Saturday, November 28, 2015

Musings: Opting Outside on Black Friday, and why we need to go further

The sun-drenched forest at the Redmond Watershed Preserve

The frigid, damp air reddened my nose and stung my cheeks, and the weak sunshine spilling through the tree trunks did little to offer any warmth. Frosty dirt crunched beneath my boots, releasing an earthy scent of humus and decaying leaves. Birdsong trilled overhead, and the eardrum-piercing high-pitched call of a varied thrush resounded through the forest, followed by the persistent tap-tap-tap of a pileated woodpecker determinedly searching a dead maple trunk for insects. This was how I spent the day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday. It was glorious.

As I hiked through the Redmond Watershed Preserve that afternoon, pausing frequently to take photos while my patient husband waited shivering in the nearest sunbeam, I could hear not only the sound of birdsong and tapping woodpeckers, I could also hear the sound of other hikers, runners and cyclists who also decided to hit the trails that day. There was a sense of community, a sense of satisfaction knowing that rather than jostling with the crowd of Black Friday shoppers, we were all here, peacefully enjoying a sunny - albeit chilly - afternoon in the outdoors.

This was actually the aim of the much-publicized "Opt Outside" campaign launched by REI this year: in addition to closing their stores on Black Friday, REI encouraged its employees and the general population to opt to spend their Black Friday in the outdoors with friends and family, rather than shopping for those can't-be-missed discounts and sales at the mall.

I've enjoyed seeing photos and reading the accounts of other folks who spent their Black Friday outside rather than in the crush of holiday shoppers. Some people headed to the mountains for spectacular hikes and snowshoe adventures in the high country, and others like myself stuck to the lowlands and enjoyed the nearby nature of local parks, walking trails, and nature preserves. Amid all of the lovely photos and excited sharing of bird and wildlife sightings, there were also the cynics lamenting - even mocking - the fact that people were slapping a corporate hashtag on a life moment, a memory, that was supposed to involve being out in nature, away from the retailers, consumerism, and yes, corporations.

I get the irony there, folks, but there's no need to diminish the fact that the Opt Outside campaign did raise some questions about what's important, and perhaps inspired some people to spend their day after Thanksgiving in a much different way than they would have otherwise. I went hiking on Black Friday last year, and would have hiked this year regardless of whether there was an Opt Outside movement or not (a weekday off work with no obligations? We're hitting the trails!). This is because hiking is a hobby of mine, it's an activity that I enjoy, and spending time in nature is something that my mind, body, and sanity require. And besides, crowds of people leave me in a state of anxiety that just isn't pretty to see. This isn't the case for many people, but if even a handful of people were encouraged to head outdoors rather than hit the mall as they may have initially planned, that's a great thing.

Wildlife photo fail. Had the wrong lens with me - can you spot the tiny woodpecker?

Why is it important to get more of us outdoors? People care about what they know, and getting more of us outdoors to know, connect with, and love the trees, rivers, mountains, birds, and wildlife means that there are going to be more people willing to stand up and protect these things. More of us willing to make better choices in our daily lives to minimize our ecological impact. When we make connections and find an affinity for things in nature, we then have a reason to care and a responsibility to act.

It's important that we don't just stop at "opting outside". We also need to connect the dots and point out the importance of opting out of the consumerism of Black Friday, for the protection of the environment that we just spent our day after Thanksgiving enjoying. We need to emphasize that all the stuff we're buying - not just on Black Friday, not just during the holidays, but all year long - can have a significant impact on the environment. The raw materials that have to be mined and harvested, the water and fossil fuels used in the manufacturing process, the carbon emissions released as products are shipped from factory to retail stores, the waste created when all of that packaging (much of it plastic) is thrown into the garbage... all of these things are unsustainable, harmful, and cause ecological devastation, especially when they occur on the scale of our overblown consumer society here in the US.

So, don't just Opt Outside. Make connections. Consider the environmental impact of every purchase. Gift experiences instead of stuff. If you do give stuff, make sure it's stuff that the recipient will want and be able to make use of. In order to protect the majestic trees, the fresh air, the snow-capped mountains, the chattering Douglas squirrel you saw on your outdoor adventures, it's time we all start making smarter choices - not just during the holidays, but all year long.

