Every weekend in cities across the country, countless people drag weeks’ worth of laundry to local laundromats and spend several dollars in quarters to get their clothes clean, often discovering that they failed to separate their whites from their darks. For one year New York City author Colin Beavan headed to his bathtub to do laundry—with no quarters or fears of color blending.
In November 2006 Beavan began the one-year No Impact project, in which he challenged himself to make as little environmental impact as possible and blogged about his experiences using energy from a solar panel he installed on his roof. During this year he discovered the art of low-impact laundry—after filling the bathtub with water, Borax, and dirty clothes, Colin would stomp his clothes clean. Co-directors Laura Cabbert and Justin Schein documented the journey in the movie “No Impact Man.”
For Colin, living low impact was not just about turning off the water while brushing his teeth or throwing his plastic bottle in the recycling bin—it was about eliminating as much waste from his life as possible. He started slowly by making his own household cleaners from baking soda and vinegar, and biking around New York instead of taking a cab. After a few months, he eliminated toilet paper from his apartment, opting for reusable rags instead. He eventually turned off all electricity in his apartment, using a cooler instead of the refrigerator and living by the light of a large candle collection.
He was not alone in his journey. His wife Michelle and their two-year old daughter were along for the ride. His daughter took the whole project in stride, but his wife was not so easygoing. The two often bickered over Michelle’s desire to live comfortably and Colin’s need to live consciously. Michelle mourned the loss of extravagances such as vacations, haircuts, and her daily coffee routine, even fearing that she would lose her job due to caffeine withdrawal.
In many ways Colin and Michelle’s relationship gave a voice to the conflict many people face when trying to go green—the green angel on one shoulder and the red, white, and blue angel on the other. Despite recent nationwide trends toward environmental responsibility we are still a society defined by consumption. Through the couple the directors show us that we live in a society where if we want something we can have it, and when told otherwise, we get cranky.
As if a caffeine-deprived wife wasn’t enough to deal with, Colin felt the opposition of the blog community. Some bloggers thought that Colin would not be able to live impact free. Others thought that he was just out for fame. But the majority of the negative commentators thought that to do without modern amenities was unhealthy, unpatriotic, or just plain stupid.
But Colin never thought the project was about deprivation. He viewed it as an opportunity to see if it was “possible to have a good life without wasting.”
And according to the film, such a life is possible. Although the movie didn’t end with Michelle loving life as a no impact woman, she made progress. The family began to appreciate days outside in the sun and spending time together without a television. The No Impact project also led to more practical outcomes—Colin lost 20 pounds without setting foot in a gym and Michelle reversed her pre-diabetic condition.
Perhaps the greatest benefit was not for the couple, but for the community. Colin estimated that before the project he was collecting over four pounds of waste per day. As a family that’s over 4,000 pounds per year. Waste doesn’t just harm the environment—it harms the people in it. And unfortunately, it usually harms marginalized people in low-income neighborhoods.
Colin mentioned that along his journey he encountered a lot of people who respected what he was doing, but weren’t ready to make such a large commitment to live impact free. So he said the biggest thing people could do to make a difference was volunteer at an environmental organization because doing so builds a sense of community. And he believed that sense of community—the feeling of caring and responsibility toward others—was the most important reason to live green.
The film ends with a very powerful political message. Colin explains to a group of young people that after years of wondering how Congress was going to solve the environmental crisis, he realized that he didn’t have to wait anymore—he could start solving the problem himself. The most radical political act, he explained, is to act. Because if one person acts, other people will follow.