Will we be buried in an avalanche of trash? We generated 208.3 million tons of municipal solid waste in 1990 and 267.8 million pounds in 2017 according to the EPA. It’s time for more of us to take waste reduction at home more and more seriously.
Did you know that you generate as much at 5 pound of trash every day? On average, that’s everyone in America’s share, including babies.
And that’s only municipal solid waste. That’s what your trash hauler takes away from the curb and to the landfill or recycling center. It also includes commercial trash and recycling. It doesn’t include construction rubble. What’s more, it doesn’t include waste generated in manufacturing products.
Everything we buy comes with “embedded trash.” That is, before we even take something off the shelf, the process of mining raw materials, manufacturing the product, and making the packaging has made a mountain of trash. For every garbage can emptied at the curb, embedded trash amounts to the equivalent of 71 garbage cans of waste.
The US population as of 2019 is 328.2 million. Think of what would happen if we all would reduce our trash generation by 1 pound per week. That’s 328.2 million pounds less trash per week or almost 20 billion pounds per year!
We should recycle more, but recycling is only the third part of the waste reduction hierarchy: reduce, reuse, recycle. The order of those three practices matters. [I have discovered an interesting 5R formula: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot (compost), Recycling still takes a back seat to other practices.]
We can achieve some waste reduction by such simple habits as printing on both sides of a sheet of paper or using a refillable mug instead of disposable cups. We can buy less stuff and keep it longer. Reducing waste
- conserves renewable and non-renewable natural resources
- reduces pollution
- conserves landfill space
- reduces needless consumption
- conserves energy
- reduces contamination of air, water, and soil caused by manufacture and transportation of goods—including hauling waste to the landfill and all the methane generated there.
- saves money – both in terms on money consumers don’t spend on unnecessary products and in terms of taxes for waste disposal costs
Reduce what you bring home to prevent waste in the first place.
1. Sort through your trash a few times
If you know what you’re throwing out, it makes it a lot easier to decide how to throw out less. Take note of what takes up the most space. Can you reduce your purchases of that?
Look for what might you might be able to reuse or donate instead of throwing it out.
Assess your food waste; perhaps you don’t need to buy as much at a time of some perishable foods, or perhaps you need to eat up leftovers more quickly.
2. Keep up with routine maintenance
You don’t replace major appliances often, but if your refrigerator, furnace, etc. goes bad, it becomes a waste disposal problem. Have your furnace and air conditioner inspected annually. It will last longer.
Clean your refrigerator’s condenser coils every few months to reduce electricity use and the need for maintenance calls. It, too, will last longer. Similarly, maintain your car, the exterior walls of your house, your windows, etc.
And don’t forget smaller things. If you take proper care of clothing and shoes, for example, they will last longer, and you won’t have to replace them as frequently.
3. Buy quality
The lowest price item can be tempting, but good products last longer. Good products can easily outlast two or three of the cheap ones.
4. Buy in bulk
Buy non-perishable foods in bulk to avoid packaging. Take your own glass or plastic container to the bulk store to avoid using the store’s plastic bags.
Some stores package peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, etc. in a plastic tray with plastic wrap. Why buy those packages? You’re only buying trash along with your produce.
The same principle applies for anything else that you can buy without taking home unnecessary trash.
5. But don’t buy more than you’ll use
If you buy too much of anything, eventually you’ll have to get rid of it, or in the case of food, it will spoil.
6. Don’t buy toxic products if there is a non-toxic alternative.
If a product label has the words poison, danger, warning, caution, choose an alternative, both for your own safety and to reduce the toxicity of your trash.
If you must use a hazardous product, use it all before disposing of the container or take it to a hazardous waste collection center.
Buy non-hazardous products whenever feasible:
- latex paint instead of oil-based paint
- diatomaceous earth instead of commercial roach and ant killers
- cedar chips instead of mothballs
- plunger, plumber’s snake, or baking soda and vinegar instead of commercial drain cleaners.
