Things I bought in January

At the start of the month there were several things on my list of purchases I wanted to make. I must have been on a spree because now that list is totally empty!

I bought food, a bus pass, and paid the bills. As for everything else, there were a bunch of plants and plenty of not new stuff, but there were a few brand new items thrown in as well.

Plants

These are mostly perennials which will last us year after year. The only short-lived plant in this batch is the bluebonnet but, well, this is Texas and the seeds I scattered around the yard apparently didn’t take this year. If they don’t sprout next year, I’ll just have to deal with it and visit a bluebonnet patch elsewhere to relive my childhood memories.

  • Potting soil (my last bag lasted a year, so not too bad)
  • Bluebonnet
  • Spearmint
  • Provence lavender
  • Lemon balm
  • Esperanza (to help shade the south side of the house in summer)
  • Fuyu persimmon (for shade and future fruit)

Not New Stuff

I’ve been careful to avoid Goodwill several times this month and didn’t even stop at the Really Really Free Market, so before tallying this up I had no idea I got so many new-to-me things! Fortunately, they’re mostly useful. I’d been wanting/needing a good ladder for the past year, have worn out a couple of pairs of shoes recently, and checked off a few punch list items for the house.

  • Replacement doorknobs (Habitat ReStore)
  • Porchlight cover (Habitat ReStore)
  • Trim paint (Habitat ReStore)
  • Curtains (Habitat ReStore)
  • Jigsaw puzzles (Freecycle)
  • Gorilla ladder (Craigslist)
  • Curtain rod brackets (Savers)
  • Shoes (Savers)
  • Cast iron mini-skillet (Goodwill)
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Comfy new-to-me shoes
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Mini-skillet to melt butter for popcorn (or cook something small like an egg)

New Stuff

This list could have been shorter, but I wouldn’t take any of it back.

  • Toilet paper and bar soap.
  • Rat traps and cementish puttyish stuff because rats got into the attic. I was planning to take care of this myself but then a month passed without me doing anything, with possible chewing of wires and everything else the whole time. Fortunately, we were able to get an expert, who took care of sealing up all entrances to make sure our home is protected. We’re now proudly rat-free.
  • Loppers. I’ve been borrowing my mom’s off-and-on for the past year to cut vines and prune shrubs and small branches. They’ve gotten a lot of use, so a pair of my own was definitely a need. And after a year of not coming across any in the secondhand shops, yard sales, or Freecycle/Craigslist, it was time to return my mom’s loppers for good.
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To prune all the things

That’s it for January. Unfortunately, writing this up has reminded me that there are still new things needed for other home repairs in the near future. Time to update the list and see which I can get secondhand. *fingers crossed*

Yet Another Way to Prevent Food Waste

At my office, on most days there is some kind of a meeting with leftover food. It usually winds up in one of the kitchen areas for people to randomly find. Some gets eaten, some ends up in the trash. At my office, we also use a chat program for communicating, so I created a chat channel called #free. This has worked great for not just meeting leftovers, but has included some items culled from folks’ pantries at home, personal lunch leftovers, non-food items, and a successful call to eat (or take home for banana bread) the very ripe and spotty bananas in the kitchen one day before they would have been thrown out. This has to be one of the easiest ways to keep food out of the landfill in an office. We’re up to 59 members now who share info on food that needs saving or at least will happily eat some of it. 🙂

Here are just a few of the many recent postings with successfully adopted items:

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Zero Waste Week – Day 5 – Goodwill Tour

Woohoo! It’s the last day of Zero Waste Week and I’ve made it through with, well, minimal waste. Today the Austin Zero Waste Lifecycle Meetup group went on a tour of the Goodwill Resource Center in south-east Austin. If you give something to Goodwill instead of throwing it in the trash, that’s no guarantee that it won’t end up in the landfill but they definitely do a lot working towards zero waste.

It started out with what definitely wasn’t a Zero Waste lunch, but I was prepared for this and had already eaten before arriving.

