Lighten Up: Garbage Reduction

More than a year ago, Richard and I decided to see if we could get along without regular trash-removal service. We were motivated in part by saving money, and in part by the idea that if it wasn’t as convenient to thrown stuff “away,” we’d be more likely to stop and consider how much stuff we bought as well as how we disposed of it. And that would be a good contribution to lightening up our household carbon footprint.

How is our garbage-reduction effort going? We fill a 33-gallon black plastic bag about every five or six weeks. That’s a considerable improvement on the national average for residential garbage “production:” According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average American generates about 4.5 pounds of trash a day, or 31.5 pounds per week and 1,643 pounds per year. Imagine having to haul that garbage around behind you–by the end of the year you’d be burdened by 3/4 of a ton of trash!

Richard and I haven’t actually weighed our less than once-a-month bag of trash, but since I can easily lift it into our friends’ trash receptacle, I’m guessing each bag weighs 30 pounds or less. Which means our personal trash production is less than a tenth of the average for Americans (one 30-pound bag about every five weeks for two people, as contrasted to the average of 315 pounds of trash for two people per five weeks).

How have we lightened-up our garbage production so dramatically? I’m surprised to realize it really hasn’t been that difficult or involved any big sacrifices.


First, we got serious about compost. We repurposed a small plastic bin with a lid and a handle that had held organic fertilizer pellets for our house plants. It sits right by the kitchen sink, where it’s convenient for collecting food waste (not meat, fish or dairy). When the bucket gets full, we carry it out to the compost pile below our kitchen garden. The excursion outside almost always brings some bit of beauty to notice. (That’s a peek into compost bucket in the photo above, including carrot peelings, cabbage leaves, apple cores, loose tea and a tea bag–pretty typical for our household.)

Compost is one of the “greenest” ways to reduce your garbage production. There are no firm figures about exactly what percent of household trash is organic (meaning compostable), but estimates range from two-thirds to three-quarters of our per capita trash generaton. Capturing that compostable waste keeps it out of landfills and energy-intensive sewage systems (the latter is where it goes if you use a garbage “disposal” in your sink, although the pulverized compostables aren’t disposed of at all, they just burden your local sewage system). Further, compost renews our depleted soils without using synthetic fertilizers, energy-hogs themselves.

We also got organized about recycling, although the pile in our kitchen recycling cabinet in the photo above, is not exactly organized. Tomorrow, I’ll take the basket with its pile to the garage, and sort the recylables by type into our blue bins: plastics, glass, aluminum, newspaper and office paper.

We load up the Subaru about every two months and make a trip to the recyling trailers across town. (You might deduce from the photo below that someone in our household has a favorite beer: Trippel, a Belgian-style ale produced by a Colorado microbrewery that runs on wind power and composts its mash and other organic waste. The six-packs there represent about a Trippel a day, Richard’s longtime average.)


The other way we reduced our trash was by consciously choosing to buy items with less packaging. For instance, our daily whole-grain hot breakfast cereal comes from jars in the pantry that we refill from the bulk bins at our local natural food store. That saves a lot of cardboard and plastic packaging (and money–not to mention the health benefits). I reuse the plastic bags from the bulk-bin purchases, emptying them and putting them back in our cloth grocery bag for the next trip.


Sometimes though, we slip, and end up with a product whose packaging is not recyclable and makes up a disproportionate share of our trash–like the compact fluorescent light bulb package in the photo above. I needed a new bulb for the lights over my desk; we were at a big-box store (a place we rarely shop, in part because of the packaging and the fact that everything there seems to be made in China) and I said to myself, “Oh, I’ll just buy a lightbulb here and be done with it.” I couldn’t find the ones I wanted in bulk, and I was tired and frazzled, so I just pulled a single one off the shelf. When I got home and realized the amount of non-recyclable plastic packaging I had just purchased, and which I now will end up throwing “away,” I kicked myself.

Oh, not literally. (I bruise easily.) But I did renew my resolve to buy with an eye to lightening up our household waste stream.