8 Ways to Green Your Trash

Singer's two years worth of trash

This story is part of Earth911’s “Green Eight” series, where we showcase eight ways to green your life in various areas.

In this series, we’ve gone over how to green everything from car trips and job searches to camping expeditions and wardrobes. But when all is said and done, it boils down to one thing: trash! Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, trash will most likely be a part of it. You go out to eat – you make trash. You make dinner at home – you make trash. You get ready for work – you make trash. See the trend?

So, we are taking it back to the beginning. Start right in your own home, and see how green your trash can get. You could become an expert and change the world as we know it!

1. Get Audited!

Don’t worry, we’re not talking about your taxes.

Think back to what you learned in seventh grade biology about the discovery process. The first step in the scientific method (trash is, after all, a very technical thing) is to ask questions about something you observe in your environment. Since you are reading this, you must already be aware of the fact that your trash is in need of a makeover, so we think it’s safe to move directly to step two: research.

Though this isn’t the most pleasant job, a trash audit is a necessary step to really getting a grasp on what you currently throw out, and more importantly, what you can save from the trashcan. The audit itself is simple, just follow these easy steps:

  1. Pick a time period – A week is a good place to start.
  2. Get everyone on board – If they live in your house and they make trash, they are involved, so catch ’em up to speed.
  3. Throw stuff away – Go about your normal routine, and throw away what you usually do. It is important that you be honest with yourself and not try to be on your “best behavior.” Remember, you are trying to get an accurate measurement of your waste output.
  4. Weigh in – If you can, weigh your trash. Each time you take a trash bag out of the house, plop it on the scale. This way you can have a baseline for comparison (sort of like “before” and “after” photos when you’re starting a new workout program). Though you will visually be able to see your trash dwindle, the satisfaction of cold, hard facts is the icing on the cake.
  5. Put on some gloves – Check daily to see what you threw away that could have been recycled, composted, reused or avoided. This part is the “eeewwww” moment – we are talking about trash here. But, by doing it daily, it wont be as bad. Don’t be deterred by what you find. Remember your mission. You can do it!
  6. Get graphical – Make a list, chart, pie graph, power point…whatever you want. Just write down your findings, and use those findings to make a plan. What can you recycle that you are currently tossing in the trash? What can be composted? What can be reused and, in turn, what didn’t need to be there in the first place?

2. Recycle – Know the rules

The U.S. EPA estimates that 75 percent of our waste is recyclable. This is great news, especially since the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) states that 87 percent of the U.S. population, or 268 million people, have access to curbside or drop-off recycling programs. This means that many materials can be recycled and programs are, for the most part, accessible.

So what’s the holdup? For many people, it is knowing exactly what goes in the recycling bin and what to do with stuff that doesn’t. Here’s a checklist:

  1. Check with your local government to get a list of what materials you can and cannot put in your curbside bin.
  2. For everything that can’t be put in your curbside bin, check Earth911’s recycling database for drop-off locations near you. This includes items such as paint, batteries, CFLs and pesticides.
  3. Use mail-back and store drop-off programs. This option is great for electronics and automotive waste. Most auto parts stores and mechanics will take used motor oil and old tires, especially if they do the work for you. As far as electronics are concerned, many products such as cell phones can be mailed to manufactures or traded in for money. Drop-off programs, such as Best Buy’s and the EPA’s eCycling Progam, are making electronic recycling more accessible for consumers across the nation.
  4. Trade-in programs can often be an option when you are purchasing new items from that same company. Computers are a great example of this. In fact, by planning ahead while purchasing your computer, you can build the cost of proper disposal right in from the get-go, saving you money and time in the long run.

3. Compost Your Scraps

According to the U.S. EPA, every American throws away an average of 1.3 pounds of food scraps daily. In addition to this, yard trimmings and food waste combined make up 24 percent of our nation’s municipal solid waste (MSW) stream. Even if half of this can be diverted and recycled through composting, our daily trash levels could start to decrease.

Starting a compost pile is easier than you think. From your kitchen, to your backyard, to a worm bin, composting can make a huge dent in your waste and produce a rich product you can use to help maintain your yard, give to friends or even sell at the local farmer’s market or garden center.

