"That's the big take home. It's not just like, "Hey, make less trash, the trash guy did it," but find where meaning is for you, and believe that you can make a difference if you learn about yourself."
Late last month I interviewed Ari Derfel, CEO and co-owner of Back to Earth, Inc., about saving all of his trash for one year. Below is an edited transcript of our interview for the Big Vision Podcast. You can also listen to it on this little player:
Those of you who are long time Big Vision Podcast listeners and/or Have Fun * Do Good readers, may remember Ari from an interview I did with him and his business partner, Eric Fenster, in 2006 about their work with Back to Earth.
Ari Derfel: What inspired me to save a year of trash? A simple story: I was sitting having dinner with some friends, some very lovely friends, and we had been to the farmers market that day. We began to lament the concept of trash. What came up in conversation was, "Where is 'away?'" that magical place that things go.
As the conversation evolved, by the end of dinner I said, "You know what? I am curious. I want to know, and I'm going to save my trash for an entire year to see what it's like if 'away' is in my house," and it was that simple.
The idea was born in October 2006. I started in December of 2006. Before I started, I was thinking of all these ways to prepare, like where I'd put this pile, and where I'd put that pile, and how I was going to deal with all of it.
That kept eluding me, so on December 4th I had a dinner party with the guy that was there the first night I decided to do it, and said, "You know what? Tonight's the night," and I started keeping it in a pile in the closet in my kitchen. It was literally that simple.
Britt Bravo: What did you learn from this experiment?
AD: I learned a lot of different things. I think that was what was awesome about it. I entered into it really understanding that it was just a personal meditation. That I was about to engage in something to learn about myself, to learn about my behaviors, and to see what comes of it, as opposed to, I'm getting into this thing with a specific agenda, or because I want to tell people and the public something. It was really just like, I'm dismayed at things that I see on the planet, so therefore I want to engage it.
Some of the things that I learned are interesting. I learned what I spent most of my money on because by watching a pile of trash grow over a year, I really began to see, "Wow! I spent it on that food, on this electronic, on that item," and my consumption habits and spending habits became really clear.
The second thing that I learned really powerfully, in addition to what I spend my money on, is what I put in my body. I started to see things pile up. The most commonly talked about are little stacks of pints of non-dairy ice cream that I would eat: pint one, pint two, pint three, pint 12, pint 15. I started to see what lives in my body, and what kind of fuel I'm choosing to put in my body.
Then, I learned where most trash seems to be made, food packaging. Of all the different things that could be making trash, that was really profound to me because I realized that it's not that big of a problem. I mean, we've only been packaging food for 50, 60 or 75 years. So, if that's the small amount of time in which the problem was created. We should be able to undo the problem. Those are three of the primary things that I learned.
Then I learned that if I composted everything organic, which I did, trash doesn't smell. That's an awesome thing to learn because most folks think of the dump or, trash and they think it smells really disgusting. I realized, "Wow! That's not the case." If we properly treat all of our organic matter, that's not going to be a problem.
Those are sort of the top four. Then I'd say number five is how interesting and funny the media and general public are because so many people found the story so compelling and interesting that six months after I stopped it, I'm still talking about it regularly, and people are asking questions.
BB: You have gotten a lot of media exposure. What is the most common question, and what's the question you wish you were asked?
AD: The most common questions are, "Doesn't it stink?," "Where do you keep it?," "Do you have a girlfriend?" [laughs] I love that that is one of the most popular questions. And, "Why did you do it?" Those are basically the top four.
What question do I wish people asked me? It's interesting, a man from Oakland is doing a documentary on street recyclers, the people who go around and pick up recycling from all of our bins, and that's how they make their living. He's looking at that group of people that are sort of a marginalized population. We don't even notice them, but they play this important scavenging role in our world.
He's a really deep, amazing, theological kind of human being. He asked me a dozen questions that were the questions I wished everyone asked me. It's hard to explain, but questions like, "What is the essence of it?" What is the powerful experience that I have internally about the experience, and why would I choose to do something. Not just why did I do it in a fun, interesting way, but what mechanism is going on inside of my heart, and my body, and my mind such that I would choose to engage in something so disciplined, and stick to it so impeccably for an entire year? Does that make sense?
BB: Yes. So, why did you do it?
