Monday, February 20, 2012

Ideas to cut your trash waste by 80%

Each piece of trash was once a resource - a tree that was clear-cut into a junk-mail envelope, a barrel of oil turned to a plastic package, a mountain turned to an aluminum can. With lives lasting only a few days to a few months, each piece of trash is a sad waste of the resources needed to grow, process, and transport it. When you decrease your waste, you can cut the energy and resource use needed to turn the environment into trash, while also cutting the methane emitted by waste rotting in a landfill.

In my post about our Riot 4 Austerity results, I estimated that we created 80 -85% less trash than the average American household that generates 40 pounds per household per week. Since residential trash is 55 - 65% of the total waste stream, cutting the amount of trash you send to the landfill is a good way to cut your negative environmental impact - as well as save you money and help your friends.

So how does my household get down to 4-5 pounds per week, plus the occasional bulky item set out on the curb? I generally shy away from calling things "quick and easy," but decreasing your trash can be a fairly simple project.

Here are some of the ways we've cut our trash:

1. Yard clippings and trimmings

Yard "waste" is a large part of the trash generated during the summer and fall months - approximately 13.2% of the total solid waste, according to the EPA. But if we change our mentality, waste suddenly becomes lost fertility that we want to retain on site. Simply leave grass trimmings on the lawn, and run over your fallen leaves with the lawn mower, tuck them in your flower beds or garden, and voila - you've cut many unnecessary bags of waste.

2. Compost

Food scraps (fruit and vegetable trimmings, leftovers, coffee grounds, etc.) account for 12.7% of the solid waste stream, and represent a lost opportunity to create fertilizer for your (or your friends') garden. We cut down on this waste, and make organic fertilizer, with both our regular outside compost pile and a homemade vermicomposting (worm) bin, made of a Rubbermaid tub with holes drilled near the top, for ventilation.

When we have large amounts of garden waste that won't fit in our compost pile, or major amounts of rotting produce (like peaches, for example) that we won't be able to preserve, we contact a farmer we know who picks it up to feed to her chickens or pigs.

3. Recycle

Obviously, recycle all that you can. Newspapers and other paper (31%), glass (4.9%), plastic (12%), and metals (8.4%) can usually be recycled. A great general resource on recycling just about anything is

4. Reuse & repurpose

Donate, give away, trade, barter, or re-sell books, clothes, furniture, toys and appliances you no longer need or have outgrown. One fun idea is to host get-togethers where you and your friends exchange kitchen items, clothes, jewelry, and other items.

You can have a garage sale, use sites like Craigslist and Freecycle to sell or get rid of gently-used stuff, or send items to Goodwill or other charitable organizations. If you have kids, the JBF Sale is a great way to both sell and buy clothes, toys, books and other stuff for children. You can also give books to libraries or send paperbacks to a soldier overseas via a site like Books for Soldiers.

A great opportunity for reuse is any major home upgrade - updating your kitchen, floors, bathrooms, and other home improvement projects. Take the time to figure out a way to re-use the materials (ideally, before you start your project) or donate them to a place like the Habitat for Humanity Re-store.

Some cities don't accept cardboard for recycling. What do you do with all those and appliance boxes, not to mention the weekly cardboard from various cereal and other boxes? Simple - stick them in your garden and landscape paths under your mulch, and you'll hardly have to weed this summer. You can also add them to your compost pile to add "brown" material.

Another idea (if you have kids) is to turn cardboard food boxes into craft materials, which are useful for everything from homemade building blocks to sturdy painting surfaces.

One strategy for re-using glass bottles and jars is to can, dry, and freeze your own food, and homebrew beer and wine. This allows you to re-use the same bottles and jars virtually forever.

Here's a fun list of 50 Things you can Reuse. And if you are a gardener, there are plenty of ways you can reuse things that might otherwise go to the landfill.

5. Replace disposables with reusables

Disposable trash, used for half an hour or less, and then thrown "away," is a large part of the waste stream. I've noticed that when we go out to eat (and bring home leftovers), we can fill up a third of our trash can with the to-go boxes! Therefore, we don't eat out as much as we used to, and although we don't avoid styrofoam 100%, we've really cut down on patronizing restaurants that use styrofoam, which is generally not recyclable.

