Ruth Bass: A class in Trash 101 may lighten the trip to the curb

RICHMOND — Most of us recoil at the idea of using cloth diapers instead of disposable ones, handkerchiefs instead of tissues, or the so-called family cloth (yikes) instead of toilet paper. But it's also true — and this would save every city and town on how much trash is at the curb — that most of us can find a few ways to cut back on what we throw away.

It does not mean turning into the ultra do-it-yourself people who cook everything from scratch, don't buy packaged vegetables because they have an enormous garden, buy everything in bulk or make their own apple cider vinegar. They are wonderful and beyond belief.

But as Pittsfield investigates the 95-gallon totes for recyclables and 45-gallon containers for the rest of the rubbish, it's not a bad time for everyone to consider some trash education. Sesame Street's Oscar would be enchanted. Interestingly, a ton of the hints for reducing trash match exactly what our grandparents or great-grandparents did as a matter of course. They're the people who saved stuff and told us to shut the refrigerator door.

Cloth napkins, for instance. They don't have to be ironed unless company's coming, and they work for more than one meal with cute napkin rings. In this house, where the dog stealthily removes paper napkins from laps and then leaves the room to shred them, cloth napkins have saved us from picking up scraps all over the rug. Then there's bowl covers. My grandmother used them for leftovers. They're back, and they mean a box of plastic wrap lasts a year here. Little hats, stretchy, washable, reusable.

Reusable shopping bags are so common that you feel a little funny when you forget yours. Sturdy cloth totes, rather than the cheaper ones, can be washed, getting rid of the worry that you're preserving germs and chemicals. Still, even if plastic bags are banned, you'll get some. They may be bad for the environment, but that evil is diluted by reuse for dog poop or wastebasket liners. As for paper plates, one line of defense is that you don't waste water washing them. But overall, an inexpensive set of dishes (not ugly) will save a lot of trees in a year. Besides, it's easier to cut food on real dishes, and it tastes better.

Everyone who talks about trash reduction counsels that a major offender is bottled water. Most households in Berkshire County don't need it for in-home use because we have either decent well water, or we pay taxes and meter costs for water from the tap. Plastic bottles are considered a major offender in building trash mountains, but they certainly are handy for the school lunch box or in the car. Still, it's nice to see how many people carry a stylish water bottle around. Possibly filled from a tap?

One of the more laughable tips from the list-makers is about returning things: Get your milk in glass bottles (where?) and take them back; and return egg boxes to farmers' markets. That's a mixed situation. We have taken garden pots back to nurseries and been told they don't reuse them, and we've taken them back to find the nursery has a recycling bin. But what can go back is soda cans and beer bottles, one of our best sources of revenue when we were kids and learned of the direct deposit system. These days those returns just get you a tiny discount on a bottle of wine — but at least they're not in your trash.

Also a bit difficult is the suggestion that you take your own containers to the restaurant and impose on the waitress to use it for your "doggy bag." And no way will I buy e-books instead of real books. First, it's lovely to hold a book, and second, books here don't go in the trash anyway. If no longer needed, they travel to the Berkshire Athenaeum and help the book sale.

Pittsfield will make a decision soon on rubbish. But I hope the 95-gallon recycling tote never comes to Richmond because it would be likely to catapult me down the hill instead of me rolling it. Whatever the city decides, years of observation indicate that it's realistic, albeit pessimistic, to feel that containers won't make the messy people neater. Or keep the crows from ripping open the bags that stand alone.

Ruth Bass recycles in Richmond. Her website is


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