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Thinking Small in a Season of Excess : Environment: Robert Lilienfeld is no Scrooge but as the holidays approach, he's serving up bite-size ideas to combat our wasteful ways.

November 13, 1995|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Did you know: If every American threw away one bite of Thanksgiving turkey with gravy, that alone would amount to 8.1 million pounds of wasted food?

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This is the kind of statistic that Robert Lilienfeld savors--an informational snippet that dramatizes his ongoing message about the wasteful habits of the American consumer.

Those habits reach their trashy peak during the holiday season.

Not that Lilienfeld wants to criticize. A marketing-consultant-turned-environmentalist, he focuses on painless ways people can conserve resources and reduce waste, a philosophy known as "source reduction" at the Environmental Protection Agency. Trying to humanize the notion, Lilienfeld came up with the term "Use Less Stuff," or ULS, which is based on the simple premise that recycling is fine but it's better not to create waste in the first place.

From his home office ("I commute by foot, down the stairs") in Ann Arbor, Mich., Lilienfeld has been publishing the bimonthly ULS Report since May, 1994. It's a breezy newsletter sprinkled with statistics, energy-saving tips, short essays, reader feedback and eco crossword puzzles. With a national distribution of 5,000 hard copies and an estimated 10,000 readers on his Internet site, Lilienfeld was encouraged to take another step. With the backing of nine environmental organizations, he has proclaimed this Thursday as ULS Day and has issued a "38 Days, 38 Ways" declaration with little tips for cutting down on holiday trash.

"The date gives people a week's notice to clean up their act," says Lilienfeld. He acknowledges that it took a little nerve to declare a national holiday, but he was motivated by statistics indicating that between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, Americans generate 25 million tons of trash--which is about 1 million extra tons per week.

"One of the things we have been focusing on is getting people to understand that recycling by itself is not going to solve the solid waste problem," says Lilienfeld. "Today we recycle about 45 million tons of stuff a year, but don't recycle 160 million tons of stuff. And because of population growth, the long-term implications are serious."

But no one wants to hear that the sky is falling, so Lilienfeld, a big believer of strength in numbers, is serving little bite-sized ideas in his ULS Report. When Halloween was coming up, he suggested making costumes out of things already on hand and using that scooped-out pumpkin to bake a pie. For summer cookouts, he urged car-pooling to the picnic site and packing food in reusable containers.

Lilienfeld, who formed Partners for Environmental Progress several years ago to coordinate large-scale recycling projects, gets newsletter funding ("It's a shoestring budget") from companies interested in waste prevention.

He enjoys both encouragement and technical assistance from William Rathje, an archeologist who runs the noted Garbage Project at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Rathje and Lilienfeld met at an environmental conference and the collaboration was born.

Rathje, who has spent 23 years analyzing the contents of municipal trash for clues to contemporary culture, considers it a moral imperative for the United States, having pioneered the Use More Stuff lifestyle, now to lead a change in direction.

"We have all sorts of clear scientific information that we are going to be straining the limits of our resources, the limits of our energy capabilities and the limits of our pollution levels over the next few years," he says. "I am not the kind of person who believes that Americans at heart want to consume, consume, consume and don't care about the environment. I believe we have a lot of concern about the world."

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The current ULS Report has full details of the "holiday" devoted to personal cutting back, including a few ideas that Lilienfeld acknowledges are a little wacky.

"The suggestion to make potholders out of an old ironing board cover pushes it for me a little," he says, "but we don't expect anyone to use the entire list."

The original plan was to make a ULS Day-Advent calendar with a Waste Tip of the Day, but when that got too complicated Lilienfeld and his researchers settled for a topical approach. For instance:

* Eating: To reduce the tons of edible holiday food thrown away, he offers a realistic guideline for grocery shopping and suggests buying products in bulk.

* Shopping: Use paper bags to wrap small packages for mailing; recycle corrugated cartons (they add up to 23 millions tons of waste a year); use old newspapers for packing material.

* Decorations: Get a tree that can be planted or mulched; use smaller, low-wattage bulbs to consume less electricity; put all your lights on timers.

And while these are not trail-blazing tips, if everybody would follow just one or two of the suggestions, the overall impact could be great, Lilienfeld says.

"I'm not trying to be a Scrooge, it's just that the holidays are a good time to focus on changing our behavior."

His project is getting "really positive" media response, he says. Stories on ULS Day will appear in magazines ranging from Family Circle to Mirabella, and Lilienfeld will be a guest on NPR and other radio networks this week. "This seems to be an idea people like," he says.

* The free ULS Report can be ordered by writing to P.O. Box 130116, Ann Arbor, MI 48113, or found on the Internet at http://cygnus-group.com

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