My basement is a level of hell where all my failings as an environmentalist are revealed.  Up above this musty, dank repository of castaway boxes, Christmas decorations, charity donations, and mismatched pots and pans lies a perfectly ordered house.  In fact, the first thing most people do upon entering my humble abode is marvel at the sheer emptiness of it.  “Where’s your stuff?” they ask.  I just offer a smug smile in return, affecting an air of effortless minimalism. 

Where’s my stuff?  It’s in the basement.

Sorting through the contents of my basements was akin to doing an archeological dig, uncovering remnants of my wedding and my baby’s first year.  I’d thought a lot about the environmental impact of bringing a baby into the world.  I limited the baby gear that entered our home and bought much of what we did want at secondhand stores. 

Audrey in a box

But here’s something I hadn’t thought much about: people will buy you presents when you get married or have a baby.  Many, many presents.  They will encase these presents in bubble wrap and place them in huge cardboard boxes filled with Styrofoam.  You will unwrap these presents and bring them upstairs.  You will leave the boxes and packing material in the basement, where they will sit there for years, gathering dust and growing mildew.

I hate throwing packing materials away.  After all, it’s still perfectly usable.  The problem was, we’d collected way too much packing material to ever use ourselves.  Take the packing peanuts, for example.  We registered for dishes when we got married.  The company took great care to wrap every dish in bubble wrap and place the dishes in huge boxes filled with packing peanuts.  We ended up with eight garbage bags full of packing peanuts!  We should have taken them directly to a mailing center (most will accept clean packing peanuts, which they’ll reuse), but we just let them sit in our basement for a few years.  Some little rodent got into a few of the bags, soiling three bagsful of packing peanuts that we now have to throw away.

Portland has a handy recycling hotline (503-234-3000) with live operators standing by to tell Portlanders where to take almost anything that can’t be left curbside.  We called about our cardboard boxes of odd shapes and sizes, and they told us about a recycling center just a few miles from us.  This place also accepts bubble wrap, scrap metal, phone books, and all the normal recyclables such as glass and paper.  If your town doesn’t have a recycling hotline, you could still hunt around for a facility like this one before taking packing materials out with the trash. 

What about block Styrofoam?  I have a lovely collection of block Styrofoam in my basement.  I was happy to find that Portland has a facility that recycles block Styrofoam, turning it into plastic.

On a kind of recycling kick, we also got rid of old clothes and household items by calling a local charity that picks up your castoffs.  We dropped off new toys (gifts we’d never opened because we didn’t have space in our house) at a toy drive we saw advertised on television.  Last but not least, we loaded up a friend’s pick-up truck with branches and twigs from last summer’s pruning fest and sent them off to a yard debris place that will grind them into mulch.

Finally I can go down into my basement without the nagging feeling that I should be doing something about the piles of rubbish scattered all over the wet cement floor.  If I leave the lights off and avert my gaze, I can almost forget about the boxes of outgrown baby clothes and seldom-used camping gear I still need to sort through.  Maybe next weekend.