Free Serenity

This week was bulk pickup week in my neighborhood, a.k.a. that time of year when people set perfectly good stuff out on the curb. Of course, it’s also a great time to find awesome new things without buying new. I adopted a small armchair that needs upholstering, a small wicker basket, and this beautiful canvas artwork. Gazing into it fills me with a sense of serenty.

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But I passed by other art, tv stands, floor lamps, a telescope, and so many other things.

Do you have bulk pickup in your area? It’s a great time to take a stroll, and if you see something you like grab it! It sure beats pushy salespeople and new-stuff prices anyday.

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Book Review: The Good Gut

At this month’s Talk Green to Me book club, we had two book options to read. I had already read Michael Pollan’s Cooked, so this time I dug into The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long Term Health.

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I’d seen all the yogurt commercials plugging benefits of probiotics but never really understood what they were or considered giving them a shot. This book was my first introduction into the world of gut health, and I would recommend it to anyone. The authors describe how with all of the bacteria that thrive within your gut, it’s really its own microbiome that requires care and maintenance, and the very real impacts it can have on your health.

“Our gut bacteria belong on the endangered species list. The average American has approximately 1,200 different species of bacteria residing in his or her gut. That may seem like a lot until you consider that the average Amerindian living in the Amazonas of Venezuela has roughly 1,600 species, a full third more. Similary, other groups of humans with lifecycles and diets more similar to our ancient human ancestors have more varied bacteria in their gut than we Americans do.”

They go on to detail about the history of how man evolved in a symbiotic relationship with various kinds of gut bacteria, how the womb is a sterile environment but the mother’s bacteria is passed to the child through natural birth, how what kind of bacteria you nurture directly affects your health sensitivities and weight, how antibiotics and certain diets can wreak havoc on your system, and so much more.

In the end, if you’re curious to know exactly what types of bacteria are living inside of you, the American Gut Project has options to send in a sample and find out, plus how it compares to other people. It’s a decent chunk of money, but I have to admit I’m curious and it’s on my list to revisit in a couple of months (to avoid impulse purchases).

Either way, it’s not too difficult to start adopting their tenets of a microbiota-friendly diet–feed your gut bacteria with plenty of complex carbohydrates, limit meat and saturated fat consumption, and consume beneficial microbes a.k.a. probiotics.

The book provides a list of options for probiotic food sources. For those who like me are trying to cut dairy, that cuts out the majority but leaves the vegetable (kimchee, pickles, sauerkraut) or grain/legume (miso, natto, tempeh) options, as well as kombucha. Or, as an easier first step, I’m thinking of making Zero Waste Chef’s carbonated lemonade, using a ginger bug for the carbonation. How can you go wrong with lemonade?

“If you pass small stools, you have to have large hospitals” – Dr. Denis Burkitt

Milk Matters

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Milk factory. Photo from The New York Public Library

Last November I decided to learn a bit more about water conservation. After all, this past summer we went 50 days without more than a trace of rain here in Austin, Texas. When picking up the book Taking on Water at the library, I intended to get some ideas on how to save water in the bathroom, laundry, or similar areas, and there were indeed some good insights there. But one thing that stuck out was the whopping amount of water that it takes to produce meat and dairy products. To produce one pound of beef requires 1800 gallons of water. One glass of milk requires 30 gallons of water.

Seeing the harmful effects of meat and dairy in this context just adds onto issues like methane emissions, excessive cow excrement, huge monoculture crops for feed, deforestation. I had already cut down on the amount of meat I eat and have also been mostly successful at sticking to grassfed, but it was time to do more.

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To try and get my husband on board, we watched the documentary Cowspiracy. And I stopped by the library and checked out a related book recommendation — The China Study. That first documentary had left me a bit defensive because although it started out well enough with the facts, it ended by pretty much saying that you’re an absolutely horrible person if you ever consume any milk or dairy products. The China Study wasn’t quite so damning but instead discussed scientific studies done which suggested that from a nutrition standpoint animal product consumption may not be required for human health and in some cases is likely harmful. There are a number of refutations of those results out there, but they’re targeted at the second part of that equation. Not many are saying that meat and milk are required.

