While we waited for the water to boil, Betty explained that she and her husband weren’t really doing anything incredible.
We were a little startled. Betty and John were the featured attraction of Portland for us. When Margaret asked, How does your life look different, John said somewhat bluntly: It doesn’t.
Betty and John don’t even fill one garbage can a year.
We heard about the Shelleys because they had been featured in several articles about waste reduction. This unassuming couple have managed to significantly reduce the amount of garbage they produce.
We were expecting strange sorting systems involving lots of colored bins, quirky habits like making shampoo from baking soda or re-using kleenex, and perhaps even the faint smell of granola. The discovery we made was that lived pretty normal lives.
We’ve seen people who make waste reduction into a big stunt; there are many different groups doing this or that wild and crazy action to make a little less garbage, but what is beautiful and Betty and John is that they haven’t needed any kind of stunt. They simply live less waste.
They have been people who recycle since the 1970s, but in the early ’90s, they took a Master Recyclers discussion course from the Northwest Earth Institute. In the course they found a group of people who were also interested in producing less waste. Betty said it was like finding her tribe.
They decided to produce less waste. First they did away with disposable napkins. From there, they moved on to disposable paper and plastic bags. They began buying things in bulk and composting.
By the late ’90s, they realized they weren’t filling their garbage can every week and called the collection company to switch to monthly pickup. A few years later they discovered that they weren’t filling their monthly can, either. The collection company didn’t offer anything less than monthly pickup, so the Shelleys canceled their service.
Now, they fill about one garbage can a year, although sometimes it is a bit longer. Their garbage can isn’t gross: most of their waste is inert. The materials they throw away are synthetics mostly: plastic and things coated with plastic.
John told us that their lifestyle takes no special effort and no special planning, it just became their habit. They never had a goal of zero waste or only one can a year, and the process was very gradual. But because of that, he said, it is surprisingly effortless.
We asked the Shelleys if they had any special guideline for themselves when they were shopping to keep from accumulating all the things that so quickly end up in our garbage cans. They told us to always ask if we needed the thing we were about to buy.
All in all, this couple left quite an impression on us. I do wonder if their lifestyle is possible in the average American town; Portland seems to lend itself to lifestyles that produce less waste. Still, if enough people take similar small steps to reduce the amount of waste they produce, we might find that our life gets a little bit better.