As the already-long shadows stretched further across the landscape and the golden afternoon light reddened to amber, we returned to the parking lot at the Watershed Preserve to find it even more packed with vehicles than it had been when we'd set out. Laughter, dancing footsteps, and children's delighted shrieks could be heard emanating through the frosty forest all around. I hoped that those children were awed by the frozen leaves, delighted by the mud, fascinated by a pileated woodpecker's bright red head; hoped that they were making connections, finding a reason to care. Those sounds filled me with that warm, fuzzy, just-drank-a-mug-of-hot-cider holiday feeling - something I couldn't have found in the crowded aisles of a department store.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Going Green: Tips for a less-waste, eco-friendly move

Cats are very helpful movers.

Moving is not fun. For most of us, I'm sure "moving" is battling with "going to the dentist" for the top position on our list of most-dreaded activities. It's overwhelming to think of packing up an entire household, loading box after box and struggling to maneuver heavy furniture items into a truck, then unloading and unpacking everything at the new residence. The process of packing and moving can also be extremely wasteful. In the overwhelming chaos of it all, we can be tempted to indiscriminately toss things in the trash, and if we're not careful, we can end up needlessly sending an alarming amount of waste to the landfill as we move our belongings from once residence to another.

I know what you're thinking. Moving is already awful enough, and who wants the added stress of worrying about being environmentally friendly on top of everything else? Trust me, I recently tried this myself as my husband and I packed up our small condo (crammed full of belongings, I might add!) and moved into a new home, and a low-waste move is not as challenging as one might expect!

Here are a few tips gleaned from my recent experience:



As we pack, we'll typically find belongings that we either don't need, don't want to bother moving to our new home, or that are no longer usable and need to be disposed of. Items that are in good condition can be donated to organizations like Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or Value Village. Things that can't be donated should be disposed of responsibly rather than chucked in the dumpster, where they will end up in a landfill and potentially pollute the environment. Here are a few oddball items for which I had to do some research to find good disposal/recycling options:
  • DVD cases: Our household has a sizeable DVD collection. We're talking more than 1,000 movies, TV series, and documentaries on DVD. To save space in our new home, we decided to remove the discs from their cases and instead store them in large books like these. The paper jackets and inserts were removed and recycled, but we were still left with hundreds of empty DVD cases made from a type of plastic that's not recyclable in our curbside bin. A little bit of research revealed that our local Best Buy store accepts DVD cases for recycling, so we happily dropped them off there. You can also contact your local library to see if they can use your empty DVD cases, or ship them off to The CD Recycling Center of America, which also accepts discs and CD cases.
  • Spent batteries: I had a baggie full of used batteries which I knew couldn't be thrown in the garbage due to the dangerous heavy metals and hazardous materials they contain. I checked out the "What do I do with..." page on the King County Solid Waste Division website, which offered a list of facilities that accepts used batteries.
  • Unused/expired medications: These should never be flushed down the toilet, as so many of us have been told to do in years past. When flushed, these medications end up in the wastewater system, and our treatment plants do not have the ability to filter the medications out of the water before it is discharged into rivers, lakes, or Puget Sound. Many pharmacies, including Bartell Drugs, offer take-back programs for expired or unused medications of both the prescription and over-the-counter variety. 
  • Clothing/textiles: Sometimes we have clothing items, towels, or sheets that are just not fit for use anymore. These items can be recycled. Another visit to the King County Solid Waste Division website yielded this list of businesses, organizations, and locations of donation bins that accept textile items for recycling. If you have blankets and towels that are still in one piece but not fit for human use, consider contacting your local animal shelter or veterinary clinic to see if they can use them. I worked in a veterinary hospital for many years, and we were always looking for towel and blanket donations to keep our patients cozy and comfortable!
  • Electronics: Electronics that no longer work and that cannot be sold or donated need to be disposed of responsibly. See my previous blog post on the topic for disposal tips and information on the issue of electronics recycling.




