Trash the trash, save the planet


LOS ANGELES (JTA) —  My parents are dining at a Jewish federation event with some folks from their community. As happens on occasion when Jewish parents get together, the subject turns to the accomplishments of their children (shocking, right?).

Mr. Cohen offers up that his son is curing cancer. Mrs. Schwartz mentions that her daughter is working with Obama. Then my mom proudly declares, “My son didn’t throw anything away last year, instead keeping all of his garbage and recycling in his basement. And worms eat all of his food scraps!”

The table falls quiet as forks clink on gefilte fish plates and looks are traded. Someone coughs. A few moments pass and one mother leans in to another.

“They always seemed like such normal people,” she says. “Didn’t David go to yeshiva?”

And then I wake up.

Yes, I did in fact attend a yeshiva in my formative years. Yes, I did save all my trash and recycling in my basement last year, feeding food scraps and paper to my 10,000 worms. And yes, my mother is quite proud of my accomplishments, as is my dad.

It all began in October 2007 as I was talking with a friend about the idea of throwing things “away.” It occurred to us that we had no idea where “away” was and that every time our trash magically disappeared, it didn’t seem entirely responsible. We assumed that we were doing the right thing — environmentally, socially and ethically — but also understood what happens when you assume. You know, you make an a– … well, never mind.

I realized that the only way to really evaluate my waste footprint was to stop. Stop throwing things “away” and start looking at what I was actually leaving behind. I figured recycling, while better than trashing something, still uses resources, energy and creates waste, so I decided to stop recycling as well. Essentially I took a pledge to keep all of my trash and recycling for one solid year and see what happened. And that’s just what I did.

Now before you judge, hear me out. I’m not insane — not in the dictionary sense of the word anyway — and actually believe that despite what many may see as extreme, what I did made more sense than just going with the flow. My traditional upbringing, Jewish day school education and parental tutelage taught me to question things that didn’t make sense and fix the things that I could — tikkun olam and all that. Little did Rabbi Liff know when he was teaching me Bava Kama that he was actually preparing my mind to hoard stuff in my basement.

Our people should be the most ardent stewards of spaceship earth. Why? I could give you a thousand reasons, but need go no further than the concept of shmitta. Every seven years we are told to let the land rest and rejuvenate itself. Hands off, as it were. Is there a better indication that we are mere sojourners here and not owner-operators? As any renter knows, you mess up your place and you’re in trouble with the landlord. Well, it seems to me that we’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do right about now and better start cleaning up pretty darn quick.

Take the United States, for instance. The average American disposes of roughly 4.6 pounds of trash every day — more on Shabbat if you’re frum. That’s roughly 480 billion pounds for the entire country, give or take a billion. It’s insane, and I quickly recognized that I didn’t want to be part of the problem anymore. But before you can fix something, you need to understand it, so down in the basement everything went.

And what happened? My trash output dwindled to a mere half pound per month — 31.5 pounds in total. I learned to make simple choices and ended up not changing my lifestyle as much as my buying habits. My children learned that hand towels and paper go to the worms and that farmers are the people who make and sell your produce and eggs. My wife learned that she gets a new blender when I use hers to blend food scraps for the worms. And the more than quarter-million people who read my story became aware of a larger problem, many offering their own solutions as well as their advice.

So how about helping me turn the Chosen People back into the environmental stewards that we were intended to be. Stop drinking bottled water, get yourself a reusable coffee mug, drive less, think before you buy. There are a hundred different simple things we can all do on a daily basis to help ourselves, help the planet and, who knows, maybe even save a little time and money while we’re at it.

And for those of you who are having trouble with kicking your plastic bag habit, I’d ask you to consider this perspective: Circumcising your newborn son is tough; remembering to bring a shopping bag to Kosher Mart is not.

(Dave Chameides is an environmental educator, Emmy Award-winning director/cameraman, and the director of sustainability at the Shalhevet School in Los Angeles. More tips on sustainable living can be found at

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