Be Straw Free!

Sondra Grewe deGraft-Johnson and Emily Selover invite us all to join in saying ‘no, thanks!’ to plastic drinking straws for the entire month of March, and hopefully beyond…

Hey All!

Ayla and Daniel’s lingering questions about how to choose sustainability in a word that prioritizes plastic, especially when in the midst of life’s challenges, got us thinking and got us inspired. We’re here to propose a simple way that you can reduce your waste, increase your mindfulness, gently educate others, and build your own momentum in creating a life with less plastic….


Its as simple as that! When getting a drink to go, don’t grab a straw. When ordering a drink at a restaurant or requesting a round of waters, just make sure you add, “no straws, please”! As soon as you start to pay attention to plastic straws, you’ll notice just how ever-present they are – and it’s a little scary (you can read some facts and figures here). But it’s also a great exercise in mindfulness and its an empowering one too! You can keep track of how many straws you deny, and you’ll know exactly the difference you’re making :). Plus, spread the word to friends and family, and watch your simple choice have a ripple effect. We’re even making little cards to put at the end of our table when we go to a restaurant that will say “no straw, please!”, hoping that these will spark conversation and pre-empt any unwelcome straws from ending up in our drinks. We are so excited to have fun with this idea! Will you join us?

We’ll be sharing our straw free escapades on social media with the hashtag #bestrawfreeNPDC and hope you’ll follow along and share your own experiences as well.

Sondra and Emily



Garbage Can Challenge – February Update

Ayla Dunn Bieber and Daniel Bieber write in collaboration this month, catching us up on their family’s mission to reduce their waste, and sharing some of the critical questions that’ve been on their minds and in their hearts.

As I’m sure we’ve all experienced, sometimes life throws you a curveball. Then you have to put down some of the other balls you’re juggling in order to focus on an important or unexpected challenge. This month was just that for my family. All is OK, but for a while it wasn’t – we were all in crisis-mode, overwhelmed by a family emergency. Naturally, this took our time and attention away from the rest of life, including our garbage challenge. Despite giving myself permission to buy certain ‘easier’ (but more heavily packaged) items, we didn’t exceed our goal tremendously – 3/4 of our garbage can was full instead of the hoped for 1/2.

It was harder than I thought it would be to go back to buying certain things that I had worked hard to give up. I found myself with a new level of anger about just how hard it is to get away from plastic. There’s got to be another way to package food!

Feeling lost in a sea of thought and plastic, I began to wonder: ‘Why is it so challenging to live a zero/low-waste lifestyle’? And ‘How do people do so when life presents a challenging, time-consuming event, or when all of life is an overarching state of crisis (i.e., poverty)’?

These thoughts led me to more thoughts:

What happens when our ideals meet reality? What do we do when stress, busyness, or struggle consume our ability to fully engage in our ideal? How do we compromise what we think is right with what is possible? And, what kind of culture requires that we must give time, money, and energy to be less destructive? What sort of society ask us to choose between dealing with life (a new baby, sick family member, overwork, poverty, illness, etc.) and having the time, money, and resources to be a less destructive consumer (to buy the right package-free products, to grow/make as much as we can, etc.)? I know that when the sh*t hits the fan in my life, I fall back on take-out food, whatever’s easy, and rely on meeting my needs through the fastest, least thought-consuming means of survival.

Being able to spend energy on reducing our household waste is a wonderfully privileged endeavor. It means we’ve had the time (albeit fought-after and fleeting) to think about more than how we’ll eat, live, or get through life to the next day. And what does it say about us (human beings, America) that to live eco-consciously and natural resource-consciously is positioned generally as either the lofty choice of the urban/suburban middle/upper class, or the non-choice of the poor, rural subsistence-farmer?

The truth is that this positioning is somewhat contrived. It is a by-product of the super influx of consumerism that has taken place over the course of just a few decades. In generations past, it was commonplace to re-use goods to the end of their life before disposing of them; and even then, to repair broken things instead of buying new ones; and to shop second-hand goods rather than purchase brand new ones. But as of late, new things–plastic things–have been made so inexpensive, things bought online and shipped from far away have become so cheap, packaged food has become so ubiquitous and is sometimes the only thing found in so-called ‘food deserts’, that suddenly it appears as though there is great effort and expense required in choosing other options. In some instances, that may very well be the case. But in many other situations, those other choices – to re-use something until you can’t re-use it anymore, to wrap a gift in newspaper rather than buy new wrapping paper, to opt-out of using a plastic straw (more on this below), or to take public transportation – still exist and are simpler than our consumer culture would lead us to believe.

