Can You Really Live Green If Your Family Won't Pitch In?

Linda Sharps wonders whether it's possible to save the world when your husband and kids are working against you.

(Illustration: jameslee1/Getty Images; design: Lauren Wade)

Jan 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Linda Sharps is a regular contributor to TakePart. She lives in Eugene, Oregon with her family, where she works as a freelance writer while wrangling two rambunctious boys and ignoring the laundry.

Here is what I recently found in the paper kitchen bag we use for recycling: several wadded-up paper towels, the gloopy foil lid from a yogurt container, a folded pizza box, packing peanuts from an Amazon shipment, an empty sandwich bag, the plastic wrapping from some sort of toy, and a massive sopping handful of facial tissues someone had inexpertly used to partially absorb a juice spill.

Here's what's supposed to be in that bag: plastic, flattened cardboard, paper, and cleaned-out cans or glass containers.

In my hometown of Eugene, Ore., there is a lot of stuff that isn't supposed to go into the recycling. The banned list includes, but is not limited to, paper plates, cups, and napkins; boxes or paper with food residue; and plastic packaging materials or bags. All of which are things my children can be counted on to carelessly toss in the bag.

My husband's not much better, to be honest. This is the same guy who routinely uses my kitchen towel—meant to replace paper towels as a hand-drying method—as a resting spot for drippy food-coated utensils, then looks at me like he's Fred Willard in A Mighty Wind when I complain about getting stealth-smeared with leftover turkey chili.


There are at least three reasons it sucks to be the point person for household recycling:

• You're the one who has to hand-sift through the bag to pull out the non-recyclable crap.

That isn't so bad if all you have to do is separate, say, some waxed cardboard from the morning newspaper. But it's less fun to pull out moist, food-coated packaging, and go through item by item to determine if anything is still acceptable for the green bin or if it's all been tainted by sharing close quarters with days-old pudding containers and grounds-coated coffee filters.

• You're the one who gets to expand the Nagging List into yet another subject.

Sometimes I get the feeling my family must think I actually enjoy nagging, because I do it so often. What wife and mother doesn't find it personally enriching to remind the entire household that contrary to popular opinion, dirty clothes belong in the baskets, not tossed on the floor for the Magical Laundry Fairy to come whisk away into that mysterious never-visited-by-males place where things somehow become clean, right? Who isn't deeply rewarded by the soul-filling experience of reminding everyone for the frillionth time that garbage goes here, and paper goes here?

• You're the only goddamn one who cares.

Honestly, it would be a lot easier to stick with the green-living principles I've been trying to adopt in my household if the rest of my family were on board. It's challenging enough for me to bypass convenience in favor of making the environmentally friendly choice when I have people—meaningful nod toward my husband, who is otherwise an extremely awesome person in almost every single other regard—who don't really give a hoot about these things. Basically, not only do I get the burden of spearheading the entire endeavor ("OK, gang, I realize everyone hates the new toilet paper, but here is a handy pie chart that explains the impact of the paper and pulp industry"), but I get to annoy everyone by criticizing the shoddy participation. Yay! I mean, Boo.

I guess I'm not really venting about the recycling here. Or I am, but it's just a symptom of the overall problem, which is that I'm struggling with being in charge of my family's eco-consciousness. I want this to be a team effort, not one more chore I don't want to manage on my own but end up doing by default (see also: grocery shopping, vacuuming, meals, dishes, etc.). I want all of us to actually care, rather than feel like we're going through the motions—and in some cases, not even doing that much.

Because I'm looking for inspiration, tell me: How do you get your family feeling a sense of personal responsibility with your household's living-green efforts?