If you eat out often, but still want to cut your to-go waste, you can bring your own re-useable package (like glass tupperware) to take home your leftovers. If you are concerned about BPA and other toxins in your food, bringing your own glass container will also cut your exposure to plastic and styrofoam.

Other ways to cut down on disposables:
- Replace plastic bags with cloth bags,
- Replace single-serving water bottles with a stainless steel (or even a simple glass) bottle,
- Replace paper towels with rags (made from your old worn-out clothes and towels),
- Replace paper napkins with cloth napkins,
- Replace paper and plastic party goods with regular, washable ones, and
- Replace styrofoam or paper coffee cups with mugs and travel mugs.

6. Avoid making trash

Sure, you can recycle or possibly re-use cans and bottles, but you can also stop creating this waste by simply not buying single-serving products like sodas, juice boxes and juice bottles.

Many consumer goods - from tools to CDs to books - come in packages with annoying plastic casings or styrofoam doodads. Skip the trash by borrowing! Get your books from libraries, your tools from friends and family, and your music online.

Decrease that annoying and time-wasting junk in your mailbox- opt out of receiving catalogs and credit card mailers by signing up to stop junk mail.

You can also avoid making trash by taking care of your "stuff." Take care of your car, tires, appliances, furnishings, electronics, etc. to make them last longer and cut waste, while also saving money.


It's satisfying to throw away only one bag of trash per week (on average), and I am inspired by people who create even less waste than that. I recently watched the docu-comedy YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip. The three road-trippers decide to challenge themselves by carrying all their trash that couldn't be recycled or composted WITH them in the car trip across the country. At the end, they weigh the trash created by the three of them and find out that it only weighs - well, I won't give away the surprise. Suffice it to say that it is amazing what we can accomplish when we set our minds to it.

Got ideas and suggestions that have worked for you? Add them in the comments!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Seven ways to "green" your event

Whether you are organizing a potluck, seed share, film presentation, or a conference, you can take steps to share your values of conservation and sustainability in a very obvious way: by designing your event to be environmentally friendly.

Whether large or small, your event is a prime opportunity to let people see, in person, what "green" looks like, and an opportunity to enhance the credibility of your organization and your message. Sometimes, modeling green and sustainable values can take more time, effort, and cost, but on the other hand, being green can inspire your event to be more creative and can save you money in the short or long term.

As you begin planning your event, be sure to include sustainability in your goals. For larger events, you may even want to appoint a special "Green" committee or volunteer.

Here are a few ways to design an event that models environmentally-friendly values and actions:

1. Location, location, location

As you are deciding where to host your event, workshop, or even a simple get-together, evaluate the environmental aspects of the location. Is it located near public transportation? Was it designed to be energy and water efficient, or use renewable energy? Does the venue offer recycling, composting, and caterers that will use tableware and local food?

LEED-certified buildings that have passive solar and highly energy-efficient features or buildings that have some green significance, such as a historic train depot, can be good options. These venues are often happy to host an event for free or cheap in exchange for the publicity that will be associated with your event, or simply to support organizations that share the same goals.

Consider incorporating a tour of the "green" features of your location as part of the event. Many people would welcome the chance to see and learn about gardens and fruit trees, xeriscaped landscaping, rainwater tanks, solar panels, geothermal HVAC system, solar oven, clotheslines, and composting bins.

Choosing an outdoor location is one way to allow your participants to enjoy the sunshine, the smell of the wind, sounds of the birds, and the shade from the trees. Even if your event must take place indoors, you can select a location that will allow you to incorporate a nature walk, urban hike or tour of the gardens - helping refresh your participants and remind them of the reasons behind the event.

2. Donate, recycle and compost

If you are serving meals or trays of food, unserved meal portions may be able to be donated to a local food bank, so be sure to coordinate this before the event.

Even if your facility doesn't offer composting and recycling, take the extra effort to recycle and compost the waste of your event. For small events, this can be as simple as providing specific bins for recycling and composting and taking them home with you. For larger events, environmental groups are often willing to perform this service in exchange for free tickets and meals, or for being listed as a program sponsor or partner.

