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.
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.
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 Earth911.com.
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 amazon.com 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!