In order to produce as little trash as possible, I've become hyper aware of every single action I make on a daily basis that results in the production of waste. Whether at home, at work, or on the go, I've found that trash seems to materialize around me a whole lot more than I thought!
This is because every day I use a variety of products that come in their own little custom packaging, including foods, drinks, cleaning materials, and hygienic products. These are all necessary (for the most part) and extremely convenient, but all come with their own form of waste, some more than others. Though much of this waste an be recycled and composted, most of it is excessive and even avoidable.
My challenge has allowed me to clearly see for the first time just how much I personally contribute to the global waste problem, and has inspired some clever habits, old and new, to fight it.
Here are the main areas where I find myself needing to crank these habits into high gear:
86% of plastic water bottles used in the US become garbage that ends up in landfills throughout the country. Considering that approximately 60 million plastic water bottles are used every day in the US, we can assume that nearly 18,834,000,000 end up in the landfill each year. Each bottle can take up to 700 years to decompose.
Ban the Bottle
For some time now, I've made an effort to bring a Klean Kanteen water bottle with me almost every where I go. I fill it up before I leave the house, stick it in it's little custom strap, sling it across my shoulder, and head out for the day. I can refill it anywhere that has a sink or water fountain, granted the town's tap water is quality rated, of course. Not only does this allow me access to water at all times, but this saves me the dollars I would have otherwise spent on bottled water.
When I don't happen to have my Klean Kanteen on me, I either search for a public water fountain or I ask the clerk at whatever food establishment I'm at for a cup of tap water with my meal. They're always happy to oblige. When I'm lucky, the cup is an actual real washable and reusable cup, or paper cup that will easily biodegrade. At no charge, I'm again saving dollars.
At home I use a Brita Water Dispenser for an easy and eco-friendly source of gallons of daily filtered water. I know too many people who buy 24-packs of bottled water each week when they could buy this one dispenser, replace the filter every couple of months, save so much money, and eliminate all that plastic waste! Brita has even come up with a system to recycle used filters, further reducing the waste.
About 1 million plastic bags are used every minute.
A single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade.
Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it.
Before I leave the house to go shopping, whether for groceries, clothes, or you-name-it, I bring a couple of canvas reusable bags with me. My husband and I keep them hanging on hooks next to our front door so we don't forget them. My husband actually keeps one handy in his car, since he goes grocery shopping often after work. If we forget our canvas bags, we always ask for paper bags at the checkout, which are naturally biodegradable.
For shopping on the go, I always keep a Bagito handy. A Bagito is a full-sized, extremely compactible reusable bag that can fit in your purse, in your pocket, or even on your key chain. If I'm downtown and on a whim decide to drop into my favorite natural food store to buy a couple of things, I can bust out my Bagito and easily fit everything inside. Cashiers at the checkout have been impressed by my little green Bagito, even thanking me for using it.
When at the grocery store, I seek products with as little packaging as possible, avoiding plastics when I can. Zero packaging is optimal, with biodegradable packaging coming in at a close second. I grab a dozen eggs packaged in cardboard cartons instead of plastic, nix the produce plastic bags, choose the produce that has not been superfluously packaged in plastic wrap, seek the frozen berries that come in the 100% biodegradable packaging, and buy products in glass containers over plastic.
I buy products in bulk when I can to minimize packaging waste. In the bulk food aisle (you know, the one with the rows of containers and scoopers), I scoop up big bags of oatmeal, almonds, granola, lentils, rice, and quinoa. I plan to kick this habit up a notch by saving and reusing the those plastic bulk bags, bringing them the grocery store along with my canvas bags.
When asked if I want the receipt or not, I always decline, unless I need it for record keeping purposes. I throw out all my receipts almost immediately anyway, so why not take another opportunity to reduce a little waste.
Plastic cutlery is non-biodegradable, can leach toxic chemicals when handled improperly, and is widely used. Worldcentric.org estimates 40 billion plastic utensils are used every year in just the United States. The majority of these are thrown out after just one use. Reuseit
Whether going out for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I try my best to dine at restaurants that use real dinnerware. I don't like the idea of using plastic utensils and paper plates just once and then dumping them in the garbage when real silverware and ceramic plates can easily be washed and reused. Also, wherever I go, I make it a point to sit down and eat so I don't have to leave the restaurant with a big to-go bag full of disposable plastic items.
I try my best to only frequent food establishments that recycle and compost their waste, which are luckily easy to find in the progressive, hippie town I live in. Dining at these locations typically results in zero landfill waste, as I discard my food scraps in the compost bin and stack my dirty dishes for the dishwasher.
I take only one or two napkins, only grabbing more if I am eating a particularly messy meal (like a juicy burger, yum!). If I'm at one of the locations I described above, then I'm able to compost them when I'm done, too.
