Inspiration #2: the clean bin project

I already mentioned Jen and Grant in a previous post. Leanne first heard of them when she went to a screening of their first film The Clean Bin Project

the-clean-bin-project1This hip Vancouver couple challenged each other to produce less garbage and made a film about it. Here is how they describe it on their blog:

The goal is zero landfill waste. For one year we avoided buying material goods and attempted to live without producing garbage. At the end of the year, we just couldn’t stop.

Leanne raved about the film, but when I saw it, I think it had a bigger impact on me.

I had a BHAG moment. That’s a term I heard from a seminar on forming an effective Board of Directors. An organization needs BHAGs or else the people involved will lose interest. BHAG stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

A BHAG is an emotional hook. It kicks your butt and gets you moving. It motivates you via the excitement you feel about striving for it, not the guilt you feel about what you haven’t done.

Ridge Meadows Recycling promoted the slogan, “Toward Zero Waste” for years. I never really thought about what that meant until Grant and Jen’s film. I guess I had written it off as extreme and unreachable. “It’s a nice idea” I thought.

In fact I had grown up in Vancouver with steady municipal garbage pick-up every week. I lived through the introduction of the concept of recycling and thought it was good, but zero waste? What does that even mean? Garbage is just part of life, isn’t it?

I have also lived through many media campaigns with the laudable goal of reducing waste.  “This one simple action could reduce your waste by 10%!”.

Why are these campaigns so ineffective?

Wait, you mean besides the fact they are usually government PSAs and therefore woefully underfunded in the face of constant billion-dollar advertising using the most sophisticated techniques of mind-manipulation ever developed to make me BUY something I don’t need and then, when the thing reliably breaks, throw it away and BUY ANOTHER ONE?

Yes, besides that.

Oh, and do you mean besides the fact that even the government who paid for the PSAs with my tax dollars really, deep down believes that if we really did reduce our waste and, necessarily, our consumption, the Canadian economy would sputter and die, and that therefore their hearts just aren’t in it?

Yes. That’s what I mean. Besides all that.

OK, well, in answer to your question, these campaigns are ineffective because 10% is boring and meaningless to me. I don’t know what 10% of my waste or 10% of my energy-use or 10% of my greenhouse gas emissions looks like. Talking about 10% supports the idea that getting rid of the other 90% is impossible.*


It’s not big or hairy or audacious enough for my taste.

10%   Hmmmm…

Is it two garbage bags per year? Let’s say it’s two garbage bags per year. What good is my household throwing two fewer garbage bags into the landfill every year when there are so many others that just don’t care?

It’s a drop in a bucket.

It’s a drop in the ocean.

What Jen and Grant did was quit tip-toeing around the idea of zero waste and go for it.

We have these recycling programs and we think that they are enough. We’re doing something we didn’t used to do. Isn’t that enough?

I already knew that practically nothing breaks down in a landfill and that landfills give off methane gas which is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. I knew that but I was still throwing things away that I didn’t have to.

After I saw the film I came home and looked at the Hammond Forever House waste system. I realized I had been looking at it backwards. I had been looking at how much we were recycling and feeling good about myself.

The Clean Bin Project made me see that garbage is not inevitable. I started looking at everything going in the trash and giving some serious thought about where else it could go.

How close to zero waste can we go?

It was not an immediate shift and we have not achieved Zero Waste. However, I found solutions for all our green waste and the cat litter. Those were big. Getting the son out of “disposable” diapers was also huge. Tiny bits of metal and plastic that hadn’t seemed important before are now recycled. I was so proud of my solution to the frozen juice cans that I blogged about it.

Large-scale waste reduction is a personal victory against the brainwashing of consumer culture. It is a cure for that nagging doubt that we could be doing more. It saves money and empowers us to take on the next challenge.

Baby step by baby step we are moving forward.

After the thrill of watching our waste get smaller and smaller, it was impossible for me not to see the energy use of our home in the same way.

How close to using zero energy can we go?


I am exaggerating of course, I think these campaigns do and have done some good. They may even achieve their goals. Certainly we are at a point now where green waste is being banned from landfills in the Greater Vancouver Regional District and the public is supporting this move. Maybe Grant and Jen would never have made their film without the efforts of the eco-warriors before them.

To mix metaphors, I just think we can take of the kid gloves now and get this party started.

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James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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