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Commentary: Waste not, want not: 4 simple actions

Time, money and bandwidth seem to be in short supply these days for many of us. The world keeps getting faster, more expensive, and more overwhelming. Given all of the demands on our attention, what are four super simple things we can all do right now to show respect for our beautiful, life-giving, finite planet? These may seem small, but when multiplied by the 330 million people in the US, let alone the 7.7 billion people in the world, they add up to significant waste and destruction. And precisely because they are small, they should be relatively easy for us all to accomplish.

Number One: Stop buying water in single-use plastic bottles. Some brilliant marketing teams have convinced us that water comes from a bottle, not from a tap. Now Hollywood consistently depicts people reaching for a plastic water bottle when they need a drink, further strengthening this new behavior pattern. But why? We are blessed to live in a place with highly monitored, safe, and practically free drinking water conveniently available 24/7, on demand at our kitchen sink.

Two things to think about the next time you reach for water: bottled water can be 2,000 times more expensive than tap water and is less regulated than tap water. Where’s the benefit there? For more fun facts, check out the PSA videos created by Sonoma County high school students in 2017 at sonomawater.org/video-contests.

Number Two: Bring your mug to the coffee shop. Another small action, but seriously, why not? It’ll make your beverage taste better, stay hotter, and leak less. Despite what the label may say, paper coffee cups are not recyclable nor are they compostable in Sonoma County. They all go to the landfill, day after day, year after year, piling up in 222.5 acres of “waste disposal” at Redwood Landfill next to the Petaluma River wetlands (another 197.5 acres are dedicated to recycling and composting).

It is estimated that we throw away more than 50 billion coffee cups every year in the US. Imagine what that mountain would look like.

Number Three: Buy only 100% recycled content toilet paper, paper towels and tissue. Why on earth would we mow down the last remaining large intact forest landscape on the planet just to blow our nose on it? Coming out in September of 2022 is a new documentary called “The Issue with Tissue: A Boreal Story” that will highlight this existential moment for the boreal forest of Canada and the more than 600 Indigenous First Nations communities who have lived their sustainably for thousands of years.

For now, look up the National Resources Defense Council 2021 tissue scorecard of major brands so you can chose wisely. If your favorite store does not carry what you need, feel free to contact them requesting they change their offerings. After all, you are the customer – they want to provide what you want to buy.

Number Four: Compost everything you can. When you throw yard and food waste into your trash bin, it doesn’t break down like you might expect. Because of the lack of oxygen in the landfill, it will form methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times better at trapping heat in our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. But if you throw that organic matter into that handy dandy green bin, it will be made into compost -- that life-renewing black gold that returns carbon back to the ground and provides nutrients to plants while increasing biodiversity, aeration and water holding capacity in the soil so that the next generation of grass and trees and vegetables can grow up healthier. Sounds like a win-win-win.

And, quick tip for all of those summer parties: If you really need disposable plates, choose uncoated paper which can be composted right along with the food scraps left on them. Just please – no “compostable plastic” in the green bin! While fantastic in theory, this material needs extreme heat to break down and cannot be composted in our current facility. Sadly, it also can’t be recycled so it must all go to landfill.

While I was growing up, one of my mother’s favorite adages was “waste not, want not.” July 24-30 is Zero Waste Week with fun and family-friendly activities planned around the county, so this is the perfect time to start paying attention to our wasteful habits and challenge ourselves to make a change.

We don’t want to be a society that is so obsessed with the illusion of “convenience” that it becomes the downfall of our planet, do we? Check out zerowastesonoma.gov and zerowastenorthbay.org for all kinds of helpful ways to waste not.

Natasha Juliana is the campaign director for Cool Petaluma. She can be reached at natashaj@coolpetaluma.org. For information on how to get involved, visit coolpetaluma.org.

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