3,460,000 tons of tissues and paper towels wound up in landfills in 2008. Reuseit
One of the newest habits I've acquired as a result of this challenge is the use of cloth rags for cleaning around the house instead of paper towels. Before, my husband and I would go through, maybe, 3-5 paper towel rolls per month. Now, I think I personally use only a couple sheets of paper towels per month! I keep a folded stack of 6 small rags in my cleaning closet and bust one out for cleaning mirrors, windows, counters, side tables, bathroom vanities, etc. I only use paper towels for cleaning extra yucky things, like toilets and kitty hairballs. When finished cleaning with a rag, I rinse it, ring it out, and toss it into the laundry basket to be washed and reused.
In The Kitchen
65 percent of landfills are filled with organic Municipal Solid Waste like food, paper, cardboard, yard cliipings and recyclables, which can be reduced by simply bringing reusables and conserving. Methane is a greenhouse gas 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide and contributes to global warming.Reuseit
For months now I've been collecting all types of glass containers, from wide mouthed peanut butter jars to narrow spice jars, for food storage. Normally I would wrap up leftovers in tin foil or plastic cling wrap, throwing those material out when the food was ultimately eaten. Now, I store leftovers in a washable and reusable jar of my choice from my ever growing collection.
Another new habit of mine is the use of cloth napkins instead of disposable napkins for cleaning our messy hands and faces at the dinner table. Typically I would set out a paper towel next to each plate on at the dinner table before my husband and I sat down and ate something delicious that he, of course, cooked. Now, I set out two of the four neutral colored cotton napkins I recently bought and toss them in the laundry after we've eaten.
A habit I learned recently while visiting my wonderful sister-in-law in Idaho is to save and reuse zip lock baggies. I know I said I store my food in my glass jars, but for compactible and light storage, zip locks are super handy, especially for hiking or doing anything that involves carrying a backpack. I've used a couple of zip lock bags in the past month, rinsed them, folded them up, and tucked them in a cabinet for later use. I don't think I'll ever need to buy a brand new box of zip locks ever again!
Something I already do in the kitchen, but have now carried with me everywhere I go, is the avoidance of using paper towels for drying wet hands. In the kitchen I keep a cloth towel hanging above the sink to dry hands after washing. On the go, especially in public restrooms after washing my hands, I've now made it a point to skip the paper towels and instead dry my hands on my pant legs or just let them air dry, saving a whole bunch of paper towels on a daily basis.
Something I'd very much like to improve is the amount of food I waste on a monthly basis. Rotten food materializes in my kitchen far too frequently, as we toss brown avocados, stale bread, and moldy leftovers into the compost bin every now and then. I'm happy that we compost that waste now, but I am not happy it exists to begin with. Going forward I want to become more aware of the perishable food we buy and make a point to eat it before it goes bad.
In the United States, it is estimated that more than 70 percent of discarded computers and monitors, and well over 80 percent of TVs, eventually end up in landfills, despite a growing number of state laws that prohibit dumping of e-waste, which may leak lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, and other toxics into the ground. National Geographic
When I encounter items in my home that I no longer need, I try to find a new owner for them instead of dumping them into the garbage. I'll first see if any friends or family could benefit from them, and if not, I'll drop the items in a donation bin, at a local GoodWill store (which accepts just about anything), or sometimes post the item on Craigslist. I've gotten rid of endless amounts of clothes, appliances, books, home decor, equipment, and other various home goods this way. You know what they say, one person's trash is another person's treasure!
If the unwanted items happen to be broken and unfixable, I will try and salvage the remaining materials by donating or recycling them at special locations. For instance, a scrap metal collector took away a rusted, broken grill last summer that hopefully will be melted down and recreated into something brand new. A local Staples accepted some old broken computers of mine and will send them to special locations that can salvage and recycle the parts. In my cleaning closet I have a box for collected scrap metal, like broken door knobs and old keys, and a jar for dead batteries, which I will deliver to the approriate places once filled up. Whether it's a broken mobile phone or a rusted pot, all it takes is a Google search to learn where those unwanted items may be reclaimed.
I've found that making the effort to maintain all of these habits on a daily basis has increased my overall environmental awareness, strengthened my core values, and brought significant meaning to my life. I feel fulfilled as I live each day with a personal mission, following Gandhi's message to "be the change that you wish to see in the world".
Not only am I encouraged to continue practicing these habits because of the personal benefits, adding new ones wherever I can, but because of the real physical results I am seeing as I actively lessen the amount of waste I produce.
If all of us picked up one of these habits every here and there, just think of the global impact it would make, as perspectives around the world are shifted and real change emerges.
What are some habits that YOU practice to reduce waste that I haven't listed above? I would love to hear them and add some more to my list!