Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are

Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are

by Robert M. Lilienfeld, William L. Rathje

Q: What do all of the previous civilizations that practiced recycling have in common?
A: They're extinct.

Let's face it. Recycling has its limits. But so does our Earth. As environmentalists Robert Lilienfeld and William Rathje explain, the answer to our twenty-first century garbage crisis is both simple and practical—use less stuff. This


Q: What do all of the previous civilizations that practiced recycling have in common?
A: They're extinct.

Let's face it. Recycling has its limits. But so does our Earth. As environmentalists Robert Lilienfeld and William Rathje explain, the answer to our twenty-first century garbage crisis is both simple and practical—use less stuff. This groundbreaking consumer guide suggests helpful money- and energy-saving tips for everyone who cares about how we live today and tomorrow. Learn to reduce and reuse with creative suggestions for all areas of your life, including:

  • At home: Turn down the heat before guests arrive for a party—the extra body heat will warm up the room
  • During the holidays: Save gift boxes to use the following year
  • At the store: Buy products that come in concentrated formats—like juice and detergent
  • At the office: Donate or sell old office equipment
  • At school: Post announcements on a school Web site
  • In the great outdoors: Bring magic markers to your picnic so guests can label their cups and plates

And many more!

Start a war on waste and help save the planet!

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.54(w) x 8.23(h) x 0.54(d)

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt title: THE HOLIDAYS

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away
to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
a fake white beard
went around...
bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue...

--Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "Christ Climbed Down"

Every year, between Thanksgiving and New Year's, the amount of trash we
create increases by roughly 25 percent beyond what we normally discard
during the rest of the year. This translates to an extra 5 million tons,
or 10 billion pounds, of waste caused by our holiday eating, drinking, and
gift giving habits. Don't get us wrong--we're very much in favor of warm
and wonderful holidays. But we're also in favor of finding a few little
things to do that will really reduce the environmental impact of Turkey
Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year's Day--and, of course, the

It's not hard to keep the holidays from going to your waste. And it's
profitable, too. Looking down our list, pick a few of the things that make
the most sense for you and your family. Once you get in the swing of
things, you can try a few more ideas. Next thing you know, you'll be
whistling "Green Christmas" as you enjoy the yearly festivities.

Portion Control

You've just finished your Thanksgiving dinner and left about a tablespoon
of cranberry sauce on your plate and one little bite of turkey. Not much
waste, right? Maybe not on your plate. But assuming we're alike, on our
collective national plate it's an enormous waste--around 25 million pounds!

This exampleillustrates one of our biggest themes: a little bit of effort
from each of us can make an enormous difference. We can't rely on a few
stalwarts to do all the work. If each of us pitches in just a little, the
results can be amazing.

Besides taking only as much food as you can eat, it's also a good idea for
hosts and hostesses both to serve a little less, and maybe prepare a little
less as well. Here are some portion guidelines to help you plan for meals
and parties:

Portion Control, Holiday Style:
(amount served per person)

        Eggnog 1/2 cup
        Cheese 2 oz.
        Crackers 1-10
        Celery 1 stalk
        Turkey 1/2 lb. raw
        Ham, roast beef 1/3 lb.
        Squash, sweet potatoes 1/2 lb.
        Broccoli, potatoes 1/3 lb.
        Pie 1/8 pie


If buying a lot of soda, cut down on packaging by purchasing large-size
bottles. If you insist on buying cans, forgo the cardboard boxes: they
create over 90 percent more waste than the plastic rings.

Bread and cereal bags can be reused to store food and other items.

Send guests home with leftovers. Use paper and plastic bags and plastic
containers. (This is a great way to get rid of all your excess bags and
containers, as well as excess food.)

Buy potatoes and onions in plastic mesh bags. When tied in a big knot, the
bags make terrific, long-lasting scouring pads.

Shopping and Gift Giving

Prepare a list of items ahead of time, so that you do less impulse

Plan trips in advance and consolidate so that you make fewer of them.
Spending fewer hours driving to malls, shopping centers, and the post
office means less wasted gas, time, and far less stress. If we each saved
one gallon of gas, the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that would
be prevented would total about 1 million tons.

Shop early, while you have time to make careful choices. Last-minute
spending often leads to panic buying, which leads to unwanted gifts. In
fact, it's estimated that about $4 billion worth of unwanted and unused
gifts are purchased each year.

Keep it simple--less can be more. One thoughtful gift may be more
appreciated than six random items.

