The words “highlights” and “waste reduction” seem like an odd combination. After all, waste – that stuff you throw away in trash cans instead of recycle bins or compost heaps – is easy to ignore. “Out of sight, out of mind” – right? How could there be “highlights” about waste?
Luckily, the U.S. EPA’s annual Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) report – with its spiffy new title of “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures” – is chock full of useful facts showing both how big our waste problem is and how you can help address it. It’s not rocket science.
Waste reduction review
While you might think of trash as something “yucky” that magically goes “away,” it’s worth your attention. Why? Because trash that you throw away ultimately ends up in landfills. And landfills produce great gobs of methane – a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than the carbon dioxide that you hear so much about. Indeed, according to the EPA, “ methane is more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.” That’s geek-speak for a small amount of methane gas creates a LOT of warming.
How big is our waste problem?
According to the report, in of 2013, Americans threw away 254 million tons of trash. That’s about 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day. Of that 254 million tons, about 87 million were recycled or reused. That’s a recovery rate of about 34%. Not bad, but there’s a huge opportunity for improvement. In Europe, average recycle rates clock in around 39%, but there are standouts like Germany at 62% and Sweden at 49%.
In the U.S., by NOT sending that 87 million tons of waste to the landfill, we prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air in 2013—equivalent to taking over 39 million cars off the road for a year. From a greenhouse gas perspective, that’s a huge win for all of us.
Most landfills are strategically located away from population centers. After all, no prospective home owner ever asks for “the landfill view.” So again we suffer from the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” syndrome. But it’s important that you know that landfills accounted for approximately 18.0 percent of total U.S. methane (CH4) emissions in 2013, the third largest contributor of any methane source in the United States.
And THAT makes waste reduction worth your time and attention. There are a host of simple steps you can take to wrangle your waste from 4 pounds per person per day to something much less. In order to do that, it helps to know what’s IN your waste.
Focus your waste reduction on food, yard trimmings and paper
According to the EPA’s report, of the 167 million tons of waste that went to landfills in 2013, the 3 biggest components were:
- Food – about 15%
- Yard trimmings – about 14%
- Paper and paperboard – about 27%
So reducing any or all of these will reduce what you send to the landfill. And the truth is that reducing any of these doesn’t just mean fewer greenhouse gases and less global warming – which can seem awfully abstract some days. It also means immediately saving money by lowering your bills.
But how, you ask? Let’s take them in turn.
Reducing food waste
- Buy what you need and no more – don’t let fresh food go bad. Some grocers package food in quantities bigger than what you need. Ask them to break the package for you. Or find grocers that let you buy just what you need.
- Eat leftovers – plan them into your week and enjoy an easy, pre-made meal when you get home.
- Choose recipes that use up “extras” – soups, salads, stews, and omelets are just a few examples of foods where you can mix and match ingredients. These recipes can take fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, meats and all kinds of beans. Exercise your creativity to combine a wealth of flavors!
- Learn to compost at home. This was the EPA’s number one suggestion for reducing food waste. Whether you have a backyard or just a kitchen counter, there’s a spot you can toss your food scraps to produce wonderful, rich humus that you can use to improve your soil.
Reducing yard trimmings
Yard trimmings range from grass clippings to fallen leaves to twigs and branches. If your waste hauler actually removes these, chances are they are being taken to a composting site, turned into fertilizer, and sold back to you in your local garden store! Instead, put yard trimmings to use yourself:
- Leave lawn clippings on the lawn. It helps to fertilize the lawn, and reduces the amount of synthetic fertilizer you have to buy.
- Use your raked leaves for compost. Compost needs “brown” materials like dead leaves, twigs and branches in order to break down successfully.
- Turn yard waste into mulch. Grass trimmings, shredded leaves and even smaller twigs and branches can be spread at the bases of trees or worked into planting beds. Mulch suppresses weeds and conserves water around your plants.
Reducing paper waste
While about 66% of paper gets recycled, a lot of it doesn’t. The part that doesn’t tends to be junk mail (all those catalogs you get!) and cardboard packaging from places like Amazon.
- Recycle paper. If you don’t have a recycle bin or basket for paper, get one. Newspapers, notepads, printer paper, school supplies, food packaging and much more can be picked up regularly. If you live in an area without regular recycling pickup, look for retailers (like Target) who offer paper recycling bins where you can drop off paper you collect.
- Contact CatalogChoice to turn off paper catalogs you don’t want. Recycle those you do want.
- Pay your bills online and turn off paper bills and statements. You’ll have less paper to throw away, and you can view your finances online any time.
- Recycle cardboard carefully. Not everyone wants to cut down cardboard boxes to size or sort the greasy pizza boxes from the clean, dry ones. But cardboard is biodegradable, so if you’re willing to invest the effort, go for it.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to waste reduction. Skim the report itself or the EPA’s website for many more practical ideas. Pick one or more ideas and DO them. Before you know it you may find your waste reduction efforts have lowered your bills, reduced clutter around your house, or made your yard the envy of the neighborhood. And that’s worth highlighting!