Excerpt: 'No Impact Man,' by Colin Beavan

So much has changed since I began this project. My thinking. My career. My friendships. My fatherhood. My marriage. But on the eve of the start of the No Impact project, I simply thought that by taking a personal approach to the problem of the health, safety, and happiness of our species, maybe I had found a non-finger-wagging way to change some minds after all. But if I couldn't, when all was said and done, at least I would have been able to change myself. At least if I couldn't solve the problems, I'd be able to say that I had tried.

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A quick and partial inventory of the crap I found collected in our three large garbage bags in only four days: fourteen plastic coffee cups, two cardboard coffee cups, four Styrofoam coffee cups, twelve plastic straws, six plastic straw wrappers, nineteen paper napkins, fourteen small paper bags, nine sets of plastic cutlery (unused), five receipts (never even looked at), three balls of used paper towel, fourteen plastic bags, three plastic and four aluminum take-out containers and their lids, two sets of wooden chopsticks, one cardboard french-fry container, three crumpled balls of tinfoil, and two cardboard boxes that had contained a new pair of desk lamps, along with the Styrofoam packing materials.

I call this a "partial" inventory because I dissected my way through the insides of only two out of the three bags. To the third, we had added the contents of the bathroom garbage pail, the last resting place of Isabella's dirty diapers. Some of them had burst open, and I couldn't bring myself to paw through the result without a gas mask. Suffice it to say that the third bag added to our trash a total of about eighteen dirty diapers, a further twenty-five gallons or so of shit-covered takeout containers, some greasy chow fun noodles, pizza crusts, and a head of lettuce gone bad in the fridge before we ever used it.

Surrounded by all this debris, sitting there on my hallway floor with a pen and paper in my hand, I felt like I'd just stepped on the scale and the news was much worse than I'd thought. It was not trash per se that got me. It was the throwing away of things used for less than five minutes without so much as a thought before reaching for the exact same product to use for another five minutes before throwing that away, too. The truth was that every coffee cup and every water bottle in the corner trashcan gave me a tiny micro-twinge of guilt. For years, I had been giving myself a daily pass with the intention of eventually doing better.

If you had asked me if I tried not to make trash, not to waste, I would have told you that I certainly didn't produce the average American's 4.6 pounds of trash per day, or roughly 1,700 pounds per year. I would have probably told you I didn't try as hard as I should but that I tried. I made an effort, I would have said. I'm not all talk. I care about the world. What had the crumbled-up, grease-covered dross around me demonstrated? That I had a long way to go.

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Michelle says that having no electricity in the apartment is like a nonstop vacation. Every summer night we search for things to do outside—play in the fountain with Isabella's friends in Washington Square Park, make a trip to the river. Then we come home in the dark, put Isabella to bed, and sit up, talking in quiet tones by candlelight.

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