By John Fischer

Fischer Tips

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “Free food doesn’t have any calories.” It’s not true. A new saying has sprung up: “I don’t have to recycle when I’m on vacation because throwing things away only has an impact on the planet when I am at home.” That’s not true either.  

Here’s another “old saying” that I made up, but it resembles some behaviors we all might have done or seen others do: “Let your guests do anything they want with no guidance on local recycling rules, or even any suggestions of changes in behavior while they are at your house, because you could be perceived as being impolite if you say anything — which is way worse than destroying the planet.”

In my household, we enjoy having visitors, house guests, and friends of our children stay with us. We learn new things, share experiences, and build lasting friendships. But not everyone has the same attitudes that we do. It’s important to remember that people from other places don’t have the same recycling system we do here. If they were brought up in a throwaway culture and don’t have accessible recycling, they will likely buy and use more disposable products. Having people from other places and cultures in our home is an opportunity to learn — us from them, and them from us.

Being a sustainability zealot can make me a little (okay, a lot) harder to visit, but most of our guests seem genuinely interested in being less unsustainable and appreciate the 45 simple rules that I hope can be followed during their short (or long-term) stays. My wife has only 39 sustainability rules, so she’s only a partial zealot (on this subject). Here’s a few.  

  1. Us: “Feel free to use our reusable shopping bags instead of getting paper when you go to the store. Guest: “Oh, no, we don’t want to be a bother.” Us: “Please do, and you aren’t.”
  1. “We have containers for leftovers so there’s no need to throw that extra food away.”
  1. “The clothespins are on the laundry line. Things dry really fast here in the summer.” I am amazed (and saddened) by the number of people who have never hung up laundry. Ah! That wonderful smell!
  1. “The park is only a block away. You can use our stroller and walk easily. I will show you the way if you like.”
  1. “Glass goes in a separate recycling container. Returnable bottles in another.” I know that recycling rules are different in different places, and that it can be confusing, so I have folks put it near the bin if they are unsure, and I personally re-sort things to make sure the recycle cart has acceptable contents. I have learned that Arizona recycles much more material than Oregon.
  1. “We have cloth diapers so you don’t need ‘disposables*.’” Do people throw away their underwear when they are traveling?

I don’t want to bore or insult you with the other 38 rules, and I’m sure they are obvious without resorting to a long list. But back to my original question: Is it impolite to ask people to alter their behavior when they are visiting? Or is it impolite to the earth not to ask for simple changes that can have big consequences during the visit and maybe when the guests return home?

Here’s one more I just remembered: 

  1. “You can rinse your dish into this basin using a small stream of cold water, and then I will water a plant with what we collect, unless you have joined the Clean Plate Club, which means the dish can go right into the dishwasher — which incidentally uses half the water and energy of hand washing — even less if you push this eco-dry button, which lets the dishes air dry instead of using heat to dry them.”

*Disposable diapers are the third largest contributor to the landfill, and account for half the waste produced by a child in their first two years of life. To make matters worse, diaper decomposition is a potent producer of methane gas.