The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

May 13, 2009

Guest Post – Waste is a Luxury

The following is a guest post from Fake Plastic Fish reader Laura Zilverberg, who responded immediately to my request this week for new voices on Fake Plastic Fish. Enjoy her powerful post comparing her experience of waste in Mexico vs. the United States.

Hello Fake Plastic Fish Readers,

I am a 23-year-old resident of Phoenix, Arizona. I am originally from Minnesota and moved out here for the weather college. I wanted to be a broadcast major, but decided very quickly that the industry wasn’t for me. Instead I majored in public relations and am finishing up my certification in nonprofit management. I spent 2008 volunteering at Nuestros Pequeà±os Hermanos Mexico (NPH): a home for about 1,000 orphaned, abandoned and disadvantaged children. I was one of three primary caretakers for 29 girls in their 2nd year of secondary school, in other words, teenagers.

About the same time I discovered Fake Plastic Fish and realized the need to reduce my own use of plastic. I worked at it as best as I could and didn’t find it too difficult since at NPH we grew most of our own fruits and veggies, corn (for tortillas), raised our own chickens (for eggs and meat) and raised our own goats and pigs. Individually wrapped treats were just that, a treat to be enjoyed once in a while. When I did cook, my food was picked up from the kitchen or purchased package free from the market in town. We even purified our own water without chlorine. When I went out, I could drink soda or beer in a returnable/reusable glass bottle. I survived hotter and more humid weather than Phoenix without air conditioning.

Upon moving back I assumed I would continue my plastic free lifestyle with ease, but I soon discovered it was not so simple. Despite “green” being everywhere, I have found living plastic free to be incredibly difficult. Inspired by Beth, I tracked my own plastic consumption for one month. I generated more than 75 items (about half of what Beth generated in all of 2009). Some of it was because I was using up old items such as soap. Some was inadvertent, like when I forgot to ask for no straw at a restaurant or when my friends left their half full drink mixes in my fridge. Some was unavoidable like a disposable racing chip (what happened to reusable chips?) or plastic tags on my otherwise plastic free produce. Some was deliberate waste like cheese wrappers.

It was frustrating. I was living in a place where it was difficult to reduce your plastic because bulk bins were scarce and because people couldn’t understand why I would want to bring my own container for meat. It was even more frustrating because it was coupled with reverse culture shock. I was moving back into the U.S. culture and everyone around me expected me to be the same person I was before I left. But, I was different. Now, I see the world differently. It is painful to see waste and not just because it is tragic for the environment, but because waste is a luxury. Wasting food is a luxury the kids I worked with don’t have. Throwing away old clothes is a luxury. Buying a soda and only drinking half and then throwing the rest away is a luxury. I watched children buy a bottle of soda and share that one bottle with all their friends because it was a special treat.

While I am still adjusting, it is getting easier. I am learning that I don’t need to be perfect, that just doing something is enough. I am learning that I can’t expect everyone to care as much as I do, but that they do care in their own way. And I am learning more ways to limit my plastic consumption. And I am hopeful that maybe soon, if enough people start to care, waste will bother everyone.

If you’d like to take a turn guest blogging, please contact me. It’s great to hear different points of view.

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Christy at frugalcrunchychristy
14 years ago

What a wonderful post. The phrase “luxury of waste” certainly hits a nerve.

14 years ago

No such thing as a meat eating environmentalist. Stop fretting over a left over straw when you are supporting one of the leading causes of global warming and a HUGE contributor to the environmental crisis. seriously!

Maureen, OH

14 years ago

Hi Laura, This isn’t what your post is about at all, but I thought of it while I was reading about your work in Mexico and waste being a luxury. I lived for four years in a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago (I was also volunteering, but in the states).

Every spring, there would be (paradoxically in my Mexican neighborhood) an Italian Festival. Hundreds of people would spill into the streets, eating takeaway food and drinking merrily and riding rides and listening to music. Out front of my house was a very large, waist-high flower barrel, with plants in it.

The other volunteers and I sat on the stoop of our house one night, watching the festival, and marveling at how many white American people threw garbage in our flower barrel (thinking it was a garbage can). Some would even realize what they had done, and look for a moment like, Oops, crap! but then walk on their way, because there was already so much other garbage piled in there, so really, there was no point in correcting their mistake.

The funny (interesting) thing was that when Mexican people (our neighborhood was predominantly Mexican, and typically first or second generation immigrants) threw garbage into our flower barrel, they would immediately pull it back out, even with all the other garbage already in there. They acted reflexively, and consistently.

I’m sure this story has a moral, but I’ve never quite figured out what it is–something about our American values, and the perceived futility of picking up after ourselves… or something :) who knows? I just always thought it was a kind of funny story. Although, of course, at the time I was peeved that people kept throwing garbage on my plants.

But keep up the good work. And Beth, thanks for hosting guest blogs — this one has certainly set the bar high!

Katie Fiorella
14 years ago

This is a great post!

I recently wrote about some ideas that are a bit related — check it out at

I look forward to following your future posts and I hope you’ll check out mine as well!

All the best!

14 years ago

You are so right about the luxury of waste. I spent a week at a camp in Mexico, and the kitchen workers would take the leftover food from the serving trays home with them. It was a major perk of the job. You had better believe we didn’t leave food on our plates – how insulting would that be for them?