4. Reuse – You Already Have It

The act of reuse can have a huge impact on your waste production. Reuse is simply finding a second (third, tenth or hundredth) use for a product to prolong its usable life. Reuse is also an important step after you’ve reduced, but before you are ready to recycle. The most common forms of reuse to minimize household waste are:

  • Using reusable bags while out shopping – no more paper or plastic
  • Purchasing a reusable water bottle
  • Getting a reusable mug for your morning trips to the coffee shop
  • Washing out an empty pasta sauce jar – no Tupperware will ever be as good as “Its-Already-Paid-For-So-Why-Not-Use-It” ware

Think before you get out something new to use or purchase a one-hit-wonder. Get in the habit of asking yourself, “how can I make this moment a trash-free one?”

5. Spread the Word

All this knowledge is great to have, if you’re the only one making trash. But if you have roommates, or live with loved ones, you need to make sure they are playing by the same rules. To make it easy, post signs around the trash can, recycle bin and compost pile until everyone gets the hang of it, and list the dos and don’ts. Also, designate a space in your garage or shed for those harder-to-recycle items, and make sure to let everyone know when you are doing a drop-off.

6. Shop for Better Trash

When at the store, check out a product’s trash profile before you purchase it. If you can choose between a few options, pick the one that has the least amount of waste associated with it, such as a product using less packaging or packaging made from recyclable materials.

Also, buy in bulk and bring your own reusable containers to the store to hold these items. Make sure to know the weight of the container when it’s empty, so they can subtract that from the price when you’re checking out. If you need help with this, just ask the customer service desk at your local store. Once you know the weight, just write in on the container and it will be easier to reference in the future. Buying in bulk not only saves waste, but money.

Even better, keep an eye out for these guys:

  • Recycled-content products are made from materials that would otherwise have been discarded. That means these products are made totally or partially from recycled material, such as aluminum cans or newspaper. Also, if a product is labeled “recycled content,” the material might have come from excess or damaged items generated during normal manufacturing processes – not collected through a local recycling program.
  • Post-consumer content is a material that has served its intended use and is being reused in a different product. “Post-consumer” also indicates that the material is not from the manufacturing process, but from a finished product that has already been used.
  • Recyclable products can be collected and remanufactured into new products after they’ve been used. These products do not necessarily contain recycled materials and only benefit the environment if people recycle them after use. You can also take this one step further and think about what products recycle better than others. For example, glass is an easy material to recycle that doesn’t downgrade. If you can, choose glass over plastic (which downgrades once recycled).

7. Green Your Accessories

Regardless of how much you can save from the garbage can, you are still going to need it for some things. Since it is a household staple, make sure you keep it aligned with your lifestyle. There are lots of products to keep your green trash momentum going:

  • Think outside the can – With some of the new designs available, you gain flexibility in reusing plastic bags from your shopping trips. This design, from DCI, reuses wood and clothes pins for your trashy needs. Use this concept for inspiration and make your own collection unit.
  • Keep your trash in…trashBuying recycled trash bags is a simple switch to make and helps close the loop in the recycling process.
  • Clean it up – According to eHow.com, “undiluted distilled white vinegar (5 percent solution) – the kind you can buy in the supermarket – kills 99 percent of bacteria, 82 percent of mold, and 80 percent of germs (viruses).” Who knew? Why purchase harsh chemicals to clean those cans, when some simple salad dressing can do the trick? If the smell bothers you, add some essential oils or keep the area well ventilated until it dries. Another natural option is tea tree oil. This leaf, from an Australian plant, contains terpenoids which have antiseptic and antifungal properties.

8. Stop Buying!

It can be as simple as this: If you don’t buy waste, you can’t make waste. For example, a group in San Francisco set out to buy nothing new for an entire year.  While that might not work for everyone, the essence of it is definitely applicable in different-sized doses. Do you really need another (fill in the blank)?

Do you already have something at home that will work? Do your friends or family have something you can use or borrow? Even if it ends up that you need to buy it anyway, just getting into the habit of thinking about alternatives is a step in the right direction. Be open-minded and see where it leads you!