So we ask ourselves: how do you catch a curveball while juggling? How do we reach for an ideal when mired in the reality of life? What it all comes down to, we’ve been thinking, is that we each just have to do our best and sometimes we have to temporarily shift our expectations. We’re asking ourselves, what are the simple tactics, the things people have been practicing for generations, that can be chosen even when we don’t feel like they’re making a huge difference. The important thing to keep in the back of our minds, is that every little bit counts.

With love,
Ayla and Daniel

Garbage Can Challenge – January Update

It is hard to believe we are four months into our challenge! I was elated last month to have met our family goal and a little sad to report we were a bit shy of our goal this month. I saw it coming, with the holidays, influx of gatherings, extra food preparation, gifts, etc. While I was trying to be as vigilant as possible, we still ended up producing a little over half our large trash can’s worth of garbage over the month. I have since regained my positive attitude though, and am fired up to make this month a good garbage count month!

In my last post, I left you with a few ideas I was going to try out. Firstly, ice cream. Holy cow (no pun intended) did it come out heavenly! I didn’t make it just once. No, I couldn’t stop! I made several batches of vanilla, a few chocolate with chocolate chips, and one that I used maple syrup in as the only sweetener, and added toasted pecans. I haven’t made any in a few weeks, but just writing about it makes me want to make some tonight! I highly encourage you to try it out if you can!

Additionally, and rightfully secondly, after all that ice cream, I started making my own toothpaste. This also was a huge success. It is so simple and even got kid approved. My niece Naima loves it and told me I needed to give the recipe to her mama. Here is the recipe I used*:

2 tablespoons organic coconut oil
1 tablespoon of baking soda
~20 drops of organic essential oil (I used peppermint oil)

Mix it together and you are all set! This toothpaste can be stored in a recycled jelly jar, or something similar.

*Recipe courtesy of Lauren Singer.

Click to see Daniel and Ayla’s homemade toothpaste debut!

I’ve also stocked up on some new cotton produce bags, bamboo toothbrushes and refillable dental floss. By the way, did you know that, “if everyone in the US flosses their teeth according to ADA recommendations, every single year, our empty containers alone would fill a landfill the size of a football field that 6 stories high!”? I found this out from Lauren Singer’s video on floss, (the low-waste alternative to traditional floss is unfortunately sold out at the time I’m writing this). Even these seemingly little things make a big difference, especially as more and more people catch on!

Amelia, a long time NPDC camper and counselor, wrote in on our blog with a fabulous suggestion I wanted to share:

“Here is a tip I cam across recently. When you go to a restaurant, bring containers for leftovers instead of using the one-time-use styrofoam boxes [or plastic containers]. I can’t stand those things! Apparently it is convention in many European countries for restaurants to not even provide doggy bags; you have to bring the container yourself if you want to take your food home!

Lets break the norm and get rid of non-biodegradable one time use containers!”

Thanks Amelia! A great idea indeed! What other ideas are you guys trying out? Let us all know by leaving a comment on the blog post here.

Signing off until next time,



Garbage Can Challenge – December Update

My heart is full and my garbage can empty…well, not quite, but I have fun news to report! This past month, we met our challenge goal of filling only half of our garbage can for the entire month! Woohoo, celebrate!

I hope you too are finding ways to feel empowered and satisfied by your own trash reduction efforts. Feel free to fill me in on any progress, large or small, in the comment section below.

This month, I have begun to implement some new sustainable methods in our home. For one, I’ve committed to making hummus from scratch, starting with dry beans, and it’s been coming out totally amazing. I’m about to make my own toothpaste for the first time, we’ve been buying bread from the farmer’s market each week, and I have been consistently bringing my big glass storage jars with me when I shop so I can fill them with bulk items.

This morning I was at our local food co-op, The Hungry Hollow Co-op, which some of you may know, and the friendly cashier let me snap his picture with my jars at checkout.

All you need to do when bringing your own containers is take them to the register before you fill them up, and the cashier will weigh your jars (Tip: you don’t have to wait until your jars are completely empty to fill them up. They can just as easily be weighed with some food still in them). Then proceed to fill them up as usual. Very satisfying indeed. I had another experience this month where I brought a glass container to Fairway to try to buy fish without the plastic bag the butcher usually puts it in. It took a little longer, as it was a new experience for the butcher and there was some trial and error in figuring out how to tare out the container, but all in all it worked!