AD: Honestly, for whatever reason, I am a human being who feels a lot in my life. I feel the wars that are happening. I feel environmental pollution. I feel the suffering that so many people on the planet experience. I can't choose to feel that, or to not feel that, I just feel it everyday. It's that feeling that compels me to do all the work that I do, whether it's taking young people into the mountains, or promoting organic food and supporting local farmers.
All of that is motivated because I feel certain things, and because I want to help contribute to alleviating some of the pain, injustice and suffering, I do these things. I get a lot of my inspiration or guidance to do these things from the practice of yoga. Yoga, in its basic form, is about right thought, right speech, right action, and just being a mindful human being.
That's really the core that pushed me to this thing that seemed like an impossible task at first. If consumption and all these things are supposedly distractions in the planet, and in our existence as beings, then if I can really challenge myself to face my consumption, face my habits, face myself by looking at what it is I produce, and what I waste, then it's going to have a profound impact on me, and I will see a way to change myself that I could never otherwise see.
It's about changing me because I've got to live with me, and I've got to feel this planet, and there ain't no one else going to do it, but me.
BB: So, now that you've done it, what have you changed?
AD: I've absolutely changed the way I consume. I mean, every time my hand touches something now, I feel the whole story of where it was manufactured, and where it was shipped, and how it moved, and where it's going to end up. I buy a lot fewer things, and I waste a lot less, and I reuse a lot more.
From the whole media experience and everything, I also preach a lot less because I realized how hard it is to change me. Why would I ever spend a ton of energy telling a bunch of other people what they need to do and why? What I do more and more is in a humble way look at myself and realize, I have a lifetime of work to do on making me right with me.
BB: You started a blog with this project. When you started getting a lot of media attention, you got a lot of comments. I was reading through them and was kind of stunned by how many were negative comments. Can you talk a little bit about why that was, or how you dealt with it? It was kind of bizarre, I thought.
AD: It was bizarre and I think it was indicative of that same thing I was just talking about, about feeling a lot of the angst, feeling a lot of the anger, feeling a lot of the suffering that's out there in the world and people are constantly looking for an object to focus that on. When this came out, it just seemed I guess obvious to some people to rail against me, and to call me "liberal" and "dirty" and "hippy" and "smelly", or anything to get some press and attention, which was fascinating. I wasn't telling anybody what to do.
But there were some really cool things that came out of that. There are a couple of stories that I really enjoy sharing. The first is that somebody wrote a comment that said, "You must be one of those weird, obsessive compulsive, smelly people, an old guy with a million newspapers and cats," kind of thing. He wrote some mean comment.
The next day, some TV station, ABC or CBS, was interviewing me and they said, "Read some of your blog comments live for the camera." So, I read this one particular person's comments. The next day, he sends me an email because he sees me reading his blog comment on television and he gets a more intimate personal sense of who I am and he writes, apologizing and saying, "Hey, I'm really sorry. I didn't realize who you were and what you were doing, and I just wanted to have some fun, so I wrote these comments."
It was beautiful how someone expressed anger, and then got a sense of my humanity a little bit more, and then a sense of their humanity. It was a really nice connection.
Another thing that happened was somebody wrote a comment, "You typical Berkeley liberal..." whatever. Then as I'm reading, I see a woman from Texas who writes and says, "I'm a Christian conservative right-wing person from Texas. I don't think this has anything to do with liberal or conservative. God gave us one earth, let's treat it with respect."
It's been an awesome experience to see all this random negativity and wonder, "Who's got time, and who cares?" But then to see that they're having their own dialogue and people are waking up through the conversation, is a gift that came out of this project that I never could have imagined that makes it feel very wonderful and beautiful to me.
BB: What tips do you have for people who are listening who want to reduce the amount of waste they have? From the basic to the more advanced.
AD: I have a couple of pieces of advice. The first is to just start paying attention. Just start noticing how often do you eat out? How often you buy things? How often you get a bag? Level one, just start noticing and paying attention without any judgment or comment.
Level two, start reducing in really obvious, really easy places. Use a to-go mug, just don't buy a disposable coffee or teacup. Don't get grocery bags. You don't need them. Get a cloth or canvas bag, it's simple. Every time you go and get to-go food, at a salad bar, or at a restaurant, bring your own container. It can be a Tupperware, or it can be something fancy like To-Go Ware, which you can buy online.
You start doing those three things, and add the fourth, carry a water bottle, and stop using plastic water bottles. More and more people know that in addition to making trash, they off-gas all sorts of chemicals, and they cause cancer, and all sorts of stuff. So, a water bottle, a coffee mug, a reusable grocery bag, and a reusable to-go container are really good things for the level two practitioner.