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  1. Wow, really solid article Raquel and the statistics really back up the importance of implementing all these steps. I think green shopping is a huge one: I totally find myself looking at the bottom of plastic bottles at the grocery store now to make sure they are #1 or #2.

  2. Thanks for the awesome list! I was really excited to see that you included home-made cleaning supplies. I have been doing this myself for over a year and have been suprised & quite happy with the results. After a particularly messy turkey dinner I used a recipe for cleaning the oven and found that it worked just as well as the kind you buy & need a gas mask to use. I just put some of my favorite recipes online at http://recycleraccoon.wordpress.com/2009/02/06/that-squeeky-clean-feeling/
    I also have done the waste audit with kids at schools (4th – AP Env. Sci) as a part of a presentation and it is always a lot of fun. The form I use is from the WI DNR and can be found at http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/caer/ce/eek/teacher/pdf/recycle/4-8/OutofSight_OutofMind.pdf

  3. Awesome information and I was glad to see that we are already using some of them. I will definitely be looking into implementing more. Thanks for the article.

  4. I agree with Trey: great article, Raquel! You provided some easily implemented, very practical ideas to cut down on waste. Another idea: eliminate garbage bags. Millions of people who live in apartment buildings and other communities carry their trash out to Dumpsters. By using (reusable and eventually recyclable) plastic trash cans in the kitchen, bathroom, office, and elsewhere, and dumping trash directly into the Dumpster, we can keep from using trash bags, helping to save money and the environment. And a quick rinse (and occasional scrub) in the sink or tub takes care of any residue.

  5. Great tips. It’s like Trash for Dummies. Because anyone who doesn’t get this stuff already should be naturally selected.

    Although, aren’t the first 3 points under “#4 – Reuse” actually examples of reducing? One who buys and uses a reusable item instead of disposable is reducing their trash output by making that decision.

    Thanks for pointing out that vinegar can do what Lysol does without poisoning your children and pets.

  6. Sadly, my local recycling center cannot find buyers of the used plastic which us facility users are required to sort. Several issues were pointed out when I asked about the dozen or so filled pallets of plastics sitting in their facility:
    1] none of THEIR plastics buyers will purchase used materials if the product labels are still present on the containers. Similar difficulties with soiled containers – who will clean the plastic material before the plastics buyer get the materials? The buyers surely do not want the added expenses of cleaning this pallet load of crushed plastic containers to remove a mixture of household cleaners, foods, various detergents and also paper labels from the materials my recycling center has for sale. I know I’m interested in trying to clean the insides of the plastic containers which I discard, but I simply cannot remove the paper labels nor the glues used to hold those paper labels to the containers.

    2] What color will the chopped/shredded plastics become, when melted? Most coloring agents aren’t separable from the plastics. The colors are often mixed into the plastic which makes the color part of the materials. Sure, some containers are simply colored by sprayed coatings but this adds cost to the product we purchase and consumers tend to avoid a 20 cent cost difference. Some plastic containers are colored via heat shrinking plastic sleeves that have label printing on them. Ever tried to remove that film? Actually, you might have tried: you know the shrunken plastic which seals a screw cap onto a new container like for cough syrup? Yes, that is a THINNER version of the heat shrinking printed sleeve. We all enjoy those screw cap ‘security’ films, right? Oh, and before I forget the detail, those heat shrinkable films are another type of plastic. In any event, a mixture of random colored plastics will produce a random colored raw material at the plastic recycling facility.

    3] probably most significant: when you purchase a product that uses recycled plastics, you likely feel that your plastic food containers should be free from household cleaner residues. Not that the plastic bottle maker would do that deliberately, and we know they would try for maximum quality, but our perceptions as a consumer prevent us from accepting a peanut butter container which once might have held chlorine bleach or dish detergent.

    IMO, plastics sustainability needs to be revisited: the plastics industry in my area has no desire and no motivation for taking in large volumes of used plastics; the firms which specify the plastic bottles aren’t interested in paying for the expenses of any recycled product when the recycling is more expensive than virgin materials..

