On Climate Change and Individual Action

Individual action on climate change | Litterless

For a report that mostly confirms what we already knew, the new United Nations Climate Assessment felt, last week, like a terrible surprise. The timeline faster, the consequences more dire, the predictions more concrete than what I’d been imaging when the words “climate change” crossed my lips. That climate change is here, now, not in the future, is not news. But that it’s here now, and will hit a crisis point in the next decade, felt like news.

I’ve written before about how climate optimism has been an essential ingredient to my environmental work. About how I’ve given myself permission to step back from the daily grind of environmental news and to focus my efforts on community action and writing in this space. That feels harder to justify now. Climate disasters feel, are, closer now. Action is more urgent.

I still believe that hopefulness and despair are necessary ingredients to galvanizing climate action. I still have hope and I still have despair. What's newly, slowly, painfully emerging is a sense that my work, that our work, doesn’t have one percent of one percent of one percent of the effect that it needs to. That everything needs to change so much faster than I believed.

I already knew this - but now I know it. The difference between the two feels vast.

On individual action and climate change | Litterless

For me, the zero waste movement has always been about channeling my frustration with government and business inaction on environmental issues into changes that I can enact daily. Four years ago, frustrated by living in a country that declined to take on the mantle of environmental leadership, I decided to do more myself. To vote, yes, to call legislators, yes, to patronize businesses that work to minimize their impact, yes, but also to do what I could in my own life to make sure my everyday choices aligned with the world I wanted to see.

Sometimes individual actions seem ridiculous when compared what policy could achieve. And, perhaps, they are. I believe strongly that we need both: we need policies that hamper emissions and pollution, and support clean energy, carbon sequestration, municipal composting, comprehensive recycling, and true corporate responsibility.

And yet we also need to rely less on disposable plastics, to mend and repair what we have, to not believe that the government will solve all of our problems, to do better ourselves. Both, and not one, will get us closer to where we need to be. We can’t solve climate change without huge policy changes and we can’t solve climate change without a dramatic re-thinking of what it means to be a consumer. Let’s get back to work on both.

How to do more, today:

-Talk about it. With your family, with your friends. Last night while making dinner my partner and I talked about the climate report and the dire predictions, and how we can do more for the environment beyond zero waste. We re-affirmed our commitment to eating local foods, to walking and biking instead of driving. We talked about ways to arrange our lives in the future so that we need to fly less. I set our thermostat schedule to lower the heat at night. I made a plan to write this post. All tiny things. All basically useless, in the grand scheme. And yet.

-Show up for environmental justice. Privilege has the effect of sheltering many of us from the worst of climate change, as it does from many other things. Particularly for white people in Western countries, like myself, this means we aren’t the ones facing the consequences of our over-consumption. If you have privilege, use it: donate money, volunteer time, consume less, vote. That is your job, and mine.

-Make sure you’re registered to vote. Though the midterm elections aren’t until November 6th, voter registration deadlines in many states are this week and this month. Resources for registering in your state, here.

How are you feeling? Where do you fall on a belief in individual action? Other ideas to share? Please do.

More essays, here.

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Resources for Voter Registration

Resources for voter registration | Litterless

Though the November 6 midterm elections are a month away, voter registration deadlines are fast approaching in many states. I can’t think of a better way to spend five minutes today than in checking your voter registration or in registering for the first time.

No states’ registration deadlines have passed yet as of today, but the following states have registration deadlines tomorrow, October 9th: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. Many other states have deadlines the following day or in the coming weeks. You can find a full state-by-state list of voter registration deadlines, including information on in-person and online registration, in this New York Times article.

To check your registration, request an absentee ballot, and find out where to go on Election Day, visit Vote.org for state-by-state resources. If you’re already registered and would like to do more, local candidates need volunteer canvassers and phone bankers; we’re signing up for a few shifts over the next few weeks. You can also talk with friends and family to make sure they’re registered and have a plan for voting, or to help them sign up for an absentee ballot or research local elections (BallotReady.org is useful for researching local elections and ballot initiatives). If you have other favorite resources for voting prep, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

For people, for the planet, for being better than we are, for waking up on November 7th with a reason to feel a little more hopeful and with the perpetual knots in our stomachs lessened, just a tiny bit.

Climate Optimism

Cause for climate optimism | Litterless

To work on issues of climate change (like I do) or to worry about issues of climate change (like we all do), is to live in the strange land of a hope that can feel doomed, the knife edge of optimism and despair.

My mood swings up when kind readers leave comments here about the small changes they've made in their own lives, when going to a friend's house and seeing their compost bin has come to be more the rule than the exception, when a Zero Waste Chicago event is packed with folks who want to learn about how to reduce their impact on a daily basis.

My mood swoops down when I read about the current EPA gutting the Clean Power Plan, when I pass a trash can full to the brim with Starbucks cups, when I think about all the promises made and broken (Paris, etc). That sick feeling of fear and anger in my gut is one I know too well. I'm sure you do too.

Truth is, you might be surprised at how loosely I follow the environmental news these days. I read articles about zero waste, plastic pollution, environmental justice, and the Chicago environmental space. I don't read much about what's happening in our National Parks, what's happening in the current EPA, the current science on climate change. To do my environmental work, I have to believe there is cause for hope, or how else could I work at it?

It's a balance: knowing the severity of the problems facing us is both utterly galvanizing and utterly demoralizing. You might find yourself more motivated the more you learn; I've found that the more I learn the more I feel paralyzed. Instead, I've given myself permission to keep my fears to one side and let myself dwell in the possibility and hopefulness of change. I've found it easier to work on the environmental problems right in front of me, in my life, in my community, when I don't force myself to bear the burdens of the entire world all at once. Not just easier, I suppose: that focus is the only thing that makes my work possible.

This is all to say: here's an essay on how climate journalist Eric Holthaus balances on the knife edge of climate despair. It's rare that I hear folks speak frankly about this, and I appreciated his honesty. In the spirit of kinship, here's a little bit of my own. Onward we work, because and despite it all.

Photograph from an Introduction to Zero Waste workshop we gave in Chicago last September.

A Beach Clean-Up

Zero Waste Chicago beach clean-up | Litterless

Last week, Zero Waste Chicago hosted a beach clean-up at the pretty spot pictured above, 31st Street Beach here in Chicago. We brought gloves, trash bags, pencils and paper, a hanging scale for measuring our impact, and asked volunteers who showed up to just bring themselves. More than 20 people came, eagerly grabbed gloves and bags and headed out to get started.

In two hours, we gathered about 35 pounds of trash. Most of it was tiny: 700 cigarette butts, 300 food wrappers, 75 or so straws, 200 miscellaneous pieces of plastic, a few hundred plastic and metal bottle caps. It was a fun way to spend time outdoors, chatting with friends as we gathered small bits and pieces from the sand and the grass.

And, it was a good reminder too of why zero waste matters: it's literally easier to reduce one's trash output down to very little than to clean up even one small stretch of beach. I'm sure we didn't even get half of the trash that was there, and in a few weeks it will be right back to how it was. Better to try to avoid food that comes in wrappers when we can, to say no to straws, to be vigilant about avoiding things that are neither recyclable or compostable.

How to host or attend a beach clean-up | Litterless

In case you're interested in hosting or attending a beach clean-up in your area, a few thoughts to get you started, below.

Hosting a beach clean-up:

You can partner with a local organization that collects data on collected trash, or you can go out on your own. We used the materials from the Alliance for the Great Lakes Adopt-a-Beach program. They provided data collection sheets that we filled out and sent back to them, as well as providing some guidelines for how we could successfully host the event.

If you don't live in the Great Lakes region, there might be another organization you can partner with who would love to use any data you collect and will help you figure out how to go about it. Or, you can simply set a date and location and gather friends for an informal clean-up. Certainly you'll be able to collect much more trash if you don't have to stop to record every cigarette butt you pick up.

If you're hosting, bring gloves for all or ask folks to bring their own. We used washable cloth gardening gloves to prevent making more trash from disposable latex or plastic gloves. We also brought garbage bags and sent each small group of two to four people off with two bags: one for trash and one for recycling. We also kept a bag set aside for compostable materials, too, like wooden barbecue skewers. Take it from us: bring more garbage bags than you think you'll need, as we had to ask a nearby food stand to kindly lend us some.

Attending a beach clean-up:

To find an event near you, do an Internet search, or ask a local environmental organization if there are any groups who offer them in your area. If you're near the Great Lakes area in the United States or Canada, the Alliance for the Great Lakes keeps a map of local events. A few other beach clean-up hosting regulars worldwide: United by Blue on the East Coast of the United States, or the Clean Coast Collective in Australia. If you know of a local organization you'd like to share with others, please comment below!

There of course, too, is immense value in picking up trash without a formal event, without data collection, on places other than beaches. It needn't be formal. You can do so on a walk with friends, your dog, while sitting at the beach slightly bored with your kids. My dad fills a small bag with trash each time he takes the dog for a walk at a nearby creek. All I recommend if you're going solo is using a pair of gardening gloves to keep your hands clean and taking care to avoid sharp objects.

Thank you to all who came to our event and showed so much enthusiasm for it. We're looking forward to hosting more of these next year!

Top and bottom left photographs taken by my friend Marguerite - you can see more photographs from the event in her blog post about it, here.

Introducing Zero Waste Chicago!


I'm excited to share that a new project that friends and I have been working hard on for months is launching today! We've started Zero Waste Chicago, a new environmental organization working to move the Chicago area away from disposables to a more circular, lower-waste economy. You can read more about our mission here, if you'd like.

First up, we've built a website that offers a detailed map of the zero waste resources available in Chicago - where you can buy the things you need (compostable dish brushes, bulk laundry detergent, safety razors, kombucha on tap!) and where you can compost. We're starting to lead workshops throughout the city - our next workshop is coming up on April 21st at Sugar Beet Co-op in Oak Park. We also host monthly meet-ups for the zero waste crew here, and all are always welcome (our next one is April 1st, details here).

Otherwise, what's next for us is beginning to host more workshops and outreach opportunities and applying for non-profit status. If you'd like, you can head over to the website to sign up for our email list (just hit "subscribe" at the very bottom) to get a once-a-month update of what we're up to, or to get on our meet-up mailing list if you live in Chicago and are interested in meeting other zero wasters. Or, you can follow us on Instagram or Twitter if you want to stay in the loop.

Citywide Composting


In November, we flew to Seattle for vacation. And, guys, it was a composting HEAVEN. At my apartment in Chicago, I compost using a pickup service. I pay them a small fee each month, for which they pick up a five gallon bucket of my food scraps and replace it with a clean one I can fill up the following month. This system works well for me, but when I'm out and about composting gets harder. If a restaurant offers me a paper napkin I can't refuse, I'll take it home to compost. Same with lemon slices in my water, wooden toothpicks in sandwiches, tea bags, and more. I literally squirrel away all these little things to take home to compost, which is funny and weird.

In Seattle, though, composting is mandated by the city, which also provides bins and pickup services for it. So, at a restaurant, I could leave food on my plate, knowing it would be taken care of sustainably. Paper napkins I could throw in the compost on my way out. At coffee shops, I would compost my tea right there in the shop instead of taking it home with me. We were able to compost easily at our Airbnb, saving food scraps in the fridge and then tossing them in the apartment's shared compost bin on our way out the door. I felt free of the low-level compost guilt or obligation that I might feel at a Chicago restaurant; composting was so easy, integrated with my life rather than necessitating extra effort.

While the federal government refuses to take leadership on mitigating climate change and other environmental problems, we can ask our cities to step up. Seattle, San Fransisco, and Portland (and maybe a few other cities - does yours?) currently offer mandatory municipal composting. Their leadership proves that national action on this isn't necessary to create change - it can start with local cities serving as examples.

Composting is an essential part of an environmentally sound community. It diverts waste from the landfill, provides super-rich soil for increasingly depleted farmlands, and promotes a circular system in which "useless" food waste instead becomes regenerated into something that can grow more food. (And this article helps explain the ways in which composting can be financially beneficial for cities, too.)

If for you, like me, Seattle's system sounds like something you wish your city offered, let's start the long, long process of getting there. Can you start or sign a petition? Do an internet search to see if these efforts already exist in your area and offer your support? Talk with a local representative about the feasibility of getting started? Get together with a few zero waste friends together to start figuring out a way to lobby your city council?

There are so many ways in which our cities could do better sustainability-wise, so it's completely okay if this issue doesn't light your fire and you prefer to work on other things. Hopefully it lights someone else's!

In the meantime, if you don't compost currently, maybe this list can help you figure out how to do it where you live, whether you have a backyard or not.


PS. Cities can be environmental leaders in other ways, too. Seattle's city council just voted to divest over three billion dollars in city funds from Wells Fargo, which funds the Dakota Access Pipeline. Read more on that here, if you'd like. If your city isn't ready for composting, could you support its leadership on another environmental issue? Within the next month I'm planning to share what getting involved at a city level will look like for me going forward... stay tuned. Thanks for reading, friends.

Photograph from a dessert spot where we stopped in Seattle - isn't that the fanciest compost set-up you've ever seen?

What can we do?

In the face of problems that seem overwhelming, insurmountable, what can we do? It sometimes seems like nothing I do will make a difference, but I know that I have to do something. This post last week on a blog I love illustrates the point so, so well.

In college, I led an environmental club, and was frustrated at how slow and challenging it was to make incremental sustainability changes even at a small school. But just a few months ago, several years after I graduated, a new greenhouse was finished and opened on campus - something I worked toward and didn't think would end up actually happening. It has an attached classroom and meeting area, and will help make space for learning and discussions of food and farming and local production and plant biology and sustainability. Thinking about the finished greenhouse space makes me swell with happiness.

My friend and coworker texted me excitedly last month when she signed up for a composting service. My dad now uses reusable handkerchiefs. My mom has tucked a reusable fork and napkin in her purse. My boyfriend uses a Klean Kanteen instead of paper cups for coffee on the go.

All over the world, people are doing something. It's a good reminder to keep on keeping on.