Level three practitioner, start grocery shopping at the farmers market. Just stop going to the grocery store. Buy all of your stuff fresh directly from the farmers. You'll have more of a community experience, your money will more directly support local people, and much less trash will be created because you're not buying anything that's packaged.
Level four, stop driving, or at least start to transition to a hybrid or a biodiesel, stop creating that sort of waste and eventually move towards bicycle riding, public transport, and that sort of thing.
Then highest level practitioner... Oh, actually, I have to throw in, begin composting. That's like a level two or three. Just start composting all of your food scraps. Then the highest level, which really comes full circle also to the lowest level of just paying attention, is broaden the experience of a project like this. Don't make it just about trash, pick anything.
If the thing that you're concerned about is communication, then just focus on the way you communicate with your loved ones, and your family, and your friends, and try to minimize bad communication, and make more good communication. Just take the example of this experience, and make it personal for you, and in a disciplined way engage in trying to change an element of yourself that's important to yourself.
That's the big take home. It's not just like, "Hey, make less trash, the trash guy did it," but find where meaning is for you, and believe that you can make a difference if you learn about yourself.
BB: What's the next step for this project? Is it done? Are you like, "OK, enough already. I'm going to go throw this stuff out."
BB: Is there another level? Is there a new project? What's next?
AD: I originally found a couple of artists that were interested in turning it into a piece of art. That's really what I'd like to do so that you can look at a biography, a diary of my consumption and be like, "This is what this guy bought," which is pretty revealing and intimate.
It's been hard to coordinate with the artists because I'm really looking for people who will take it, and take ownership of it. I did a lot of the hard part. I saved my trash for a year; it's in my house. I'm looking for a self-motivated artist to take it and really turn it into something beautiful and amazing because I think a piece of art like this really will have legs and can go places. The artists that I was going to work with are great, amazing people, and they're very busy. So, that's the next step.
If I can't find artists in the next few months, and I'm still holding on to the trash six months later, then I will probably have to creatively reuse as much of it as I can, and then begin to throw a bunch of it away. Ow! I don't like the thought. Once it's gone, I will consider doing it again.
I started the blog because I knew someone was going to write a newspaper story about it. I didn't do the blog before. I stopped doing the blog because I've just been too busy. If I find some time in between opening a restaurant and doing all these other things, then I might start the project again.
In a perfect world, I have a whole film written in my head about it. So, if there's a filmmaker out there who wants to do it, then awesome! I've got the whole thing written, let's talk. But I don't have the bandwidth to make the movie.
BB: For people who heard your interview with your business partner, Eric Fenster, maybe you can give us a quick Back to Earth update?
AD: Eric Fenster and I are still working together at Back to Earth Organic Catering, and we still run an outdoor adventure program for inner city kids, and we run yoga backpacking trips. Both of our companies are still intact. The exciting news is that we're now opening an organic restaurant. It will not be called "Back to Earth," we are changing the name of it.
That restaurant is going to be at the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley, and it's going to be an all organic, three meals a day, seven days a week restaurant priced affordably, not high end and fancy, the kind of place where you can go everyday. There will be a sit down restaurant, an outdoor patio for 40 people that gets sun, and a completely to-go cafe. It's going to be a really awesome place in Berkeley where people who want to eat awesome, healthy, organic, delicious food can eat all the time.
BB: Is there anything else that you want share about your experience of doing this project?
AD: One other motivation in my life generally that I think was part of this is the concept of gratitude. I live with such abundance around me, in a community and in a world with access to everything. I don't have to think about getting clean water and getting food and getting these sorts of things. So, that motivated me all the more to say, "Well, then, how can I challenge myself to make a difference in a positive way?"
I'm grateful that I've had the experience, I'm grateful that people found it interesting and I'm grateful for people like you, and a lot of people in the media, who actually captured the essence of the story instead of bastardizing it, and turning it into, "freaky, weird guy saves trash." Everyone, CNN, MSNBC, Fox Business News, every major outlet, even the National Enquirer, did a really good job of capturing the essence, which is, one man trying to make an impact on himself.
That's really the part that I hope people get and understand. If there's one element that's motivating, it's about that, engaging the self.
You can learn more about Ari's project on his blog, Save Your Trash.