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Now I really want a Cheeto 😦

A few of the nice folks from this Resource Center and from Goodwill Central Texas shared some more information as other folks finished eating. The mission of Goodwill Central Texas is to empower people through work. That’s not just temporarily working at Goodwill but building the skills and experience to continue on to other opportunities. They’ve even done a ton of advocacy, going so far as to get laws changed, so they can offer the training and GED programs necessary for people to be successful in the workforce. Finding a job isn’t always easy for folks who are trying to make a life for themselves after getting out of prison, who have a disability, and other groups of people, so I’m glad that when I shop at Goodwill any profits are going to a good cause.

Next up, time for the tour! We all put on some orange vests and unfortunately for those of us who weren’t wearing glasses, we had to use some packaged glasses. (They were returned at the end of the tour.)

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I have a pair of lab goggles/glasses. If only I had known I’d need them!

The tour was worth it though. First up we passed through the Goodwill Outlet Store where as much as possible of the goods are sold. And then we passed along through the curtained doorways to where the real magic happens. Here a bin of unsold clothes gets loaded into the baler and ready to ship out to whomever is willing to pay for it.

Next up, we saw the sorting area where tons of hanging signs showed where to put almost every conceivable type of item. Depending on the type of commodity, these boxes and bales can then be sold for anywhere from $0.03 to $0.55 per pound.

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The sorting area has boxes and bins for small toys, luggage, paper, sports balls, vacuums, and so much more

Beyond that there are just boxes and boxes of stuff. All tagged and organized with what they have in them. Some are things that are ready to be sold either at this Outlet Store or shipped to one of the local Goodwill stores to be sold there. But it must be that that type gets disbursed fairly quickly because the majority of labels I saw was stuff that didn’t sell in the stores and is waiting to be sold on the commodity market.

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Computers are a special item because if they’re in working condition, they go to the MacFarlane store to be refurbished and resold. The machines and parts that are hopelessly broken just go to the recyclers.

But wait, that doesn’t look like a computer…

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A bale of stuffed animals hanging out among the electronics

Towards the back there are just stacks and stacks of bales of different materials, but definitely more clothing than anything else.

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Just a few of the clothes bales
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Oh hey, there’s some bales of plastic at the end of a clothing row.

And then of course, there’s the eCommerce department. Jewelry, books, expensive stuff. That all gets sold online so Goodwill can get the most possible value from it to put towards their mission.

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This could be a beautiful library, but they’re all being listed online
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Small items being packed up to ship
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And larger boxes for larger items

It’s not perfect, but Goodwill Central Texas is able to divert about 80% of the resources that come its way away from landfill, which is pretty amazing considering all the crap that people send to Goodwill constantly.

So that’s it, Zero Waste Week is over. I failed a bit at the end just because I missed eating out. Our final meal of ZWW was some fried rice from a chain not far from home. They still have real plates and real silverware, but at some point since my last visit they switched over to disposable cups. I survived without a cup of my own, but my husband’s cup of water tonight knocks off a few points for me. (And probably also his fortune and cookie wrapper, since he wouldn’t have gotten those had I not suggested eating out.) Oh yeah, and the receipt. At least I was prepared with my own containers for the leftovers and those will disappear tomorrow for sure.

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Don’t worry about the chopsticks. They’re from a previous meal that I’ve been reusing.

Everything Has Value

Every time I see a beverage can littered somewhere, I think of can collectors. Yes, the men who would go around collecting cans in a large cart or large bag to take to the cash-for-cans machine. Why don’t I ever see them anymore? Why are so many areas totally littered with cans? Is it because they no longer have any value? Is there too much other trash to wade through everywhere? Or is it just not convenient enough to be worthwhile?

When I was younger, my family used to save our cans and take them to a cash-for-cans machine at the supermarket. We saw it there regularly, and the big “CASH FOR CANS” sign made it obvious that cans had value.

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An ugly version of the cash-for-cans machine

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen one of those machines in a long while. These days cans are just a nuisance and once they’ve served their purpose they all too often get tossed into a trash bin, on the ground, or even in the creek. 😦

How do we make it obvious again that things have value and shouldn’t just be thrown away? Should I start a business with these cash-for-can machines to drive awareness? Maybe those states that have a deposit fee are on to something?