In grade school I was taught that milk was critical to good health. It even had its own block on the food pyramid. And just now I’m finally learning that it’s not even necessary. The amount of protein I consume daily is more than enough, and it’s possible to get all the calcium I need from produce. Fewer calories dedicated to milk means I can get more diversity in the food I consume. Harvard’s alternate nutrition guidelines list milk as a water alternative, recommending limiting dairy to at the very most two servings per day.

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I’m not an activist for animal rights. And I’m still not quite convinced that drinking two tall glasses of milk a day will kill me. But I am an advocate of wasting less.

As I mentioned in my New Years Resolutions post, my general goal for the year is to consume less meat and dairy to conserve resources. For the first two weeks of the year, my husband and I followed a plant-based diet and the amazing thing was that it was fine. I didn’t miss meat and I didn’t miss dairy (other than when I ate unbuttered popcorn). Making my morning oatmeal with milk turned out totally fine. And I’ve never been a huge cheese fan. I’m not perfect, I’m sure to still have a pad of butter on special occasions when I can fully appreciate it. But it’s good to not have to lug home an extra half-gallon of milk from the grocery store for my consumption.

We have delicious tap water here. Tap is terrific!

 

Gardening With My Fingers Crossed

I have naturally tendencies towards thrift, and that’s what first gave me the idea a couple of years ago to try growing some of my food myself. Since then I’ve discovered many other reasons for growing my own food:

  • experiencing the joy of creating something
  • getting a bit of exercise
  • conserving the soil and getting my hands dirty occasionally
  • knowing exactly where my food came from and how it was grown
  • really appreciating the work farmers put in to grow the food I buy at the market
  • not having to deal with the waste from bagged carrots or stickered cucumbers

Earlier attempts

I started small, with just watermelons that first summer. It was a total failure because I was using seeds from a supermarket watermelon, but I wasn’t deterred.

That winter I grew some carrots and radishes. That first carrot was so tender and sweet that I swore to grow carrots every year from then on. Sadly, when I invited my young cousin to the backyard to harvest a couple of the still-small carrots, she got over-enthused and pulled almost all of them. Only a couple survived to grow to adulthood.

Last summer my watermelon attempt was sad again, even with seeds from a packet. Maintaining a summer garden in Texas is tough. My sunflowers grew tall and beautiful, but attracted too many bugs and ended up not even having any kernels in the seeds. At least I got a few good cucumbers that go round and my purchased oregano plant happily took root and provided for many meals of spaghetti. As it started cooling off a bit, I took a shot at growing some peas but only ate a few before an early frost killed off my plants.

This winter is already off to a decent start, though, with the standard radishes and a couple of carrots eaten early. (They take forever to grow… or maybe I just need to water them more often). Even though my few spinach plants haven’t produced much I’ve picked some of the leaves to eat and am also considering just eating the broccoli leaves as well since I don’t see any indication that a head will ever form on those two broccoli plants. The onion seeds and garlic I planted in the fall are promising long-term success.

Purchases for this year

Last week I took a morning off to visit The Natural Gardener. It’s not at all convenient on public transit but has a great selection of seeds and other goodies. Unlike last year’s visit, this time I was disciplined enough to not buy a fancy new pot. Only things that would go in the ground in my garden (plus paper wrapping and a rubber band for the onions).

Kennebec seed potatoes

So I’m not sure I even have the room to grow potatoes, but there’s a little patch of dirt where I’m going to try it. At least I think there’s enough finished compost to pile on top as the plants start to grow. It was just over a buck for all these seed potatoes so no harm done if I fail this attempt.

Watermelon Radishes

These are for the fall garden but like I said, that garden store is not convenient so I stashed them away now. One bunch of watermelon radishes at the farmers market is $2.75, so $2.99 for the seed packet is a good deal if I grow even just five radishes.

