Have you ever wondered what is in your trash or how much you are really throwing away?  According to the EPA, Americans generated in 2011 about 250 million tons of trash and recycled and composted almost 87 million tons of municipal solid waste.  That is a lot of trash!

Chances are you have a good idea of what goes into your trash since you (or someone from your household) put it there.  But, do you really know what all is in your trash?  More importantly, do you know what is in your trash that could have been recycled or reused or how much you are throwing away?  Conducting a waste audit at home is a great way to truly understand what (and how much) your household is throwing away.  Oh, and, it is easy to do.

The first thing you will want to do is get protective equipment such as gloves and goggles.  Depending on your trash, things could get a little messy.  You just might be glad you have them on. You will also want a scale of some sort.  One option is to use your home scale (which you probably have in a bathroom or hiding in a closet).  Another option is to use a luggage scale (found at most home/organization retailers).  We’ll get into the actual weighing step later in the article.

Once you’ve located a good area to conduct the audit (somewhere you don’t mind if it gets a little dirty), gather up your full trash and recycle bags.  You may even want to plan ahead and place everything into a designated container so that you know what duration of time the trash materials represent.  Example – A household collected trash for an entire week and then audited it such that they had a representative weekly weight.

Next, the fun part. Open up the trash bag(s) and sort out all the different commodities into piles.  You may even want to have several different containers for each commodity type so that you can weigh the piles more easily.  The following are examples of commodities commonly found most household trash.

You’ll notice that several of these items are items that potentially could be recycled, which is a goal of the audit – identifying items that COULD have been recycled.  Once you have everything sorted out into commodity piles, weight each pile so that you can record that weight in your notes.  Having weight data for each commodity and then the grand total allows you to do several things.  First, it allows you to know how much trash your household is sending to the landfill each day – month – year.

Secondly, sorting things out into commodities allows you to get a representative sample of how much of each category you are throwing away.  Maybe upon auditing, it becomes clear that not only is your household throwing away aluminum soda cans, but they are throwing away a good deal of them.

Search our database for recyclable items in your area.  Some municipalities even offer the equivalent of a rebate (on your monthly trash bill) for having two recycle totes versus one.  In summary, there is a wealth of information in your trash.  Take the time to find out what’s in your trash.  You just might be surprised what you find.

By Chase Ezell

Chase has served in various public relations, communications and sustainability roles. He is a former managing editor for Earth911.com.