Ever since I read Elizabeth Royte’s Garbage Land, I can’t throw away anything without thinking about the secret life of trash. Royte followed her garbage to landfills where nothing decomposes and a hotdog from 1950 looks virtually the same in 2005. I followed her to the recycling plants where enormous batches of paper are made back into pulp, and where plastic bottles find a second life as carpets or outdoor furniture. I traveled vast distances as trash from New York City is trucked to landfills as far away as West Virginia and where toxic sludge from wastewater treatment plants is spread on fields as fertilizer. Knowing that Americans generate 250 million tons of trash per year, I began an experiment last summer to see how much waste I actually produced and could divert.
Recycling took up the most space because of all the packaging. No matter what I bought, everything came with packaging, except for the raw produce. I tried to take my own bags to the grocery store and to buy produce without putting it in smaller bags first. If it was just a paper box or plastic container, it could be recycled. But if it was a plastic bag inside a box (cereal), one or one those plastics stuck to paper contraptions, then the plastic has to be thrown away. Not drinking soda or bottled water cut down on a lot of recycling, but there were still milk and juice cartons, egg crates, yogurt tubs, steel cans, and paperboard containers. My paper was fairly minimal because almost all of my printing was done at work and I subscribed to no paper newspapers or magazines. However I did get a large amount of junk mail.
Composting was the main challenge. I could have built a composting crate myself, but saved myself the effort and bought an easy to assemble compost mesh container for $60 online. I set it up on a level spot in the back of my landlord’s backyard (who fortunately was supportive of this endeavor). Indoors I put my food scraps into a large bowl on the kitchen counter. Because I ate mostly vegetarian, I generated a large amount of vegetable scraps and fruit peels and small quantities of meat, dairy, egg shells, and bones, all of which I threw into the bowl. Three times a week I took my bowl to the backyard and dumped it inside the composting container. I also had pet gerbils and the pine shavings I used for their bedding was a perfect addition to balance out the food mixture.
The outdoor compost pile was at first rather unpleasant. Nothing seemed to be decomposing and every time I opened the lid, a huge swarm of flies came out. This was rather frightening and became a chore that I asked my husband to do as much as possible. Over time, I added garden clippings and gerbil bedding, and the heat of the summer cooked it all together and the pile reduced over time. Eventually it turned black, emitted a nice earthy smell, and no longer harbored a cloud of flies. Overall it was incredibly low maintenance, though the end product could have been better.
With composting and recycling out of the way, there was surprisingly little trash left: most of it packaging. Books came in padded envelopes. Household items came wrapped styrofoam, meat was packaged on styrofoam trays, wrappers of various sizes, floor sweepings, a broken glass, batteries, tissues and paper towels. The latter could be composted if not soaked in cleaning fluid.
I carefully kept track of my all my waste over a period of two months (August 31-October 31) and arrived at the following breakdown:
Trash: 17.8 pounds
Recycling: 33.5 pounds
Compost: 54.5 pounds
With two adults in my household, this equated to 0.85 pounds per person per day.
It turns out organics made up the majority of my household waste. A lot of it was spoiled food which could have been avoided. It was also the part that was most difficult to manage. The recycling occupied the most volume. However, I generate most of my paper waste in the office, which simply wasn’t captured in the home waste stream. It’s amazing how much of our waste is packaging, and if we bought more raw produce perhaps that could be avoided. Junk mail could be reduced by canceling catalogues, switching to online billing, and subscribing to the digital versions of magazines and newspapers.
Recycling in the kitchen was easy because the bins are easily accessible. However, recycled materials are also generated in the bathroom and bedrooms. People typically don’t put recycle bins in every room of their house, but those items can be recycled too. These include toilet paper rolls, toiletries packaging, shampoo bottles, pill bottles, the tags off of new clothes. Taking these items into the kitchen was less convenient than throwing them in the trash bin. But extra bins in these rooms would alleviate that problem. I fed a portion of my cardboard (toilet and paper towel centers) to my gerbils who made good work of shredding them. Those were then perfect for adding fiber to the compost pile.
Even though the amount of waste that ended up in the trash was fairly small, it could have been even smaller if I had been willing to give up a few conveniences. For example, if I had reused cloth towels instead of paper towels, I would have reduced my trash by another 50%. Also there are the things that get worn out that make a huge addition to the regular trash when they are tossed. For example, I had to throw out a couch that year. I also threw out burned pots and pans, old clothes, shoes, a toaster, and a broken chair. These items were not captured in my waste experiment. I read somewhere that 20% of waste produced in an American household is generated during the holiday season. If my experiment had taken place at that time of year my waste might have looked quite different.
I realize that a few privileges enabled me to be as green as I was. The fact that I lived in a residence with a backyard and a landlord who was supportive of what I was doing was key in enabling me to divert more than 50% of my waste. My current residence is a commercial apartment complex where composting is out of the question. The fact that I ate a lot of produce and rice and had time to prepare them cut down on the amount of packaging I recycled and threw away. If I had been in an economically challenged position I would not have had the time or resources to manage a backyard composting operation. Separating my waste into three categories took up a lot of space in my tiny kitchen (I had five bins devoted to waste), and if my space had been even smaller, I could not have accommodated this arrangement.
The average American generates 4.3 pounds of household waste per day and diverts 34% of it through composting and recycling. With a little effort, I generated only 0.85 pounds of waste per day and diverted 80% of it from the landfill. Even then I discovered opportunities where I could do more. It was encouraging that I could reduce so much with fairly little effort, once I got over the hurdle of getting a compost pile started. I also enjoyed seeing my food waste turned back into soil and becoming something useful. I enjoyed sending out a tiny bag of clean trash each week.
The deeper lesson though, I think, is not just how to eliminate as much waste as possible, but to think about our consumption patterns and what it reveals about us as a person and a society. Do we buy because we truly need something, or because we want to impress others or to be entertained? Do we consider the entire life cycle of a product, where it came from as well as where it will end up? Reducing waste is 10% how to get rid of it and 90% how to acquire it. Buying in bulk is better than buying individually packaged products. Buying something that’s used is more sustainable than buying new, even if the new product is made from green materials. A product that is reusable is more sustainable than a product that is used only once and tossed. Not buying at all and making use of what you have is most green. Thinking about where I bury the things in my life helped me appreciate the material abundance of my life and the impact that my consumption has on society and the environment.