what our smelly little compost bin has taught me about hope

Where I live, waste management services not only take our recyclables and trash, they also take our food scraps to be composted. Composting is so important because it helps keep biodegradable waste out of landfills, thus not producing methane — the most potent greenhouse gas. {For more information on why this is so important, here is a helpful link.} Another amazing thing about composting is that it takes what was once “trash” and turns it into something useful — our banana peels and apple cores and egg shells eventually become nutritious fertilizer to help grow the next generation of plants, flowers and food.

However, in our apartment building, not many people compost. Here are the reasons the building manager gave: the little green bins get “stinky” {true — which is why you take them out often} and could potentially cause bug problems {not true in our experience}… also, that they are “a hassle.” But, when you think about it, pretty much everything that is good for you is a hassle! Brushing and flossing your teeth is a hassle. Cooking healthful meals is more of a hassle than the fast food drive-through. Going out of your way to help someone else is “a hassle.” All of these actions are more than worth it because they ultimately make our lives, our health, our communities and our world better.

Besides — especially when you live somewhere like we do where waste management services take care of dumping the big compost bins and carting the compost away every other week — composting is not that much of a hassle at all.

Still, something I have learned in life is that we can try our best to convince and persuade and motivate others, but when it comes down to it, we only truly have control over our own actions. Allyn and I cannot control whether the other people in our apartment complex care enough about the environment to compost their food scraps. But we can choose to compost our own food waste. We can choose to make grocery lists and buy less so food does not go bad wastefully. We can choose to buy food in bulk instead of in plastic containers. We can choose to carry our reusable bags to the grocery store. We can make small choices every day that reflect our values and make a tiny difference that, over time, adds up to big change.

*

When I was in high school during the second Bush presidency, one of my teachers was a Vietnam war veteran. He taught physics, but would occasionally go off on tangents about current events and politics. One day in particular, during the height of the Iraq War, he started ranting about the terrors of war. In a firm voice — the same tone he used to teach us the facts of the universe from our physics textbook — he predicted that there would once again be a draft and none of us would be able to get out of it. We would all go to war.

The fear in that room was palpable and contagious. One girl in the front row even started crying. She had a scholarship to play softball in college the next year, and by the end of class she was convinced that she wouldn’t be able to go to college because she would be drafted into the military. I remember comforting her in the hallway during passing period, my own fear a steady pressure in my chest. I don’t think our teacher meant any harm. I think he was dealing with his own worries and his own memories of war, and we were a captive audience. But I learned that day about the power fear has to take hold in you, and how quickly the flames can be fanned. The dark cloud of fear can eclipse your bright hopes for the future, unless you are vigilant and guard against it with the best resources you have. When the smoke of fear billows up in your life, you have two choices. You can use the fear around you to fan the flames of your own fear. Or you can choose to try your hardest to blow away the smoke with faith and patience and love and hope.

*

Many people in our nation — in our world — are hurting and scared. This is always the case, but it is especially true right now. Maybe you are hurting and scared. What can you do today to show yourself self-care and self-love? How can you be gentle with yourself? How can you choose love over fear today? And what is at least one way you can reach out and help someone else who needs it?

*

When I lived in Indiana during graduate school, composting was not the norm. Recycling was not very prominent, either. I still remember collecting all my bottles and cans that first month of living there, and searching online to realize there was no place to redeem them as there had been in my California hometown.

I have always cared about the environment. When I was a little girl, I used to daydream about planting trees along the grubby highways when we would drive to Los Angeles to visit relatives. It sickens and frightens me to think about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the decimation of rainforests, the looming extinction of many animal species, and our rising sea levels. And I do profoundly believe that the actions we take make a difference.

However, during this time I let myself sink into complacency. I did not make the effort to compost, or recycle as much as I could, or cut down on my plastic waste. I drifted along in the easy culture of consumption, letting myself forget that the trash I produced would actually GO somewhere — it didn’t magically disappear by a magic wand when the garbage collector took my trash bags away every other week. I didn’t take the time — didn’t go through the minor extra hassle — to truly ACT on my values. I let myself fall into the trap of believing that my small actions weren’t important “in the grand scheme of things” — that my actions, for some absurd reason, could be exempt from having consequences.

There was a lot going on in my life at that time, and I could make a lot of excuses for myself and my behavior. But I don’t want to. I feel sad that I let myself get carried away on the tide of apathy, but soon enough I found myself back on the shore. And, now more than ever, I know that I never want to be apathetic again. The thing about letting yourself “off the hook” — of choosing to look away, to not care, to pretend that you have no choice or power to change — is that it comes with a steep price. The guilt catches up to you.

*

Allyn very sweetly is the one who always takes our smelly compost bin out to the big green bins lined up by the parking lot and dumps our food scraps into the communal bin. When we first moved in ten months ago, he said there were hardly any other food scraps in there. Even worse, sometimes the big bins would be contaminated by trash or recycling.

But slowly, over time, a shift has happened. Allyn has started to notice the communal compost bins are fuller and fuller each week, and there is less and less contamination. Little by little, more people are beginning to compost their food scraps, even though it can be smelly, even though it can be a hassle. More and more people are beginning to care.

Every time I reach under the kitchen sink, lift open the lid of our compost bin, and dump in a banana peel or an apple core or an egg shell, I think about hope. I think about change. I think about beauty and love and selflessness. I think about doing whatever I can, in this singular life I have been given, to act on my values and do my part to make our precious world a better and brighter and more compassionate and inclusive place. Today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, and onward and onward, I will make choices. I will choose to try. I will choose to care. I will choose to fight for justice and goodness and love. It is all that I can do.

I hope you will join me.

3 thoughts on “what our smelly little compost bin has taught me about hope

  1. Thanks for writing this Dallas. The election has left me saddened and upset over the future over our country. I hold out hope though that we will get through these next 4 years and it will lead to a brighter future.

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