people who want to make change criticizing everybody are kind of over," Derfel said. "I wasn't going to go yell at companies that they're not doing a good job. I was going to see what I, myself, can do."

To avoid packaging, Derfel and other trash bloggers tote reusable bags to the grocery store, carry reusable water canteens, and buy in bulk. They even count their nail clippings, rip off the paper tablecloths from chic restaurants, and fly home with waste from Hawaii vacations. Composting food scraps for garden fertilizer keeps them from dwelling with a vermin-infested stench. "Not In My Backyard" environmentalism it's not.

In the process, they say they are saving money and discovering meaningful side benefits, like spending more time on hobbies, exercising more, cooking meals, and hanging out with family instead of shopping.

Similarly, Dave Chameides, 38, calls "Refuse, reuse, recycle" his mantra. The Los Angeles man, who operates a Steadicam for popular TV shows for a living, started storing his garbage in the basement this year.

January's heap includes two bags of recyclable paper and cardboard, a plastic box of potentially reusable items including a strawberry basket and egg carton, a bag of plastic bags and wrappers, 30 plastic and glass bottles, and a worm compost bin.

Because his wife and children aren't participating, Chameides must make extra efforts, like marking containers from which he eats. The household already aims to thin its trash, banning juice packs for the kids in favor of refillable sippy cups.

Both Derfel and Chameides are confounded by hard-to-recycle items, such as juice boxes that mix plastic, paper, and aluminum. However, they cite consumer electronics as the worst source of waste, thanks to excessive plastic and foam packaging.

Chameides proudly keeps a modest tray of e-waste. Using rechargeable batteries helps, but he still had to toss in a dead cell phone battery alongside five light bulbs.

Chameides' and Derfel's trash piles may be modest compared to national averages, but they reflect patterns in what Americans throw away overall. Each person in the United States produces 4.6 pounds of garbage each day, up from 2.7 pounds in 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And with recycling and composting taken into account, net waste amounts to about 2.5 pounds per day.

Up to 65 percent of the nation's 251 million tons of annual waste comes from households as opposed to businesses and institutions, according to the EPA.

And although the majority of U.S. consumer waste is recyclable, just under one-third of it actually gets recycled. The EPA ranks paper products as making up more than two-thirds of U.S. waste, with yard trimmings next, followed by food scraps and plastics, which each make up about 12 percent of national totals.

A photograph of an albatross carcass brimming with swallowed bottle caps inspired Beth Terry, an accountant in Oakland, Calif., to collect all of her plastic garbage and blog about it.

"It hit me like a knife and I was thinking, 'I can't contribute to this anymore,'" she said.

Terry weighs her plastic trash, which averages about 20 items totaling less than an ounce, each week. To avoid plastic containers, she makes her own yogurt, uses bar shampoo, and whips up toothpaste from baking soda, vodka, and cinnamon. She keeps bamboo utensils on hand for lunch, and places fruits and vegetables naked in the shopping cart, sans baggies.

Terry had her water tested to make sure it was safe without a filter, which contains plastic. Her handy father helped her fix a defunct blow dryer so she didn't have to purchase a new one.

Despite their best intentions, however, Terry, Derfel, and Chameides are failing to produce zero waste. There are some things they can't avoid, like the uninvited, plastic-wrapped yellow pages that show up on the doorstep, and doubled-up bags proffered by well-meaning store clerks. Cheese is the biggest challenge for Terry.

"You can go to the deli at Safeway and get cheese wrapped in paper, but I don't want to eat that cheese," she said. "It's not organic."

A Vancouver, B.C., investment banker going by the blog pen name of EnviroWoman may be even more stringent as she enters her second year of attempting to live without new plastic. She refuses to buy energy-efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs, for example, because they contain a base partly made of plastic.

"It's bigger than just trash," said New Yorker Leila Darabi. "The whole green blog world is growing exponentially."

Her blog, Everyday Trash, follows the trend she calls "garblogging," which encompasses those who track their trash, wonky policy analysts, and a quirky subgenre of writers who run "trashion" sites about clothing made from waste.

Reducing waste, growing a network
An informal international network of "compactors," who pledge to buy nothing new, has mushroomed online from a cluster of San Francisco friends. And the trash trackers and compactors are less extreme than high-profile zero-impact blogger Colin Beavan of New York City, known as No Impact Man, whose family lived by candlelight and without toilet paper for a year.

There also have been collective Web-based challenges along similar lines. Crunchy Chicken, a blog by 37-year-old Seattle mom Deanna Duke attracts 26,000 readers monthly, and got 200 people to join her challenge to eliminate food waste, according to Duke.

"I think it will catch on," Darabi said of those who chronicle attempts to reduce their waste. "It's an activism tool that's being honed and used and is easy to replicate."

Ari Derfel plans to launch a challenge on Earth Day, daring 100 people to track their trash as he's done. Later this year, several of his yoga teacher friends will be touring Europe with their own trash in tow, showing it off as they hop across borders.

And Derfel aspires to create a documentary about the experience, a sort of Super Size Me about garbage. Chameides, meanwhile, has already been filming his own project, hoping to bring a very personal effort further into the public mindset.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of plastic trash Beth Terry accumulates and weighs, and the frequency with which she does so. Terry weighs her plastic trash, which averages about 20 items totaling less than an ounce, each week.
Editorial standards