Suzanne Goldenberg

If you want to save the planet, don’t count on your cat. An American couple who set out to live for a year without producing more than a single small carrier bag of rubbish have discovered it’s far, far easier for humans to adapt to a greener way of life than felines.

Appalled by their country’s throwaway culture - the average American throws out about 2 kg of rubbish every day — Amy and Adam Korst, a couple living in a small logging town in Oregon, embarked on a personal quest last month to drastically reduce their household rubbish.

“As environmentalists, I feel like we are bombarded by so many different messages: buy local, buy organic, do all these things. And at the end of the day you don’t really see the difference it has made,” said Amy Korst. “But if Adam and I can get our total garbage output down to five pounds at the end of the year, we’ll have really made a difference.”

The initial adjustment was easy — at least for the human members of the household. As well as wholeheartedly embracing recycling, the Korsts gave up junk food such as crisps because of the packaging. They brought their own cups to the local coffee shop, and turned down straws for their iced mochas. They even found a company that would recycle their used toothbrushes.

But the Korsts could not persuade their eight-year-old cat, Lexy, to switch to biodegradable kitty litter.

“The older cat would have nothing to do with it. She held it for about two days and would not go into the litter box,” said Adam. “We do not have a green cat. We tried hard with her, but she is pretty stubborn. She is not going to change for us and we have to allow her to have the lifestyle she is used to.”

Otherwise, the secret to garbage-free living is organisation, said the Korsts.

Adam, a photographer at a local paper, and Amy, a high school English teacher, did extensive research to find out where to buy items with minimal or recyclable packaging, and where to find recycling options beyond those of their town’s standard rubbish collection.

They ordered toothbrushes made out of recycled plastic yoghurt containers, and found a company that accepts wine corks for recycling. They sought out a recycling depot for used electronics, in case any of their appliances break down in the coming year. The couple also visited farmers markets and local food producers to ask about buying in bulk, or bringing their own reusable containers.

The hardest part — aside from the cat — was figuring out what to do with packaging from toiletries and medicines.

The project is part of an expanding genre documenting experiences in greener living. In the scale of their aspirations, the Korsts are midway between novelist Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote a book about her family’s year spent eating only food produced close to their Virginia farm, and Colin Beavan, who got rid of his refrigerator during his year as No Impact Man.

The couple, who are blogging about their experiences at www.greengarbageproject.com, also hope to write a book.

Even before the stand-off with their cat, the couple tried to find the middle ground. “If you go too extreme, people aren’t going to listen,” Adam said. “We wanted to tell people, yes, you can still live with your luxuries and the things you want to live with, but just be more conscious of it.”

In terms of time investment, Amy said their new lifestyle means grocery shopping takes about two hours a week, instead of one. The couple also spend a good deal of time sorting out multiple recycling piles.

The local authority collects basic recyclable materials like newspapers, cans, and plastic bottles. The Korsts have a bin they take to a recycling depot, for items such as tin foil and milk cartons. Another bin holds glass. Meat scraps and animal hair get buried in the woods.

Four weeks after the start, the rubbish accumulated by the Korsts fits into a shoe box: a dog squeaky toy that got run over by a lawn mower, packaging from flea medication, a razor blade, a couple of pieces of plastic tape, and the blister packaging from an allergy pill.

But both insist the project has not taken over their lives, and that their new lifestyle will be sustainable, long after their year of living garbage-free is up.

“I think we are mostly going to stay with this lifestyle. I think there will be a few exceptions - like we will probably go and buy a bag of chips,” said Adam. “But 4.5 pounds a day of garbage is just so much and now, on my own, I am making a difference. It’s a fabulous feeling and I don’t think that either one of us is going to want to let this go.”