“Garbage. All I’ve been thinking about all week is garbage,” said Andie MacDowell’s character in the opening of the 1989 film “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” She is explaining her latest obsession to her therapist. “I’ve gotten real concerned over what’s gonna happen with all the garbage. We’ve got too much of it. We have to run out of places to put this stuff eventually.”

Well, 30 years later, that is exactly what has happened. Landfills are overflowing, and the oceans are plugged with five giant garbage patches. One, situated halfway between California and Hawaii, is twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France (Scott Snowden, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Will Collect Data on Plastic Pollution,” Forbes, 2019).

Sadly, we have been under the misconception that our diligent recycling efforts are helping. But we’ve been duped. Much of what we think we are recycling is actually being shipped overseas and picked through by meagerly paid workers for items that can be reused at a profit. What can’t be reprocessed, including items that are contaminated by food waste and non-recyclable parts and pieces, is thrown into landfills (Erin McCormick, “Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America’s dirty Secret,” The Guardian, 2019). Some of the lighter plastics blow away and end up in waterways and the ocean.

Sigh. Where does that leave us? Should we just give up? What is the point of our efforts if this is what happens?

The good news is that over the years we have gotten in the habit of sorting our trash. We think before we discard, no longer tossing everything willy nilly into one trash bin as we did not so long ago. So that’s a really good start and something that should encourage us.

Most of us are in the habit of keeping reusable shopping bags in our cars. It’s commonplace to see people heading towards a store with an armful of reusable bags. Regardless of whether you are buying groceries, clothing or other household supplies, this is a practice that, if you haven’t already done so, makes all kinds of sense in terms of decreasing waste. Although Seattle banned plastic bags in 2012, I’ve noticed that some stores still offer them. Rather than accept one of those if I forget my bag, I’ll juggle the loose items to my car where my empty, forgotten bag is strumming its fingers waiting to be filled.

At a certain point, I believe that we have to look at our consumption. How much of our purchasing is frivolous? What is the packaging like, and where will it end up? Do the things we buy have more than one use before ending up in our trash or recycle bins?

For 20 years, my family of four spent summers sailing the Pacific Northwest Coast. When we were in remote areas without garbage disposal, out of necessity, we learned to minimize our trash. We chose cans over plastic or glass because they could be rinsed, crushed and stored for later recycling. We flattened cardboard packaging and stowed it until we could recycle it. Unavoidable plastic was washed in seawater, cut up and put in the trash. Food waste was stored in a sealable container to avoid stinking up our boat. Paper toweling was used sparingly, opting instead for sponges or rags.

None of this was to prove a point but rather to conserve space and keep our boat from feeling like a garbage barge. We found that we were able to go for a week or more without filling up even one trash bag! Of course, when we returned home, we were not quite as diligent, there being curbside trash disposal and recycling. But what if we adopted some of those ideas and formed new habits about trash disposal and recycling now that we know the truth?

As I mentioned in my last column, thinking about our purchases is a start. Considering whether or not we need that particular item in that particular packaging would begin turning some of our consumption and accumulation habits around.

  1. Instead of buying butter or margarine in a plastic tub, buy the sticks that come in a paper box.

  2. Instead of plastic zip-lock bags, try waxed paper, brown paper sandwich bags. Stores are also selling waxed cotton food bags and bowl covers that work well.

  3. Instead of hand soap in a plastic bottle, how about bar soap that comes wrapped in paper, placed in a little dish by the sink?

  4. Instead of buying yogurt in plastic tubs, make your own. It’s easy and delicious! Below is a recipe that I have used for years, avoiding hundreds of plastic containers.

When boating, a slight course correction can make the difference between smooth sailing and ending up on the rocks.

This week’s Course Correction: Home-made yogurt. You need one half gallon of milk (in a cardboard container, of course), one single serving of plain yogurt, and a thermometer that measures surface temperature or can be submerged in liquid (don’t use a meat thermometer). These are sold anywhere kitchen gadgets are sold including many supermarkets.

Heat milk in a saucepan to 180 degrees, stirring occasionally. Cool to 110 degrees, keeping the yogurt on the counter. Stirring gently, spoon some of the cooled milk into the yogurt, so as not to shock the cultures. Add the yogurt to the milk, stirring gently. Cover the pan, wrap the whole thing in a towel and let it sit for about eight to 10 hours at room temperature. Line a colander with paper coffee filters and drain the whey until the yogurt is the consistency you like. Store in a glass container, saving half a cup for your next batch. Tip: I make mine before I hit the sack so that the yogurt does its thing overnight. Always use plain yogurt, not sweetened or flavored.

Irene Panke Hopkins is a writer and essayist whose work has appeared in Real Simple Magazine, 48° North and various anthologies.