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After the first couple months of this experiment, I naively thought that my new trash-free diet, which has forced me to pretty much eliminate packaged and processed foods from my meals, would somehow boost my immune system so much that I would get through the entire year without catching a single cold.  I was doing pretty well until the day after we went on the “Tour de Trash,” when my theory was proven wrong and I caught a nasty bug that lasted for two weeks. Although I was miserable, catching the cold did offer me the chance to see if it is possible to treat the side-effects of a cold without creating any trash.

The first few days of the cold I just had a sore throat.  This was fairly easy to deal with. A great friend of mine once taught me how wonderful hot water mixed with honey, lemon juice, and the squeezed lemon wedges feels on your throat.  I made one of these concoctions for the drive into work and packed my honey jar (an old spaghetti sauce jar filled with bulk honey) and extra lemons to make refills at the office as needed.  The used lemons got tossed in my compost and the bulk honey didn’t come in any packaging.  So far, so good.

When a cough kicked in, things got a bit more challenging.  I needed cough drops.  I searched online for recipes for home-made cough drops with honey. The first recipe I tried came out more like taffy than a hard lozenge.  I had never made candy before and I discovered that exactly when you take the melted mixture off the stove is critical. With this experience under my belt, I tried again, choosing a different recipe for pure honey cough drops.

Honey cough drops with lemon and ginger

Ingredients for honey cough drops with lemon and ginger

The recipe calls for 1/2 cup of honey, but I also added the juice from one lemon and a couple teaspoons of ginger powder once the mixture was boiling and almost ready to be made into drops.

Boiling the honey

Boiling the honey

Boiling the honey at the correct temperature is key.  The recipe calls for the temperature to reach between 300 to 310 degrees Fahrenheit.  A candy thermometer would have been really handy, but I found out that you can also check at what point along the spectrum of candy hardness a mixture is (is it going to be taffy or a hard candy?) by dropping some of it into cold water.

Dropping some of the mixture into cold water will tell you if it is ready or not

Dropping some of the mixture into cold water will tell you if it has reached the consistency for hard candy

The drop shouldn’t dissolve when it hits the water, rather it should form a hard ball.

Testing for candy hardness

Testing for candy hardness

After the mixture passed this cold water test, I quickly made honey drops on a greased cookie sheet.

Dropping the honey-lemon-ginger mixture on a greased baking pan

Dropping the honey-lemon-ginger mixture on a greased baking pan

I had to do this rather quickly, before the mixture cooled in the pot.  In the end, just a 1/2 cup of honey made quite a few cough drops.  I nearly filled an entire cookie sheet.

Completed batch of cough drops ready to cool

Completed batch of cough drops

When the drops cooled, I put them into a glass jar, dusting each piece with flour to keep them from sticking to each other.  Unfortunately, despite the cold water test result, the cough drops would still melt into more of a taffy consistency unless they were refrigerated.  When I realized this I was far into my cold, and lacked anymore energy to try again.  I think the problem may have been the humid climate here in Hawaii, but I am not sure.  If anyone has tips for making candy and/or cough drops, please send them along!

Even though I needed to keep the cough drops in the refrigerator, they were effective at abating my cough for a few days.  When the cough got stronger, however, my boyfriend (who also got sick at the same time) gifted me a bag of his Ricola cough drops that he had purchased.  The bag and wrappers for those cough drops cannot be thrown into my compost or recycled.  Since my trash-free rules do allow gifts that include trash, I don’t technically need to count the Ricola trash – however I put a few wrappers in my trash bag anyway as a reminder.

So – is it possible to catch a cold and not the trash that comes with it?  This experience taught me that it might be possible, if you are prepared.  The last thing you want to do when you are sick is to be searching online for trash-free cough drops or trying multiple times to make effective drops from scratch.  If anyone has any good homemade remedies for treating the symptoms of the common cold that I can add to my tool kit, I would love to hear about them!

Compost update:
My trash can compost bin is doing well – full of worms and biodegrading matter. However, after being packed with material for five months, the container is bulging at the sides and compost is escaping through its holes.  I could sift through the cooking heap and harvest the good stuff to make room.  However, I would probably lose some worms in this process so I will instead put it aside and start a new bin that will hopefully take me through the end of the year.

Time for a new compost bin

Escaping compost means that it is time for a new bin

Upcycled Material Pop-Quiz:
A woman who works in my building came to work with this necklace on and I was instantly drawn to it.  Can you figure out what she made the flower out of?

