Most writers will tell you that they research. This is obviously true of nonfiction writers, but it’s also true of novelists. For This Bright Beauty, I learned about bipolar disorder and being a twin. For another (unpublished) manuscript, I researched the opioid epidemic. My current work in progress centers around two women and their families who move to a rural community in Massachusetts. One of the families is living off the grid, in a house without electricity or running water and they’re working to be entirely self-sufficient and zero waste.
Last year my family started composting for the first time, and I began paying more attention to what went into my trash and recycling bins. I started buying a few items in glass rather than plastic, freezing leftover fruit rather than chucking it, and using paper sandwich bags, parchment or wax paper rather than plastic bags, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil. Last Christmas, as Amazon boxes with their excess of cardboard and plastic packaging were delivered to my door on a daily basis for the month of December, I felt a kind of sick guilt about how much ended up in my trash and recycling, not to mention the feeling that somehow, we’d lost sight of the meaning of the holiday.
All of this is to say that recently I’ve been thinking about my family’s carbon footprint. However, I also live on an island where many goods are either expensive or difficult to find, so I frequently shop online. I’ve become an Amazon Prime addict and impulse buyer, craving the one minute thrill of adding items to my cart and clicking buy before I can question whether I really need the item. Living on an island means I shop infrequently and regularly go to my local consignment store for new clothes. Yet when I go off-island, I become a frenzied maniac, stockpiling food from Trader Joe’s and hitting every TJ Max, Target, and Old Navy in sight, as if I live hundreds of miles from civilization rather than a 45 boat-ride from the mainland. When I get my coffee to go, I try to forgo the plastic straw and lid, but I often forget to bring my own mug. I rarely shop at farms, I don’t buy much organic, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I usually lean toward convenience and cost over what is quality or ethically prepared. I’m no prairie girl. Who am I to write about a family being self-sufficient?
The more I wrote, the more questions I had. How do you host a dinner party without using a single piece of plastic? How much time does it actually take to make from scratch all those items that are suddenly off limits because of the packaging? Can a milk carton be composted? What exactly happens to my recyclables? What steps would we need to take to minimize the amount of daily waste we created? How expensive would it be? How time consuming? I realized that in order to write authentically about my characters’ experience living zero waste, I needed to do some research. And some of that research needed to be more than what I could find in a book or online. Part of it needed to be first hand.
So, with the (mostly enthusiastic) support of my family, we decided to do our version of a zero-waste month. Unlike my characters, I’m not living without electricity or running water. We’re not using a compostable outhouse. I have no well from which to haul my water and no woodstove to use as an oven. I don’t even have a garden, other than the half-dead basil plant from Stop and Shop whose leaves have grown small and yellow. We’re attempting a very mild version of zero waste. More specifically, we’re attempting a month without (or with minimal) plastic. Difficult? Probably. Impossible? Stay tuned.