This is another aspect of moving wherein waste abounds...
  • Boxes: rather than purchasing new boxes from the store, ask around to see if any friends and family have moving boxes you can use, or check with your local grocery store. Once you're done with them, simply flatten the boxes and find a dry place to store them - they don't take up much room, and you probably won't have to hold onto them for too long before you'll have friends and family members asking around and looking for boxes for their own move. If your boxes sustained quite a bit of abuse during the move and they're not in good enough shape to be used again, simply put them in the recycling bin.
  • Use large plastic storage bins: My sister had a large stack of plastic storage bins she wasn't using, and donated them to our moving effort. These bins are reusable many more times than a cardboard box would be, and are especially good for packing heavy/fragile items, or items which will be stored for a long period. When you're done with the bins, pass them along to the next friend or family member who can use them.
  • Bubble wrap, packing peanuts, and styrofoam wrap: Just say no. These products are 100% wasteful. When packing fragile belongings such as dishes, framed photos, and other decorative items, I used blankets, clothing, and towels instead of bubble wrap. I figured that I need to move the dishes, and I need to move the towels, so why not wrap the former in the latter and pack them into the same box? It worked wonderfully, and I had no packaging materials (or broken items!) to throw away in the end. 
  • Get creative: Look at the items you have to move, the boxes and bins that you have to pack them in, and the items you're looking to get rid of, and assess how you can creatively pack everything with as little waste as possible. For example, in the decluttering phase, I shredded a huge volume of documents, bills, etc that were taking up space in my filing cabinet. Rather than throwing away the shredded paper, I effectively made my own bubble wrap/packing peanuts by filling leftover plastic bags with the shredded paper, tying the bags shut, and packing them into boxes to fill in some of the dead space and keep fragile items from shifting around and breaking. Once at the new house, the shredded paper was emptied into the compost bin and the plastic bags were returned to the grocery store for recycling. A little planning and creativity can go a long way toward reducing waste!
If you follow the tips above, you can move into your new residence with the satisfaction of knowing that you took steps to make your move a little more waste-free and environmentally-friendly. Have other tips? Feel free to share in the comments below!


I found the process of trying to pack and move in the most environmentally-conscious way possible to be a very thoughtful experience. As I packed and sorted and decluttered, I was struck once again by the excess and wastefulness of our consumer society. This feeling hit especially hard as I sat on the living room floor, pulling DVD's out of cases, recycling the paper inserts, and stacking the empty cases in towering stacks that became increasingly large and more alarming. The little bit that we actually wanted - the DVD disc itself - was such a small part compared to the large, thick plastic cases they were packaged in. It was so unnecessary. So wasteful. We filled several large boxes with empty DVD cases, and must have recycled more than 100lbs worth of paper inserts alone.

This is just a small amount of the paper we recycled from the DVD cases.

These three boxes are filled with empty DVD cases ready to be recycled.

These days, movie streaming services and on-demand television are eliminating the need for consumers to purchase physical copies of DVD's, and will likely help to eliminate much of the waste from that venue, at least. However, for every DVD that no longer needs to be manufactured, there will be some other wasteful and unnecessary item being made and packaged in excessive amounts of non-recyclable plastic. If anything, this move forced me to think more in-depth about the things we purchase, and caused me to experience firsthand the feeling of being overwhelmed and consumed by one's own belongings. Henry David Thoreau expounded on this theme at great length in the "Economy" chapter of Walden:
"How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life... Thank God, I can sit and I can stand without the aid of a furniture warehouse. What man but a philosopher would not be ashamed to see his furniture packed in a cart and going up country exposed to the light of heaven and the eyes of men... Indeed, the more you have of such things the poorer you are."
After this move, I'm grateful that although our house is larger than the condo we moved out of, it is still small enough to discourage us from collecting unnecessary things. Like Thoreau's sharp words above, attempting a low-waste and environmentally-conscious move reminds you how many of your belongings are truly unnecessary, and that it is for our own ease and in our own best interests, as well as that of the environment, to limit our belongings to the necessities.

A necessary possession? I found this mystery buffalo in a box of old belongings when I was packing for the move...