Watching Our Wastelines | Seventh Generation
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Watching Our Wastelines

Author: the Inkslinger

For years, it's been garbage gospel that the average American creates 4.4 pounds of trash a day. Real-world data compiled from actual landfills and waste haulers reveals much bigger figures.

According to the fascinating new book Garbology, Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, researchers have found the actual amount of solid waste produced each day in the U.S. is more like 7.1 pounds per person. Add it up and that's 204,000 total pounds produced over every single American lifetime. Break it down and among other things you find 28 billion pounds of food, enough plastic film to shrink-wrap Texas, and sufficient steel to build Manhattan from scratch literally going to waste each year.

Only around a fourth of all this collective crapola gets recycled or composted. Nearly 70% is sent to landfills. (The remainder, for better or worse, is burned for energy.) Compare that garbage carnage to countries like Belgium, which sends just 4% of its trash to the dump or Germany, which doesn't send any at all. The fact is, with just 5% of the world's population, we're producing 25% of its waste. How trashy is that?

My garbage can flips its lid just thinking about it, but ideas like these will help us waste a whole lot less:

Let it rot. The EPA estimates that about 27% of our garbage isn't garbage at all but food and yard waste that can be easily composted to build soil and fertilize gardens. Start composting and you'll instantly cut your garbage output by a quarter.

Dispose of the disposables. Our lives are filled with throwaway items for which reusable alternatives exist. Before you buy one, ask yourself if better, less wasteful options exist. They might be a tad more expensive up front, but those disposable items we're always replacing cost more than we realize.

Buy less stuff. Ask yourself: Do you actually need the item? Will you use it a lot? Can you rent or borrow it instead? Is there something smaller and/or more durable that can be used in its place? Or do you already own a decent substitute? You'll be surprised at the money these questions can save and the waste they'll prevent!

Know how much you need before you shop. Whether its hardware or paint, food or medicine, crunch the numbers beforehand and buy only the amount you actually require.

Purge the packaging. Avoid single-serving foods and buy items in bulk whenever feasible (Beware of “bulk packages” that consist of individually-packaged items bundled together in further packaging!) Look for items that are sold in the containers they'll live in, not packaged in an outer shell like a bottle that comes in a box. When you buy a packaged product, choose the least packaged option. In general, larger sizes and concentrated products use less packaging, and bags are better than boxes, which are better than bottles. That said, remember that recyclability trumps all, and the best option will always be the one you can recycle.

Leave gimmicks where they lie. Pump toothpastes, disposable toilet brushes, electric air fresheners, coffee in pods, and other wasteful items are more about marketing flim-flam than anything else.

Buy durable goods carefully. You generally get what you pay for when it comes to big ticket items like appliances. So buy the best model you can afford. It will last longer than cheaper models, and save money and waste in the long run.

Become a righteous recycler. Check all packaging before you buy. If it can't be recycled locally, look for alternatives that can be. Close the recycling loop by buying things made from the highest amounts of post-consumer recycled materials. And look beyond paper, plastic, and glass to your entire waste stream. Earth911 offers a guide to recycling almost anything. The National Center for Electronics Recycling can help you recycle your tech.

Don't throw it away, give it away! Organizations like Freecycle will connect you to people who'll take your cast-offs so the garbage man doesn't have to.

Strategies like these dramatically cut down on our trash. At my house, they've dropped our landfill contribution to about 33% of all the waste we produce. Not bad, but there's lots of room for improvement. Let's clean up our waste streams and make those improvements together.

For more information about waste reduction, visit the GrassRoots Recycling Network and You can also learn more at Use Less Stuff.

top photo:

bottom photo: Fruggo


tightwadcouponer picture
A friend of mine has a ministry that includes making sleeping bags for the homeless. His sewers take anything they can get. If it's too worn out to donate or to use for anything else, it can go into making a sleeping bag. They also use men's old ties to tie around the rolled up sleeping bags. The biggest thing I have found about being able to do recycling of any kind is having the willingness to learn and carry through with it. Otherwise. all that happens is you hinder someone else from doing all they want to do.
maistral picture
Here in Victoria BC we have a fantastic recycling program, and a lot of thrift stores where one can donate old clothes, and rags as well. There is a recycling pick-up twice a month and a website where we can find where to recycle things that the pick-up program does not take. There is even a hotline where we can call to find where to recycle things that are not mentioned on the website. I live alone and usually have one small bag of garbage every two weeks. I buy about 99% of my clothes from thrift stores and donate them back when I am tired of them or out-grow them. I also compost everything but cooked food scraps - there is a program for that as well but I produce so little that the monthly cost seems high for the amount I produce. However I have read about a compostor that you bury in the garden and it will turn almost all the contents to liquid over time, so I will look for one of those for cooked-food scraps and the cat feces that the local cats deposit in my raised vegetable beds. I am lucky in that I have a large garage where I can store my recycled items until I am ready to dispose of them. And I have a large garden that takes all the compost I make. It must be harder for those living in apartments. I was brought up in England and remember the rag-and-bone men who would tour the streets in horse-drawn carts calling out 'rag-bone'. So even in those days there was some recycling. I have reached an age where living lightly on the land seems to be very important. I have been looking into green burials but for some reason they seem to be very expensive. However, while talking to one funeral director I found that during cremation mercury from teeth fillings and radiation from cancer treatments are all released into the atmosphere. No doubt this also applies to chromium and titanium from hip-replacements - not that I have one. Perhaps I could be buried at sea, but even that could be bad for the fish.
hedgewitch3 picture
I grew up in Baltimore more than a few days ago and we had horse-drawn wagons on the streets. Some were vendors of produce, others we called "rag men". These folks were my first introduction to serious recycling as they collected newspapers, old clothes, bits of fabrics from those who sewed. Decades went by, I married and moved to southern MD. To save household expenses and to assure my passion for recycling was honored, we took our trash to the local "transfer station" and sorted items into the various bins. I was happily surprised to see two such bins for fabric items; one for clothes donations, one for the more well worn textiles. I seriously wish textile and fabric recycling would once again become a nationwide effort! Thanks for the memories and the hope!!
recycling_addict picture
I think it merits mentioning that a separate, yet important kind of recycling is textile recycling. I live in Brooklyn,NY and we have it here. If it exists in your area, it is well worth it. My recyclers take any cloth that is too worn to donate (I am continually surprised by how often people throw perfectly good clothes, shoes, etc. in the garbage instead of donating them, but that is another story). This including bags and shoes. I have been surprised to see how much it adds up and reduces what I contribute to landfills.
tomversion6.1 picture
Another thought-provoking article! I can't help but think, though, that hockeycutie9 missed the point; why print the article at all? Why not use something like Evernote to save the article for future reference? I use the free version, and it syncs across my computer and mobile devices. I no longer print recipes, directions, or interesting articles. In fact, I haven't purchased printer paper since last year!
hockeycutie9 picture
I noticed when I went to print out this article that it printed out everything on the website. It wasted two pieces of paper and color ink on pictures and other writing that I did not need. Can't your website make a "printer friendly" version for each of its articles? While I plan to recycle the paper, I would rather not have used it in the first place.