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No Impact Man

On my regular documentary binge (it happens every few days) I came across a gem on ABC iView called No Impact Man. In November 2006 author Colin Beavan, started a research project for his next book ‘No Impact Project’. A newly self-proclaimed environmentalist who could no long avoid pointing the finger at himself, Colin left behind his liberal complacency for a vow to make as little environmental impact as possible for one year. Colin’s motivation for the project?

‘Why do I have to wait for congress to do something, why do I have to wait for big business to do something, why don’t I do something! ‘

No more automated transportation, no more electricity, no more non-local food, no more material consumption… no problem. That is, until his espresso-guzzling, retail-worshipping wife Michelle and their two year-old daughter are dragged into the fray (family photo from here ). The documentary share the highs and lows of the families journey to sustainable living, including Michelle’s year off from consuming fashion (both new and secondhand). From ditching meat and shopping from bulk food bins to the touchy topic of opting for washable rags over toilet paper, the family openly share this journey with the viewers. The film transitions to reality-tv territory at times when the couple have heartfelt discussions about the possibility of adding another member to their family, and Michelle’s eco-slips in regards to coffee and ‘camping at home’ despite a hate of camping. While these hurdles can be dealt with from the family unit, some big challenges that the household faced was both positive and negative media coverage and public commentary. One interesting part of the film was the media coverage of the project in the New York Times, and the subsequent snowball of media offers that followed it.

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Dealing With The Eco-Haters

In an interview with WNYC Colin deals with some negative criticism on his New York Times feature that frames the family project as being ‘part change the world, and part gimmick for the next book’. Seeing his confidence take a hit as the negative public commentary comes rolling in (including one not-so-useful comment that Michelle should ‘dump the mother fucking asshole’) and reflect that if the project had any of the following titles;

  • The year I lost twenty pounds without going to the gym once,
  • The year we didn’t watch TV and became much better parents,
  • The year we ate locally and seasonally and it ended up reversing my wife’s pre-diabetic condition,

that people would see the benefits of living environmentally.  These critical (and not always nice) comments came from environmentalists and eco-living-haters alike and the eco-prejudice moves from face-less computer trolls (one of which fessed up to her comments when she changed her mind about the family and took them to brunch), to colleagues in the office place claiming the family were crazy. One even refrained from shaking hands with them due to their ‘unhygienic’ reusable toilet paper advocacy. Why the anger from strangers over how someone else chooses to live? It’s concluded that making people feel guilty and defenceless about their actions, and then suggest that they restrict their freedom of choice by adhering to your stringent ‘eco living’ ways, that it can be difficult for some to stomach. The family powered on (or should I say powered off) with the project as they switched off their electricity and tried life without the basic amenities of a refrigerator and a worm farm that became a breeding ground for flies in summer. At the end of it all this quote from Colin kind of sums up the findings of the experience:

I believe the most radical political act there is, is to be an optimist

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What is Waste?

It’s all well and good to talk about waste but do we really understand what it is? Most of the waste that we refer to on a daily basis is municipal solid waste (MSW). This is the waste that we personally deal with. The items that we bring into our homes and lives, use and dispose of and all the rubbish from residential areas, street sweepings, commercial and institutional waste, as well as construction and demolition debris. The waste we generally don’t think too much about are industrial waste and fecal matter, one of which we all come across directly on a daily basis (if you eat your fibre) and the other is a serious issue associated with all the items we buy but not something we regularly see.  Let’s just look at one small area of the fashion industry in regards to Industrial waste. Leather tanning is the process of converting animal hides to leather fabrics as product for fashion market. Skin is converted to leather through the use of organic and inorganic chemicals and vast quantities of water, a process that discharges solid and liquid waste into the environment.

According to some fancy science folk with an interest in leather processing and the environment the processing of 1 metric ton of raw hide/skin provides 200 kg of a leather-final product, along with 250 kg of non-tanned waste, 200 kg of tanned waste, and 50-m3 volume of wastewater. Thus, only 20 % of the raw material weight is converted to leather. When you think about the fact that in order to get a cow leather bag to you we need to raise cattle, transport cattle to the slaughter house, move hides from slaughterhouse to tannery, tanned hides to cut-make-and-sew, finished bag from country of origin to you. And each of these channels have their own industrial waste issues. This is a very simplistic look at the supply chain, there are loads of other factors to take into account like bag linings, zips, fastening, packaging, distribution channels etc, but you can get the general idea that there is a lot of effort, resources and waste on every level of manufacturing chain. While we might not be able to see or control this supply chain we can ask our favourite brands to do some research into this for us and provide us with transparency so we can make more informed choices through initiatives like Fashion Revolution.

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Eco Tip

An area we have direct control over in regards to our waste is our household and personal waste stream. Whatever we bring into our home (including fashion items) is likely to leave it at some point. You can see from infographic above that our MSW is a huge issue, specifically in developed nations. Developing nations have a higher industrial waste footprint as many of the products we consume and throw away are made in these countries. So by controlling what we bring into our lives and throw away we are also reducing the amount and types of industrial waste being produced and processed in these nations. What can you do? The folks at Sustainable Table have been providing loads of useful info about food waste for their Give A Fork campaign, but the general rule of thumb for a more conscious and sustainable lifestyle in regards to MSW waste is to be curious. Think of every item in your home as room for improvement. Read labels. Ask questions. Find out what can be recycled in your local area by contacting your council or researching on their websites. Each time you go to the store check the packaging and aim to buy items with no packaging (bulk food stores and farmers markets work well for this), minimal packaging (elastic bands on fruit and veg, a paper bag etc) or recyclable packaging. There will likely be times when you have to buy something in non recyclable packaging but it’s best to keep this to a minimum.

Today’s eco tip is BYO straw! Apparently thirsty folks in the US use 500 million straws per day! Whether or not this is an accurate statistic (it seems a bit crazy to me) there is no denying that one plastic straw is one too many! They are so unnecessary when you can use biodegradable options or better still bring your own reusable one. I use a stainless steel one (well actually I have two of them and have had them for a few years now) and love it. Another alternative is the beautiful bamboo number pictured above that will replace around 400 plastic straws and can be composted at the end of their life.

Have you seen this movie? What did you think about it? Would you live without power or toilet paper? Share any thoughts in the comment section.