A Long Way from Zero Waste

As I’ve simplified my life in many areas (by getting rid of 800 things, crawling out of debt, and living a voluntarily simple life), I’ve started thinking about trash. Garbage, plastic, glass, food scraps, paper, and so much more.

The complexity of my trash situation hit me as I was cleaning out and organizing my kitchen cabinets for the Reverse 100 Thing Challenge. Under the sink, I have my regular trash. In two other cupboards, I have recyclable soda bottles and cans and another bag of recyclable plastic and glass. Another cupboard holds only a paper grocery bag with paper and cardboard in it and then there’s the plastic bag full of plastic bags. There’s another small bin for garbage in the bathroom.

As I was trying to organize and minimize this mess, I wondered how much trash I actually create.

So – to those who know me, this will come as no surprise – I decided to measure it all. For the first three months of 2013, I weighed every bag of trash and recyclables that left my home. The only things I missed were the food scraps that accidentally went down the drain. And here’s what it all weighed:

  • 34 lbs of paper
  • 26.5 lbs of trash
  • 18 lbs of plastic & glass
  • 78.5 total lbs of trash = 0.79 lbs / day

Insanely, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average American produces 4.4 lbs of garbage daily! At least I’m well below the national average, but I’m still shocked at my 0.79 lbs per day. That’s 288+ lbs per year for little ol’ me.

To simplify (i.e. lighten) my environmental impact, I really thought about what I’m tossing out into the world. And I know I can do better. Here’s how:

Getting down to zero waste

Most of my trash is paper.

  • I read several free newspapers per week. I can read them at the office, coffee shop or library and easily return them to the stand for the next user. It’d be even better if the publisher printed fewer copies because of this.
  • I can ask cashiers to not print my receipt before it starts to print.
  • By eating fresher foods, I’ll have fewer boxes to recycle.
  • Many of my bills are paperless, but I can really push the companies that don’t yet offer this option.
  • I’m still figuring out the junk mail problem. A month ago, I registered to NOT receive a phone book this year. Shortly thereafter, a new one showed up in my mailbox. Go figure.

A lot of my trash is just general junk.

  • And a lot of that junk is the containers and wrappings for dinners, fast food, take-out, and coffee cups.
  • I’m working to cut back on how much I eat out. The arrival of summer will especially help with that.
  • I’m drinking more coffee from my own mug at the office. I could be better about bringing my own mug to coffee shops, especially when I’m buying coffee for the road.
  • Some of my trash came from a big spice purge. I bought way more cumin, chili powder, and ground mustard than I could ever use and it was not at all fresh anymore. I now buy spice in tiny, tiny amounts, just for the recipes I’m making that week.
  • I bought into a little community garden near my apartment building. With a compost pile, I hope I can divert some of my organics.

A little bit of my trash is recyclable glass and plastic.

  • I’m cutting way back on my soda habit, so that will help big time.
  • I’ve planned meals better so that I can either eat at home or sit and eat at a restaurant or cafe, rather than grabbing the ubiquitous to-go containers. This has actually made meals more peaceful and enjoyable.
  • I did a big purge of plastic containers recently. I replaced them with the glass jars I have leftover from salsa and honey, so this is recycling times two!

Also, check out this great little article from the Mother Nature Network on waste, poundage, and the financial and environmental costs.

I’ll keep measuring my trash this year. It’s easy enough: just a quick step on the scale before I haul it downstairs. And I’m curious if my trash pounds decrease with different seasons or just good ol’ mindfulness.

My goal is to get down to 0.50 lbs/day. I’ll post quarterly reports here.

Your turn: do you know your trash poundage? Want to take a guess?

Or, even better, do you want to join me in my goal of 0.50 lbs/day (per person)?


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