7. Substitute reusable items for disposables
Here are just a few ideas:
- Use cloth towels and rags instead of paper towels.
- Get a collection of reusable cloth shopping bags and, for groceries, reusable cloth produce bags. Take them shopping instead of accepting plastic bags.
- Use rechargeable batteries (and be skeptical of instructions on gadgets not to use them).
- Use an electric shaver, or at least get a razor with detachable blades instead of disposable razors.
Oh, and you don’t need dryer sheets for fabric softener. Get some wool dryer balls instead. Not only will you reduce waste, but your clothes will also dry faster and save on your energy bills.
8. Prefer plug-in products to those that use batteries
Dead batteries should never go to a landfill, even if your town or state haven’t outlawed putting them there. Even disposable batteries eventually wear out, and then become the largest source of cadmium collected in municipal trash.
9. Choose minimal packaging
Packaging accounts for 33% of trash. Avoiding it is one of the easiest waste reduction strategies. Some seemingly insignificant choices can add up. For example:
- Remember that your reusable cloth produce bags work for bulk rolls and some other bakery products, too.
- Prefer bar soap to liquid soap to avoid plastic containers to discard. Or at least buy large refill containers to reuse the pumps.
- When you buy ice cream at an ice cream shop, eat it only in cones.
- Use baking soda as an antiperspirant.
- Prefer pills in a bottle to pills individually bubble wrapped.
10. Avoid impulse buying
That’s perhaps the best waste reduction strategy of all. You don’t have to decide what to do with what you don’t buy in the first place. And if you don’t buy it, it doesn’t come with packaging.
11. Don’t buy if you can rent or borrow
If you use a chainsaw or other tools and equipment frequently, it makes sense to own it. Otherwise, rent or borrow it.
Use the library, not only for books and magazines, but all manner of audiovisual media. Some even lend tools. What does your local library offer that you can use?
12. Reduce junk mail
You don’t have to buy anything to generate trash. Plenty comes in the mail. For utilities, mortgage payments, and other recurring bills, go to the company’s website and sign up for electronic billing.
The Direct Marketing Association will help you control the stream of catalogs and other marketing materials.
You don’t have to throw away items you don’t want or can’t use any more. With creativity, you can find ways to repurpose them for something else. This waste reduction strategy doesn’t require your own creativity, either. Suggestions for how to reuse an array of items are only a web search away.
Or instead of reusing something yourself, you can give it away so that someone else can reuse it.
13. Donate to and patronize thrift stores
People without much money depend on thrift stores. Thrift stores depend on donations. Thrift stores are a much better place for your unwanted but reusable items than landfills.
You don’t have to be poor to buy from thrift stores, either. The main advantage for waste reduction? You don’t buy packaging. Take your own shopping bag, and you have made a zero-waste purchase.
Plus, thrift store purchases don’t have the embedded trash the manufacture and distribution of new merchandise creates.
14. Buy remanufactured, refurbished, or rebuilt products.
Remanufacturing means disassembling a product and replacing worn or obsolete parts. The wide range of remanufactured products includes air conditioners, computer equipment, gaming machines, auto parts, furniture, and print cartridges.
Refurbished and rebuilt do not have as precise a definition and may be somewhat riskier purchases, but they have undergone some kind of inspection and repair to see that they are free of defects.
Something simply called “used” may or may not have defects, so buying it carries some risk. In principle, it’s still a good idea if you have a chance to inspect and try out the item.
15. Where possible, repair or restore products instead of disposing of them
Not too long ago, it was easy to get almost anything fixed. Nowadays, it’s so much cheaper and easier to get rid of many products and buy something new. You may not have a choice. There may be no repair options available. If repair is possible, though, it’s a better idea both for the environment and your money.
Furniture is easy: Have that sad looking, sagging sofa reupholstered. Have that scuffed and scratched table or chair refinished.
Get your shoes resoled. Investigate to see what else you can repair instead of replace.
16. Think of how you can reuse packaging.
You can recycle plastic and glass containers, but you can also use them to contain something else.
