This morning I left a book called Greenopia on one of the tables at my local coffee shop, in the hope that it might help one more person in Los Angeles live more sustainably. I thought about how I try to make a difference in my own life and started wondering if it helps at all. The result was a little poem – a bit of a Seussian eco-rant!
Today, I did something that many parents might find heartless a few days into summer vacation – I dragged our son Theo back into school and into the principal’s office. And he hadn’t even done anything wrong. The reason for this act of cruelty was that I wanted to give his principal, Ms. Rescia, a gift to thank her for several things this last year, including helping us work with Theo during a particularly difficult year. He had begun the year feeling insecure socially and academically, and although he soon formed some solid friendships, his struggle with the dreaded math continued for the whole school year. I visited Ms. Rescia on a couple of occasions to discuss my concerns with her. She listened patiently and offered advice based on years working with young children and observing the many different ways in which they learn. Just spending time with her gave me perspective and some tools for David and me to work with.
I am also grateful to Ms. Rescia for going beyond being a regular principal and being so positive about the Green Dragons Recycling Program at school. Thanks to her, recycling has really become an integral part of the kids’ school experience. Although they don’t always recycle their lunch trash, they know they should, which is a step in the right direction. At lunchtimes, Ms. Rescia not only helps sort trash and teaches the kids how to do it and why it’s important, but she incorporates the program into the school’s “community service.” Kids who need a bit of disciplining during lunchtime have to come and help at the Green Dragons station instead of playing in the yard. It teaches them about work and responsibility and helping their community, and some of them discover they actually enjoy it. So, today, my gift to Ms. Rescia had a greenish theme – some flowers in a rustic-looking ceramic vase I had actually hand built a couple of years ago (which could pass for one of Theo’s creations, actually!). She was very gracious about the gift and we all wished each other a good summer vacation and a strong start to the next year, which we all know will come too soon…
“Keep up your enthusiasm! There is nothing more contagious than exuberant enthusiasm.” Harry Houdini, the famous magician and escape artist and one of the world’s most captivating performers, apparently offered these words of advice to aspiring young magicians. I have always believed in the power of enthusiasm. We have all experienced the agony of sitting in a classroom trying to learn from a teacher who has lost all interest in his or her subject. Equally we have all, hopefully, had the opposite experience of being taught by someone overflowing with enthusiasm for what they are teaching. Even though we may not have been interested in their subject before the class, it is hard not to be swept up and carried away by the end of class. Over the years, I have always believed that if you want to achieve anything in life, if you put in the effort and are enthusiastic (and also have a decent amount of luck), you will succeed. I have specialized in Asian art history, a field that is considered esoteric or obscure by many, for over 20 years now, and when I give a lecture, curate and exhibition or write a book or article, the biggest compliment I can receive from someone is that my enthusiasm for the subject got them excited about it too. Just as I caught the bug from others in the past, I hope that I too have infected a lot of people over the years and increased general interest in my professional passion.
My other main passion in life these days is reducing waste, something that is not as appealing to most people as art might be. Yet, I feel strongly about minimizing trash and spend a lot of time and energy trying to encourage others to do so too in my monthly Keen to be Green column in our local paper, in programs I have run in the past at the library, and with the lunch waste recycling program I helped set up at my son’s school. I have been in charge of the school’s Green Dragons program for the last 5 years now. I don’t do much these days, but I do go in once a week to help the kids sort their trash into “trash” and “recyclables.” At the start of this year, I have to admit that my enthusiasm was waning, especially when I saw some of the older kids, who know what to do, just dump all their waste without bothering to sort it. However, there was one kid at the start of this school year who re-ignited my enthusiasm – a bouncy little 1st-grader called August, who was so excited about recycling that he would literally jump up and down and sing while he was helping his classmates to recycle. His favorite song seemed to be the Banana Song, sung whenever someone left a banana on the share table. His excitement spread to his classmates, who also signed up in surprising numbers to help with Green Dragons, and partway through the year, his mom even volunteered to come in once a week as a parent Green Dragon. Now, as the year passed, many of these eager 1st graders, August included, chose to spend their lunch break playing in the yard rather than recycling lunch trash – which I truly understand. But today I decided to give August a pin with a recycling symbol on it because, it was in part his enthusiasm for recycling at the start of the year that got me excited again about working with the kids and helping them to recycle their waste. Of all the infections that I have caught from kids in the last year (and there certainly have been a couple!), this was certainly the happiest.
