If you want to reduce the amount of waste you make, how can you do that if you don’t know what you throw away?
The first step is auditing your own waste. I learned about this at my university through the sustainability club I was involved in. It’s intended to be a Zero Waste Challenge where you carry around a gallon size freezer Ziploc for a week and use it as a receptacle for everything you can’t recycle or compost. (I was bad and am not currently in a living situation where I can compost or have a place to easily take my compost, so I threw away my “compost” because I didn’t want my bag to smell like rotting fruit). You’re supposed to attach it to your backpack so you don’t forget about it and also as a conversation piece to let people know what you’re doing. I did not do that because I use public transport to get to work and, not to stigmatize the word, didn’t want to look like some crazy trash lady. So I carried around my waste bag in my backpack. Or if I didn’t have my backpack and waste bag, I would just put my napkins or whatever in my pocket/purse.
This is an incredibly useful exercise, as it retrains your mind to be aware of what you thrown away. I would catch myself reflex reaching for the trash can. After a few days, I trained myself to stop using paper towels because they’re so wasteful and what are sweaters for? But that’s a seriously ingrained habit– grab paper towel, throw it away without thinking.
So here’s what my trash for the week looked like. I included the recycling, too, because reduce first, then recycle:
I’ve got a bunch of paper towels/napkins, some food packaging, some sandwich wraps, used tin foil, a plastic envelope from something in the mail, a paper wristband, clothes tags with the plastic thingies, individual salt and pepper packets, a candy foil, some other small stupid and random packaging elements, a styrofoam take out container, a pizza box, 2 tin cans, and 2 beer cans.
So let’s break it down.
Paper towels/napkins: First, some facts
• To make one ton of paper towels, 17 trees are cut down and 20,000 gallons of water are consumed.
• Every day, over 3,000 tons of paper towel waste is produced in the US alone.
• Decomposing paper towels produce methane gas, a leading cause of global warming.
• Paper was the largest contributor to municipal landfill waste in 2006.
• The average person uses 2,400 – 3,000 paper towels at work each year
As I said, this week of waste auditing definitely helped shed light on my own waste patterns. Probably all of us use paper towels every time we go to the bathroom and maybe paper napkins when we eat at home, definitely when we go out to eat. I’ve started air drying my hands or drying them lightly on whatever clothes I’m wearing as long as it won’t be visibly wet. For eating at home, use cloth napkins. I bet you’ve got some dish towels laying around that want to be put to use. I got two of these 100% certified organic Fair Trade cotton People Towels for free for a study I did at my university (about behavior change and I FAILED at trying to kick the paper towel habit a few months ago, but here I am). They’re not expensive and they’ve got really cute designs, plus they are super small and can fit into a pocket or purse. I’m trying to train myself to remember to always have this on me to use in place of napkins and paper towels
Food packaging: The worst. Food packaging is a noteworthy contributor to waste streams because food is the only product class typically consumed three times per day by virtually every person. That turns into a lot of waste, especially because individually wrapped products usually aren’t recyclable. This is where buying in bulk comes in. Instead of buying a small bag of trail mix from Trader Joe’s every week, you could get some mason jars (or even save a jar from pasta sauce…I find that glass jars are pretty easy to come by without buying them) and fill them up with your favorite snacks. Whole Food’s bulk bins have a pretty extensive selection. Wegman’s is a magical place if you are in the Northeast.
Another solid way to reduce the amount of food packaging you throw away is to buy as little processed food as possible. This is good for you and the environment. For example, there are these fig bars that I love and eat most days as a snack for work. I got like 30 packs at Costco that come in a big cardboard box…in 6 different smaller cardboard boxes…all individually wrapped. They’re convenient, but probably no less convenient than finding a recipe online to make them once a week myself.
Sandwich wraps/to-go eating: This is hard one. Sometimes you just need to get a lox bagel before work. But then you end up with like 7 napkins, a paper bag, a receipt, and a sandwich wrap…maybe even 2. If you are eating out or taking out, you can ask for no bag and take just one napkin (or keep your trusty cloth napkin on you). If you want to take it to the next level, you could try to plan ahead when you know you’ll be getting food to go and see if a place will wrap your sandwich in a cloth for you (some places are weird about taking things behind the counter so you could just have them hand it to you and you wrap it yourself). I love love love going out to eat, but cooking at home is usually cheaper and creates less waste so maybe it is best to refrain from getting something out unless you’ve planned ahead with your waste-bustin’ tools. The other day I really wanted an iced tea, but I stopped myself because I didn’t have a resuable cup for it…cause I didn’t need it.
Styrofoam take out container: Again, the worst. Styrofoam is my arch nemesis. But probably get me a styrofoam wedding ring cause it’ll last as long as a diamond…not really, but this stuff does take forever to break down and you can’t recycle it (even if it has the symbol on it) in most municipalities. So I’m out to brunch and I got this huge, killer breakfast quesadilla that would be a crime not to bring home. But then the dreaded take home box. I know it seems like I’m suggesting you start carrying around a lot of things with you (essentials: water bottle, cloth napkin/towel) and it might be a lot to think ahead about whether you’ll finish your whole brunch and need to bring your own container. Enter: Snack Taxi. I got two of these last week and I’m so excited about them– they’re reusable, machine washable food/snack bags with super cute designs. They come in all different sizes. This might be a good option to keep with you, as they’re small and foldable and useful for bringing home your leftovers (depending on what it is), but certainly useful for having that bagel handed over the counter to you so you can walk back to your car or to your destination to eat it without having to create waste!
Pizza box: Who doesn’t love pizza? Unfortunately, pizza boxes that have any food grease on them (which is pretty much gonna be the case) aren’t recyclable 😦 Not sure what to recommend here, but I’ll certainly give it some thought. Just wanted to inform you to stop contaminating the recycling with them. If you can, rip off the parts that are grease stained for the trash and recycle the clean cardboard parts.
Tin cans: Many things that come in tin cans can be bought in bulk, such as beans. These take a little more effort, as you have to soak them. But there seems to be a theme within this post that reducing your waste takes some forethought. (Aside: an especially good way for reducing waste is to plan your meals for the week before you shop so you know what to buy and how everything will fit together and be used.) Plus, many tin cans are lined with BPA, a plastic that is a hormone disruptor and linked to other things that aren’t good, but the amount in cans may not be high enough to cause damage to the body. WHO KNOWS. But what I do know is that even though (rinsed) tin cans are recyclable, you can do better than that, right? Again, reduce, reuse, then recycle. Also, you can make really cute plant pots from tin cans and many other cool things.
Beer/soda cans: I’m somewhat of a beer enthusiast. These cans are recyclable as well, but the most sustainable option would be to get a glass growler and get fills of beer at your local microbrewery(ies). Fresh beer, supporting local business, aww yes. I don’t want to tell people how to live their lives, but if you’re a soda drinker, especially a diet soda drinker, consider doing some research. Everything, beer included, in moderation.
Hopefully these tips were useful for you. I encourage you to do your own waste audit and see what your weekly waste looks like. I did this without really actively trying to change my habits from a typical week, but it certainly helped my habits evolve in the right direction even in that short week. I’ll be doing this again in another month or so to see what has changed and if I’ve made any progress in reducing my waste.
(Disclaimer: I’ve been in the sustainability game for awhile now, having majored in Environmental Studies and been involved in sustainability clubs throughout 4 years of college, so don’t get discouraged if your first trash pile is substantial)