Slashing the trash

CHICAGO — For those content to toss empty spaghetti sauce jars, soda cans and bagged newspapers in the proper bins in pursuit of responsible recycling, the efforts of the Holmes and Rappe families may be astonishing.

They work far beyond the recycling horizon in a realm many would find daunting, even frightening.

The Holmeses, a family of five in Hoffman Estates, Ill., produce one plastic grocery bag of trash a week. And the four-member Rappe family, who live in Chicago, generate a mere 200 pounds a year, less than one-fourth the average amount of trash produced by a single person.

So how do these uber-recyclers do it? No big deal, they say, insisting their hard-core approaches are simple to adopt, practical and well worth examining.

"Average Joe should be able to do this," said Scott Rappe, a Chicago architect. "It shouldn't take a class or studying a lot of books. You should be able to process the waste on-site without having to twist your whole life around."

The key may start with their broad definition of recycling. For such families, recycling includes converting leftover pasta, chicken bones and lemon rinds to compost; making their own laundry detergent, even plucking reusable wood paneling from a neighbor's curb before the garbage truck swallows it.

"I didn't intend for it to be this way," said Amanda Greco Holmes, "but it creeps into everything you do. Every little thing. I'm always trying to think of how I can do this with less."

Greco Holmes and her husband, Matthew, had a love of the outdoors before their first child arrived seven years ago. But Greco Holmes said having children was "a paradigm shift" that highlighted the possibilities of raising environmentally responsible kids and ratcheted up her intensity.

The family's two-story, four-bedroom home blends with the rest of the neighborhood and shows no trace of environmental revolution. But the backyard offers a few hints: a chicken wire and plywood compost bin, a swing made from tire scraps, a "potato box" for growing tubers and raised gardens for vegetables.

At first glance, nothing seems unusual inside, except the only paper the family uses is on a roll next to the toilet. They make their household and glass cleaners, along with the laundry detergent — all with simple ingredients that include an olive-oil based soap, borax, vinegar and baking soda.

They use bar shampoo and recyclable toothbrushes. Only three pieces of their furniture were purchased new.

And the three kids used the same cloth diapers, a move Greco Holmes said saved perhaps thousands of dollars and expedited potty training.

Recycling "starts well before the recycling bin," said Greco Holmes, who also blogs on the topic of a simpler life. ( "Recycling is a fantastic thing, but it's still a use of resources and that's something we want to eliminate."

Rappe, who turned 47 on Earth Day, focuses his family's efforts on transforming all the trash they create while keeping as much as possible on-site. It may sound almost crazy until a visitor walks through his trim backyard and climbs the spiral stairs to his third-floor deck.

On that deck is a yellow, five-gallon, plastic bucket with a screw-on top and a spigot. In that bucket goes the Rappes' nonplant food scraps, layered with bokashi, a fermented wheat bran that aides food scrap composting in an odorless process that also makes the mush unappealing to rats.

Every few weeks, he drains then empties the bokashi bucket into a larger covered metal trash can at the base of the stairs. A few weeks after that, he dumps the material to another compost can next to his garage then to the flower gardens in his back yard.

Rappe and his family — wife, Grace, and sons, Nicholas, 10, and Matthew, 13 — recycled 496 pounds of "not-conventionally compostable" food that way, he said. He knows the precise figure because in 2009 he weighed his trash using a luggage scale.

That year, the Rappes generated 1,800 pounds of trash and were able to recycle or compost all but 197 pounds, which Scott Rappe jokingly calls "evil trash" that consisted mostly of plastic wrap.

"It's a deeper understanding of our disproportionate impact," he said of his family's approach, adding it also empowers them to reduce that impact.

Over the years, the amount of trash recovered for recycling has grown, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statistics show. In 1990, Americans produced 208 million tons of trash, 29 million recovered for recycling, the federal agency reports.

The amount of trash jumped to 243 million tons in 2009, the latest year figures were available, and more than 61 million of that were recovered for recycling, EPA data shows.

Still, Americans are discarding 2.36 pounds per person per day of trash to landfills, according to agency statistics, a slight drop from the 2.51 per capita rate in 1960, when virtually no recycling was occurring.

Such statistics — not to mention cost savings achieved by reducing, reusing and recycling — may make the lifestyles of the Holmeses and Rappes that much more attractive.

But long-term inspiration may come from Julie Samuels, 66, of Oak Park, Ill.

Samuels, a longtime "green living" advocate, and husband, Bruce, used to endure a fair amount of ribbing from friends while raising their children 30 years ago, Samuels recalled.

They laughed at her washing and re-using plastic bags, at her habit of hanging on to chipped plates. They'd ask what piece of furniture she pulled from the alley, and the answer was virtually every one.

A few years ago, the Samuels paid off their mortgage 15 years early, Julie Samuels said. They carry virtually no debt, she added.

"All that kidding and joking around was fun," she said. "I enjoyed it. But they don't laugh at me anymore."

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