The limits of personal action

I’ve realized recently that it is becoming difficult for us to continue marginally increasing the sustainability of our household.

Pasadena has a relatively enlightened “pay as you throw” garbage collection service.  You can choose one of three different sized garbage cans depending on how much trash you generate, and the smaller ones cost less.  Both the front house and the back house have the smallest size (32 gallons).  Last week when I wheeled the garbage out to the street for pickup one of the two containers was empty, and the other was only half full.  The previous week there had been no garbage whatsoever in the bins.  In two weeks, between two houses, we’d managed to half fill one container, and it was already the smallest size the City could imagine one house filling on a weekly basis, meaning we generated something like 1/8th as much garbage as we were “supposed to”.  Instead most of our refuse ends up either getting composted or recycled.  If only we could cancel the garbage service for one of the houses, or have them come only once a month.  Thankfully Pasadena does actually have a stated goal of zero waste-to-landfill and incinerators (by the year 2040), as does San Francisco (by 2020) and Vancouver (no firm date for zero yet… but a 40% reduction from their current, already low, levels by 2020).  Last year we “diverted” 66% of our solid waste as a city, and both the total amount of waste landfilled, and the per capita amount have decreased over the last several years (as reported in the 2009 Green City Indicators report), though as I’ve noted before “diversion” means some strange things in this context.  The city currently considers it likely that we will achieve this 2040 goal.  I wonder if the economic downturn has meant less purchasing and discarding of disposable crap.  It’s almost certainly responsible for much of the recent reduction in vehicle miles traveled.  I’m not sure what additional waste-reduction incentives have been put in place (but then, I’m clearly not the target audience… so maybe I just haven’t noticed).

Another similar strange experience recently was realizing that our natural gas usage, which goes exclusively to heat domestic hot water (we refuse to turn on the furnace in this fine Mediterranean climate…) hardly varies at all with our water usage.  The difference in our gas bill between both of us being here and neither of us being here is less than 10%.  About $1 out of $15 goes to heat in the water we actually use.  $14 out of $15 goes to heat that escapes from the water heater into the air in the crawlspace under the house.  Sadly, it was replaced two years ago (after the bottom of the old tank rusted out… that replacement dropped our monthly bill by 2/3, as leaking hot air is a lot better than leaking hot water!) and it could have been replaced with a European style tankless water heater like we had over winter break in the Earthships in Taos, where it’s just a backup for the solar hot water heater on the roof which would also work wonderfully here in SoCal.

I think there are about 6 big things you can do on your own, if you’re at all serious about sustainability:

  1. Have fewer than 2 offspring.
  2. Eat a vegan diet, or close to it.
  3. Don’t own a car, and dramatically reduce the number of miles you drive.
  4. Avoid flying.
  5. Live in a small, durable, energy efficient dwelling.
  6. Stop buying things that will eventually be sent to a landfill or incinerated.

If you’re not doing any of them, I don’t really see how you can say you care about sustainability with a straight face.  But what if you’re doing all of them?  And also volunteering for organizations that try to promote these behaviors in general?  And donating money to others, in a similar vein?  And writing your elected officials about the things you care about?

I’m not trying to go off on some holier-than-thou trip here: I haven’t really committed to stop flying (it’s just an idea at this point, one that Amtrak might well talk me out of), and I certainly enjoy eating an omnivorous diet (with the animal products coming as much as possible from discarded food).  I’m just saying that I’m starting to feel a little limited.  To go much further than the above list, infrastructure and society itself have to start changing, in North America anyway, and that’s an entirely different kind of problem.  An interpersonal problem, with which I’m much less comfortable.

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