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Canning The Trash

UW alumna and her husband give up garbage for a year

The Daily

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

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Courtesy Photo

Adam Korst sorts through his family’s recycling. He and his wife, UW alumna Amy Korst, are aiming to live garbage-free for a year.


Courtesy Photo

UW alumna Amy Korst sorts through the compost in her backyard vegetable garden.

Amy and Adam Korst are pretty normal people.

Amy, a 2007 graduate of the UW, is an English teacher at Willamina High School in Willamina, Ore. She lives with two cats, a dog and her husband Adam, a 2007 graduate of the Art Institute of Seattle, in nearby Dallas, Ore., about an hour south of Portland. Adam is the photo editor at the local newspaper, the Polk County Itemizer Observer.

But the couple’s bio reads abnormal when it comes to their garbage: They’re trying to live without producing hardly any for a whole year. Now about a month into what they’re calling the Green Garbage Project, the Korsts are passionate about trash — about not making it, that is.

Adam initially thought his wife was joking. But a simple question — “Wouldn’t it be crazy if we didn’t produce any trash?” — launched Amy into researching what it would take to go essentially trash-free for 12 months, which began July 6.

“This has been a long time in the making for us. We love the outdoors. We love to hike; we love to camp,” Amy said. They wanted to do something impactful that was “still tangible and real” to help the environment; as a teacher and a writer, Amy said she also wanted it to be educational.

During an average week, they found that they were producing about 43 pounds of trash, or about 21.5 pounds per person, at roughly 3 pounds a day, for a total of 2,236 pounds a year. This means they were still coming in under the national trash-addicted average of 4.5 pounds per person per day, or 1,600 pounds every year (3,200 for an average couple), according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

By planning ahead and conscientiously thinking about what they buy, Adam said that it’s easier than you might think to avoid having to throw things away.

“The approach that we’re taking is that you need to think about trash before you buy it,” Amy said. “I actually don’t buy anything that is not recyclable.”

They shop at farmers’ markets and natural-food stores, buying in bulk when they can. They reuse as much as possible. They compost. They garden. They hunt down recycling facilities for harder-to-recycle items, such as metal lids.

Amy is also trying such old-fashioned recycling methods as canning salsa, pineapple jam and blueberry syrup, and even dabbling in cheesemaking. Other simple steps involve using a vacuum that doesn’t need bags (emptying the dust and lint outside) and avoiding packaging-intensive “convenience foods,” such as pre-packaged chips, cookies and most frozen foods.

So while buying fresh or fresher foods can be a little pricier, Amy said a look at what they’ve spent so far seems to indicate that in the long run, their project will not cost more than normal shopping.

There are a few exceptions. Kitty litter, pet feces, hair, medical waste (things such as contact lenses), leftover meat waste (for the dog and Adam; Amy doesn’t eat meat), and anything hazardous that can’t be recycled is thrown away. Anything that doesn’t fall into the above categories, and are truly bona fide exceptions, such as a foil wrapper (used to wrap a bee-sting swab), are cleaned and neatly noted in a size-7 woman’s shoe box.

Looking ahead, Amy is also working on a book about her experiences, in addition to the Web site and blog chronicling the ecological experiment’s ups and downs.

“People have said to me that they think of me whenever they throw away trash,” Adam said, and while it may seem a little silly, that’s exactly what they want.

Others respond with confusion when the Korsts tote their own cups to restaurants or theaters. When supplied with an explanation, a common reaction is “Oh, you’ve ruined me!” as people start thinking about ways to reduce their own rubbish output.

The couple has already attracted national attention, having been profiled on CNN.com last week. They’ve also recently survived a visit from two young nephews. Next up: a move, without tape.

Professors and environmental experts at the UW weighed in on the Korsts’ project, commending them for their actions but also noting the importance of reducing other forms of waste, such as air pollution.

“I think that the project that they’re doing is admirable,” said Yoram Bauman, an environmental economist and lecturer in the UW’s Program on the Environment. But while every little bit counts, “worrying about your carbon footprint is not always the same as worrying about your garbage.”

Trash is just one part of a complex chain reaction of negative human impact on the Earth, he said, and students should reflect on their own personal contribution to not just the landfill, but to humanity’s carbon emissions.

Bauman noted that in a typical airplane trip, enough emissions are produced per person to be the rough equivalent of each of them driving — on their own — to their destination in a car that received an average of 30 miles to the gallon.

Joyce Cooper, a UW professor of mechanical engineering and an expert on sustainable design, echoed Amy, mentioning that the ultimate goal for projects like this should involve a reduction in total output, including recycling.

But “just by putting up the Web site, they’re giving ideas to other people,” Cooper said, including the most important idea of all: that people can make a positive difference, one piece of trash at a time.

This is not a series of daily experiments or a political stunt designed to make people feel bad, Adam emphasized. For the Korsts, this is a lifestyle — and something that can be replicated. Ultimately, they want people to think about what they chuck in the garbage.

“We almost feel guilty,” Adam said. “Anybody can do this.”

Reach Opinion Editor Will Mari at features@dailyuw.com.

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