Up-cycled jewelry front

Upcycled jewelry - front

Up-cycled Jewelry back

Upcycled Jewelry - back

I was so surprised when she told me that she cut the pendant out of a gift card from a bookstore where she used to work.  “We threw so many used gift cards away,” she explained.  What a great idea!  I will never look at a gift card the same way again.  I wonder what other cool things could be made out of them…

Although I still have things to learn, I have come to a point in my trash-free journey that the day-to-day, trash-free lifestyle has become somewhat routine.  Rushing out the door to go to work I grab a cloth napkin for my lunch and put one in my pocket. Hanging on my purse is a Chico bag for unexpected purchases and my bamboo cutlery for unexpected meals out. In my car I have my collapsible bowl, produce and bulk food bags, and reusable grocery bags.  I have learned that my local grocery stores will let me purchase cut meat and cheese in my own containers and where I can purchase bulk grains and snacks.  Once you become willing to give up – or find a substitute –  for those favorite packaged items and get a routine down to prepare yourself for encountering unexpected trash through out the day, living trash-free (or pretty close to it) is really not that difficult.  But an experience this week made me wonder – is all this effort to try and live with out creating trash really worth it?

Yesterday I went on something called the “Tour de Trash.”  Sponsored by the City and County of Honolulu, the free, air-conditioned bus tour visits the island’s only landfill, the waste-to-energy plant (called H-Power), a mulch and compost facility, and one of the local recycling facilities.  I signed up soon after I started my trash-free experiment particularly interested in understanding more about how my local government is using our trash to create energy, a concept that seems to debunk my theory that we should be reducing our trash.

First stop was the Waimanalo Gulch landfill.  Although it looks like a construction project for a new development, under all the dirt and grass is 800 feet of trash.

Waimanalo Gulch landfill

According to what we were told on the tour, my island generates 1.75 million tons of trash each year, between 600 and 800 tons per day.  1/3 is reclaimed through recycling, 1/3 gets burned at the waste-to-energy plant (and buried as ash in the landfill), and the remaining gets dumped directly into the landfill.  “We consider trash to be a resource” the tour guide told us, “the landfill is the last resort.”

Trash a resource?  Yep.  After doing a little research after the tour, I found out that trash is actually considered a renewable resource according to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, just like wind and the sun.  The methane gas produced by the trash that decomposes in landfills is considered one form of renewable energy derived from trash and governments receive tax credits when they harness it.  We were told that a method for capturing and distributing this energy coming out of the Waimanalo gulch is in development.

And the other renewable energy derived from trash?  That is where H-Power comes in. Every piece of trash that gets put into a trash can on the island of Oahu, other than medical waste, eventually ends up at the H-Power facility where it is first collected, then sorted for recyclable metals, then finally burned primarily to reduce its volume – only 10 % is left as ash which goes into the landfill.  The process also creates some energy in the form of electricity.

All our everyday trash is collected from all over the island and brought to H-Power

The trash is dumped in this room and prepared for sorting

Trash is sorted for valuable metals and items that can't be put in the incinerator

Sorted trash travels via conveyor belts to the boiler room to get burned, converted into steam, and finally turned into energy

Some of the energy derived from the trash runs the H-Power facility and the rest is sold to Hawaiian Electric to supply 7% of the island’s electricity.  The left over ash is buried at the landfill.  According to H-Power, any significant contaminants are scrubbed out of the air before the air is released into the atmosphere.  And the CO2? When I asked our tour guide what the carbon output of the incinerator was, he said he didn’t know.

Although trash is indeed valued for the energy it produces and the money it brings in, there are on going efforts on the island to recycle materials as well.  We visited the location where green waste is deposited and turned into mulch and compost.

All green waste is taken to Hawaiian Earth Products and turned into mulch and compost

We also stopped by RRR Recycling Service that manages all the recycling for the city and county, and watched as they separated and bailed #1 and #2 plastics.  These high-grade plastics are worth a lot of money, so they are shipped overseas to be sold. The other plastics? Those go to H-Power and get burned.  The folks there are more than happy to receive them because the plastic, made out of petroleum, gives off a lot of energy when burned.

Plastic bottles are bailed and sent overseas

Much of the glass that is recycled is shipped overseas as well to be sold, but some of it is used in road construction on the island.  Another use is also being explored – landscaping.

Ground recycled glass can be used as landscaping

Example landscaping in front of recycling facility

The Waimanalo Gulch landfill has about 15-20 years left, we were told on the tour. H-power will continue to help reduce the amount going into the landfill, as will recycling efforts. But what about just reducing our trash to begin with?  This was something that was not covered on the tour other than the finger being pointed at consumerism as being the root of our trash problem.

I understand that on an island having an independent energy source is important. But trash, despite what the books say, is not a renewable resource.  Perhaps some of it could be considered to come from renewable resources, like the paper products, but what about the plastics that get left in because they are not worth enough money to be sold?  Plastic is made from petroleum.  Oil is not renewable.  Or is trash considered a renewable resource because – gasp – there is the belief that we will never run out of it?

I applaud how far the City and County of Honolulu has come in terms of dealing with trash on this island thus far.  We never had any recycling outside of aluminum cans when I was growing up, and definitely no green waste pick-up.  The fact that we can use trash to create energy while reducing its size, is also positive.  Regarding trash as a resource, however, is not a good message to be sending out to the residents of Hawaii. Trash is not a resource – it is a by-product of our lifestyle, a lifestyle that is not sustainable with the earth.  If it was, we wouldn’t have to spend so much energy trying to figure out what to do with it.

And the trash-free experiment continues.