  7. I am an African; a Ghanaian to be precise. It’s been my dream to help rid my country of the rubbish that is almost engulfing us. Most of the recycling companies currently set up are basically recycling plastics. I am interested in ridding our house hold rubbish of anything metal or plastic and making it as green as possible and suitable for compost.

    Looking around the city I live in I realised if only my people could be educated or encouraged to be careful with the way they dispose of rubblish less effort and money will be needed in making our cities beautiful and finding land sites to dump rubbish much easier; instead of the difficulties being faced by most rubbish collecting companies in finding dumping sites due to most peoples now being aware of the health harsads invloved in living around rubbish dumping areas. If the people whose lands are leased for dumping know the rubbish is basically stuff which is sutiable for compost they will be willing to lease lands for such dumping. And the current resistance being experience by most refuse companies by the residents of these areas can be avoided. Rubbish dumping in my country is very disgusting and living around such areas very unhealthy.

    I’ve personally tried in the last two years making my trash as green as possible and realised it is possible. I seperate my aluminums and send them to the scrap dealer; the plastic to the a collecter for one of the plastic recyclers in my area and the rest is used for compost. It’s now my hope to try and convince others to do same.

    Even though we are a developing country and recycling in my country is no where near that of the developed; I believe just a little effort by each of us in making our rubbish as green as possible will go a long way to reduce polution; make our environment healthier and help cut down government’s expenditure on rubbish disposal.

    Good article!!!

  8. I really think everyone should recycle, You need to think about what the world will be like when your children and grandchildren are growing up. And also to preserve our earth. I believe if we had grocery stores everywhere that carried items in bulk only and customers provided thier own reusable containers including freezeable containers, (or you could purchase them at the store) And also reusable grocery bags, sold only greenwise natural cleaners and products. I know we can make a diffrence. It has to start somewhere.

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  10. Pingback: Taking Compost to the Curb | greenwashingspy.com

  11. Recycling is an Important part of helping our mother earth. Everyone should really know and do what should be done. Like using old bags, creating your own compost heap and using things you can still use. Every little thing We contribute helps a lot! We should think of the future children, they deserve a clean,green and healthy environment. Saving mother Earth shoud start with ourselves.This article has inspired me and taught me how to recycle. It has help me to fullfil my dream to help save mother Earth!
    Wonderfull article!!!

  12. I agree with Angela Essien. We can make a change for our country we just have to try. and by the way Great article!

  13. Although my family thinks Ive lost my mind. I have tried most of what this article says and went from 4 cans of trash at the curb both collection days, to one can on one day the other day I have nothing to go out. I also have 4 recycling cans now for cans, bottles, plastic etc… and 2 bins for paper, one for cardboard. I also compost food scraps (except meat). This is just the start, I’m am pushing my local goverment to recycle more then they already do (which is really quite a lot.).

  14. Many businesses have no idea of how to properly recycle their old computers, or other electronics. As well as making sure that they are following hazardous waste regulations (2005) – Electrical waste, & electronic equipment. If more business where aware of their responsibilities when dealing with redundant computer equipment it would be more beneficial to the environment. Our company, JJ Storage Systems, recently teamed up with IT Green, they offer a complete business recycling solution: http://www.jjstoragesystems.co.uk/recycled/38/recycled-business-equipment/jj-storage-systems-business-recycling-service-open/ Another option open to businesses is to simply purchase recycled equipment, rather than buying brand new. Not only could this save them money, but they would be cutting down on waste.

  15. A great article – I really love the “Green Eight” series! A few more things that we do in my household to reduce our waste:

    Since we have started composting and reducing we found we only have a small amount of actual trash every week – smaller often than the plastic grocery sacks (which no longer flow into my house at all; used here as a size reference). Our solution is to use the bags that chips and cereals come in as can liners (we have not found bulk cereal or chips to our liking yet); talk about “keeping your trash in trash!” :)

    We avidly seek out glass and paperboard containers (I think plastic is just disgusting) and have found many, many reuses for glass containers including containers for food, cat treats, odds and ends in the garage and craft room, and containers for consumable holiday gifts. Jelly jars make great containers for the myriad herbs we dry and store.