Recently, I have been getting better at giving things away earlier in the day so that I don’t have to panic around dinnertime or later still. Today, even after dinner, I hadn’t figured out my gift for the day. I wasn’t too worried, though, because I thought I could do some more guerilla giving when I went out on my evening walk. But after dinner, I had to help my son Theo with his math homework, and I had promised to watch the last episode of the season of his favorite tv show, The Flash. So by the time I was free to go for a walk it was dark outside – not ideal for walking alone, let alone leaving gifts on benches. It was my husband David’s turn to read with Theo, so I kissed Theo goodnight and I decided to step out into the darkness of the evening to find some inspiration.
It was a mild night and everything seemed very still and quiet. I stood outside our front door gazing hopefully down the length of our street. No neighbors’ cars were pulling into their driveways. There weren’t even any cats trotting across the road. Nothing moved. Lining the street were parked cars and rows of trashcans standing against the curbs waiting for pick up tomorrow morning. Then a figure appeared at the end of the road, a man holding a plastic bag full of something. He approached the first set of trashcans, opened the lid and rummaged for a minute or two, pulling out something and putting it in his bag. He replaced the lid and walked up the street in my direction stopping at every blue bin and rummaging in it looking for recyclables – bottles or cans that can be redeemed for 5 cents apiece. I have long had mixed feelings about the people who go through our blue bins and remove recyclables. Technically it’s against the law, as it deprives the City of revenue from recycling – those 5 cents can add up. However, I also know from personal experience how unpleasant it is to collect bottles and cans, take them to the recycling center and sort them into the correct bins, only to be paid $10.72 for two hours of effort. If people need the money that badly, how can I object to this practice?
This evening, I noticed the man on our street seemed to be having hard time seeing what he was doing and I worried about him cutting himself on any broken glass that might be buried in the trashcans. Suddenly I knew what I needed to give. I quietly opened the front door, tiptoed into the kitchen and found an extra flashlight. I checked that the batteries worked and then headed outside with it. As I descended the steps, I suddenly felt anxious about approaching a strange man in the dark and offering him a flashlight. But as I got closer, I could see he had a flashlight in his hand that was barely working. I called out, “Excuse me. Would you like a flashlight?” He turned too look at me, surprised at first. I could see he was actually quite a young man, cleanly shaved and bright eyed. As soon as he realized I was offering him something, he smiled. I handed him the flashlight and he said thank you, explaining that his was out of batteries. Then he offered me his in exchange. I said I was ok, smiled back to him and told him to take care. As I climbed the steps back up to our front door and the comfort of our home, I realized that the young man had only collected a small amount of recyclables in his bag. He had a long night of work ahead of him.
In my attempt to reduce what I call eco-clutter, I have been training myself to reduce my intake of plastic and paper containers, but there are a few other assorted items I still have difficulty throwing away. For example, corks from wine bottles. I know they won’t be recycled in the blue bin, so I keep them – in one of those plastic containers I had trouble tossing – for months, thinking that I’ll find some clever use for them or transform them into a magnificent art project. Actually, one afternoon last year my son Theo and I did while away an hour or two making little characters out of sparkling wine corks, which have little heads, painting them and giving them clothes and faces. Theo’s made Corkemon (after Pokemon) and I made a Korkeshi (after Japanese Kokeshi dolls). We had a blast that day, but I know that moment will never be repeated. So, what to do with the 30 odd corks I have stashed in one of our kitchen cupboards?
Today, instead of googling “art projects using corks,” I looked up “donate corks” and was relieved to discover that there are a couple of organizations now recycling millions of wine bottle corks each year. Since 2010, Whole Foods has also been working with Cork ReHarvest, one of the pioneers of cork recycling in the U.S. and Canada, collecting used corks and pulping them so that they can be used to make cork tiles and other post-consumer products (www.corkforest.org). In 2012, Bevmo also started recycling corks with another company, ReCORK (www.recork.org). As I searched for a home for my corks, I was fascinated to learn about how corks are actually made. They are harvested from the bark of Cork Oaks or Quercus suber, mainly in southwest Europe, especially Portugal and Spain, and northwest Africa. Once the trees are about 25 years old the cork is traditionally stripped from the trunks every nine years, with the first two harvests generally producing lower quality cork. The trees live for about 300 years, so each tree can provide multiple harvests of cork without any damage to the trees. Although the cork harvesting is sustainable and the forests help prevent the desertification of these warmer regions, there is increased pressure on these forests as more and more people around the world consume wine – apparently about 20 billion bottles a year! As I made my way home from Whole Foods, I no longer felt silly about hoarding those corks, but I was glad to get rid of them knowing that by recycling them, we can help the cork oak growers keep up with the human race’s love of wine.
