In the United States, the average citizen throws away between four to nine pounds of trash per day. But what exactly fills up all those trash bins? Studies have shown that when asked about trash thrown out in homes, people drastically underestimate the quantity and types of garbage they make (which you can read about in the book Garbology!).
The first step to reducing the waste in your life is understanding what exactly you throw away so you can look for solutions. For example, in Washington State around 40% of our landfill trash is organic waste like food scraps. So by implementing composting at home, you could potentially cut your trash production by almost half. The most structured and educational way to learn about your trash is to conduct a waste audit in your own home so you can make changes specific to your lifestyle!
If you don't know what you throw away, how can you take control of it?
A Waste Audit
A waste audit is designed to give you a measurement of the amount (weight, size, quantity, etc.) of waste you throw away. You do this by documenting your waste over a set time frame. Ideally you should track your trash for at least a week if not a whole month. It's important to encompass as many days as you can to get a true picture of your overall habits. If you just analyze it for one day, how do you know if that day represents the average?
Doing a waste audit though is easily adapted to your lifestyle and needs. I personally like to keep my waste and go through it by hand, but you don't have to. There are two main ways that you can conduct a waste audit in your home!
1. Hands-On Sorting
In this type of audit, the waste is gathered together in a trash bin as usual but with the key change that it isn’t put out on the curb. Once the week or month ends, the waste needs to be weighed and sorted manually. This one can get a little dirty and stinky because you can’t actually get rid of the waste right away and have to be comfortable sorting it.
Ideally, you should divide the types of waste in your bin by category (snacks, bathroom, packaging, etc.) as well as weigh the total amount. You should also take notes on any specific items that appear in your bin multiple times. This will give you a clear baseline for the quantity of waste you make currently.
When I first started my zero waste journey back in 2015, I did a waste audit like this every single month. I actually continued doing a waste audit every month for the next four years! Now though, I have a pretty good overall picture of my trash and have moved on to bigger things.
2. Tallying Items
This second type of audit may be more family friendly and will leave you a little cleaner! Instead of having to store all your trash until you can sort through it, this one allows you to throw it out on the curb immediately (well, almost).
Next to each waste bin in your house tape a piece of paper and a pen. You can tape it directly on the trash bin or on the wall next to it. Then, every time you throw something into the bin write it down on the piece of paper. If you throw the same thing in again, put a tally mark next to it. Continue writing down new items and tallying up repeats until your set time frame is up.
This type of waste audit won’t give you the weight of your trash or a visible size representation, but it will give you the specifics of what’s in your bin. You'll end up with a lovely graph bar like chart to easily identify your top offenders. You also get to throw your trash out and avoid handling it, which can be a plus.
The potential roadblock in accurately conducting this type of waste audit is family participation and remembering to write them down. Since items need to be written down before they are tossed in the bin, it is important to educate other people in the house on the new plan and help them with follow through! If you have kids in the house however, this might be even trickier and you may need to accept a rough estimate of your waste.
Analyzing Your Waste
Now that you have a detailed list of the types of waste you throw away, it’s time to move to the next step - changing your habits! Start by picking a few items from your list and researching potential alternatives. Think critically and ask yourself, “Can I cut this out completely?” or “Does a reusable option exist for this?”. There are many solutions to cosmetic packaging, food packaging, and take-out trash for you to explore!
A waste audit is just the first step in moving towards a zero waste lifestyle!
After completing your waste audit and taking action, mark your calendar for a few months down the road. Conduct another waste audit to make sure new plastics aren't creeping in and old ones are being phased out.