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Doing What We Can

I live in New York City, which essentially means I live in a garbage dump. Okay, not really, but it feels like that sometimes. Last night I had dinner with some friends from Boston, and on the way to the restaurant one of them leaned over to me and said, "I've got a question about New York." I was excited. Was she going to ask me about the culinary landscape or the theater scene, or maybe the impressive array of summer entertainment in all five boroughs? None of the above. Instead, she wrinkled her nose and asked, "Why does it smell so bad?"

I sighed and said something about over eight million people squished into too little space, which is a true but at the same time unsatisfactory answer. Every day I walk by mounds of garbage on sidewalks and overflowing trashcans on street corners, and I witness people littering and throwing recyclables in the wrong bin and letting grocery store cashiers double-bag a single item. This happens everywhere, but as with most things, it's a bit more in-your-face here in NYC.

Back in 2009, about a year after I moved to New York, I read a book called No Impact Man by Colin Beavan. It's part memoir, part research, part how-to guide, and it follows Colin and his family throughout their experiment trying to make as small an environmental impact as possible for one year in New York City. This meant walking the eight flights of stairs up to their apartment instead of taking the elevator, walking and biking everywhere instead of driving or taking public transportation, consuming only local food originating from 250 miles away or less, not buying anything new, not using any disposable products, etc. Shortly after the book was published, a documentary of the same title came out in which the camera follows Colin, his wife, and their toddler daughter throughout the experiment. I found both the book and movie eye-opening and inspiring, and I responded by making a few changes to my lifestyle in hopes of decreasing my own negative impact on the planet.

The biggest change that I made was that I started composting. There are lots of ways to compost (including the gag-inducing worm method that Colin uses in his experiment), but I opted for the easiest option for apartment living: the freezer method. I started keeping all banana peels, veggie stems, egg shells, etc. in a sealed container in my freezer and bringing them to the compost drop-off at the Union Square farmers' market once a week. It was easy to do, it decreased the amount of garbage I made and cut down on household smelliness, and it gave me a reason to go to the farmers' market, which I had previously rarely made time for. It was great!

But when I excitedly told friends about my new composting habit, I received mixed reactions. Some reacted defensively, citing the numerous reasons why they couldn't or wouldn't compost in their own homes. Others insisted it grossed them out, even after I explained my neat, stink-free system. The best reaction I got was along the lines of, "That's great that you're doing that, but I'm not going to." Not a single person I told about it took up composting herself.

I am not immune to this phenomenon. I have found myself getting defensive when vegetarian friends tell me about the evils of meat-eating. I know they're right (No Impact Man is just one of countless books that discuss the horrors of the meat industry), but the fact is, I like eating meat. I don't do it a lot, and when I do I try to make sure it was sustainably raised, but I don't want to stop altogether. I love meatballs. And barbecue. And seafood. And fried chicken. (Mmmm... fried chicken.) I eat vegetarian about 75 percent of the time, but damn it, sometimes I just want a cheeseburger.

This is all to say that my conclusion is: do what you can do. Colin Beavan didn't expect everyone to take the extreme measures he and his family took during his experiment; he just wanted to bring attention to the issue. And in writing this blog post, I'm not expecting everyone who reads it to start composting. But if even one person does, then we're better off than we were before.

Do something small. Use a reusable water bottle instead of buying the disposable kind, or start carrying a reusable shopping bag with you, like this one. Make a change, and then tell someone about that change. Little by little maybe we can make a dent. And then hopefully we can keep living here.

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