    Not all plastic is evil…we also buy organic lettuce mixes that come in light plastic bins with lids (you know the ones) and these are cleaned and reused when we go to the bulk food store. This way we don’t have to get a tare weight, and the cashier even gives us a $0.20 “bring your own container” discount for every bin we use!

    Thank you for sharing the knowledge! :)

  16. I have to agree that recycling is not so difficult, I have had my home set up with two trash cans, and a pail for fruit and veg scraps for many years now. One can is trash one is recycling, My children and brother, sister and roommate all share one trash can, (a small one) we use one 15 gallon bag per week for 8 people. Some weeks not even that. My kids know when they walk to the trash can to throw something away, they use a quick thought to where it belongs. I have had no problem with guests in my home, when they see two cans, they ask which one is trash. We all work on keeping our environment healthy in our own ways, keep recycling everyone!

  17. I like Tip #8 the best. Last fall, I held a E-Waste recycling day in my town and was amazed how many people brought over multiple TVs and computers from their home. I heard from folks that were getting rid of their old (yet completely functionable) TVs simply to buy a new fancy HDTV. With so many new versions and upgrades of electronics, it’s hard to not want the latest and greatest, but if it means bringing more gadgets into my home, I need to wait until something breaks to justify a new purchase!

  18. why not get plastic bags from grocery stores to cary your grocerys home in then use the bags for your trash then you dont have to buy made for trash bags at all weather or not they are recycled

  19. Pingback: Recycling Made Easy with Earth911.com | Healthy News - information for better health.

  20. Pingback: Ways to Make Your Trash Greener » Earth Living Hope

  21. If you have a chart above your trash containers you can enter that information as you trash it instead of digging through your trash.

  22. Pingback: Ways to Make Your Trash Greener ‹ Green Local Living – Resources to Living Green Near You

  23. Just want to add “do it at work…recycle that is” Let us not forget that there is a tremendous amount of “valuable” commodities in the waste at your office or factory. I built a facility that separates recyclables from commercial solid waste and we have been in operation since 1988. So give your waste another chance; our environment deservers it!

  24. @Michael:

    “Another idea: eliminate garbage bags. Millions of people who live in apartment buildings and other communities carry their trash out to Dumpsters. By using (reusable and eventually recyclable) plastic trash cans in the kitchen, bathroom, office, and elsewhere, and dumping trash directly into the Dumpster, we can keep from using trash bags, helping to save money and the environment.”

    I actually use paper sacks when I have any trash, the paper is biodegradable and thus convenient and non-environmentally unfriendly (or IS eco-friendly if you want :)). btw, these paper bags have accumulated over the years, I don’t get many from the stores anymore since I’ve switched to reusable bags (they were $.25 each, and I’m so surprised how much fits!!!). I probably have 100+ paper sacks and probably put out 1 sack/week. if you run out, almost all grocery stores have papers sacks that you can either A) ask for a handful at checkout/customer service, or B) “forget” your reusable bags during a large grocery run and make sure they bag in paper only.

    I’m going to try to convince my family to get serious on recycling now, though they all think I’m a hippie already. I’m also doing research on a presentation to my HOA on increasing our recycling output, we have curbside recycling pickup and yet only ~25% of the neighborhood put them out. I’d love to get people to compost but outlook not so bright on that front.

  25. Another case of trying to force people into something. I could care less what number is on the container, it all goes in the trash bin anyway. I do not recycle nor do I have any intention of starting. I pay a hefty trash disposal fee every quarter. Once they pick it up at the curb, it’s no longer my problem, it becomes THEIR problem. That’s what I pay for. I am getting really tired of the tree huggers and such dictating how we are to live our lives. If THEY want to put up with the inconvenience and such to recycle, by all means do it. But DON”T force everyone to. My time is worth a whole lot more than to be spending it sorting trash , cleaning out containers and removing labels and such. In the trash bin it all goes. Single stream elimination of trash from my standpoint.

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