Movie: No Impact Man

A friend of mine told me about this documentary called “No Impact Man” where a man and his family (wife and daughter) from New York City went one year trying to make no net negative impact on the environment.

Imagine trying to be sustainable in Midtown Manhattan, yikes.

My friend assumed that this is where I got my inspiration for the no-landfill 30-day challenge.  I hadn’t ever heard of it so I decided to watch it and it’s basically an extreme version of what I’m trying to do.  I am trying to go without trash for 1-month, this guy went without electricity, toilet paper, and buying anything new all year long.  Here’s a trailer below that gives you the gist of what it’s about and what No Impact Man tried to accomplish with his documentary:

It was quite obvious that this man and his family jumped right into the fringe of eco-extremism.  However to his credit, in order to really find out what you can live without and what you truly need in your life, you have to go cold turkey and work your way back up.  He spent the first 5 months cutting waste out of his life.  The first month they cut out carbon producing transportation; cars, buses, trains, airplanes, etc.  They walked, biked, or scootered everywhere.

The wife cruised in one of these every day to work, awesome.

Then they moved on to eating only locally grown food (produced within 250 miles of NYC).  Then they cut out electricity, buying new goods (rented or bought used only), started composting etc.  So they had the 1st half of the year to transition themselves into a no-impact lifestyle and they spent the 2nd half of the year really living without any net negative impact on the environment.  I’ve noticed throughout this month-long challenge that I’m only reaching the tip of the iceberg.  This challenge really deserves more attention than 1 month of no-landfill practices.  It would take at least a year to get a solid understanding of sustainable living and then taking the rest of your life to practice, learn, implement, and be skeptical of those ideas.

There were many interesting points made throughout the movie.  The average American produces approximately 1600lbs of trash per year and that’s just one American, not a family of Americans.

This is what 1600lbs looks like, 1 person's landfill contribution = 1 Bobcat/year

You live in ignorance if you think that when you throw something away that it does just that, goes away.  It becomes not just an environmental issue (I’m not talking about polar bears dying or islands that will suffer from rising sea levels) it becomes a financial and more importantly a public health issue. I’m talking about examples like one in the movie; a community of asthmatic and brain damaged children who live near a trash processing facility in NYC.  Coincidence?  Probably not.  Our throw-away culture is not just making our landfills bigger, they also take an incredible amount of energy to process (time&money waste), and as a result it negatively affects the health of our neighbors.

The child in the movie was still in diapers at the time and they switched to using cloth diapers because 49 million plastic diapers are sent to landfills every day in the United States.  Crazy when you think about 49 million plastic bags of poop that cannot be recycled (for obvious reasons) and will never biodegrade because of the plastic they’re made out of (not right).

Mountain of "disposable" diapers outside of a store in Florida

All babies do is eat, sleep, cry and poop so there has to be compostable diapers out there on the market (recycling them is just plain wrong on many levels).    Hopefully I wont have to make that purchasing decision anytime in the too near future (plastic or biodegradable or cloth, etc), but for those of you with kids it’s just something to think about.

Another staggering statistic that really drives home the concept of why one should eat local is that the average piece of food that an American consumes has traveled approximately 1500 miles before it is consumed at the dinner table.  It takes an incredible amount of waste to bring foods from other climates or even to bring food like corn from the mid-west to places like Boston.

Why go through all this trouble to get apples from Argentina delivered to Boston when we can just get them from New Hampshire or even 20 miles outside of the city?

The main character, “No Impact Man”, touches on this idea that the food chain should be legible, i.e. you should be able to read where your food came from and how it was made, before you buy it.  Places like Trader Joe’s does a great job of this, making the process a little more transparent so that the consumer can make educated decisions about how they acquire their food.

Also he brings up this concept of “Downcycling” which I agree is a better way to describe “Recycling” in the traditional sense.  Usually we have a warm, fuzzy feeling associated with recycling.  However, many materials are actually just downcycled, i.e. they can be recycled 2-3 times before the material properties are too useless (and toxic) for making new materials.  At this point they are just discarded and left poison our land and the people who live on it.  Recycling is great, but it’s like treating  the symptom of a disease and avoiding its route cause; overconsumption in a largely disposable culture.  Companies like TerraCycle do their part to “Upcycle” materials into better products but again, symptom fixing, not route cause fixing.

The biggest part I liked about this movie was the wife.  She was a caffeine addicted, high fructose corn syrup addicted starbucks-o-phile who lives for reality television at night and buying the newest fashionable clothing (sounds like a lot of people I know and even myself at times).  At the end of the year she came to realize that after experience a year with no-impact, there was really no option of going back on the environment.  Most of her bad habits before the challenge were just that, habits.  It takes some time (and will power) to change habits but it can be done and often for the better.  Yes there were some things that worked well and some things that compromised their happiness throughout the no-impact year, but through an extreme experiment they were able to really find out how to reduce, reuse, and recycle.  A lot can be learned from this movie so I suggest watching it and I agree with the wife that this challenge will never really be “over” it’s really only just started and there’s no going back.

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2 Responses to Movie: No Impact Man

  1. Glad you enjoyed the movie!! And just to add they actually do make biodegradable diapers…I know this because my brother was looking into diaper alternatives after he and my sister-in-law had there first child last year. I did a quick online search and found gDiapers ( which looks like a pretty cool company that makes the only flush/compostable diapers. Hopefully these are not in the near future for me as well but it is nice to know that more options are in the works.

  2. The “downcycling” thing is a good point. I know from personal experience with carpet recycling – some carpet fiber is made of recycled PET bottles, but then try to recycle that carpet and you’re out of luck. The properties are too degraded at that point.

    I was reading about Coca-Cola’s new eco bottle, and on the project’s website they try to argue that their bottle is better than a biodegradable one because it’s 100% recyclable. There are so many problems with that thinking. First, it assumes that 100% of the bottles out there are recycled, which isn’t even close to true. Then, each time something is recycled, the purity goes down and the properties degrade. Eventually we have something with properties that have degraded to the point where it is useless, and IT STILL WON’T BIODEGRADE! Recycling is better than nothing, but it’s still harmful and biodegradable is the way to go.

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