For example, save some jars to take to stores that sell items in bulk. Have them weighed before you fill them with whatever you’re getting. Every jar means one plastic bag you won’t have to deal with.
Perhaps you can pack part of a lunch in an old cottage cheese carton instead of using foil or plastic bags.
Use non-reheatable plastic containers for pet dishes, plant saucers, or picnic plates.
17. If you subscribe to print magazines, let someone else read them
Doctors’ offices, hospitals—anywhere with a waiting room—might appreciate them. So might nursing homes.
18. Use salvaged or recycled materials in building or remodeling your house.
You might even like vintage fixtures better than what’s currently on the market.
19. Return plastic trays and pots to the nursery
When you finish planting your garden, the place where you bought the plants will probably be happy to take them back. It cuts down on the expense of buying new ones.
Recycling is the best known of the three Rs of waste reduction, but apparently more people know about it and approve of it than practice it.
In 2000, the EPA estimated that Americans recycled 30% of the waste stream. That amount of recycling saved the equivalent of 5 billion gallons of gasoline or more and reduced imports of foreign oil by 114 million barrels.
The recycling rate has remained flat for a long time. The industry took a big hit at the beginning of 2018. China stopped importing more than 50 whole categories of recyclables. That dried up the market. Now, instead of paying municipalities for collected recyclables, the municipalities have to pay the recycling company to take it off their hands. Some have discontinued collecting recycling. Others have stopped accepting certain materials.
Nevertheless, we should continue to recycle as much as we can. The benefits are obvious not only in energy savings but also in postponing the day when all the landfills are full and there’s no acceptable place for new ones.
20. Put recycling containers next to every waste container
You and your household are more likely to separate recyclables if you don’t have to carry them across the house
21. Search for ways to recycle what you can’t put at the curb
With some research and determination, you can find ways to recycle some or even most of what your recycling program doesn’t accept. Earth 911 and 1-800-Recycling make great places to start.
22. Compost organic material
Compost yard waste. It makes a small but excessive portion of trash in landfills. Except for animal products, you can also compost food waste. Find a container especially designed for the purpose and keep it in the kitchen.
Other compostable material includes shredded paper, sawdust, fabric scraps, hair, finger and toe nail clippings, those odd bits of string you cut off from clothing, and, if you have a wood-burning fireplace, the ash.
23. If you have no need for compost,
Find somewhere that accepts compostable materials. Some community composting program or garden project will be happy to receive it.
24. Think of what to do about the end of a product’s life when you buy it
For example, when you buy a scrub brush, get one with a wooden handle and natural bristles so you can compost it when it wears out. For the same reason, buy bamboo instead of plastic tooth brushes.
25. Consider how to reuse and recycle before remodeling or building your house
Discuss construction and demolition waste with your architect and general contractor before they begin the project. For a new home, discuss how to design it with future renovation in mind.
Instead of piling up mixed trash, have them separate it immediately by type (lumber, fixtures, different kinds of metals and plastic, even such rubble as drywall, concrete, and asphalt). You can find a local place that will buy it from you (or at least accept it) with a simple web search.
26. Reuse or recycle clothing too shabby to donate
It makes fine rags or a cheap bed for pets. Some non-profits, including Good Will, St. Vincent DePaul, and the Salvation Army participate in fabric recycling programs.
26. Recycle waste motor oil
If you change your own oil, take the waste oil and filters to a garage for proper recycling or disposal – same with lawnmower oil, outboard motors, etc.
27. Buy recycled products
You haven’t actually recycled anything when you take it to the curb or a drop-off center. You have only provided raw material for a manufacture. The process of recycling is not complete until people buy those products.
The EPA and many state government websites have directories to help you identify and locate products with recycled content. Search “recycled-content product directory.”
Don’t try to implement all 27 of these waste reduction tips at once. Develop one new strategy at a time, and as that becomes a habit, work on another.
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The ultimate guide to green living: 156 tips to save money, improve your health, and transform your community / David M. Guion