Post signs explaining why your group is going to the trouble to recycle, reduce waste, and compost - these will emphasize the reasons behind your actions, educate the public, and can be re-used at other events.

3. Offer vegetarian food

If food is a part of your event, be sure to offer (and label) vegetarian and vegan options. This can be as easy as a veggie sandwich, mushroom pizza, pasta dish, or bean chili. Not only is this inclusive of a variety of diets, but vegetarian options are often healthier and more environmentally friendly. Trust me, your vegetarians will notice - and thank you.

4. Use local, organic or near-ganic food and drink

Depending on the location, season and local foodshed, local food can be take a little effort to incorporate. However, there is almost always a way, unless your venue contract locks you in to an uncooperative caterer. You can "potluck" the event with local food dishes, choose a caterer who offers local food, ask your caterer to work with a local food vendor or farmer, or just offer a dessert table of local fruit from the farmer's market.

If you can't offer local organic or "near-ganic" food, then organic food is a good second choice. Don't forget the local beer and wine! And be sure to label your local food with the farm's name - this increases the visibility of the farmer.

5. Encourage environmentally-friendly transportation

As you market your event, you can highlight the closest bus stop and ask participants to car-pool or bike. You may even opt to specifically choose an event location that is close to public transportation or easy to bike to - especially if you are trying to attract an environmentally conscious or lower-income group of people.

6. Use sustainably grown, recycled and re-purposed materials

You will undoubtedly need materials and tools for your event. Consider planning so that you can re-use these repeatedly for a variety of future events. If you don't have much funding, you could consider partnering with an existing organization and borrowing materials from them. In the case that you need to create art, signs, displays, etc., consider using re-purposed materials. After the event, find a way to save, re-use or give away the materials.

When offering giveaways, try to make them symbolic of the goals you want to achieve. For example, you can give away seeds, vermiculture bins, or CFL bulbs. If you will have T-shirts for sale or giveaway, you can use organic cotton in your T-shirts for only a small additional fee. Flyers and posters can often be printed on recycled paper.

7. Reduce waste

Use re-useable glasses, plates, silverware, and napkins when possible. Not only do these create less waste, but they are classier and tougher than disposable tableware. If you are using a caterer, ask the caterer to avoid disposables (and include it in the contract, if you have one). If you are planning a small one-time event, you may be able to borrow the necessary tableware. If you plan to host numerous events, consider investing in a larger quantity that can be used repeatedly for your events throughout the year. Tip: be sure to arrange for a volunteer dishwasher!

Don't offer bottled water - instead, get water coolers, dispensers and ice chests and re-usable cups. For larger events, you may be able to offer one or more water stations. If possible, avoid using single-serving containers of anything (beverages, condiments, snacks, meals).

Instead of a direct-mail campaign, use social media and websites, networking, press releases, listservs, and public service announcements to attract participants to your event.

Bonus: Offset your carbon consumption

While carbon offsets are no excuse to ignore conservation, they can be a way to fund worthwhile projects that reduce carbon - and remind people that virtually all our actions have a carbon effect. Consider calculating the impact of your event (transportation, electricity, heating, etc.), and purchasing a reputable carbon offset, or simply making a donation to plant trees. You may even be able to find a local environmental group to sponsor or perform the offset in exchange for publicity.

If you don't want to purchase a carbon offset from a third-party, you could incorporate a tree planting into your event or post-event activities, or offset the carbon from all your events on a yearly basis by planting trees, perhaps with a local organization that owns some land, or with your local Neighborhood Association. Over time this plan will result in many beautiful shade, fruit and nut trees planted in your area.


As you plan your event, you may be surprised at all the opportunities you can find to share your environmentally-friendly values. Taking the time to plan a greener event will reduce the negative impact of the event, increase your green credibility, and demonstrate how to take concrete action to improve sustainability. Seize these opportunities when you can, because your event participants will remember them, learn from them, and sometimes, even be inspired to bring these actions into their own lives.

For larger events and more tips, see this article on Green Conferences and Hotels.