One of my eleven-year-old’s tasks in the morning is to make his own breakfast. As a parent, handing your child responsibilities sometimes means allowing them to do things their way as we work towards the greater goal of independence. This morning, however, I couldn’t step back. After pouring his bowl of cereal, he removed the almost, not quite, empty carton of milk from the refrigerator and casually tossed it on the counter. When I strongly suggested that the first carton be emptied before the second carton opened, he shrugged his shoulders in his pre-teen sort of way, ignored my suggestion and went along his merry way. I decided this was a good time to talk about waste.
Ryan recited several reasons for this habit of leaving almost, not quite empty containers of food. “It’s been sitting there too long….it’s probably sour…there’s barely anything left anyway.”
I flashbacked to my own childhood when my Dad would scold me for the uneaten crusts from my sandwich left on my plate. “There are starving children in Africa,” he would say. “They can have my crust,” I would tartly reply. Respect for the earth and its resources (not to mention a parent’s wallet) is not something we are born with; it is something to be learned.
And so went my lesson on this particular morning. I began with my Dad’s “starving children in Africa” argument. We need to be grateful for the plentiful food that we have, I explained.It is something that we middle class Americans take for granted. Aside from the vast number of people in third world countries who don’t have enough to eat, many Americans go without nutritious food. Despite the safety net in the U.S. not found in some countries [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)] 41 million people in the United States struggle with food insecurity including 13 million children, according to the nonprofit organization, Feeding America. Cultivating gratitude for one’s own food could lead to creating a society that shares its resources with one another.
In addition to gratitude, maintaining a sustainable lifestyle is something that I want to teach my kids. Though I have my extravagances, I do attempt to consume only what I need, I told Ryan. This means using what we have and being thoughtful in buying only what we need.
It was at this point that my husband chimed in. Sustainability is a lifestyle, he repeated. Throwing away something such as a small piece of aluminum foil seems insignificant, but multiplied by thousands, millions, those small pieces of foil would bloat a landfill. The waste we create does make a difference because we are part of a larger community.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2013, Americans recycled and composted approximately 87 million tons of material while sending about 254 million tons of material to landfills. This equates to a 34.3 percent recycling rate. We could do better, and it all starts at home.
Photo by Hermes Rivera
Back to that carton of milk. John explained the resources needed to feed the cows who produce the milk, the energy needed to sustain the farm, the fuel needed to transport the milk. I put it in eleven-year-old terms. Cows make poop. Lots of cows means lots of poop. In fact, livestock emit 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gases and over half of that comes from cows. If we care about reducing our carbon footprint, we need to be cognizant of using only what we need and reducing our waste.
Photo by Ryan Song
Each generation considers themselves caretakers of our planet. Yet for our youngest generation, the challenges have never been so consequential. The habits and values we instill could lead them to take on the imperative role of environmental stewards.
As Ryan watched, I put the almost not quite empty carton of milk back in the refrigerator. At some point I heeded my Dad’s advice and began to eat my crusts. If there is hope for me, Ryan may learn too.