Every Thursday lunchtime, I volunteer at my son Theo’s school helping the kids sort their lunch trash. In Theo’s first year at the school, I was part of a local environmental group. For Earth Day in 2010, we launched a volunteer program at the school to help reduce the waste created at lunch times from a whopping 168lbs a day by sorting lunch waste into recyclables, landfill trash and liquids. The school’s mascot is the dragon, so we called our new recycling group the Green Dragons and we have a sorting station near the lunch tables where kids can volunteer as Green Dragons and help other kids to recycle. Early on, we estimated that we were able to cut the volume of waste down to about 60lbs, but more importantly, with this system in place at the school, the kids are now used to the idea that it’s good to recycle. Not all of them bother, but that’s fairly reflective of society as a whole.
Green Dragon Mascot drawn by Theo
As the parent who runs the Green Dragons, I am responsible for recruiting other parents to volunteer at the trash sorting station – not the most glamorous job at the school, as it often requires digging plastic bottles and other recyclables out of the trash cans and rinsing out hummus and yoghurt containers. Hey, as Kermit the Frog would say, it it’s not always easy being green. However, I do actually enjoy getting grubby with the kids, seeing know how kids other than my own behave and interact. And, when I’m there, I also get to work with Edwin. Edwin is the school’s plant manager. He worked at the school years ago, but had lost his position because of a short-sighted cost-saving move on the part of the school district. I remember hearing of the legendary Edwin when we first started at the school, but didn’t meet him until a couple of years ago when he was given back his position, much to the delight of the school staff and students.
Edwin is no ordinary plant manager. As well as looking after the facility, he also looks after the kids. He knows all of their names and engages with each one of them as they come running up to the table to leave an apple they don’t want on the share table, or to throw some plastic wrappers into the trash. Even if the kids have been sent to help with trash as a sort of punishment for some schoolyard misdeed, Edwin makes Green Dragon “community service” fun. He chats with them, teasing the cheeky ones and keeping the rambunctious ones in line. I even enjoy being a Green Dragon more because of his cheerful personality and the easy manner he has with kids. The other week I found out that Edwin loves to draw. I had a notebook with the title “Gratitude” on the cover and some related quotations peppered throughout it, perhaps something he can use for sketching figures when he has a free moment. I didn’t realize till later that the notebook was also green, the color that caused us to meet. I certainly feel grateful towards Edwin for making it easier and more enjoyable trying to be green.
Today, I gave away an old telephone answering machine. It was our answerphone before the fire, and it had an adorable message of the three of us answering the phone, a very young Theo shouting his name at the end with great gusto. We had replaced our phones and answerphone after the fire because any electrical items that were plugged in during the fire were considered potentially unsafe. We had held onto this machine for purely sentimental reasons, but today, I made a copy of the message with my cell phone and parted with the old device. Who would want a smoky old answerphone, you may well ask? Well, no one really. I gave it away today as part of an e-waste electronics recycling event I organized at our son’s school with a remarkable local company called Isidore Recycling (http://www.isidorerecycling.com/). The company is based in Los Angeles and collects tons of computers, cell phones and other e-waste from organizations and individuals each year.
Kabira Stokes, who founded the company in 2011, believes recycling is related to the idea of value. Typically, we keep things we value and discard those we don’t. This concept applies to the way we treat people too. Currently in the United States, just as our landfills are overflowing with trash, our prisons are full to bursting with people that society has effectively given up on. Stokes hires the formerly incarcerated and trains them in computer repair. They repair about 10% of the electronics, wiping them clean of data and bugs and re-selling them online, giving them a second life. The 90% that are beyond repair are broken down into various parts that are sold to recyclers. Stokes believes in second chances. When I interviewed her recently for the local paper, she explained, “Our vision is to create a world in which resources, both human and natural are valued and not wasted.” Currently the company employs 6 formerly incarcerated staff members, who are thankful to be employed, treated with respect and given a second chance too. I had the pleasure of working with two of these warm, friendly and highly professional men this morning at the e-waste event, and I now believe more strongly than ever in the value of all of our precious resources, human, natural and man-made.