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A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

NOVEMBER 2009 (links updated 2012): Look through my trash and see how much stuff I discard in the course of an ordinary day. Then explore with me how to cut the waste—in my home and yours.


Weighing trash


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On This Topic


Compost bins
COMPOSTING is a great way to dispose of much of your kitchen and yard waste, including fruits, vegetables, grains, egg shells, coffee grounds, fall leaves and grass clippings. Not only does it keep these materials out of the landfill, it returns their nutrients to the earth where they belong.

Mesh and cloth coffee filters
French press
TO BREW COFFEE without wasting paper, try a mesh filter, a cloth filter or a different type of coffee maker, such as the French press above.

AMERICANS DISPOSE of 4.6 pounds per person a day (including residential and commercial—though not industrial—waste), according to the Environmental Protection Agency's figures for 2007. This is a big increase from 1980 when the daily average was only 3.66 pounds per capita. Population has increased at the same time, raising total municipal solid waste generation from 152 to 254 million tons. The one bright spot is the higher recycling rate—33 percent compared to less than 10 percent in 1980. Unfortunately, it's not enough to make up the difference.

Trashy Habits

A day's worth of garbage—and how to reduce it

Inspired by an article on the burgeoning zero-waste movement in places like Nantucket, Seattle and San Francisco, I decided to track my personal habits to see how much stuff I discard in a day.

The answer (drum roll, please) is 2.48 pounds.

At least, that was the amount on November 4th, which seemed like a fairly typical day, trash-wise. I've no idea if this is my average, taking light and heavy days into account, but if so, my waste would total about 900 pounds a year—and a staggering 10 tons over 25 years.

On the the day in question, my trash included the following articles:

Garbage (.61 pounds)

  • 4 paper coffee filters with used grounds
  • Vegetable scraps
  • A toothpaste container
  • A laundry detergent top
  • The plastic wrapper from a pack of soaps
  • The molded plastic from a pack of rechargeable batteries
Recycling (1.87 pounds)

  • A coffee filter box
  • Several pieces of direct mail
  • The paper wrapper from a bar of soap
  • The cardboard from a pack of rechargeable batteries
  • A laundry detergent bottle
  • A wine bottle
You'll notice that the lion's share was recycling. Thank goodness for that, but even recycling is a waste when the items could have been reused—or didn't need using in the first place.

So, what are the alternatives? Let's go through the list and see.

Paper coffee filters - For medium-grind coffee (the standard for drip), a durable mesh filter is a perfect alternative. For a very fine grind, such as I prefer, a cloth filter would be better. However, cloth filters take copious amounts of water to clean, which is wasteful in its own way, though probably less so than paper filters. The final option is switching to a coffee maker with built-in filtering, such as a French press, neapolitano, espresso maker or old-fashioned percolator. I do like French press coffee so that would be a good choice for me.

Coffee grounds - These could go in the compost bin...if I had one. As I live in a New York City apartment, without a garden, composting would require more effort than I'm willing to put into it. However, many similarly situated New Yorkers are avid composters and bring the finished product to community gardens and the like. Outside the city, composting is much easier, and your own garden would benefit. If I had a yard, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Vegetable scraps - Same solution as for coffee grounds above. Note that meat scraps should not be composted. The solution for reducing that waste would be to eat less meat.

Toothpaste container - I could make my own toothpaste. This is something I would like to try—as much for the chemicals I would keep out of my system as for the waste I'd avoid. But wait...I'd still have to dispose of the packaging from the ingredients that go into it. So would there be any benefit? Yes, because the two main ingredients (baking soda and salt) come in cardboard packaging that could at least be recycled, unlike my store-bought toothpaste.

Laundry detergent container - Detergent can also be made at home. I already buy an eco brand so there would be no benefit from reducing chemicals, though there would be a substantial cost savings. Another solution more to my tastes is switching from liquid to powdered detergent, which uses considerably less packaging per wash.

Coffee filter box - Solving the filter problem, as above, would solve the box problem, too.

Direct mail - In the case of companies and organizations I have relationships with, I could ask that they stop sending me direct mail or email it instead. To stop direct mail from other sources, I could register (and just have) with DirectMail.com's Do Not Mail List. One nice feature of the registry is that it allows you to make exceptions for types of businesses or non-profits you want to continue hearing from (such as environmental groups!).

Soap packaging - Whole Foods and many health food and specialty grocery shops carry natural soaps that are loose and unpackaged. They look hand-crafted, come in wonderful scents and feel terrific on the skin. Moreover, some are vegetable-based—good for vegans and vegan-sympathizers. The downside is they're more expensive.

Rechargeable battery packaging - I could buy an eight-pack instead of a four-pack—which would use less packaging per battery. Of course, it would only make sense to do this if I thought I would need eight batteries in the foreseeable future.

Wine bottle - I can't think of any alternatives other than giving up wine with dinner. In a differently organized world, we might return wine bottles to local vineyards the way people used to do with milk bottles. As things are, wine bottles are best put in the recycling bin. At least there is a strong market for recycled glass (an estimated 80 percent is used for new glass containers) and glass can be recycled endlessly without degradation in quality, which cannot be said of other recyclables.

As my sample day was just a snapshot in time, I've left many a waste category unaddressed. I hope you'll fill the gap and share your suggestions with other readers on my blog. While you're at it, please let me know what you think of This Green Life's new look.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

Resources


EPA
Municipal Solid Waste Facts and Figures 2007

The New York Times
Nudging Recycling From Less Waste to None

NRDC
The Past, Present and Future of Recycling

Vegweb.com
Compost Guide

DirectMail.com
Do Not Mail List

Simple Steps
Laundry Detergent: Powder vs. Liquid

Earth911
Find Recycling Centers
Your Trash Can

More to Do


NRDC's Simple Steps

This Green Blog

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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.