The Mayday Experiment: Waste Not, Want Not

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I have a thing about waste. I don’t like it. As a result, it’s hard for me to throw things away.

Frankly, I think it’s probably genetic. My mother doesn’t like waste either, raised by my Depression-era grandmother who was the queen enemy of waste. My mom only lasted a week as a grade-school cafeteria worker because she couldn’t deal with the kids throwing out so many uneaten apples and uncracked cartons of milk, and that made a distinct impression on me. When we cleaned out my grandmother’s apartment, we found bread bags stuffed inside of bread bags like Russian nesting dolls of hoarding. In her home, you never used a full napkin, only half, and we found stacks of napkin halves as well. Nothing was wasted, everything was useful — to the point that any hipster life-hack blog would be shamed. So I come by my hoarding honestly, but it has a positive side, too.

I even take other people’s waste: A shout-out on Facebook for plastic bags for an art project had friends mailing them to my home from as far away as Utah. My frustration at the hideous K-cups that aren’t recyclable led to me offering to take those from people if they saved them (and I still have no idea what I will do with them).  But soon, storage will be too big an issue for that.

As I’ve been thinking about the functional design of the tiny house, waste is a consideration that comes up in multiple forms. For one thing, without a permanent address, trash pickup (and in Denver, curbside single-stream recycling) isn’t any longer a given. Any trash created will be a problem larger than just walking out to the dumpster and emptying the trash can.

So to that end, as much as possible I’m hoping to achieve a zero-waste lifestyle. That’s right: zero waste.

Luckily, I’m not alone in attempting this: There are myriad blogs giving advice on how one creates a zero-waste lifestyle. There are even grocery stores opening up at a rapid clip embracing this notion, requiring you to bring your own reusable packaging.

One of the biggest issues I will have to deal with is food waste, however, and regardless of how careful you are in using everything, there is always a bad spot cut away or the butt end of a carrot, and my pet snails can only eat so much. To deal with this and create compost for my plants, I’ll be installing a worm bin in the kitchen for food scraps, which can be swept directly from the counter into the loamy, worm-filled bin below. (There are even people making art with worms, like my professor from the Ohio State University, Amy Youngs, and her Vermiculture Makers Club.)

But just as important as the lack of physical waste is what I put into my waste water. Since I intend to use a composting toilet, I felt no need for a blackwater tank – where the bad water goes that will need to be cleaned. With only a grey-water tank, my hope is to even maximize that waste – filtering the grey water through my green-wall to water my plants, and dripping, fully cleaned by the green wall (dirt, roots and charcoal) into my cat’s water dish.

This means being extremely careful with what I use for shampoo, soap and cleaning products, and the logical conclusion is to make my own. I always felt it would be a lot of work, but worthy – and this kind of self-sufficiency has always been attractive to me. Besides, the average person slathers on hundreds of chemicals each day, many of them carcinogens, and I’ve long desired to make my own things, if only to get away from the high prices of healthier products.

So this week, as I fruitlessly scanned the aisles of the UnSafeway for the Method cleaning spray I usually buy, it hit me: no time like the present. Instead of compromising with the least bad product on the shelf, it was time to go google and get to work. I grabbed an empty spray bottle, checked out, and within an hour was marinating some grapefruit peels in vinegar. One week and a few squirts of tea tree oil later, and I have some of the most effective, pleasant-smelling and completely non-toxic cleaning spray I’ve ever used, at a fraction of the cost – and it wasn’t hard at all! My fears of avoiding this were irrational, I realized as I scanned recipes for shampoo, toothpaste, and lotion – none of it is any harder or more time-consuming than cooking dinner. And none of it will make dumping my grey water a hazard to anyone or anything.

I have no doubt that I will make trash – I’m an artist, after all, and as much as I love to reuse things and keep them out of the landfill, there are only so many uses for an empty tube of paint or a glue bottle. But by starting to be conscious of it now, I can make the transition easier later…one product at a time.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging about her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.

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