Learn how to save money, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and track your waste
Waste Not – Want Not
As our time at home has increased dramatically over the last several months, have you thought about or noticed how much waste you generate at home? Whether you are cooking more, ordering take-out, or just cleaning out; chances are the amount of waste generated at your home has increased. My waste generation has definitely increased. The increase lead me to think about how I could be more sustainable at home and reduce my waste generation. While I have not achieved zero waste (yet), I was surprised by the amount of waste reduction. This article provides some insights, tools, and a worksheet to track your waste that I have found helpful and may work for you as well to become more sustainable and move the dial toward zero waste at home.
Economics of Waste Generation
One of the flaws of our economic system is that we are not paying the upfront costs on our environmental impact of what we consume. This is one of the reasons I am focusing my work on sustainability and the circular economy to help change how we consume. I live in a borough that has a “pay-as-you-throw” trash bag waste system, curbside recycling, and a drive up recycling center that is an excellent model for economic incentive to reduce your waste. In the last couple years they have also added a “toter” container option.
Reducing Waste Disposal Costs
The picture above shows the two sizes of bags for MSW. The smaller 20-pound bag costs $2.25 to purchase and the larger 40 pound bag is $3.75. By focusing on what I was throwing away and seeing how I could recycle or divert that waste I was able to reduce my MSW trash that goes to the landfill to two 20 pound bags per month. A total cost of $5.50 per month for waste disposal. At this rate, my annual waste cost is $66.00/yr compared to $300.00/yr for a standard 64-gallon wheeled cart or “toter” container.
Reducing my waste is saving me $234.00 per year.
This type of trash system provides a tangible economic incentive; the intangible environmental incentives include the positive economic impact of waste diversion and reducing air emissions that contribute to climate change. Check with your waste or community hauler – can you get a reduced rate for a smaller waste container or what if you have a pick-up every two weeks?
I found that waste are like gases and tend to fill the space they are in or in this case the container meant to hold them. As I started paying more attention to what I was putting in the regular trash container that goes to a municipal solid waste landfill (MSW landfill), I realized that much of that waste could be recycled or composted.
Step 1– Waste Audit
I found that to change your waste habits, you have to start by paying attention to what you throw away in the regular trash. An at-home waste audit is a good way to start. It is easy to do and only takes one week. Start the day after your regular trash day to the next trash day to document what you throw in the MSW landfill trash. Below in the Resources section there is a link to a simple waste audit table that you can you use. Also, there are many online options for a home waste audit. If you have school age children this is a great assignment for them to tackle.
Step 2— Review Results
The results of your waste audit can help you figure out where to reduce waste going to the MSW landfill.
Is there anything going in the regular trash that could be recycled? Sometimes it is a question of not being sure if you can put it in your recycling. It is a good time to review the recycling rules for your community and remind yourself of what they accept. Just because your community does not include it does not mean it cannot be recycled. A good example is batteries. All batteries can be recycled. Your state regulations may allow for alkaline batteries to go in the trash. However, it does not take much effort to collect batteries and take them to a local hardware store or battery recycling center. Be sure to store them properly in a metal container during collection.
Step 3– Reduction
Review the results of your own waste audit and see where you can make reductions to the amount of waste going to your MSW landfill. The results may surprise you as they did me! Two my waste streams with the largest waste reductions turned out to be food waste and paper.
Last year I became a board member on the New Jersey Composting Council (NJCC). As part of the board, I have meet many interesting and intelligent people tackling the food waste challenge. The NJCC events taught me about composting and this lead me to start my own food waste composting at home. I substantially reduced the amount of food wasted (meaning it spoiled before I used it). Also, by collecting my food scraps and composting I have reduced my MSW landfill waste. This is a good example of once I started collecting food waste separately and seeing the amount generated it motivated me to change.
Reducing the amount of food waste going to landfills is also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping to fight climate change. When the food waste goes to a landfill it produces methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) due to anaerobic decomposition (lack of oxygen). A compost pile decomposes aerobically (with oxygen) producing mainly CO2. Methane has a higher global warming potential. It can hold 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2. So when we want to decay food waste it is much better for the atmosphere and planet earth to produce CO2 and not CH4.
About 11% of all the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the food system could be reduced if we stop wasting food. (WWF)
I have always recycled cardboard, paper food containers, and newspaper. Therefore, I was surprised at how much paper I was still throwing away. I realized much of this was from mail. Because the mail often has personal information I do not put it in the recycling. I am getting better at getting bills and financial information in electronic statements online instead of the mail but I have to admit I still like paper. My other solution was a small shredder. If I shred the mail it can go with the cardboard to the recycling center. Also, I recently found out it can be used as a “brown” in your composting. I have paper in the composting yet but it is a good solution if you do not have the leaves or yard waste for the brown part of your compost.
There were several items that I just had no idea if they could be recycled. I have set them aside and am going to research and/or reach out to the manufacturer to get more information. I will follow-up on the blog on how to recycle items and replace them with a more sustainable option.
Quick Start Challenge
Quick Start Challenge: Here is an easy way to start. Check your waste receptacles. Can you add containers for different types of wastes such as compostable materials. How about changing the size of your containers?
Make your smaller waste receptacle your MSW landfill trash and your larger trash can your recycling. Does this start to shift your waste habits?
When you achieve zero waste at home, the landfill receptacle will be obsolete.
Reducing your waste is a good way to accomplish a new goal, reduce your environmental impact, and start habits for a more sustainable future.
A Few Resources:
Waste Audit – This is a simple waste audit table for your one week audit. There are two options provided below. You can download to track your waste there is also an excel file if you want to edit to add categories and sum results.
Composting – The US Composting Council has an excellent set of educational resources on their website on how to compost.
If you live in a city or apartment and do not have a backyard, check into other available options. For instance, there may be curbside pickup options for your location, community composting , or there are other options for apartments such as “vermicomposting” (yes there are worms in my ottoman—a great conversation piece) or a method called “Bokashi”. This article does a great job explaining how to compost at home no matter where you live. Life Kit: How to Compost at Home, Julia Simon, April 9, 2020.
What can I recycle? – Check out the websites for Earth911 and Recycle Nation allows you to search by type of item and zip code to locate recycling options.
Everyone can contribute to a more sustainable future and working toward zero waste at home is a good place to start.