Anyhow, my point is that everything has value. If something is laying on the ground, it can still have value. Even if most people can’t see it, those cans are valuable resources. The plastic bottles too. Even the polystyrene foam cups.

… Although even I don’t bother trying to find a recycling home for those. If it’s foam, I just throw it in the trash can. I may feel a twinge of disappointment, but that’s my limit at the moment.

But to close on a happier note, I’d like to share the story of one resource whose value I have done my best to honor. I have previously shared some examples of reusing old tshirts by means of tshirt yarn creations, but I’ve since learned to take it one step further.

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Disassembling the seams

By practice disassembling tshirts to make tshirt yarn, I’ve discovered that there’s a way to undo the hem such that you can often salvage longer threads for reuse. And I now have several different colors in a baby food jar either for necessities or for embroidery practice.

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Bonus thread!

Just this week I used some of my tshirt thread to hem up my most recent jeans acquisition. Sure, these little pieces of thread wouldn’t have maxed out the landfill but being able to find another purpose for them sure felt good.

Book Bites

It’s a good thing I ride the bus to get places, because I like to read a lot and the bus is a great place for that. I usually read a couple of books per week. Sometimes I mean to review the books on here but most of the time I just dig right into another book instead. So, in case anyone’s interested here’s a quick summary of some of my recent reads. Let me know if there are any you’d like to know more about and I’ll make time for a more in-depth dive.

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It’s a good thing libraries exist!

Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future – Tim Flannery

This book was the focus of last month’s Talk Green To Me book club. It came out in 2009, and at the time he stated that the earth was between a tipping point and a point of no return, where we would no longer be able to prevent catastrophic climate change. It’s so weird reading something like this because in the book world there’s this impending catastrophe, but in most people’s day-to-day lives this doesn’t come into play at all. An interesting read, but most of the solutions proposed are on a governmental level, which warrants reading a more recent book on this topic instead.

Trees of Texas Field Guide – Stan Tekiela

I’ve often heard that one of the basic nature skills everyone should learn is how to tell apart different types of trees. I’m working on that, but it’s hard. With this guide, I’ve determined that the big tree in my front yard is an American Elm, and one of the trees near the creek is likely a Pecan which is a type of Hickory. The leaves are too high up to get a good view, though, so I’m not 100% on that one.

A Year Without “Made In China” – Sara Bongiorni

Making things in China is getting expensive these days, and more countries are sourcing their production in even cheaper countries with laxer regulations. But in 2007, living without goods made in China was nearly impossible. This book is about one family that tried to do just that, and realized that most things aren’t made locally at all anymore because it’s just so much cheaper to offshore it. It’s a bit ironic at times where it’s obvious that what they really want is cheap crap, like when they’re shopping for presents for other kids’ birthday parties. There were times in this book where I wanted to scream at them to just not buy anything, but that probably wouldn’t be very helpful. 🙂 This book did raise a lot of attention to where goods come from and why they’re so cheap, so I’m grateful for that.

Make Do and Mend

British pamplets from World War II. It’s really interesting how war can encourage whole countries to embrace thrift, saving every bit of scrap fabric, not wasting the least bit of food. But I also know that as soon as the war was over, consumerism was rampant. So war may not be the best way to convince people to embrace thrift again.

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less – Barry Schwartz

There was once a time (before my time) where you could go to the store for a pencil, and there was one option so it was a straightforward choice. Now there are two-packs, ten-packs, twenty-packs. There are mechanical pencils and wooden pencils. They come in multiple designs and styles. I used to try to do the math to guess how much usage per dollar each option would offer me. Although in some cases, more choice really is better, Schwartz explains how in situations like this it is much much worse. There’s a limited threshold to how many decisions we can actively make in a day, so sometimes it’s nice to just make decisions on autopilot or to let someone else decide. This is a great read if you’ve ever had the unpackaged organic produce vs. plastic-wrapped conventional produce dilemma. And it helps give you a bit more understanding and sympathy for the fact that people don’t always make the best choice available.