Shop at antique stores, holiday bazaars, and thrift shops. Someone's trash
may very well be someone else's treasure.

Try shopping from home electronically. Use the phone, Internet, or TV to
select, order, and send gifts.

Consolidate purchases into one bag. Better yet, bring along a few bags
from home and reuse them.

Give gifts of yourself. Offer to baby-sit, wash the car, do the dishes,
and other useful things.

Make your own gifts. For example, you can make wreaths out of natural
materials such as branches, dried herbs, and red and green chilies. Wreath
making is a great craft project for both children and adults.

Old items can make new gifts. How about using your creativity and your
time to create a gift that will never be forgotten--or thrown out! A worn
ironing board cover can be turned into new potholders and oven mitts.
Empty lipstick cases make pretty, easy-to-find pillboxes. Used-up roll-on
deodorant bottles can be refilled with poster paints for budding Picassos.
And old clothes, drapes, and tablecloths can be used to make new doll
clothes. Just use your imagination! In fact, create something full of
yourself, such as a drawing or song, a poem, or a written remembrance of a
special time. These are treasures for the recipient and for you--forever.

Since lots of toys need batteries, why not give rechargeable ones as a gift
as well?

Donate unwanted gifts to charities, shelters, and the like.

Gift Wrap

Because it's coated, laminated, and embossed, gift wrap is not recyclable.
Rather than buy it, why not use colorful, easily recycled paper you already
have around the house, like the Sunday comics or an old subway map? Also,
kids can use crayons or water-based paints to decorate paper bags for use
as gift wrap--the kind parents and grandparents will cherish and want to
keep, and maybe even frame.

Save fancier bags you received while shopping. Use them as gift bags or
cut them up to make gift wrap.

Break down gift boxes and store them for next year. Those tins you've been
saving in the pantry would make good boxes, too.

Reuse ribbon. If every family reused 2 feet of holiday ribbon, 38,000
miles' worth would be saved each year. That's enough to wrap a bow around
the entire planet! (Don't forget that reusing ribbon also reduces the
number of empty spools that have to be thrown away, too.)

Give gifts that don't need to be wrapped: tickets to concerts, museums, or
sporting events; gift certificates; savings bonds; or donations to a
favorite charity.

Rather than wrap oversize gifts, put a bow on them and hide them instead.
Give the recipient clues to where the gift is hidden, turning the
experience into a treasure hunt.

Make the wrap a useful part of the gift. Put cookies in a flowerpot or
wrap a kitchen item in a colorful holiday-theme dish towel.


Reuse packaging cartons and shipping materials. Old newspaper also makes
for excellent packing. Bring home shredded paper from work and use that,

Drop off extra packaging materials such as peanuts and bubble wrap at local
private mailing centers (e.g., Mail Boxes Etc.). Call the Plastic
Loosefill Council (800-828-2214) for the names of local businesses that
reuse them.

Paper grocery bags can be used to wrap and address small- to medium-size
parcels for mailing.

Catalog Clutter and Junk Mail

In 1981, the typical family received 59 catalogs. By 1991, the number had
jumped to 142. We don't know what it is today, but it's probably over 200.
Here are a few strategies for eliminating much of the unwanted mail we
receive virtually every day:

Call the 800 numbers printed on unwanted catalogs and ask to be removed
from the list. Canceling ten catalogs will reduce your trash by 3.5 pounds
per year (and make your postal carrier very happy!). If we all did this,
the stack of canceled catalogs would be 2,000 miles high.

If you want to receive a catalog but think you're getting it too often,
call and ask if they have a less frequent schedule. Many of the big
national mailers, including Eddie Bauer, will change your schedule if you

Reduce junk mail by calling the Mail Preference Service at (212) 768-7277
and ask for their free mail-reduction kit. Or you can write them at P.O.
Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008.

Another, newer option is to write and ask to be removed from all of the
direct marketing lists compiled by major credit bureaus. The "Big 3" are
as follows:

        Experian, P.O. Box 919, Allen, TX 75013, (800) 353-0809
        Equifax Union/Opt-Out Options, P.O. Box 740123, Atlanta, GA 30374, (800) 755-3502

        Trans Transmark Inc., 555 W. Adams St., Chicago, IL 60661, (800) 345-2349

If reducing unwanted mail is your thing, get a copy of Stop Junk Mail
Forever. It's $3.95 and available from Good Advice Press, Box 78,
Elizaville, NY 12523. Or call (914) 758-1400.