Italian Roma Tomatoes

Some people say tomatoes are easy to grow, but they intimidate me a bit. I hear they can attract the leaf-footed stink bugs that my sunflowers attracted last summer, and those things really freaked me out. But I love so many things with tomato sauce so am already mentally preparing myself for what it will take to have my own source for spaghetti, pizza, chili, red rice, and many other delicious foods. ($2.39)

California Wonder Bell Peppers

A bit of bell pepper goes into almost any entree, and frozen bell pepper would work easily well most of the time. So fingers crossed that we get a decent yield from these. ($1.99)

Tam Jalapeño

I’m not a fan of spicy foods, so this is a mild jalapeño. If this produces a lot and my husband doesn’t gobble them all up, I can prep and freeze some to add a slight kick to winter stews and such. ($2.50)

Italian Large Leaf Parsely

At $3.79 these were the most expensive seeds I picked up this trip, and I kind of have the buyers remorse on this one. But if I can figure out more ways to eat parsley or grow a few parsley plants in pots to give as gifts, maybe it’ll be worthwhile.

Save the Bees Flower Mix

I wanted to get marigolds because I read they’re good companion plants for tomatoes. When they didn’t have any marigold seeds, though, I looked around for any other kind of beneficial flowers. This mix lists basil, cilantro, dill, and other useful herbs as ingredients, so I may get crazy at some point and try to identify and separate the seeds to use to my own design. ($2.69)

1015Y Onion transplants

I planted some onions from seed in October and have probably eight that are growing happily, but they’re scrawny in comparison to these transplants. Just $2.50 for a couple of dozen onion transplants? I couldn’t resist.

Peat Pellets

I saw these little pellets of dirt and thought they must be awesome because they’re zero waste. No price tag or anything. At only 18 cents each, I picked up six of them to give them a try. Sad to say, after some investigation into how to use them it turns out that harvesting from peat bogs is horrible for the environment. Plus, there’s some netting around the peat which is supposed to be biodegradable but is made up of unknown composition. This’ll definitely be a one-time thing.

A Saturday in the Garden

When the weekend came around, it was time to get to work.

Compost

Yesterday was cold but after the sun came out and warmed things up a little I did a bit of weeding, a little raking, and checked out the status of my compost pile. I follow the lazy composting method of throwing it on the ground but have been exceptionally lazy in that I rarely bother to turn it. Much to my delight there was some rich dark crumbly stuff underneath, which you can see just a bit of in this picture. If my shovel wasn’t broken I would’ve turned it more. That’s one thing on my “things to buy” list.

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Backyard compost pile

1015Y Onion Transplants

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Onion success!

This was my primary goal of getting outside this weekend. These babies needed to get in the ground and get some water. Now there are a couple dozen onion transplants scattered about my garden bed, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce

Next up was to use up some of my old seeds that might not make it to next season.

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I’ve tried growing a little bit of this lettuce indoors but wasn’t too impressed. Maybe it’ll work better outdoors. Or maybe it’ll freeze and die. The only reason I bought this last year was because I made the mistake of going into a Walmart where I saw seed packets for 20 cents each. I really need to stay out of those places.

English Peas

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I was a bit surprised to find planting peas on the gardening calendar for this season, but there they were. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of planting the peas without first soaking them in water overnight as the instructions state. There may not be much hope for this year. But fingers crossed anyway and heavy watering for the next couple of days.

By the way, use #238 for t-shirt yarn: substitute for twine in garden trellises.

Danvers Half Long Carrots

There were just a few of these seeds left, so I found room for an extra row in the garden bed. Historically for me these have taken several months to mature so once again I have my fingers crossed that these will turn out okay.

A Sunday Indoors

Okay, so I didn’t spend all of today indoors, but my gardening focus was all indoors as I prepped for the Spring garden.

Four tomato seeds and three pepper seeds are now each nestled into their own pellet container or yogurt pot and all together in a small baking dish in a plastic bag. This should make a nice mini-greenhouse for them. I’m planing to start a few more in a couple of weeks so I have plants ready to transplant at different times.

