Many, many years ago, when I was in college, I had a handful of friends who were hardcore environmentalists. They wore tie-dye, did not wear make-up or shave, and they carried around a cup and chop sticks. Sharing many of their core values, I admired these friends, but was too conventional to emulate their lifestyles.
Twenty years later, I have gotten much greener, aligning my actions to my aspirations. While I remain fairly mainstream (I am still a suburban prep at heart), I have been carrying around a cup, plate, flatware and, yes, sometimes even chopsticks.
About a year ago, I watched the movie "No Impact Man," a documentary chronicling Colin Beavan's year-long project in which he, his wife, and his two-year-old attempted to live in the middle of New York City with as little environmental impact as possible. Over the course of a year, they stop using anything disposable, buying new things and using electricity for anything. OK, pretty extreme. However, despite the spectacle that Beavan makes of this project, I was completely drawn in by his earnest approach and well-placed criticisms of American consumer culture.
The movie explores the amount of garbage produced by take-out food and disposable plates and flatware. It really spoke to me. As the scene lingered on piles of disposal items in a garbage can, I thought about how disgusting the image was! My first instinct was to lament the unenlightened Americans who every day eat loads of junk food leaving behind plastic wrappers. Then, more importantly, I took a moment to consider how I contribute to that pile. At the time, I was doing very well in terms of disposables when I was in my house, but I knew I could do better, especially when I was outside of my home.
Every Jewish New Year, Jews throughout the world consider the state of their lives, where they have gone wrong, and renew their will to do better. Last Rosh Hashanah, I wanted to lessen my impact on the environment. In particular, I challenged myself to minimize the use of plastic ware and other food related disposables. Did I become "no-impact woman," never touching a plastic cup? No. However, I made a huge paradigm shift, especially outside of my house. Through careful planning, I significantly reduced my use of plastic and paper. To accomplish my goal, I carried a plate and silverware to meetings and meals outside of my home. It was not always convenient, but it was not that hard either. Yes, I got funny looks sometimes, but along the way, I fielded interesting questions and had significant conversations. A few people have even reported to me that they have changed their behaviors.
There have been times when I did not have my "gear" with me. Sometimes I have wavered in my resolve when I felt like I did not have a good option; more often I have waited to eat. An iced coffee would have hit the spot on a hot day, but the impulse purchase had to be abandoned, because I did not have my cup. I did not starve or dehydrate. I merely thought about my needs, wants, and the impact I have on the world.
My cup, plate and fork are part of a holy task. The Torah teaches, "When you wage war against a city and you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them" (Deuteronomy 20:19). OK, so how do we apply this to our lives? From this verse, we can learn that when we are focused on one task, we must not forget the bigger values we hold dear. In other words, just because I am hungry, I cannot forget that my behavior shapes the environment. In our rush to do so much in life and to make meal time convenient, we must not forget our holy task of preserving the environment (bal tashchet in Hebrew).
The term bal tashchet literally means not to destroy wantonly. Frankly, I had to learn not be wasteful by promoting the value of bal tashchet and placing it above other values, like being a polite, compliant guest and not making a spectacle of myself. Last Rosh Hashanah is long past, but the cup, plate and flatware are now a part of my daily habits. I may not get it right 100 percent of the time, but I am getting closer than I was before.