You Are Now Less Dumb – David McRaney

This was pretty much a direct follow-up from the previous book. It contains a lot of the psychological manipulations that companies use to convince you that what they have to offer is better than the rest. Many of these manipulations could also be used in your day-to-day life to convince other people of your own opinions. Am I crazy in the hope that mankind is smart enough to make intelligent decisions on our own? I’m not sure, but here’s our back-up plan.

The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living – Mark Boyle

Moneyless living has never interested me much, but then again I never thought about it. In the intro to this book, Boyle describes how the existence of money actually hurts people. You put it into the bank, and then the bank is incentivized to loan it out. They’re so incentivized that they sometimes convince people to borrow money that they won’t be able to pay back. Or they siphon interest off of people their whole lives by keeping that balance carrying forward. It’s a thought that makes you consider that maybe any extra money is better donated to a charity straight off rather than stored in the bank and “invested.” Living totally without money isn’t easy, though. Boyle is able to score some necessities free but mainly because no one else is out there trying to do the same thing. His employer lets him live on their land, have his own garden there, and keep coppiced wood for his cooking and heating needs. And even with all of that, there are still troubles. But he makes it through in large part to his contributions to the sharing economy and development of skills to be bartered.

Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front – Sharon Astyk

Asytk is on a mission for her and her family to use only their fair share of resources on this planet. Of course, this means family planning to prevent the fair share from being stretched further. It means knowing how to use the resources available in disaster scenarios. While this book discusses how in the future we won’t have as much access to oil or other imported goods in general, it’s also a disaster handbook for scenarios where you need to live off of your land. She advocates having a six-month supply of food in your pantry, a good home library to be able to teach children when no schools are accessible, ensuring you’ll have access to water and the resources to clean it for drinking. This was a hard book for me to swallow because I can’t maintain an “impending doom” mindset for too long and there was a lot of that in this book. Maybe I won’t be in as good a situation to survive as Astyk and her family, but I have some faith in necessity being the mother of invention.

The Waste Makers – Vance Packard

I’ll be starting this one on the bus ride to work tomorrow. It was written in the 60’s about consumer culture about the shift from goods that were made to last to goods that are meant to be disposable. Sounds like the perfect read for me.

Oh, and I have one book waiting on hold for me at the library–Wendy Pabich’s Taking on Water: How One Water Expert Challenged Her Inner Hypocrite, Reduced Her Water Footprint (Without Sacrificing a Toasty Shower), and Found Nirvana. Whoa, that’s a long title! Anyhow, that’s our book club book for August and very appropriate during the dry summer months here in Texas.

So much great stuff to read! If you have any recommendations, please share those also. My To-Read list can never be too long.

Gratitude Journal #3

There are so many things I’m grateful for, and recognizing the importance of gratitude is one of them. Every day recently I’ve been making an active effort to recognize the things that make life wonderful. Here are just a few recent items for which I’d like to offer my thanks.

Natural Beauty

Pink fireworks flower

I found these pretty pink flowers by the bus stop a week ago and was immediately struck by their beauty. Although I feel a bit bad about doing so, I plucked one for myself and kept it with me to admire throughout the day.

I’m also grateful for the internet which has helped identify this plant as a mimosa pudica, also known as the sensitive plant because it closes its leaves when touched. Will definitely have to try that out the next time I stop by.

Our Box Fan

We got it from a garage sale earlier this year, and keeping it aimed right in my direction keeps my much cooler without having to turn down the thermostat as much. It’s a net win for energy savings and comfort.

Local Wildlife

In addition to the turtles in the creek next door, there are almost always some fish swimming around. Birds and squirrels like to hang out in my lawn. And when they get into the garden it’s usually something innocuous like eating one of my plentiful tomatoes which I don’t mind sharing. They did manage to wreak havoc with the cantaloupes, but I’m glad they enjoyed them.

