How do you solve an environmental crisis through individual actions? That’s the seemingly monumental task that Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer undertake in The Clean Bin Project. Their yearlong struggle to reduce waste is documented in this charming, yet intensely serious, film.
I watched The Clean Bin Project recently as part of the Rye Sustainability/Rye Country Day School Green Screen Film Series. The event was one of our most successful, with a crowd showing up to see the film and enjoy a delicious zero waste reception provided by the RCDS catering staff.
What’s The Clean Bin Project About?
Is it possible to live completely waste-free? Sounds like an absurd question, but Jen and Grant spend a year attempting to answer just that. They explore whether they can reduce their waste to a single, small bucket of trash.
Both fiercely competitive, they decide what better way to conduct this experiment than with a “friendly” competition? The Clean Bin Project Rules: 1) no buying “stuff”, 2) no producing garbage, 3) take responsibility for your waste.
And so the race begins to reduce. Over the course of the year we watch the couple struggle to keep their consumption to the bare minimum and in the process, learn a lot about our consumer culture.
Why Should You Watch It?
A Positive Approach to Raising Awareness
It’s a seemingly silly contest, but the film’s message is entirely serious. Through the prism of this lighthearted story, we learn how and why there’s an environmental crisis of waste buildup as a result of our “throw-away” culture.
Although Grant and Jen’s casual experiment wouldn’t be considered scientific, they weave substantive information and details throughout the film. What struck me most was the extraordinary effort needed to avoid packaging. The irony is that our consumer culture makes it more inconvenient to reduce waste.
Instead of beating this point into the viewer, Jen and Grant show us, in a humorous way, how difficult it is to lead a zero waste lifestyle. One particularly revealing segment is a montage of Jen and Grant saying over and over again to various shopkeepers, “no plastic bag”, “no bag”, “I don’t need a bag”, “no bag, thanks”… It’s hilarious, but effective in underscoring how we’ve been conditioned to automatically reach, unthinkingly, for the single-use convenience item.
Becoming One With “Our” Waste
One of the greatest challenges in cleaning up our waste problem is that so many of us don’t understand the crisis level that we’ve reached. We just don’t see it. Trash conveniently disappears from our homes and then – poof! – magically vaporizes into … somewhere. And all those recyclables get recycled. Right?
Attempts to explain or educate about landfill mountains, methane emissions, ocean gyres, and other environmental catastrophes frequently fall on deaf ears. The issue is just too abstract and people tend to tune out.
To make matters worse, we’re constantly bombarded with the message that consumption is good. It’s the American Way. We don’t truly understand the connection between consumption and waste.
The Clean Bin Project illustrates (literally) this dilemma with an interview with photographer Chris Jordan. Jordan creates compelling images of the effects of our consumer culture. By showing us through these stunning pieces of art the staggering quantity of waste generated by each of our seemingly innocuous purchases, he forces us to face our individual actions. In short, he’s telling us we should be sweating the small stuff.
Keeping it Real
The audience instantly connects with Grant and Jenny. They’re just a young couple trying to do the right thing for themselves and the planet. But they’re human. Grant admits he loves stuff: “I’m an addict. I love toys.” And don’t we all?
Their exercise is to force them – and us – to rethink how we handle our individual purchases and understand the repercussions of those decisions on a global scale.
And they’re certainly not experts. They embark on The Clean Bin Project with guileless energy, only to confront the seemingly impossible problem of waste. There are moments in the film where you sense they won’t be able to handle it all and will just give up. What’s the point, they wonder? Yet they continue on.
It’s this lesson for the viewer which I think is so powerful. If we all throw up our hands and give up, what will that do for our community and the planet? But if each of us starts somewhere, doing something, no matter how small, we can, together, make headway.
A Hope for the Future
Although The Clean Bin Project examines one of this planet’s most devastating environmental catastrophes, the tone remains lighthearted and positive.
A film that’s appealing to all ages, it reveals the power of individual action and encourages us to do the same. As one activist puts it, “the number one thing is to do one more thing. And then do another. And another …”
I was inspired by Grant and Jenny and I think you will be too.