The experience of going into larger stores vs local co-ops is obviously different. I love to support my co-op and I do also purchase some items elsewhere. In those bigger stores, I’m learning it’s okay to ask for these more sustainable modifications, even though it might feel a little uncomfortable to do so. I’ve noticed that if I go in with a super positive, friendly attitude, the accommodations I request might get a funny look or two, but they are happily met.

A note on stickers….they are everywhere. In both of my pictures this month there are little stickers on each piece of produce. So annoying, right? Well, it drives me crazy! My only suggestion here is to buy more produce at farmers markets. I also try to pick through the produce and find some pieces without stickers 🙂

Temptations: This time year, the stores are full of trash producing temptations. Just today, I was so close to buying lovely organic mint chocolate truffle candies. They were on sale, right by the door when I walked in to the store. They were in my cart in two seconds flat. Then, I thought, “Wait…look at the packaging, Ayla!”… Each piece was individually wrapped and then all of them were in a non-recyclable package. Sadly, and a little proudly, I put them back on the shelf. I told myself there are lots of options for goodies that I can make. Speaking of which, Daniel’s birthday is this week and I have been trying to figure out what to make him for a dessert treat. In addition to a cake, I am planning on busting out my ice cream maker that has been sitting in a box since we got it as a wedding present! Did you know you can’t recycle ice cream containers??!!!? 🙁  I’ll let you know how my homemade experiment turns out!

While we did reach our garbage goal this month, we have not relaxed into a groove yet. It’s important to me that we maintain this goal and I would like to see if we can reduce even further. I know the longer we focus energy and efforts on this, the easier it will get and the more sustainable it will become. Thanks again for going on this journey with me!

Until next time!

Garbage Can Challenge – November Update

Hey all! How is everyone doing?

Refresher: Last month I set a family goal of reducing our garbage production by 1/2…

Well, our family garbage count this month did not reach our goal. We did have about a foot of empty space at the top of the can though. I would say it was still a little over 3/4 of the way full. While I felt slightly defeated, I was also happy to see some improvement! It’s made me realize this is going to be a process. No surprise, as there are rarely any quick fixes in life, right? I’m reminded that creating a sustainable model is so much more important than a quick fix. I’d like to apply that lesson here and take a slight amount of pressure off of reaching an ambitious goal, and focus more on how to get there. I’m going to allow myself the time to reach my goal over the course of this year, as I find alternatives to some of my plastic consumption and create sustainable new habits.

The other day I had a wonderful conversation with my neighbor, who is an avid recycler and garbage-aware person. She said something that struck me as profound. She said, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, there’s a reason it’s in that order! Reduce is the operative and most important word here”. Kind of obvious, right? Maybe I am showing my naïveté, but I had never realized the order of the words in that phrase! I mentioned in my last post that I noticed there were some things I had been throwing away that could be recycled, and that my recycling bins have been more full then ever now. And while recycling is important, reduction is most imperative.

The same neighbor also mentioned a segment on NPR she heard called, Why Recycling Options Lead People To Waste More; it highlights some studies showing that if we know something can be recycled we are more likely to overuse and waste it. Click here to read/listen to the 3 minute story. It’s really interesting!

So, my take-away and focus for this next month is going to be starting at the top – the number one R, REDUCE! My biggest reduction effort this past month was switching to cloth diapers for my daughter. I had always thought I would cloth diaper my child, but for a variety of reasons got hooked on disposables. After trying several kinds of cloth diapers (you wouldn’t believe how many types of cloth diapers are on the market these days), I have found some that work for us and am absolutely thrilled. This switch was, for sure, the main reason our garbage production was reduced this past month.

What’s in your garbage can? Most of our family’s garbage is plastic from food packaging. I am beginning to think about some items I might be willing to give up the store bought version of and consistently make my own instead, or buy in a package-free version. I invite you to do the same. Any bread, cheese, or tortilla chip makers out there? How about laundry detergent, deodorant or toothpaste makers? Please, share recipes in the comments section of our blog!

Some REDUCTION ideas:

  • Bring your own grocery bags and shopping bags – an obvious one.
  • Compost – if you aren’t already. I recently read that 40% of municipal waste is compostable!
  • Just say no to plastic produce bags! Use reusable bags instead.
  • Buy in bulk when you can, and bring your own container for your bulk items. I haven’t been to a small food co-op that wasn’t on board with this one. I even brought some glass jars to fill at Fairway this month (this was not so easy and they were a bit annoyed, however). There are several ‘zero-waste’ stores in NYC. Check them out! Wish I lived closer to these.
  • Make your own  ______ (fill in the blank, the options are endless).