I also started two mini-pots of thyme from seed. The seed packet they were in had time to harvest listed as 180 days so no holding my breath until those are ready.

Last of all was another packet of lettuce to finish up. This one is a microgreens variety which, although it tastes alright, produces such a small amount of greens and is so annoying to harvest that I probably won’t bother to get any more such seeds again.

It’s two dark to take decent photos now, so in conclusion here are photos taken earlier of my two Meyer lemon plants grown from seed, over a year old but not obvious by looking at them. Poor little guys.

Wish me luck!

January 23 Food Haul

It was cold out getting the groceries this morning. Maybe a good day to make a big pot of hearty, veggie soup. Yum!

Stop 0: Wheatsville Co-op

My husband snuck off to do his own grocery shopping earlier this week to stock up on junk food plus a couple of peppers.

  • Red bell pepper, 0.48 pounds: $1.44
  • Jalapeno pepper, 0.09 pounds: $0.16
  • Vegan mozarella, 8 ounces: $4.79
  • Hemp milk, 1 quart: $3.99
  • Chocolate hemp milk, 1 quart: $3.99
  • Milk chocolate, 1 heart: $0.89
  • Tofurkey hot dogs: $3.74
  • Tofurkey sausage: $3.74

Total: $22.81

First stop: Wheatsville Co-op

My first shop with my new Co-op membership card! I don’t expect it to financially be worth the $70 I invested for at least a few years, but you know what they say: “Put your money where your mouth is.”

  • IMG_20160123_114838Yellow onion, 1.46 pounds: $2.18
  • Carrots, 1.36 pounds: $2.03
  • Granny Smith apples, 0.71 pounds: $1.77
  • Red delicious apples, 0.94 pounds: $2.15
  • Tomato, 1.48 pounds: $1.68
  • Mango: $1.99
  • Garlic, 0.20 pounds: $1.16
  • Avocado: $1.99
  • Spinach, 0.20 pounds: $1.40
  • Baking soda, 2 pounds: $1.79
  • Toilet paper: $1.49
  • Green lentils, 2.94 pounds: $4.97
  • Garbanzo beans, 1.19 pounds: $3.32
  • Brown rice, 1.30 pounds: $3.63
  • Almonds, 0.61 pounds: $7.31

Total: $36.00

Sorry for the lousy photo. I was pressed for time this morning. But you should be able to make out my new labeling system for bulk foods. Rather than using the stickers at the store, I cut up a piece of old junk mail and wrote on the back, rubber banding the tare and PLU to each jar. Sadly, in the process of picking out rubber bands, I realized a couple had gone brittle and needed to be thrown out.

New-to-me food: chickpeas, aka garbanzo beans. If I remember to soak these tonight, I’ll cook them up tomorrow and freeze the extras as usual. I hear they have a nice nutty flavor.

Second stop: Downtown Farmers Market

  • IMG_20160123_114007Spaghetti squash: $4.00
  • Brocolli: $8.00
  • White mushrooms: $4.00
  • Bok choi: $2.00
  • Radishes: $2.00
  • Lettuce: $3.00

Total: $23.00

You can’t really tell from that picture but those heads of broccoli are huge. I may have to prep and freeze some of it for the upcoming broccoli-free months.

New-to-me veg #1–the French breakfast radishes. I’m assuming aren’t too different from other radishes, though.

New-to-me veg #2: Bok choi. I have no idea what to do with this yet, but I’ve seen this in recipes in the past, which I promptly ignored because they required bok choi, so it shouldn’t be too hard to make a plan for it.

Last stop: Backyard garden

Not much to harvest, but I did pick one precious carrot. Just a couple of inches long and so sweet and tender. Not wanting to waste anything, I ate it leaves and all.

Small carrot fresh-picked in the backyard garden
Carrot from backyard garden (before washing)

Peak Curtains

When I usually think of Ikea I think of cheap, disposable furniture that can frequently be found in the Craigslist free section. So it was no surprise when reading how Ikea officer Steve Howard recently told The Guardian:

“If we look on a global basis, in the west we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff … peak home furnishings.”

