That’s Not Garbage!

For the past 7 months, we have been trying to raise awareness of the amount of food that is wasted in our community. We’ve attempted to rescue as much usable food as we can from the grocery store dumpster next door and have posted those finds on this blog. We’ve shared that food (when we can) with those in need. We’ve conditioned ourselves to shop the reduced-to-clear bins first at the grocery store and ugly produce always has a home in our refrigerator. We’ve volunteered with organizations that directly fight both food waste and hunger and we’ve attended educational events on the subject. We’ve talked about food waste and shared our dumpster diving stories with almost anyone who would listen. And maybe, to a small degree, it’s working.

Or perhaps, we’ve just encouraged more folks to forage that particular dumpster 🙂

There’s still quite a bit of food being tossed out next door, but the overall volume is much less than it was last year, or even just a few months ago. It’s been this way since they reopened after their remodel. I’d love to say that it will stay this way but from experience, we know that the summer months are usually lighter than the winter months on waste anyway. My guess would be that the grocery store probably orders less fresh produce in the summer when it is available locally. Less produce ordered means less produce to toss out when it doesn’t sell. Only time will tell as to whether my theory holds true or not.

In the meantime, we’ve turned our attention [once again] to another area of waste – consumer goods. Having lived the past decade in various apartments in Colorado, Florida, and Tennessee, we’ve noticed there’s one thing they all have in common. Residents have no qualms about discarding good, usable clothes, furniture, household and sporting goods, and electronics with their trash. Florida was the worst, though you’ll probably question that statement once you read on. In Florida, we found 2 bicycles, countless garbage bags full of clothing, 2 storage ottomans, the Paula Deen skillet that we use every day, lots of storage containers, and a brand-new camping stove, among many, many other things. It seemed that every other day we were picking up something from the trash area to take to the thrift store.

Since moving to TN, the two dumpsters next to our building have yielded 2 brand-new blankets, a book of collectable coins, a child’s kitchen playset, 2 ride-on toys, a hammer, a wrought-iron flower stand, several flowerpots, lamps and more lamps, and a few dozen storage totes and bins.

Just last week, we picked up 2 wooden pallets, 2 lamps, a clock radio, 4 men’s dress shirts, 3 ties, a computer keyboard, and a brand-new neck massager.

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There’s no denying the thrill of finding good stuff in the garbage. It’s almost like finding money on the ground (oddly, that happens a lot to us too – I just found $5 at the park yesterday). But this is no cheap thrill. Americans spend $12 billion a year on clothing and $206 billion a year on consumer electronics. With consumerism comes its inevitable byproduct – waste. When you buy something new, whatever it replaced (along with whatever is broken, no longer in fashion, no longer needed, or no longer desired) is usually discarded. Sadly, only 22% of clothing and 29% of electronics are recycled, so most end up in landfills. In fact, every year, 10.5 million tons of clothing, and 2.4 million tons of electronics are sent to landfill. This is where the items we found last week would be right now if we hadn’t rescued them.

We took 90% of the items we found to Goodwill. We kept the clock radio and lamp. When we arrived at the drop-off location, we were struck with a terrible sight. Rows and rows of collection bins lined the street outside the store. It was as if everyone within a 2-mile radius had cleaned out their closet or garage and brought their clutter to Goodwill. Considering everything I said above, you might be thinking, “this seems like a good thing…at least it’s not in the dumpster.” But…I started to wonder…just as it also started to rain, just what happens to this good, usable stuff if the store can’t sell it? Or worse, what happens if it’s ruined by the rain before they can get it inside?

As long as we live in a disposable society, the question of what to do with used goods is always going to be an issue. I don’t foresee a time when we pass the dumpster without seeing something in it that shouldn’t be. And with the Goodwill no longer seeming like the best option (for us, at least), what can we do?

Angie and I have been tossing around a few ideas lately. Here are some of the better ones:

  • Research other local non-profit agencies that accept donations for actual client use and pass along any rescued goods to those places. Example – we could have given the shirts and ties to the Rescue Mission for their workforce program.
  • Resell our rescue finds on eBay, OfferUp, etc. and donate any proceeds to charities we already support or give them away on FreeCycle.
  • Store our rescue finds until we have enough to either have a yard sale (donating the proceeds to charity) or host an annual “free store” where people in the community can take what they need.

There are positives and negatives with all of these options – including the fact that storing anything goes against all that we believe in as minimalists – but just like food rescue, there has to be a way to get these usable items into the hands of people who will actually continue to use them (at least for a little while longer). Are we crazy? Are we just prolonging the inevitable (stuff ending up in landfill anyway)? Or do you think we’re onto a good idea here? I’d love to hear your input and ideas.

Problem Solving the Minimalist Way

For the past few months a former colleague of mine (we’ll call her Chelsea) has worked feverishly day and night to research and select a new software package for her employer. The list of must-haves for this software solution extended the length of my arm and getting one that filled the bill was going to cost that same arm and possibly a leg too. During this process, I was invited to “give my opinion” on some of the options being considered. I’m not an IT consultant, though I once played one in another job. No…I’m just a girl who can’t say no to her friends (but trust me, I’m working on it!).

“You know how things work,” Angie said, on one of the many occasions I protested my involvement in this project. “She trusts your judgment and knows that you won’t let her get ripped off.”

Maybe I do have a reputation for finding the most cost-effective solution. Okay, I’ll take that 🙂

Working with Chelsea, I started thinking about how having a minimalist point of view can save you from making costly mistakes. Chelsea is not a minimalist. She’s young and unfortunately part of a generation that thinks the best technology is the newest technology. I don’t think it ever occurred to her to learn to use the software that was already in place before launching into a massive upgrade. Nor do I think she started with the most fundamental of all questions: what problem am I trying to solve? Instead, Chelsea started her search for a software solution by asking everyone in her company for their opinion.

Imagine this scenario – you’re thinking about buying a vehicle. You want something reliable that gets you back and forth from work. You’re going to be the only driver but instead of finding a car that works for you, you decide (why, I don’t know) to ask your neighbors what they want in your car. Jill thinks it should have a GPS, for sure. Bob insists that you need 4WD for the snow. Susy has heated leather seats so she’s convinced you should have them too. And Bill..well, Bill won’t drive anything that isn’t made in America. In trying to find the right car that fits the needs of Jill, Bob, Susy, and Bill you end up with a $549 car payment. If you aren’t already miserable when you drive off the lot, you certainly will be when have to take an extra job to pay for your neighbors’ car.

My point – it’s great to be democratic and inclusive EXCEPT when the solution doesn’t even apply to the people being asked.

Whether you’re choosing a software solution for your employer or a better way to get to work, the key to success lies in simplicity.

  • Know the problem you’re trying to solve and don’t create a problem where one doesn’t exist. It’s easy to buy a solution to almost any problem, real or imagined, and there are way too many folks out there whose job it is to capitalize on your indecisiveness and sell you the next best thing. If you don’t know what you actually need, you’ll be suckered every time.
  • Once you know your real need, ask yourself if something you already have can solve for that need. In Chelsea’s case that might have been just some additional training or another staff member to help with data entry.
  • If you don’t have a solution at hand, make a list of possible alternatives, starting with the simplest. If you need to get to work, do you really need a car? Is there a local bus in your area? Can you carpool or even telecommute?

Solving problems on your own is called being resourceful and resourcefulness is the greatest of all superpowers. Resourcefulness is also the epitome of minimalism. When you learn to trust yourself and solve problems in the most basic manner, you can survive almost anywhere and with next to nothing. But best of all, you’ll be happy doing it, since there’s nothing quite as empowering as independence.