Now that I have a preschooler the waste drives me crazy. My 4-year-old will grab the end of the toilet paper and run around the house. For her, it’s fun. Which I can understand, if I were 4 I’d probably also like streaming paper down the stairs. But I just see all the toilet paper that’s being rendered unusable. It’s a work in progress for us. Baby steps, right?

Lisa Sharp
14 years ago

Wow Laura that is a wonderful post!

I have never thought of it like that.

14 years ago

Laura, fantastic post. Thanks so much for sharing!!

Waste is a luxury … it’s also embedded into our culture. It shouldn’t be so hard to live sustainably. It’s difficult because our society isn’t built for sustainability any more. Which sucks. But hopefully we can re-weave sustainable practices back into the fabric of our society.

14 years ago

I recently helped a friend clear out her deceased mother’s house (and her own childhood home) to prepare for an estate sale. It made me realize that even the things we most treasure ourselves end up as waste – even to those closest to us.

Of course waste is unavoidable and life would be pretty dull if we limited ourselves to only what we need, but a good thought to keep in mind when buying anything, plastic or otherwise, is whether or not it will be used over a period of time; whether it has long term value. If not, try for something that can be used long-term.

And your comments about experience in a foreign country are so true. It’s a good reason for study abroad. I don’t know anyone who has come back from such a trip without being shocked at how they had taken our lifestyle as normal because they had no basis for comparison.

Over Coffee - the green edition
14 years ago

What a great guest post! I definitely agree that “Waste is a luxury”. The one bright spot in the down turn of the economy is that people are fixing and reusing and reducing way more than they use too. Thanks for sharing Laura.

P.S. I would love it if you considered doing a guest post on my blog.

14 years ago

In the beginning chapters of, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ the narrator talks about what it meant to waste in a time when things were scarce, it meant exactly luxury. She wanted to throw things away just to have that feeling like, it didn’t matter, that they had more than enough. When I read those words, those thoughts of an innocent young person, I was moved. Isn’t that strange? Wasting is an absolute luxury and is an absolute shame.

14 years ago

I agree that it is harder in different parts of the world to be “green.” My family has moved a lot because my husband is in the military. Laura, you have hit the nail on the head for me in saying that you are “learning that I can’t expect everyone to care as much as I do, but that they do care in their own way.” I think that is one area I have a big problem with. I am trying so hard at my house and feel so alone at times. For instance, my husband and kids come home from stores with loads of plastic bags and throw them in the trash (when we keep around 20 reusable cloth bags in our car). I usually dig them out and take them back to the recycle bin at the grocery store or Wal-mart when I find them. I’ve just got to remember that I can only do what I can do; everyone else has to do it for themselves – even family.

14 years ago

Great post. You’re right, waste is a luxury.

14 years ago

I have left this comment at different sites and am yet to have a response so I am hoping to hear from you. First off the discovery of this “Plastic Island” as some call it, as horrific and shocking as it surly is, well, doesn’t it just join the club of ever growing problems the earth is forced to deal with? Let’s see, were melting the poles, frying the air, running the animal life to extension, fishing the oceans dry and growing the deserts, let’s just stop there for time’s sake. Now, the different elected politicals (I’m in the US) can’t stand to be in the same room long enough to agree on who’s willing to set next to who, much less address any of the above without nit picking it to the level of uselessness. So just exactly what options does that leave us in REALITY. Yes, I’ve stopped using plastic bags but not plastic house siding, car parts, lawn furniture; let’s just do that, “stopping again for time sake” thing. Now all optimistic types say, “We shall rally together and save the earth as evidenced by”. Yes, just what historical proof is there to use as evidence of a time the earth rallied as one to save the earth. Hitler? Maybe. But the problem I have with using Hitler is that he was unabashedly announcing that world domination was his aim. Now, some sites I’ve visited call the plastic swirl just more hype, they don’t even think it exists, so how can we really expect these and other types with other agendas to be on board to rally? Now that I’ve told you what’s swirling around in my mind let me get to my initial question. There was a SiFi movie out just a couple of months ago with Keanu Reeves. I’m sure you know the premise, If you continue earth dies and you die. However, if you die the earth lives. Now bible people come to your door and show a scriptures that say something quite similar. It’s in the last book of the bible and says, God will bring to ruin those ruining the earth. That of course carries the same connotation, the earth being saved “from” people. What do you think about that? It actually sounds more realistic to me then any other option I have seen. And one final thought. I did read one woman’s comment that really drove it home for me. She said, “If the plastic swirl was a swirl of Cod they’d figure out how to fish it dry in no time, so let them do the same with the plastic.” Well, you could feed a Texas size swirl of Cod fish to the starving in Africa (if you could get it past the Black Market of course) but where are you going to put the plastic swirl the size of Texas if you do fish it out? There are sites discussing that too. Burry it in the Arctic, shoot it into outer space, let’s just do that, “stopping again for time sake” thing one final time.

Yes, I would appreciate an answer

14 years ago

What a great post! Can you imagine if all 23 year olds could make this lifestyle shift toward less plastic and less consumption? What a difference we could make. I think that everyone should experience something like what Laura did in Mexico, gain a little perspective.

14 years ago

“Buying a soda and only drinking half and then throwing the rest away is a luxury. I watched children buy a bottle of soda and share that one bottle with all their friends because it was a special treat.”

I teared up a little when I read these sentences. This excerpt speaks not only to waste but also to poverty and to the “luxury of waste” we experience in the U.S. What a great article! I’m always encouraged by Fake Plastic Fish to stand out in the crowd and wave my To-Go Ware proudly!