Signing off for now,


Garbage Can Challenge – October Update

Okay, so, the moment of truth: how much garbage did you produce this month? What’s your family’s baseline? I’ll tell you, if you tell me :).

Well, that’s not exactly how this newsletter thing works, but I would love to hear from all of you with a comment on this post!

Our family (2 adults and one baby) produced 1 large outdoor garbage can this month, and A LOT of recycling. Along with tracking our garbage this month, I did start to pay attention to recycling more. Our county sent a very helpful magnet about what can be recycled where we live, which I referred to after writing to you last month. I must admit, I realized there were things that I had been throwing away that could actually be recycled. I then found that we had heaps of plastic recyclables, which I am far from thrilled about. Ultimately, I’d like to cut down on our plastic consumption overall, even the kind that can be recycled. I will be thinking about this over the coming weeks and months.

Now that you know our baseline, you might be asking, “So? What’s your goal for the challenge!?”

Drum-roll please…
My family garbage goal for this year is: to cut our garbage in half! Is that realistic? I am not sure. We are going to try though, and I know we’re going to learn a lot doing it!

How about you? How much garbage did you produce this month? How much would you like to reduce your trash by? Any initial thoughts on how?

Let’s get the juices flowing!

Helpful tips for diverting items from the garbage can:

  • If you aren’t clear on what you can and can’t recycle, a quick google search of ‘____ county recycling’, should get you to a list. I recommend posting this list near your garbage/recycling area. Here are some lists I’ve collected to get you started: NYC RecyclingRockland County RecyclingBergen County RecyclingWestchester County Recycling. Also, if you are looking to recycle something odd or unusual, like batteries, auto fluids, electronics etc., you can go here and type in the item and your zip code to find a location to recycle them near you!
  • Check every piece of trash before throwing it away. You might be surprised at what can be recycled!

Good luck to us all!

Garbage Can Challenge – YOU IN!?

This past spring, a few of us camp administrators got together and watched the movie Plastic Paradise (Warning: watch before you think about showing this to your children, there are some graphic parts). It was truly horrific, BUT equally inspiring. The film spells out that unless we, the consumers, stop buying plastic, it will not stop being made! And, if you haven’t guessed it – our plastic use is way out of hand and causing major environmental ramifications. Did you know that if current plastic production and disposal patterns continue, there will be more plastic, by weight, in the oceans than fish?

So, how much garbage does your family produce? In a day? A week? A year? Do you have a sense?

I’ve recently been so excited by the stories of families who’ve committed to living a zero or extremely low waste lifestyle. I’ve also heard of other families that only allow themselves to produce enough waste to fill up one garbage can… for the entire year! What courageous and conscious decisions!

For me, these inspiring challenges feel a little out of reach right now. I try to pay close attention to recycling and composting, but the garbage still fills up faster than I expect it to, and to be honest, I am not even sure how many cans of garbage we fill in an average week or month.

Knowing I definitely wanted to make some degree of change, I began asking myself: how can I reduce the garbage our family produces in a real and tangible way? And, what will make me commit to a goal for the long run? Then, I thought of all of you – our camp community, who I know also care deeply for the earth! It is always helpful to work together and get through challenges as a group.

If any of this is resonating, tell your children, get them on board, and start the challenge with us!

Here’s how to get the ball rolling and keep it going all year:

Step 1: Figure out how much garbage your family is producing as a baseline. You could weigh your garbage bags before you put them out for pickup, or simply count how many bags you toss each time. Notice how much of your waste stream is made up of single-use plastics – plastics that are used only once before they are thrown “away” (i.e. plastic bags, produce bags, straws, coffee stirrers, plastic wrap, etc.).

Step 2: Set a reduction goal you think is doable for your family, that will push you to try some new sustainable choices.

Step 3: Over this year, keep track of your garbage consumption and see if you can meet or surpass your goal!

I propose that we complete our baseline garbage tracking and our family goal setting (any ‘1 garbage can for the entire year’ families out there?) by the next issue of The Dirt, say, mid-October.

For the rest of the year, in each month’s Dirt, I will post about how my family (Daniel, Odelia and I) is doing with the challenge. I’ll also write about things we find helpful along the way!

If you’re in, please visit the Garbage Can Challenge page of our blog to reply with a ‘Yes! We are joining the challenge!’. I encourage you to reply regarding what your garbage goals are and, in future posts, how the challenge is going. This community sharing will help all of us all stay motivated and on track! I’m really looking forward to reading your posts. Pictures of your garbage (and/or recycling and compost) are also most welcome!

SO….WHO’S IN? I know Emily Selover, our Sustainability Queen, is!

I’m very excited about this,