Greening My Family
By Diane Gow McDilda
As I cleared the kitchen counter for the evening, tossing salad bits into the compost bucket and toting our cloth napkins to the laundry room, I noticed my middle school daughter’s lunch bag off in the corner. Its paisley fabric, once a mixture of bright blues, was worn from repetitive trips to the cafeteria and time spent on the school bus and in classrooms.
Because I passed the sack lunch torch onto my daughters when they graduated elementary school, I rarely pack or empty their lunch bags anymore. But this evening I had time, the bag was there, so I opened it. And there it was. I was aghast. Did my eyes deceive me?
There in her lunch bag was an empty single use water bottle. A bottle that wasn’t refilled from perfectly healthy, mass distributed tap water, but a flimsy bottle made from petroleum products to be used one time then discarded. Its destiny? To be hauled 50 miles away where it would spend eternity buried amongst cereal boxes and leftover spaghetti in a landfill.
Yes, I know—and possibly care—far too much about garbage. As a solid waste engineer, I visited landfills (note: they are highly engineered structures, not dumps, I swear) across the state of Florida. And a vacation hasn’t gone by that while traveling down a highway I didn’t sniff the air, noticing the warm smell of methane, and say, “Smell that girls? It’s a landfill,” sometimes pointing out the glow of the landfill gas flares or the birds circling overhead as I spoke.
It’s true, my knowledge of and passion for the environment are a burden my family bears. Along with the other more routine motherly duties, like cooking, cleaning, tutoring, and toting, I’m also known to “gently remind” them that we have but one planet and the healthier our planet, the healthier we are as a species. And all the while I thought they were listening, I felt in my heart they shared my passion. I was convinced of this because they often responded to my gentle reminders with, “I know, I know!” What vindication.
But alas, there were other powers at work. My children were not taking my message to heart and I as a parent had to find out why. I called my daughter, Cassidy, into the kitchen, holding the evidence in front of me.
“A single use water bottle?” I asked with a desperate squeak in my voice. “But why?”
“Mom, you don’t understand,” she started. “All the kids buy them. At least I’m rinsing mine out and reusing it.”
“But what about all of the pretty BPA-free reusable bottles we have in the cupboard?”
“Mom, it’s just not cool.”
Cool. The battle was lost. I didn’t think I had the power in me to fight cool. As stalwart as I might be, I feel for the safety-in-numbers behavior of middle schoolers. But, I’d like to know too that my daughters can break from the crowd if need be.
I work to find lessons in most awkward situations and this one was no different. Here was an opportunity to explore the ways of teenagers, who on one hand could feel so fervent about a hair style or sports team, but were able to so simply turn their backs, without remorse, on something I felt was equally, if not more, important.
What I learned from both my middle and high school daughters was that we are a disposable society. I already knew this, but it was seriously reinforced. Our teenagers, like many of the adults, do not recognize waste as a personal responsibility and an ecological issue. Sure, I can cite statistics that the average American generates about four pounds of garbage a day and that nearly eight out of 10 plastic water bottles ends up in the trash. But, on the whole, this won’t change behavior. We all buy, we all throw away.
And while I may have lost the single use water bottle battle, I will not surrender the war. I will not throw my hands in the air and give up on driving home the importance of reusable containers or grocery bags (which you can eventually get in the habit of remembering to take to the grocery store—so don’t give up).
I may not be able to turnaround society’s eco-foibles, but as a parent it’s my responsibility to make an impression on my own kids. Yes, fitting in is important, but standing by your beliefs (or your mother’s beliefs in this instance) has its own rewards. Cool or not, walk with your chin held high, your chest out (to a point), and your reusable water bottle backed in your lunch bag.
Diane Gow McDilda is mother of two and wife of one. She lives in Gainesville, FL and works as a technical writer. She is the author of The Everything Green Living Book.