Last year, upon reading this article, I decided to partake in the Stuff It Challenge. Basically, it's a plastic solution that involves stuffing your trash into one-liter plastic bottles. Then, when your bottle is full, you can bring it to a collection site for the bottles to be used as eco bricks. Everybody knows our planet is dying, and I thought that by turning my non biodegradable waste into building material, I could do my part in trying to save the earth. I'm no hard-core environmentalist, mind you, and I don't tote signs telling people to stop with consumerism because the planet is drowning in our waste, either. But knowing that I could do something for the environment was enough, and so I set out to do so.
What no one prepared me for, though, was the lifestyle change the practice entailed. It sounded easy enough: Collect my plastic trash, stuff it in a bottle, and be done with it. Finished. Move onto the next bottle! Wrong. So wrong. You see, plastic is easier to pack if you cut it into itty-bitty pieces, that way you get to stuff more waste into your bottle and it becomes a much more solid brick. But cutting plastic into tiny pieces involves so much precious time, as I would soon learn.
At first I dedicated an hour before bed to cutting up my trash, but long work days and the desire to sleep always got the better of me. Pretty soon I had dedicated a portion of my weekend to stuffing a week's worth of trash into my bottles and sometimes found myself cutting into the wee hours of the morning just to finish that quota.
Don't even get me started on all the washing I have to do. To ensure no biodegradable material (like leftover food or insects that like to eat the leftover food) accidentally ruins the integrity of my eco brick, I have to wash every single piece of trash and wait for it to dry before it goes into the bottle. Imagine how many mall bathrooms I've invaded, trash in hand, struggling with the automatic faucet's sporadic stream to rinse all traces of food.
After swiping straws, sando bags, and plastic wrappers from everyone around me, people became accustomed to the new garbage collector role I slipped into. I was being handed trash left and right, which was mostly a good thing, don't get me wrong. Better in the bottle than in a dolphin, right? But the quick amassment of trash turned into more washing and cutting than I could keep up with.
A corner of my bedroom was transformed into my trash and bottle storage. Soon my work desk became a trash collection and cutting station, too. My handbag, on any given day, would be stuffed to the brim with plastic candy wrappers, used oil control films, and plastic spoons. (This would be extra embarassing when I'd open up my bag to mall security, carefully angling it so none of my trash spilled out.) Same went for my pockets, which were also being used as makeshift trash receptacles on days I went bag-free.
Until one day I circled my room and realized I was living Oscar's dream. Not the de la Renta kind, mind you, but the grouch. My uncut trash pile was mocking me. Instead of ridding the earth of garbage, I had buried myself in my own. How could I have fooled myself into thinking I could make a difference when all I did was turn my room into a giant mess? I sat in the middle of it all, claustrophobic from the mini landfill I had built around myself. Then, because I didn’t know what else to do, I started cutting the trash.
My eureka moment came during my inner self-pity monologue. “I’m the dolphin!” I exclaimed as I looked up from my handiwork. Ten minutes into cutting trash and I noticed I had reduced my horrific pile into a manageable mound. I turned my attention to the bottle in my hands and looked at the tightly packed plastic pieces. Sitting in my trash-filled room, I was the hypothetical dolphin stuck swimming in other people’s trash. If a human could feel imprisoned by a few pieces of plastic, the effect is ten times worse for an animal who’s home is subjected to it unwillingly. By then I was cutting my trash with renewed fervor, fueled by the thought of that dolphin swimming fast and free in the deep blue. When I finally put my scissors down, a weird feeling of accomplishment came over me.
Whatever happened that day stuck with me, and I carry it around in my pocket like my empty candy wrappers. Whenever that lost, overwhelming feeling of being too small to make a difference resurfaces, I keep the bigger picture in mind. In the end, we all just want someplace nice to live in, it’s just a matter of doing something, anything, to help keep it that way.