Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A 21-Trash Can Salute

We're 45 weeks into 2012.  My family has put exactly 21 garbage cans at the curb this year.   (For those of you who really like numbers and measurement, those were 32-gallon cans).

The cleaning/purging that our family went through during the summer contributed a bunch of those garbage cans; so I think it's safe to say that we're in a comfortable holding pattern of producing just less than 1 garbage can every other week now.  Getting to this point was one of my "industrial resolutions" that I made last New Year's.

On the one hand, I'm proud at how low we've gotten our trash output this past year.    On the other hand, I'd like the amount of garbage we throw away to be lower yet.  But since the blog is winding down, slowly-but-surely, it seems like as good a time as any to share some of the stages of our trash-reduction journey.
One week's worth of kitchen trash.
Stage 1:  Recycling for beginners.
When I was growing up, all trash that left our home did so in one big (actually, 3 big) garbage cans.  But nowadays, recycling isn't just for hippies like me: it's everywhere, often mandatory.  The trick, many studies have shown, is to make recycling easy by having a recycling container next to each trash can.  If you have to walk each tin can or plastic bottle out to the garage (or even across the den and into the kitchen), you're less likely to recycle it.

But even so, a bit of brain power is needed -- you can see the above trash pile has a recyclable plastic container that my kids put in the wrong bin.  So practice doing recycling right.

Stage 2: Compost.  
Choose a spot out in the yard for food scraps and yard waste.  It can be as simple as just a pile on the ground, or a bin made from wooden slats, or a circle of chicken wire.  Do NOT do what I first did, and pile it up next to a fence you actually like, because the pile is going to rot, and it will rot the fence, too.  Indoors near the kitchen sink, keep an easy-to-carry container where you toss all food scraps (vegetable peels, scrapings from the dinner plates, etc), and when that container gets full/stinky, empty it out onto that compost pile.

Our compost pile reduces the amount of trash that goes in our trash can by a little bit.  But it reduces the stinkiness of the trash can A LOT!  To illustrate this (literally), take a peek at the picture above.  I took my family's kitchen trash can that had been filling up for an entire week, and I emptied it on my dining room table.  It's clearly a pile of trash, but it's clean trash, if that makes sense.  Not stinky at all.  I stuck it all back in the trash can after I took the photo; we probably won't empty that can for another week.

Food that rots outdoors (mixed in with leaves and grass clippings for good luck) eventually turns into dirt.  Really nice dirt, in fact.  Gardeners call it "black gold".   My daughter once told one of my friends, "My mom has a PhD and a compost pile!".  That's how proud I am of mine.

Stage 3: Stop buying things that you're just going to throw away.
Break the paper napkin habit: use cloth napkins (with different napkin rings for each member of the family, so you don't have to launder as often).

Once we'd mastered cloth napkins, we went for these other switches:
Stage 4: Recycling for experts.

We started carrying our home office paper to work, where I can recycle it.  But the truly huge trash-reduction breakthrough for our family came when we found a place 2 blocks from our home where we can recycle cardboard.   That one change alone cut our garbage-can-output by almost half, mostly because cardboard in a regular trashcan is bulky.   You can see from the pile above we're not perfect about that -- the milk carton and chinese food carton both can go in the cardboard bin.

Around the edges we recycle scrap metal (a guy from our church makes money by disassembling electronic items and selling the scrap metal).  And we dispose of hazardous waste like lightbulbs, paint, and batteries with our local waste authority.

Stage 5:  Reduce the amount of packaging your stuff comes with.
I'm guessing for most people, this will be the hardest thing to deal with, because it usually means changing the stores you go to and the way you shop.  But packaging accounts for the largest volume of household trash -- if you look at my own pile of trash above, it's a collection of bags, boxes, and containers.  So reducing packaging is essential to reducing trash.  Here are some ways I reduce our packaging load (although, as the pile above shows, I haven't come close to eliminating it).
  • Yard sales.  Sing that yard sale song!  Frugality and ecology go hand-in-hand when we buy used clothing/housewares/etc.
  • Instead of buying processed food, we buy ingredients (in bulk) and cook from scratch.
  • Organize a baking center, so it's easy to make a quick breakfast.
  • Buy from a farmer's market or roadside stands, instead of getting your fruit and vegetables packaged in plastic and on styrofoam trays.
  • Find places that allow you to trade in/refill jars.  (Our spice stand at Market refills my glass jars directly; our dairy stand uses glass jars that they can sterilize and use over again).  
  • Freeze or can summer produce in reusable containers.
Stage 6: Reduce the amount of trash people give you against your will.
This stage is a pain the tuckus.  But I've taken to calling catalog companies, waiting FOREVER on the phone line, and finally reaching a live human, so I can ask to be taken off their mailing list.  I've done this with almost 30 different companies now.  And we don't get nearly as many catalogs as we used to.  But I'm not convinced the payoff is worth my time.  

Similarly, my newspaper box has reduced (but alas, not eliminated) the plastic bags that come around my newspaper.

And that's that.  As I said, we have a way to go.  But for a household of five people, four of whom aren't nutso about garbage like I am, this is probably a good start.


  1. Wow...!! If I'd ask some of these changes to my wife, she'd probably divorce me...!!

    I've been very lucky changing some of her habits so far, and maybe she can go a bit further, but I don't want to get her crazy about reducing trash.

    Anyway, you've made here a good article at dealing with it.

    1. It is definitely messier to get a divorce than to put out another garbage can! I think you and I both try hard to make as many changes as we can without driving our family bonkers. My family is just more used to having a garbage-crazy mom. --MM

    2. Well, I hope you noticed that I was exaggerating about the divorce. But there is some truth in the fact that these approaches somehow tense our relationships .

    3. Exaggeration was duly noted! And there is indeed a tension -- sometimes a healthy tension -- in such discussions. I think my non-miser husband often rescues me from the brink of weirdness. -MM