Surprises in the Trash
Updated: May 25
I knew shelter-in-place was getting to me when dumpster diving started to seem interesting. The official engineering term for it is “waste audit.” Businesses and organizations do this audit to reduce the amount of money they spend on waste disposal. It’s also an essential step when you want to move toward zero waste for environmental reasons. If you don’t know what’s going into your trash, then you don’t know what to do to stop it from being trash.
My first waste audit was as a project manager under contract to an army installation. Their goal was to divert 50% of the installation’s waste away from the landfill. They already had a large recycling program, but it was falling short of the 50% goal. The installation hoped a waste audit would help them understand why and plan their next steps.
We started by selecting garbage trucks from different parts of the installation. The trucks were directed to a sorting area, where they dumped their contents. Teams went through the trash and sorted items into recyclable and non-recyclable trash. The recyclable trash was made-up of recyclable items that had been placed in a trash bin, instead of the recycling bin. Further sorting into categories of recyclable materials (e.g., glass, paper) told the installation which materials should be the focus of improvements to their recycling program.
The non-recyclable trash also was sorted by categories (e.g., food, building materials, clothing). By knowing the categories that made-up the largest percentages of the waste, the installation could effectively direct their waste reduction efforts. Changes to the processes that generated these categories had the greatest potential to reduce the total amount of waste.
Recently, while sheltering in place, I thought of this project and started to wonder what a household waste audit might look like. Now I’ll be honest; even though waste audits are part of my profession, I was not thrilled about the thought of dumping my household trash onto the floor of the garage and sorting it by category. Doing a complete waste audit also means weighing each category. I didn’t have a scale with the correct weight range, nor one that I wanted to use for trash. If you really want to do a professional grade household waste audit, there is guidance available online. As for me, I wimped out.
It’s amazing how creative our minds are when looking for a way out of doing something. As I thought about the problem of weighing the trash, I had the idea that reducing my waste is a lot like reducing my waist. Both involve reduction or a change in consumption. In other words, a diet. A common recommendation for a diet is to keep a journal of everything you eat and drink. I started to wonder if a household waste journal might be a useful approximation of a waste audit. I decided to give it a try.
I started by explaining what I was doing to everyone in the household. I then placed a sheet of paper by each of the trash bins, and for one week we wrote down everything we threw into the bins. I was surprised to find that this activity alone made a difference. We became aware of what we were throwing into the trash. Sometimes, we hesitated and asked each other, “is this really waste?” “Is there anything else I can do with it?”
At the end of the week, I collected the sheets of paper and compiled the information into categories. Here are the top three categories of things that we threw into the trash:
1. Non-recyclable plastic packaging. This was by far the largest category. In general, I knew plastic packaging was a problem, but I thought we were doing a fairly good job of avoiding it. Boy was I wrong!
Plastic seems to be everywhere, and sometimes it’s hidden in the packaging in surprising ways. Sealed bottles in a cardboard package have shrink-wrapped plastic around their caps, and sometimes around the entire bottle. Bulk fruit and vegetables have plastic labels, bands, and ties. Smaller items sold in large plastic containers are individually wrapped in plastic. Many frozen food bags and cereal bags aren’t a recyclable form of plastic.
Based on this category being the largest percentage of our trash, it appears the biggest opportunity for us to reduce our waste is to change our buying habits. We are starting to look at packaging a lot more closely and considering it more seriously when we make buying decisions.
2. Non-plastic, single-use, personal hygiene items. This category was another surprise to me. I had no idea we used so many facial tissues, cotton balls, cotton swabs, and similar items. I did some research and discovered almost all the hygiene items are compostable, if they are 100% paper and/or cotton. It even says so on my box of swabs; I’d just never bothered to read the label! We now have a compost container in our kitchen and our bathroom. The only caution is to not compost the item if it was used in a way that may carry disease.
3. Non-plastic, single use items. Media and other organizations focus a lot of attention on single-use plastic, but all single-use items are a direct path from a natural resource to the landfill. For our household, this category included a wide variety of things: wax paper, parchment paper, aluminum foil, paper towels, disinfectant wipes, and sweetener packets. We are working on alternatives for all of these.
So, what have I learned? Even though we are using the city’s smallest trash bin, some relatively easy changes can reduce our waste further. The most difficult change, and the one with the greatest potential to reduce our total waste, will be dealing with the packaging. It may mean some compromises between products we want and products that are better for the environment and still meet our needs.
The one thing I’d do differently would be to keep a journal for the recycling bin, in addition to the trash bin. Waste to be recycled is still waste. It took resources to make these items and will require more resources to recycle them. Reduce, reuse, and repurpose are all better alternatives than recycling. Just like the items in the trash bin, I need to know what’s in the recycling bin, so we can effectively work to reduce our total waste.
I’d also add something to the process. I still wouldn’t weigh every category of trash, but I would weigh the entire bag of trash for the week. I could do this by standing on a bathroom scale without, and then with, the bag, like when I weigh our pets. I’d similarly weigh the recyclables for the week, too. Worldwide, the average is 1.63 pounds of waste (recyclables and trash combined) per person per day (11.4 pounds per week for one person). In the U.S., the average is 4.51 pounds of waste per person per day (31.6 pounds per week for one person). By weighing our trash and recyclables, I would know how my household compares to these averages. I could track our progress in reducing total waste by regularly weighing the trash and recyclables.
I’m sharing this experience in hopes it might give you some ideas for your household. What might be in your waste journal? Let me know if you give this process a try. I’d love to know how it worked for you and what you learned.