True Life Trash Audit

As the Assistant Editor of, I look through hundreds upon hundreds of stories about recycling and the green sphere monthly. It goes without saying that I should know the ins and outs of recycling and reducing my consumption. I spend 40 hours (or more) each week talking about it, but how well am I doing it outside of the office?

Phoenix's single-stream recycling program most recently added plastics #1-7 to its list of accepted materials. Photo: Amanda Wills,

I recently volunteered to undergo a trash audit to figure out just how well I have implemented my own knowledge of household recycling. Theoretically, my recycling bin should be impeccable: no contaminants, no haphazard recyclables in the trash.

So, for one week, I tossed as normal and surveyed just how much my household produced. Perhaps I’m throwing myself under the bus, but what I found was that even as an expert in the field, I was shocked at what my household still misses on a weekly basis.

Starting Stats

  • Audit dates: Feb. 4 – 11 (7 days)
  • Household description: Located in Phoenix, the home is three bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms
  • Occupants: 1 male, 1 female, 1 dog
  • Recycling program: Single-stream curbside recycling, collected every Monday.
  • Recycling material details: Plastics – Accepts plastics #1-7, excluding plastic bags or film of any kind with or without a recycling symbol; no plastic pipes; no pool chemical/household hazardous waste containers; no foam peanuts or bubble wrap. Paper – Accepts office paper, newspapers, magazine, telephone books, cardboard, chipboard, milk/juice cartons, commercial mail and shredded paper. Metal – Accepts aluminum cans, clean pie plates and foil, steel cans, metal hangers, aerosol cans (excluding spray paint, pesticides and over cleaners). Glass – Accepts food and beverage glass and jars only, and lids must be removed. Yard waste or food scraps – Not accepted.

For one week, my roommate and I threw away as normal. While my roommate and I have very different diets (I am vegetarian), we are not a cooking household and do not compost, as there is never really enough compostable food scraps available.

During the audit period, we did some light shopping for groceries, household items, clothing and dog toys. One of the top things we throw out is packaging – from paperboard to plastic film. However, our 30-gallon recycling bin quickly fills up. In fact, we empty our recycling two times for every one time we empty the trash. In the case of this audit, we never emptied the trash can, but it was full on the last day of the weeklong test period. The recycling bin was emptied on the fourth day but was already full again at the end of the audit.

How to Do a Trash Audit

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 possible, 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, but don’t be deterred by what you find).

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?

Post-audit Recycling Stats

  • Final weight of recyclables: 12.8 pounds
  • Number of recycled items: 108 items

I was surprised to find that most of my recycled items were mixed paper, and the bulk (40 out of 57 items) of this paper waste was commercial mail. If I opted out of commercial mail services through the various mail preference programs, I could possibly reduce my recyclable household waste by as much as 37 percent!

The good news is that there were no contaminants in my recycling bin. All of the items were also reasonably clean and accepted in our curbside program. The biggest shocker I found was the small number of plastic items recycled. Most of these were plastic juice bottles or milk jugs. I initially thought plastic was the No. 1 type of material we recycled. But as you’ll later read, it’s quite the opposite.

Post-audit Trash Stats

  • Final weight of trash: 6.3 pounds
  • Number of trashed items: 133*

*This figure includes individual items such as cheese wrappers and paper towels.

Now for the bad news. While sifting through the trash can, I found an extremely high amount of materials we threw out that are recyclable but not accepted in our curbside program. I believe that my household is in the mindset of if it’s not accepted, just toss it. The biggest item we’re throwing out? Plastic film and bags. Furthermore, I found several materials with parts that were recyclable, such as paperboard packaging.

As I said prior to the audit, my household does not prepare many home-cooked meals, so the food waste was minimal. Out of the 19 food items that were thrown out, only six were compostable (slices of molded bread, two jalapeño peppers and an orange peel). The other food items included spoiled lunch meat and cheese.

But the real eye-opener came at the bottom of the trash can, when I found the “other” items: wine corks and (gasp!) an incandescent light bulb. While this bulb doesn’t contain mercury like a CFL, its energy-efficient alternative, it is still a hazardous material that can be recycled through other local programs.

The Lesson?

According to the University of Colorado, the average person generates 4.4 pounds per trash daily. Currently, my household is below average at just 1.36 pounds of waste per person, per day, including recyclables. But this is just what we’re tossing at home. I have to factor in the amount of time spend outside of the home, this includes work, gym and social activities.

The biggest lesson I learned from my audit is that almost half of the trash I am tossing out is recyclable in other programs. Because I regularly bring along reusable bags while shopping, I tend to overlook the plastic bags and film generated in other places, such as product packaging. But all of these plastic items can be recycled at my local grocery store.

It starts with communication with those living in the household. While I may designate a specific area for materials not accepted in our program, we will never truly reduce our footprint if everyone isn’t on board.

My overall trash audit grade? B-

Read more:

We’ve Found the Most Recycled Material of 2009
Back to Basics: Reduce
Making Recycling Work at Home

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  1. I liked that you made a post about this. I kept a trash log for 2 months last year and learned a lot about my trashy habits! I think the next step is to think about how you can change your stream. For example, I noticed that 18% of your “trash” is paper towels. That’s quite a lot; so what can you do to use less? I found that using a sponge for food messes, or cutting up old t-shirts/towels for spring cleaning work well–and you can use them for months or years.

    Also, the plastic packaging is a problem, and unfortunately it comes with almost everything we buy. Being a vegetarian myself, it’s hard to avoid the packaged stuff in food products. When I go to the super market I try to keep in mind that the plastic packaged stuff that is bound for burial or incineration comes from a non-renewable energy source, and I opt for the less-packaged, or non-packaged items. I’m not perfect and still generate my plastic waste, but I try to make the best decisions and not fall victim to the current system.

    Lastly, I wanted to make a comment about the 4.4 pounds of trash, per person, per day. This number, though accurate, is based on all MSW for a year, and is then divided into the number of people. This includes tonnage from a city as a whole, including both residential waste and restaurant/commercial waste. If only residential waste was considered, I bet the stats would be more like 2.5-3.0lbs of trash per person per day. In an average week, most of us don’t discard that much stuff (by weight). But what happens when we dump that broken refrigerator, or that old, beat-up sofa? Suddenly, we’ve gone from 1.5 pounds per day to 2.5…and this is not an unrealistic scenario.

    Do super markets in Arizona accept clean, dry plastic bags for recycling? I live in San Francisco, and I’m not trying to glorify my city, but Safeway and Lucky’s take film plastic bags which are sent to a recycling facility that transforms the bags into infrastructural items like parking bumpers. I was just wondering if other cities did it too.


  2. I am glad that you posted this and seriously lets say you tried the best you could and you were very meticulous . I believe you would probably achieve about 10% more improvement the max. Wouldnt you aggree that all this effort needs to start at the production plant where products were first created? Products that are either biodegradeable and at least 90% recycleable?

    Avoidance doesnt work since you eventually need to buy a new computer or some other product.If they made the styrofoam biodegradeable and most of the rest of the products to transport , wrap and store the item recycleable it would be a lot easier on the end consumer don’t you think? I did see that earth911 did an article about biodegradeable styrofoam products however how long will it be before major corporations actually wake up and purchase it and do their part?

    Also modern technology does not mean that things are safe. Flat panel monitors have mercury and cadmium in them. You would think in this carbon-footprint awareness day they would put this practice into consideration.

    just my 2 cents

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