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Peak Curtains – Photo by sarflondondunc

This current apex which Howard also describes as “peak curtains” certainly seems unsustainable to many, but mainly in the sense that we’re using up resources and creating more piles of waste. It’s interesting to hear how this is actually also unsustainable from a business perspective. As individual items are constructed and sold cheaper and cheaper, it makes sense that there must be some kind of limit. Howard suggested that Ikea can continue growing with some changes, stating

“We will be increasingly building a circular Ikea where you can repair and recycle products”.

It’s a step in the right direction, but vague enough that I’m not sure what it means. For example, I myself own two Ikea chairs. They’re okay but the fabric is super cheap and starting to get ugly. Does “repair” include reupholstery or at least higher quality slipcovers?

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Two Ikea chairs in need of some decent upholstery

I’m hoping that statement above doesn’t mean Ikea’s going to create a giant recycling system for people to throw their old chairs into, which can then be disassembled or shredded and reused for materials. (I hear they shred their old catalogs this way and stuff them into new cushions.)

Although these aren’t my favorite chairs, they serve their purpose and are just ready and waiting for me to improve on them. Maybe this falls under the category “repair” and Ikea really is encouraging people to love their furnishings for longer. Here’s hoping. 🙂

As for curtains, that’s one area where my home furnishings are definitely lacking. But I have a sewing machine and some large pillow cases to tackle any small windows. One day I hope to even make a pair of these awesome patchwork curtains to show off in my living room. And if I run out of thread? Well, I guess I could pick some up at Ikea, but I don’t really expect to be buying anything there unless they stop making me walk past a bunch of cheap crap to find what I need.

Book Review: Junkyard Planet

I love reading books about waste, so it should come as no surprise that I recently picked up a copy of Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade at the library.

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In my head, when I saw the word “junkyard” I was thinking “landfill” but it’s not about that at all. This is about junkyards in the old fashioned sense of the word–junk to someone but valuable resources to someone else–and would be more appropriately named Scrapyard Planet.

The book begins with a bold statement:

[I]f what you toss into your recycling bin can be used in some way, the international scrap recycling business will manage to deliver it to the person or company who can do so most profitably.

The author Minter was raised with a junkyard as the family business and for many years afterwards reported on the scrap business in China, so he may be a bit biased. But he knows his stuff and elaborates on how even something like a broken strand of Christmas lights, which no one here would think of as more than trash, really does have value. In Shinjiao, a.k.a. the Christmas Tree Light Recycling Capital of the World, the copper is extracted from the strands for reuse and even the plastic can be salvaged when it is worth enough. So much depends on the current market.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what happens to your recycling, read this book. It explains why it’s usually cheaper (and possibly greener) to ship recycling to China rather than doing so locally, and also why many Chinese villages are eager for this kind of business despite the inherent health and environmental problems. Plus, there are several happy highlights where what could be recycled is actually salvaged and reused instead, saving the costs of remanufacturing something into the same exact thing.

One of the most shocking parts for me, though, was how cell phones don’t get reused if they’re more than a few years old, even if they’re in good condition. In many cases the chips and other parts can still be salvaged, but no one wants a dated phone these days. It must have been just my wishful thinking that assumed only Americans were like that.

Minter himself realizes that reuse is superior to recycling and not just because you can make more money off of it (although that helps). In the closing section he even goes so far as to promote reducing, the first of the 3 R’s:

Above all, though, I encourage people to think about what it means to recycle, and make smart choices as a consumer before you buy that thing you’ll eventually toss out. Recycling is a morally complicated act.

After reading this, I’m glad I skipped this Christmas lights this year. It would be nice to do something to decorate, but it’ll have to be with materials that are easily reusable or recyclable. Things that I can fix myself if they break. Using your creativity grows your creativity. Although if I come across a soda can laying on the ground, that’s definitely going straight in the bin. Recycled beats new any day.

January 16 Food Haul

This may be a bit crazy, but I’m already getting anxious about how close we are to Spring. Earlier this week I clipped a few little leaves from my spinach plants but nothing else was ready. At least there’ll be another batch of radishes ready soon. Anyhow, to the shops!

