Some words are like plastic: They linger long after they’ve been tossed out.
“We get comments like, ‘Any time I throw something away, I think of you,’” said Adam Korst, photojournalist with the Polk County Itemizer-Observer.
“It sounds like an insult,” he said, “but they mean it in the best way possible.”
This is actually the reaction they’re looking for, according to wife Amy Korst, a freelance writer. Both she and her husband want people to think about their garbage habits.
“Every time you reach for the trash,” she said, “if you make that motion a conscious thing, [you realize that you] reach for the trash so many times a day. I really was kind of amazed.”
With little over two months left to go, both Adam, 26, and Amy, 25, are nearing the end of their yearlong mission. Since July of 2009, they have been on a quest to find the answer to a simple question: Is it possible for a couple to live for an entire year without placing trash in a landfill, in the country that produces more waste each year than any other country in the world?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces roughly 4.6 pounds of garbage daily. Three pounds of it goes directly to a landfill.
So far, most of the trash the Korsts have been completely unable to recycle, reuse, compost or in some way reallocate fits inside one shoebox, which Amy keeps at the ready to show all visitors. By July, they will have kept one ton of garbage out of local landfills.
“We’re not 100 percent garbage-free, but we’re awfully close,” Amy said.
Trying to be environmentally conscious can be difficult, especially when there are sometimes no clear answers, and choices boil down to picking the lesser of two evils.
For example, do you choose paper or plastic at the grocery store? The environmental answer used to be paper, but now it’s cloth, as in bringing your own bags. A passionate environmental advocate, Amy recalls one instance at a Starbucks coffee shop where she felt obliged to purchase a bottle of water. She chose the glass bottle over plastic, but then realized the glass bottle had been shipped all the way from Italy, and had incurred a lot of “carbon miles,” she explained.
It’s ultimately what moved Amy to take the drastic new step in her efforts to be environmentally conscious.
“We were taking all the steps that are recommended for somebody who wants to save the environment, buying organic, buying local, recycling, and paying our bills online,” she said. “We decided it really didn’t have much measurable impact for us to see how we’re helping the planet,” she said.
However, “every month we were still filling up [the garbage can] and we we’re still buying these horribly overpackaged products.”
So in a quest for tangible results, Amy, an English teacher at Willamina High School, decided to use her summer break to prepare the couple’s Dallas, Oregon home as they embarked on a yearlong vacation from garbage. Their goal, simply put: to generate no more than a single bag of garbage in a year’s time.
Their initiative, dubbed the Green Garbage Project, has garnered attention worldwide, primarily through their Web site and blog, online at www.greengarbageproject.com. The site generates roughly 500 to 1,000 hits weekly, she said. Adam and Amy have also appeared on KGW and KOIN locally, as well as CNN; they have shared their story with both the Statesman-Journal as well as The Guardian in London.
They share their daily lives online through their Web site, but they are looking for more than just attention. Both Amy and Adam spend a lot of time researching garbage and recycling information.
“If it was a stunt, I wouldn’t be doing as much research,” Amy said.
Instead of disposal, they have committed to reduce, reuse and recycle at all costs. But they have also made several changes to their behaviors and consumer choices in order to keep garbage-free.
They don’t buy anything in packaging that cannot be recycled, and they use reusable bags at the grocery store. They patronize second-hand stores as well as stores that offer natural products or those made or grown locally. They’ve started a compost bin as well as a garden, and they have learned to make their own products such as soap, cheese, butter, granola and bread.
One of the biggest challenges to living garbage-free has been in the bathroom, Amy said, especially with medications, which generally come in plastic bottles with plastic tamper-proof seals, or in single-use packaging. Few legitimate pharmacies offer medications in bulk; this is one area in which they’ve had to cede ground.
Restaurants have also been difficult. Both Amy and Adam try to avoid paper napkins, food wrappers, straws and the like, but it is so prevalent in the food service industry that sometimes their only option is to take the offending refuse home to sort out later.
In contrast, one of the easiest changes to make has been food, especially rejecting freezer goods in their non-recyclable wax-coated cardboard packaging.
“I love to cook, and I love to eat,” Adam said. “I was afraid I’d have to give up all sorts of products, but we really haven’t.”
Through their project, the Korsts have also discovered something else first-hand: how changes in communication have greatly improved their ability to make a difference. Through the rise of the internet, blogs and social media like Twitter and Facebook, average people can reach more people worldwide than ever before.
And activists don’t need a lot of resources or equipment to make a bold statement. From filmmaker Morgan Spurlock eating McDonald’s food to blogger Julie Powell cooking Julia Child recipes and author Barbara Kingsolver living a year eating only locally produced food, people like the Korsts who are willing to spend a period of time immersing themselves in a social issue have found a receptive mass audience in both bookstores and theaters.
The Korsts are currently working on their own book proposal, Amy said.
They can’t impact larger issues like manufacturing waste or global warming by themselves, she said. However, they can encourage others to create less garbage by their own example.
Friends and family have been mostly enthusiastic and supportive, she said, but they hope their influence spreads farther.
“I’m hoping we’re maybe helping some people around the country – around the world – think about their garbage,” she said.
A worrier by nature, striving to live trash-free has made her even more anxious about how she may be impacting the environment, Amy said. However, she has also had to learn to let go.
It’s a typical misconception that in order to be an environmentalist, you have to give up everything that you love, she said.
“I want people to feel like they can do something for the environment and not lose their creature comforts, and live a completely normal life.”
Living trashless can be a completely normal existence, Adam said.
“I know that not everybody believes us, but it’s not a hard change for us to make.”
The project ends July 6. But in one distinct way, according to Adam, it will go on long afterward.
“We’re never ever going to produce the amount of garbage we used to.”