Each year, we send enough cards to fill a ten-story building the length and
width of a football field. If we each sent just one fewer card, the volume
of trash would be reduced by one full story, or 450,000 cubic feet. Here's
what to do:

Be selective when you send cards. If you haven't heard from someone in a
few years, don't send them a card. You'll save money and the resources and
energy involved in their manufacture and transport.

Send holiday postcards. Both postage and paper are reduced.

If you have leftover cards from years gone by that haven't been used, send
them to the new people on your list. They won't know the difference.

Cut off the front of cards you receive and reuse them as postcards, gift
cards, or ornaments. Recycle the rest, along with the envelopes.

Send the fronts of cards to St. Jude's Ranch for Children, and they'll be
recycled into new cards. The address is 100 St. Jude's St., Boulder City,
NV 89005-1618. You can also buy reused/recycled cards from them. Call
(800) 492-3562. A packet of ten cards costs $6.50.

Make sure you have addressed cards correctly and legibly. The post office
estimates that up to 20 percent of mail is incorrectly addressed, making it
undeliverable and thus completely wasted.

For business associates, e-mail or a phone call will often do. Hearing
from you via computer or phone can be just as personal or friendly as a
note in the mail.

Decking the Halls

You can make your home look festive and friendly without spending a fortune
or generating lots of waste. For example:

Buy a tree that can be planted or mulched. Artificial ones also reduce the
number of trees that need to be grown and harvested. (For reference, 50
million Christmas trees are purchased each year in the United States!)

Make your own wreaths and garlands, using dried flowers, branches, pine
cones, and the like. Much of this material is available for the taking,
right in your back yard.

Put all your Christmas lights on timers. You'll save energy and also make
your house seem lived in while you're away.

Buy strands of lights that are wired in parallel, rather than series. If
one bulb goes out, the others still work. This makes replacing bulbs much
easier and reduces the temptation to throw away "bad" strands. Hint:
Parallel strands are usually long and straight, with a plug at one end and
a receptacle at the other. Bulbs wired in series generally come in loops,
with only a plug.

Use smaller, lower wattage bulbs. They consume less electricity and give
off less heat--a definite safety plus around the tree.

When taking lights off the tree or house, keep them untangled by wrapping
them around some rolled-up newspaper. You can also use the cardboard core
from a roll of wrapping paper, keeping it out of the trash and extending
its useful life.

Party Time

Going to a party? Walk if it's close, or carpool with friends. If
bringing a "hostess gift," check to see if you already have a bottle of
wine on hand or box of candy that can be used for the occasion. (Just make
sure the party givers weren't the ones who gave the item to you!)

Giving a party? Turn the thermostat down before the guests arrive. Their
extra body heat will warm the room.

Send guests home with goody bags filled with leftovers.

Need formal wear? Consider renting, rather than buying, a gown or tuxedo.
If you feel the need to buy, try a thrift shop first. You'd be amazed at
the number of originally expensive dresses and suits that are hanging on
their racks.

Throw a White Elephant party at home, work, or church a few days after
Christmas. Ask friends and co-workers to bring in two unwanted items,
unwrapped. Then you can either draw numbers and pick gifts or auction the
items off, donating the money to a good cause. In either case, you'll be
amazed at how quickly all of these previously unwanted items find useful
lives in new homes.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

Hint to children: Don't put out too much food for Santa and his reindeer.
Maybe a cookie or two, or a few carrots. You might want to ask Mom or Dad
what each of them would eat late at night, and assume that Santa would want
the same.

Meet the Author

Robert Lilienfeld is editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a highly respected and widely read newsletter aimed at spreading the benefits of conservation and waste prevention.  He is also president of the Cygnus Group, an Ann Arbor-based consulting firm working with progressive businesses in the area of sustainable development, and serves as an Advisory Board member for the University of Michigan's Corporate Environmental Management Program (CEMP).  He is interviewed regularly on environmental issues by a wide variety of national, regional, and local media outlets, and has his own monthly commentary on public radio.

As a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and the founder/director of the Garbage Project, Dr. William Rathje is known as the nation's "garbologist"--the man who taught Americans about their consumption habits by rummaging through their garbage.  Dr. Rathje co-authored the bestseller Rubbish! with Atlantic Monthly editor Cullen Murphy.  He is also a regular contributor to The ULS Report and a variety of other publications.

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