Wednesday, 22 Mar 2000

ATHENS, Ga.

I am up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a plane back to Atlanta, then drive to Athens in the bright spring air washed by Sunday’s rains. At the house, I check in with Chris, take a shower, and relax a bit before diving into the pile of accumulated tasks.

Contemplating the awaiting workload, I gaze out of the window of my office. The weather is unusually perfect today. To the south, the main floor and porch rise part way up the boles of stately white oaks, making our new house feel like a tree house. The red oak that grows among them has been flowering for almost two weeks, while the white oaks haven’t broken bud yet. Behind the oaks, the new leaves of a tulip poplar are vibrant pale green against the cloudless sky.

Room with a view.

The south side of our house faces a slope of recovering woods. Aerial photos from the late 1930s and the 1940s show that these woods and our house stand on what used to be a cotton farm. Arsenic used for controlling insects probably still lingers in the red clay subsoil. The rich topsoil is long gone — our house probably sits several feet lower that it would have 100 years ago. Although they are “second growth,” our woods are starting to heal.

Jennie (my wife) comes home for a lunch of ramen noodles on the deck. After we greet, she points to a sheet of paper on the counter and says, “Wait ’till you read this!” It is a letter from our daughter’s chorus teacher and, reading the first line, I know why she is riled. The letter exudes about the generous donation of new T-shirts that 900 students will wear at an upcoming, district-wide public school concert. The donor is Pepsi-Cola. We make a few quick calls to school administrators and confirm the obvious: The shirts will bear the logo of the liquid candy maker.

Commercialism in public institutions is a pet peeve of ours. My wife’s concern stems from her work in a lab at the university where research is increasingly funded by corporations. My interest comes from the GrassRoots Recycling Network’s three-year campaign to get the Coca-Cola Company to take responsibility for its plastic container waste. In the course of the campaign, I have learned that Coke and Pepsi are in a race to sign contracts with public schools that offer money in exchange for exclusive vending rights. Like the tobacco companies, the soda companies have come to realize that brand loyalty is established early.

I can tell that my wife is ready to do battle on this one, and I feel excited about working together on this. It has been eight years since we last teamed up, to get a hazardous waste dump cleaned up. It was a football-field-sized pile of toxic steel mill “flue dust” sitting next to an elementary school in a poor African-American neighborhood in South Georgia (near where we lived at the time). It took three years but we won and it had a lot to do with launching my current career.

After lunch I descend again to the office. Chris works with Amanda, a part-time student helper from the university, to mail out our new reports — Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000.

Amanda and Chris going postal.

I settle down to tackle the backlog. GRRN has grown rapidly since our formal launch three years ago. We formed to revitalize the recycling movement and to counter attacks by presenting a new vision — zero waste. The report, which we are releasing next week in four cities, is part of a growing set of resources we are developing to articulate the zero waste vision. I call Marty Matsch, who works at Eco-Cycle, a community recycling organization in Boulder and one of our most active supporters. She is editing a video on zero waste made last summer by Paul Connett, a chemist who helps grassroots groups fight incinerators. I am delighted to learn that she is almost finished reworking it to fit the 28-minute cable TV format.

I return a message concerning another piece of our zero waste literature — a press briefing kit being developed by the San Francisco-based Public Media Center, a seasoned public relations firm that produced the op-ed page ads we ran in the New York Times last summer. Those ads made Coke finally take notice of us. I had hoped to have the briefing kits finished by the time we released the Wasting report but, alas, it is not meant to be.

My daughter comes home from school and we have a big reunion. I learned that she cried after I drove off in the rain Sunday evening because it was dark and rainy. I take her to her weekly guitar lesson in town.

In the evening, we have dinner and family time. I put the family to bed then do some more work in a peaceful office without phones ringing. Having a home office is both a boon and a danger because it is so convenient.