The Library

Living right next to the library is great. I love reading and even this smaller library has plenty of variety to offer. This week I even picked up a tree field guide and now know how to recognize an American Elm. There are quite a few around my house.

My Job

It’s not my dream job, but I really enjoy most of my work. And the casual environment means I don’t need to worry if my jeans are starting to get a little worn out. Plus, it’s helped me finally get to a phase of my life where I feel comfortable sharing some of my income with causes I support.

Surprise vegetables

Baby pumpkin

Every time I’ve thought that the cucumber harvest was over, I kept finding one more. Will another appear? Only time will tell. And in my mom’s yard (my previous garden) one of the pumpkin seeds from last year finally decided it was time to start growing.

Health

My parents and siblings are all in good health. A little over a week ago, I got to meet my new nephew for the first time when my sister and her husband came down to visit. He’s not only in good health but very active. He’ll be walking before they know it. 🙂

This Guy

Empty soda can on the floor of a bus

If a can or bottle is rolling around on the floor bus, I’m usually too lazy to pick it up and just let it roll around some more. The man with the shoes in this pic saw the can rolling around and not only picked it up but checked the rest of the bus for careless discards to dispose of at the trashbin at the next stop. It may not have gotten as far as recycling, which we sadly don’t have at bus stops here, but it’s a huge step in the right direction and has inspired me to do what I can to make a positive difference.

Can “package-free” be sustainable?

This month Josh Blaine, manager of the in.gredients grocery store here in Austin, stopped by at the beginning of our Talk Green to Me book club to discuss zero waste and other efforts. The discussion tied in with many of our read books including this month’s The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom, and of course Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free.

in.gredients was launched in 2012 as a package-free neighborhood grocery, which is pretty awesome. Of course, Beth Terry heard about this, and Josh describes her as “like a kid in a candy store” when she came to check out the shop.

I hadn’t heard of the store before reading Plastic-Free as it was nowhere near my neighborhood. When I visited the store about a year and a half ago, I think getting there on the bus took nearly two hours. It was definitely not my neighborhood grocery and visiting was anything but sustainable. It was a bitter-sweet visit too because this was after in.gredients had made the difficult decision to also sell packaged goods.

At times I’ve fantasized about opening up my own neighborhood grocery store (not too seriously) which really is package-free, but after Thursday evening I have a much better understanding of just how difficult that might be. Josh explained that they wouldn’t have been able to stay in business as a package-free grocery. When customers bring in their own containers, they’re less likely to pick up other things. Potential customers may skip a visit to the store or go elsewhere if they don’t have the right supplies on hand. And some things that customers want may not be available package-free, like coconut oil or soymilk.

Package-free food also doesn’t always last as long, which sometimes is irrelevant but sometimes is really important like for beer which is only at really good quality in kegs for a couple of days. That means it has a much shorter time frame to sell within. in.gredients is also a smaller neighborhood store, so having something things packaged like in kegs means that there’s going to be a lot less variety for customers to choose from. Unfortunately, there are so many reasons why packaged goods can be better for business.

To get more customers, in.gredients switched from all package-free to a focus on local foods 18 months after it opened. But that’s not just lipservice. Food sold at this store may be as local as vegetables grown in the garden in their front lot. They also work with many local farms like Urban Roots and Green Gate Farms. After hearing Josh talk about how closely in.gredients works with the vendors I’m more tempted to go back just because I know I’ll be able to pick up anything I see and buy it knowing that some really good people have already done the hard work of finding vendors with earth-friendly and community-friendly processes.

Josh is part of the Austin Zero Waste Alliance, and zero waste is definitely still one of the core values of the store. I don’t remember the specifics, but I think he said that the average amount of trash created by a person per day is five pounds, which is what their store creates in a month! They’re able to do this by making it a priority. They even work closely with local vendors to arrange for deliveries in reusable packaging like buckets of granola that go directly into the bulk bins before being cleaned and swapped out during the next delivery.

