Growing up, we relied on a collection tank filled with rainwater for all our water needs. The tank held 1,000 gallons, and when they were gone, they were gone. This instilled in me a rather fervent sense of urgency when it came to water conservation; I took sparse showers, was careful washing dishes, didn’t flush the toilet every thirty seconds, and so forth. We also relied on a septic tank for processing solid waste, which tended to make me more aware of what could go down the toilet and what couldn’t.
Then I went to college, where I was on municipal water and sewer, and every house I’ve lived in since then was also in town. I sort of…forgot what it was like to be on a well, to have a septic tank. Until I moved to the new house. My landlords are very water conscious and their well has never run dry specifically because they are careful about water usage, and since we share a well, I have to be especially careful, thinking not just about the water needs of my household, but also theirs; no watering the garden at whim, in other words. My septic is separate, but, again, my sense of awareness has had to shift because being on a septic tank is not at all like being on municipal water and sewer.
For a lot of people, these concepts are abstract; a lot of folks don’t even know what a septic tank is, really, or how it works. It’s definitely been a little weird getting back into the groove of thinking about how to be more conscientious and careful; using less toilet paper, only flushing toilet paper and whatever comes out of my body, being more careful about showers. I’ve always been fairly water conscious by nature but I’m especially so now, because I’m reminded of how important it is; this isn’t like town, where the flow of water only stops if someone doesn’t pay the water bill. If the well runs dry, it’s a huge problem and a potentially very expensive one.
It makes me think about all the conservation measures environmental publications tout like they are new and amazing, when people have been practicing them for years out of necessity. I still remember my shock in college when I saw that the shower didn’t have a toggle to turn the water off while you were in the shower. You had to turn the water off at the taps, and then adjust the taps again when you needed water to rinse off. I mentioned this bizarre design to another student, and she looked at me like I had grown a third head. ‘Why would you want to turn the water off while you were in the shower,’ she asked.
There are other things about living out of town that are different, although they used to be routine for me. We don’t get garbage service here, which means that if I need to throw something away, I have to take it to the dump and confront the landfill, up close and personal. Compost was the first thing I installed, because there is no way in heck I am paying to throw food waste away, and I want compost for the garden, spring’s big project. But it also makes me more careful about every single thing I bring home, because someone isn’t going to come by and take it away for me. Likewise with recycling, which I have to drop off at the transfer station on my way into town.
These aren’t bad things, at all, it just requires being more aware of what I’m doing. And it requires things like, yes, securing a garbage can because there are raccoons and I do not want to wake up to garbage and recycling strewn across the yard. I’m more inclined to reuse things, to figure out ways to repurpose things, to avoid having to throw things away. My consciousness has shifted in response to my surroundings.
In town, and in the City, I was very much disconnected from my own waste. I understood it on an abstract level as a thing that was a problem, as a thing I wanted to cut down on, but here, it’s immediate. If I throw something away, I’m the one who has to deal with it. If I fail to rinse out cans properly or to tie up the recycling right, I’m the one who will be left with moldering pumpkin puree or whatever smeared across myself and my car. I have to think more about everything that I do.
Several cities, including San Francisco, are working on zero waste initiatives right now. I admire the effort but I think it’s going to be fundamentally challenging because a lot of people have never lived with their waste, in a sense. People who have lived in San Francisco their whole lives have never had to load up their cars for a trip to the dump, just for example. It’s hard to understand the impact of your waste until you are accountable on a very personal level for every scrap of it; if I fill the septic tank sooner than expected or clog the line by flushing something I shouldn’t have, I’m the one who gets to deal with it, I’m the one who has to contact the landlords and shamefacedly ‘fess up and have the septic company or the plumber come out and deal with it.
Having my waste in my face is a good thing, I think. It’s forcing me to cut down on the waste part, and to realise how careless I was getting when I lived in town.