Jenny Rustemeyer sheepishly lays out the remains of six broken dishes on the kitchen table as her boyfriend, Grant Baldwin, recalls the Tim Hortons incident, one of many dish episodes: "She went through all this trouble to [bring]a ceramic plate and then she broke it," he laughs. "They were like, 'Yeah, that's why we don't give them out.'"
Still, the ceramic shards barely fill the void left in her clear plastic trash bin. Less than one foot high and one foot wide, it holds all the garbage she's produced in the past 11 months and 20 days.
And she may not even be the least wasteful person in the house.
As seagulls and raccoons greedily sift through the trash accumulating on the streets of Toronto, three Vancouverites are anxiously anticipating the culmination of their buy-nothing, waste-nothing year.
Next Wednesday, Ms. Rustemeyer, Mr. Baldwin and their roommate, Rhyannon O'Heron, will have completed their Clean Bin Project and their small individual trash bins still aren't full. In fact, with just over a week to go, they could each count nearly every item in their entire year's garbage on two hands.
Their rules are strict: No material goods can be purchased. All one-time personal use items, such as takeout boxes, are shunned. Consumables such as food, drinks, medication and a minimum of personal hygiene products are allowed as long as they're sold in recyclable packaging.
The challenge was inspired by a cycling tour to Mexico Ms. Rustemeyer, 30, and Mr. Baldwin, 32, went on two summers ago. "We were so happy with so little stuff. Everything we needed was on our bikes," says Ms. Rustemeyer, who has been blogging about their experience at cleanbinproject.com.
It's a daunting mission, but for these three roommates living near Commercial Drive in East Vancouver, it's become a routine - albeit an occasionally absurd one. "We'll be nitpicking over the most ridiculous things like a toothpick, so it comes off as kind of neurotic," Ms. Rustemeyer says.
They all stubbornly take home any personal waste they produce when they're not at home. "In the winter we went to Sun Peaks [resort]and brought back our compost in a bag, left it in the car and found it one week later. My car smells on a good day, but it just reeked," Ms. O'Heron says.
And while Ms. Rustemeyer's clumsiness with dishes may prevent her from winning the least garbage challenge - to be judged by weight and volume next week - she is the only one who resisted a shopping spree.
"I kind of failed the purchasing side," Mr. Baldwin says. As a self-employed music producer and DJ, he had a shopping exemption to allow for work-related purchases, but he acknowledges that spending about $10,000 on camera and computer gear was pushing it. And no, those tight white pants he bought to colour co-ordinate with his band for a gig definitely weren't business essentials.
To be fair, he has diligently brushed his teeth with the same worn out disposable toothbrush extension since his electric toothbrush broke 11 months ago. The handle is about as long as his thumb.
Still, Mr. Baldwin insists, "the biggest challenge is committing to doing it. Once you get into a system, it seems totally normal."
In their yellow kitchen there are 10 different recycling bins neatly labelled and stacked on top of each other near the counter and under the kitchen sink. Everything from low-grade and high-grade paper, unnumbered hard plastic, soft plastic, batteries and different kinds of compost have their place. Even metal and plastic lids have their own separate bags, which hang like fuzzy dice under the sink. The system works wonders: There's no garbage to bring out and even the recycling blue box only needs to be picked up once every two or three weeks.
The year hasn't always been a breeze. Eating out, family get-togethers and receiving heavily packaged gifts has at times been uncomfortable - like telling Mr. Baldwin's mother she could keep the English candy wrapped in layers of cellophane.
But the paybacks of the project have been plentiful. Ms. O'Heron, a social worker, started nurturing her green thumb this year and says her cooking and baking has greatly improved. Thanks to their aversion to packaging - ruling out a lot of packaged foods - the roommates say their diets have also improved. And while no one has been keeping track of spending, they say they've saved enough money to not worry about grocery-store bills or spontaneous getaways.
Already, they're planning their next projects. Ms. O'Heron is going on the 100-mile diet with two friends from July until September, while Ms. Rustemeyer and Mr. Baldwin are considering going on a bike trip across Canada next summer to promote the documentary they've made about the year, which they hope will be finished next spring.
As car owners and avid travellers, the trio is the first to admit their Clean Bin Project is just a drop in the bucket. The recycling process also produces waste, and according to Statistics Canada's most recent data, the 283 kilograms of household waste produced per capita in 2006 accounts for just one-third of total solid waste produced by Canadians that year, if industrial waste is added to the tally.
But Mr. Baldwin cautions against being overwhelmed by the big picture: "If you can just pick a couple things and really pull through and stick to it, it does a lot of good, I think."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tips to reduce waste
"We're way more preachy now than we were a year ago," Jenny Rustemeyer says. "It's a little embarrassing. I always take exception when someone tries to change my lifestyle, so we're really not trying to do that. What we try to say is this is what we're doing, so if you're interested, here are some things you can do."
Team up: Working toward your goal with another person will keep you motivated and accountable.
Reorganize: Remove trash bins from bathrooms and bedrooms and put all your waste in one central location with separate bins for paper, plastic, cans, bottles, lids, e-waste, compost and garbage.
Don't bag produce: You're going to clean your fruits and veggies when you get home anyway, so why add an extra layer of plastic?
Be prepared: Always leave the house with a container, a cup and cutlery for any takeout, pizza slice or deli meats and cheese.
Compost: Apartment dwellers can try worm composting, and those with a garden can even compost animal waste and meat (separately from other organic waste) with special septic solution.
Read labels: Look for packaging made exclusively with one type of material - these create less residuals or waste in the recycling process.
DIY: Pick at least one thing to make from scratch. Ms. Rustemeyer, Grant Baldwin and Rhyannon O'Heron made gifts, bread, laundry detergent, toothpaste, yogurt, cheese and granola bars. "It's actually really fun to make something you've never made before," Ms. Rustemeyer says.
If you buy: Buy recycled, especially toilet paper.
One year's waste
Broken mug and bowl
Strip of foam packaging
Bottom half of an electric toothbrush
Smoked salmon wrapper
Instant pasta package
Bike tire tube
Used duct tape and packaging tape pieces
Tetra Pak tabs
Car dust wipe
Medication blister packs
Six broken dishes
Synthetic sock pieces and other material scraps
Toe separator (from a pedicure)
Car medication tube
Bike brake housing
Dried up liquid latex
Hunk of inedible pink icing
Potato chips package
Two broken ceramic dishes
Peanut butter packaging
Part of a broken pen
Broken hair ties