First stop: Wheatsville Co-op

  • IMG_20160116_115613Bell pepper, 0.46 pounds: $0.92
  • Celery, 0.65 pounds: $1.29
  • Russet potatoes, 1.60 pounds: $2.38
  • Carrots, 1.28 pounds: $2.47
  • Jalapeño, 0.03 pounds: $0.05
  • Avocado, x1: $1.99
  • White onions, 0.78 pounds: $1.55
  • Baby spinach, 0.26 pounds: 1.82
  • Vegan cheddar, 7.10 ounces: $4.99
  • Berry spread: $3.49
  • Corn tortillas, x30: $1.49
  • Toilet paper, x2: $1.58
  • Wheat flour, 0.85 pounds: $2.54
  • Brown rice, 1.18 pounds: $2.96
  • Split peas, 0.73 pounds: $1.31
  • Spelt, 0.62 pounds: $1.56
  • Coconut milk, 64 ounces: $2.69
  • Tofurkey sausage, 4 sausages: $3.99

Total: $39.20

More food substitutes for my  husband. Sausage, milk, and even cheese. He was thrilled. Apparently, the vegan cheddar tastes very close to the real thing, but the number of ingredients is crazy. I’m glad he understands that I won’t be getting him that stuff every week.

Also, I love the idea of buying flour from the bulk bins since I sometimes get in a rut and don’t make any bread for a while, but $3 a pound? This may be the only time I do such a thing. There’s space in the freezer anyhow.

On the plus side, a bulk bin full of baby spinach? That’s fantastic! My cravings are finally satisfied, and without a single-use bag of guilt to accompany them.

Next Stop: Downtown Farmers Market

    • IMG_20160116_113950Mushrooms: $4.00
    • Meyer lemon: $1.00
    • Watermelon radish, 1 bunch: $2.75
    • Heirloom tomatoes, 1 basket: $6.00
    • Spaghetti squash, 1 basket: $4.00

Red cabbage: $2.00

Total: $19.75

These were some of the very last tomatoes from Engel Farms for the season. I was getting spoiled having tomatoes constantly available, guess I’ll have to learn other things to eat.

Reduce, Reuse, and THEN Recycle

The city of Austin has introduced the Austin Recycles Games as a way to promote recycling.

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The Austin Recycles Games are a recycling competition among the 10 city council districts. The goal of the competition is to increase residential recycling and create awareness of barriers residents face.
The Austin Recycles Games will calculate pounds of recyclables collected per household in each district for the months of December 2015 through March 2016.

While the overall concept is a good idea, the goal is a bit suspect:

The goal is for every curbside customer to recycle at least 60 pounds every month.

As a zero waste advocate, I’m here to tell you that if you use fewer recyclables than that in a month, that’s fantastic! It may not count towards this contest, but I will happily give you bonus points for:

  • refusing single-use plastic beverage containers when eating out
  • making your own salsa instead of buying it in a glass jar
  • signing up for “do not mail” lists
  • eating more fresh local veggies instead of buying tinned
  • avoiding bottled water like the plague
  • not buying goods online, packed and delivered in cardboard boxes
  • not buying cheapo plastic laundry baskets that quickly fall apart

That last one I mention only because that’s one of the illustrated examples of recyclable hard plastic in the informational graphic below.

So there is a plus side to this contest at least in that they’re using it as an educational opportunity for teaching people what is and isn’t recyclable in our area. This is great because I have seen plastifoil chip bags, banana peels, used napkins, and even wooden jewelry boxes in various recycling bins and am sometimes too overwhelmed to deal with it. So for those of you in Austin, take a good look below or visit What Do I Do when you have any recycling questions like whether or not plastic straws are recyclable here. (Hint: They’re not.)

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And if you did have any of those items in the trash bin instead of the recycling, as the promotion says…

Stop trashing so many recyclables; let’s toss them all “IN THE BIN FOR THE WIN!”