Roaming around Liz Slate’s house—a cozy, tidy abode—you’d never guess she hasn’t thrown a single thing away for over a year. Yet, no huge stacks of papers overflow from storage closets and no piles of trash lay scattered around the living room. All the evidence is inconspicuous. Tucked beside her couch is a small, innocuous stash of plastic bags. Her basement neatly holds all of her recyclables. In a five-gallon bucket are the remnants of uneaten food, composting slowly beneath her sink. A large plastic bin hidden behind her kitchen table easily holds the remainder of last year’s trash. Hard to believe that 421 days adds up to such a tiny amount of waste.
Most people couldn’t imagine not tossing any of their trash for just a month, let alone more than a year. But to Slate, 27, president of the non-profit Alchemical Nursery Project and a young mother with an impish smile and boundless energy, it seemed like the only logical thing to do.
On Feb. 19, 2008, Slate was taking a stroll through Thornden Park with her daughter Moebius, now 4, when she noticed plastic bags, beer cans and fast-food containers littered all over the place. Not being one to idly sit by, Slate took it upon herself to pick up the trash that afternoon. But even after cleaning up the park, she was still disturbed that people were using the green space as a trash can.
“I was like, ‘Wait a second, this is messed up, man!’” Slate remembers. “I came home and was thinking about the waste and how we throw it away and it disappears, but it doesn’t really disappear. I was just thinking, ‘I don’t know about this.’ So I decided, ‘All right, from this day forward I will not put anything else on the curb,’ and that was it.”
So on that whim, Slate took action, stubbornly hopeful to make even the smallest impact for the better. Surprisingly, keeping her trash off the street hasn’t proved to be much of a burden. Sometimes all it takes is something simple, like using canvas bags instead of paper and plastic, and trying to buy as little pre-packaged food as possible. Other times, she would find someone who found her rubbish valuable, such as her local brewer friend who called dibs on all of her glass bottles.
When no one else wanted her refuse, she’d make art, creating purses and pillows out of plastic bags. But perhaps the biggest help in keeping Slate’s waste intake down, though, would be her “bring it in, take it out” rule. Like the phrase implies, guests have to take home any trash they bring into her home. Since she knows what a hassle that can be, Slate tries not to be overly militant about it. . . most of the time.
“I remember I had a potluck and my girlfriend changed her kid’s diaper and she was like, ‘Where can I put this?’” Slate laughs. “And I was like, ‘Nowhere, sorry! You’re going to have to take it home.’ Awkward…”
Being a green queen hasn’t always been Slate’s main mission. Growing up, she says, the community she lived in was like a bubble shielded from all the problems of the world, and she was extremely naïve about it all. But when she moved here in 1999 to go to Syracuse University, she began studying sociology and her inner humanist awakened. She soon saw how environmental issues were closely linked to many of the troubles the world faces—hunger and global warming, for example—and her passion to protect the planet took root. But as much as she cared about making the world a better place, the daunting feeling that one person couldn’t really make a big change crushed her at first.
“I was just like, ‘Wow this is messed up! Oppression and slavery, and it’s still going on.’” Slate says. “I just felt so upset. Really apathetic and hopeless and like, ‘God what can I do?’”
It wasn’t until Slate traveled to Central America and attended the Rainbow Gathering for the first time that she began to realize all wasn’t lost. The Rainbow Gathering is a month-long event during which people from around the world gather in an impoverished area to help rejuvinate it in an eco-friendly manner. There she was part of a group that built a village in the middle of the rainforest in just a month, proving to her that when everyone pitches in, amazing things can happen. There she also learned about alternative ways of life, such as eating organic and practicing yoga and meditation, which appealed to her humanistic and environmentally friendly ideals.
From there, she lived and worked on an organic farm, and then a permaculture homestead, where she continued to fall in love with the lifestyle. Finally, she made her way back to Syracuse and founded the Alchemical Nursery Project. The organization is focused on urban sustainability, helping to bring people together with projects like creating community compost bins, running workshops on how to make your own recycled paper, and helping gather resources to start community gardens.
“We’re tying to be like that place where people that are interested in these things or already doing them can come together and talk about it,” she notes. “When people are working in isolation, it’s kind of hard to make it to the next level, so that’s where we’re tying to help coordinate there.”
Alchemical’s pet project, though, is to create an urban eco-village right here in Syracuse, complete with housing and sustainable living features that would make as small a carbon footprint as possible. Currently, Alchemical has 247 online members, with about 10 core members doing the nitty gritty work required to get their projects off the ground. For those interested in joining, become a member at www.alchemicalnursery.org to check out what projects are in the works and to contact Slate and other core members to find out how you can get involved. They’re currently fixing up a home on Otisco Street to become a housing co-op, and will turn the vacant lots behind the property into an urban version of Eden, full of greenhouses, gardens, seed banks, chicken coops and beehives. Even though Slate began the eco-village for herself, her true motivation behind this project was her little girl, Moeby.
“Something about being pregnant really got me started,” Slate says. “I want to find the right place to raise my daughter. I want to find the perfect eco-village and I wasn’t finding it. I was really looking for an eco-city that didn’t exist. So I was like, ‘Well, I’m not finding what I want, so I better make it myself.’ And then, voilà, here I am.”
Had you told Slate 10 years ago that one day she would end up hoarding all her trash and be in the midst of slowly creating a village, she probably would have laughed. But now that she’s taken the plunge into trying to live as environmentally friendly as possible, going back to a more traditional lifestyle isn’t an option—she believes the earth is too fragile for her to ignore. Even though the world may be falling apart, as long Slate keeps pushing for a greener way of life, she’ll be able to sleep at night knowing she never gave up.
“Sometimes it’s harder because it’s going against the grain, but at least there’re other people doing it,” Slate explains. “So if you find that community, then you can be OK; you can do it. I mean, it’s still an uphill battle all the way. But what the hell. . . what else are you going to do?”
Plastic surgeon: Liz Slate turns excess grocery bags into useful totes. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO