Hand over mouth, eyes searching to make sure no one unsafe is within ear shot, she leans toward us conspiratorially. And then she makes a wild confession. My reaction is one of relief. Phew! I’m not the only one.
“Sometimes I run my dishwasher when it’s only half full!” She looks like the admission might result in her being struck dead by a bolt of lightning.
As is often the case, one admission leads to another. Here we were, a group of smart, environmentally conscious and generally aware moms admitting our deepest darkest environmental sins.
“I use plastic bags in my trash can.”
“I drive around with plastic bags in my car, hoping to come across a grocery store that still recycles them. I finally lose it and throw them in the trash.”
“I use non-biodegradable bags to pick up dog poop.”
“I use Ziplock bags and then throw them away instead of reusing them.”
As we stand talking, I diagnose this as a not-yet-recognized syndrome: eco-guilt.
Living in Boulder, CO
It doesn’t help that I live in Boulder, CO, one of the Green Capitals of the US. Don’t get me wrong–I’m proud of my community where there are tons of year-round bike commuters (even in the snow!), public transportation, curbside recycling and composting, lots of green buildings, a Prius on every block, abundant solar panels, and an overall commitment to doing right by this earth of ours.
But my life was a lot easier when I lived in an east coast town that was light years behind in the green movement. On the one hand, the lack of apparent awareness and action was frustrating. On the other hand, it didn’t take a lot to feel environmentally virtuous. Now the bar is higher–and sometimes I don’t feel like I have the energy for such a high jump.
I use organic cleaning products, cloth rags instead of paper towels and a sponge mop. We put our sandwiches in reusable wrappers and other packed lunch food goes into reusable plastic containers. (Don’t start with me about the plastic.) We plan errands so that we can make a big loop instead of lots of out-and-backs. We recycle our paper, plastic, aluminum and glass.
We use cloth napkins and try to only run the dish and clothes washers when they’re full and on the shortest cycle. I am sorry though–I won’t accept a 3-minute shower. A shower is the only thing that brings me into the day-world in the morning after sleep and it takes a while.
Despite my efforts, I still have my share of guilt. In a rush, I use a plastic zipper bag for a sandwich. And, no, I don’t wash it afterwards. I throw it in the trash. I put my vegetables into plastic bags at the store. I reuse them if they’re not slimy inside and I do make a special trip every few weeks to recycle plastic bags and #5 plastics not accepted curbside. I don’t carry those nifty re-usable veggie sacks into the store. I tried it, I did, but all that resulted was driving around with $30 worth of re-usable vegetable sacks in the back of my car. I could never remember to take them into the store.
Sometimes I also forget to take my cloth grocery bags with me. I stand in line at the register debating with myself about whether I should get out of line, go outside and get them or just stay where I am and leave with an armload of paper or plastic. And then, of course, if I decide to take the store’s bags, I’m met with this dilemma: “Paper or plastic?” Should I kill a tree but be able to recycle a paper bag or let the tree live and take the plastic bag that will take 500 years to decompose in the landfill?
Our community has started charging ten cents per store-provided bag in the last few years. Even though it’s only a dime, I’m surprised at how much extra incentive it gives me to remember my bags.
When I bring my own bag, stores credit me ten cents per bag. My favorite market allows me to donate my bag credits to local causes and gives me three choices that change every three months. I swear, this is my favorite part of shopping and totally ups my bag-remembering game.
On a frequent basis–like every other time I go to Target–I engage in a little flirtation with the Swiffer mops. I stand there and gaze longingly at them, thinking about how nice and easy it would be to just pop one of those pads onto my mop, go to town on my floor, throw it away, and be done with it. I’ve even gone so far as to put one into my cart. But then my eco-guilt gets the best of me and I return it to its spot on the shelf and say a wistful goodbye. The number of times I’ve gone through this ritual is ridiculous.
When I’m in a hurry and generally overwhelmed with life, it’s hard not to fall for the temptation of convenience. And these convenience items are so prevalent, it’s hard to avoid them. Individually packaged snacks, papers towels, paper napkins, disposable sweepers and mops, dispensers of individual pre-moistened cleaning cloths, bottled water, . . . . It takes constant vigilance not to give in. Just this once, I think during a moment of weakness.
Of course, just-this-once is, as usual, a slippery slope.
At one moment, I think I’m driving myself crazy over these things when I could better apply my energy elsewhere. And yet, what is more important than tending to our already overburdened planet?
I have a friend who doesn’t use plastic bags. At all. She doesn’t lord it over anyone in some sort of ecological virtuousness, she just does it. I admire her commitment but I also feel . . . what? Not irritated exactly but a bit tweaked because, honestly, if she can do this, I should be able to do it too. But I’m tired! Sometimes I don’t want to think about any of it anymore—organic food, green house gases, recycling and waste, composting, chemical free cleaners, what sort of pesticides I shouldn’t be spraying on my pine beetles. I can’t quite figure out where it ends. Where is my own comfort point where I feel like I’m doing enough, working hard enough to protect this earth and passing that ethic and good environmental habits on to my kids? What do I need to do to address my own eco-guilt? I’m seeking my own personal magic formula, similar to the elegance of E =mc2. Something like: Weekly recycling + cloth napkins + reusable plastic containers + only 2 zipper bags a week + washing clothes in cold water and full loads only (except in clothing emergencies) = Enough
It’s hard to believe that the Muppets are still bringing us wisdom in the 21st century but, in the words of Kermit the Frog, “It isn’t easy being green.”