There’s so much more that was discussed, like involvement in the community or fair pricing, but my current dream is just to be able to buy what I need without getting a lot of extra trash as part of the deal. They still have a bulk selection filled with good food, though, and fresh local produce free even of stickers. So if you’re in Austin, stop by in.gredients to pick some up or other local goodies.

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80% of Austin trash isn’t trash

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The city of Austin adopted a Zero Waste plan in 2009 with the goal of diverting 90% of waste from landfill by the year 2040, and they’ve just released the results of the 2015 Community Diversion Study. This is the first study of its kind done here in Austin. I haven’t read the full report yet but wanted to share the overview of findings.

Unfortunately, we didn’t meet the 50% diversion goal for 2015. Only 42% of waste ended up reused, recycled, or composted this year. But it may give us some of the information we need to forge ahead.

“I’m extremely encouraged by the results of this study,” said Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert. “The report has provided us with valuable data that shows us how we are doing and where we need to improve as a community in order to reach Council’s vision of Zero Waste.”

Here’s the breakdown of the material analyzed on its way to be landfilled. 18% could have been recovered and reused as is. 26% could have been recycled. And a whopping 37% could have been composted. Less than one-fifth of the load would have gone to landfill if those resources had been sorted to the right place.

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Fortunately, there are several steps already lined up to help us improve.

  • An ordinance already exists to require recycling for multi-family properties in Austin with at least 10 units, but as of this fall it goes into effect for properties with at least 5 units.
  • Also starting this fall, businesses over 15,000 sq. ft. will be required to divert organics material for composting, and over the next couple of years all food businesses will have to take part.
  • Austin is also hosting the 2016 Zero Waste Business Conference in June, which should both get some much-needed attention on the subject and present more ideas for improvement.

There are also some hopes to roll out curbside organics collection for more than the pilot group of residential customers, but I don’t think there’s any budget allocated yet for it.

Personally, my guess is that at least half (probably much more) of the big number above could be reduced by source reduction–that is, buying less stuff and using less packaging for the stuff that is bought. It’ll be an interesting read to see how reduction is handled in the report.

Paper Towels FTW!

Normally, I hate paper towels. I use cloth towels or rags in the kitchen. I keep a clean handkerchief with me at work to dry my hands after washing up. And I no longer make bacon or fried potatoes (for health reasons). Napkins and paper towels just fill up the trash or compost bucket too quickly.

But lately I’ve been washing my hands several times throughout the day and using a fresh paper towel to dry my hands each time. And it comes down to one of the few reasons that can make disposables worth the waste–health.

You see, since we moved into our new house, I’ve been occasionally going out back to pull some of the poison ivy. I’d wash my hands and arms once I got back inside and didn’t have any ill effects. Everything was working so well. I felt invincible!

Unfortunately, I must have gotten a bit overconfident. In this past week, what I at first thought were bug bites on my arm multiplied and spread after scratching them. And there are more of the little bite-like marks now across my arms and wrists, just begging me to scratch them. I even have some redness and itchiness on my abdomen and belly button. Overall, it’s not bad for me compared to horror stories I’ve heard about poison ivy, and I’m pretty sure some of the itchiness is psychosomatic. But it’s made its point, and I’ll be more careful in the future.

For this week, though, in case the urushiol oils are still around somewhere, I’ll be doing a bit of cleaning, rewashing clothes, and throwing out a paper towel every time I wash my hands.

Shoe Tossing

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I see a pair of perfectly good shoes just sitting by the sidewalk at least once every month. Where do they come from? How is it that not a single person passes by and thinks “Awesome! Free shoes!” and grabs them before I see them? And how is it that some people think the best use of them is to play a game of shoe tossing, leaving them in a rather curious position?

And yet, seeing this pair of shoes on a streetlight awakens a challenge inside of me. I’m tempted to toss another pair of shoes up there just to see if I can do it. I have some shoes that are falling apart, so it wouldn’t be a huge waste. But that might inspire someone else to do the same thing with a pair that still has plenty of life left in them.

Fortunately, that streetlight is really high and I know I’d fail in my shoe-tossing attempts. Crisis averted. 😛