About 4.5 pounds. That’s the amount of trash—banana peels, frayed toothbrushes, busted electronics, plastic wrappers, greasy pizza boxes—that the average American generates every day. And it adds up quickly: In 2014 alone, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent available data, we collectively tossed 258.5 million tons of stuff.
Fortunately, not all the items we discard end up in landfills; we recycle or compost more than one-third of our trash. In 2014 this saved carbon emissions equivalent to the yearly output of 38 million passenger cars. But we could be doing so much more. For example, we recycle only 14 percent of all plastic packaging. And we toss about 40 percent of all our food, composting only about 5 percent of that load, according to the EPA.
Although even recycling comes with environmental costs, NRDC’s Senior Resource Specialist Darby Hoover says that “compared to landfilling, recycling is the clear environmental winner. However, waste prevention is even better.” So start by cutting down on what you use in the first place. “Reduce should always be the number-one priority,” Hoover says.
How? Think more conscientiously about your everyday habits and develop new routines. Here are some places where you can start.
Buy well-made products, and borrow the items that you rarely use.
When you purchase long-lasting clothes, housewares, and electronics, you’ll trash them less often. Even better, when possible, borrow or buy used goods. Tap friends, neighbors, consignment shops, garage sales, flea markets, and secondhand e-commerce sites first—especially for things like Halloween costumes or that power washer you’ll use just once or twice. If you have kids, always say yes to hand-me-downs. And as items are outgrown, pass them on or resell them.
Before you purchase anything, ask: Is this (say, a garlic press) a thing I need? Or is there another item I can use or repurpose for the same task (like that kitchen knife)? Get creative. Need wrapping paper? Use pages torn from catalogs, the Sunday comics, or even an old road atlas. “People love when I wrap presents in maps,” Hoover says.
Cut plastic and single-use items out of your daily routine.
So many of our everyday products are designed to have a short useful life. Here are some ideas for more sustainable swaps.
Health and beauty products
- Choose a toothbrush with a replaceable head to avoid having to throw out the handle each time you need a new one.
- Invest in a reusable metal razor with a replaceable, recyclable head. (Back in 1990, the EPA estimated Americans tossed two billion disposable razors. And our population has grown by about 75 million people since then.)
- Swap your facial wipes for a reusable washcloth.
- Buy hair-care products and soaps in economy sizes and decant them to smaller, reusable containers when needed. (The same goes for laundry detergent and cleaning products. Also, look for options sold in concentrate.)
- Ditch the plastic wrap, small plastic bags, and aluminum foil when possible. Instead, opt for reusable food containers, washable fabric pouches (great for dry nibbles like popcorn and nuts), and reusable food wraps.
- Stock up on washable towels and cloth napkins instead of paper towels and napkins.
- Drink tap water instead of bottled (purchase a water filter if needed). If you love fizzy water, invest in a seltzer maker with reusable bottles.
- Save plastic grocery bags or other plastic packaging to reuse for another purpose, like lining small garbage pails or picking up after your dog.
- Avoid dishwasher tablets or other products, like sponges, that come individually wrapped.
- Purchase a reusable garment bag, and ask your dry cleaner to use that instead of plastic clothing covers.
- Carry reusable, BPA-free water bottles and reusable coffee mugs.
- Get stainless steel or other reusable straws for your smoothies and iced coffee. Plastic straws are not typically recyclable; in some places, their use may soon be limited.
- Keep a set of reusable cutlery where you work for use during lunch breaks.
- Carry lightweight reusable bags—or keep a set in your car—to replace plastic shopping bags.
Slay food waste—and food-packaging waste.
On average, Americans toss out a staggering 400 pounds of food per person every year. Most of it ends up in a landfill, where it releases methane, a potent contributor to climate change. We also have to consider all the greenhouse gases released by growing the food we ultimately chuck. All told, our wasted food produces more greenhouse gas emissions each year than 37 million cars. And that’s not our only wasteful food-related habit. We also tend to prefer our food in convenient, single-serving sizes, shrink-wrapped or accompanied by lots of plastic accessories. Commit to freezing more and wasting less, getting more out of your kitchen stash, and calming your impulse to dump anything in your fridge that isn’t super-fresh. Follow these tips for reducing your food packaging, too.
- Coffee or tea time: Use a reusable filter in your coffeemaker and store any extra brew in the fridge for iced coffee or in the freezer for coffee ice cubes. (Check out lots more planet-friendly coffee tips here.) If you’re more of a tea fan, start brewing with loose-leaf tea instead of tea bags, many of which contain plastic and most of which end up in landfills.
- Eating (or taking) out: If you’re likely to take home leftovers from a restaurant, bring a reusable container from home rather than asking your server to box up the rest of your meal in something disposable. And when you’re ordering takeout, ask the restaurant to leave out any disposable utensils, plates, stacks of napkins, and packages of condiments you won’t need.
- Grocery runs: Shop from bulk bins for flour, nuts, dried fruit, cereal, beans, rice, and other staples. Take lightweight mesh bags for produce. And for packaged food favorites—pretzels, crackers, cheese—forgo snack packs and buy the largest size you know you will eat before it spoils. (The same rule of thumb applies for purchasing pet food and treats.)
Recycle and compost all you can—and do it correctly.
To reap the environmental benefits of “recyclable” and “compostable” goods, you must recycle and compost according to the rules of your municipality, since systems vary widely by location. If you don’t, you’ll have regular ol’ trash on your hands. Search your municipality’s sanitation department (or equivalent) web page to learn exactly what you can place in the recycling bin, as counties and cities often differ in what they accept. And if municipal or community composting isn’t available where you live, consider doing it in your own backyard.
Speaking of the yard, in 2014 Americans contributed 34.5 million tons of yard trimmings—grass, brush, and leaves—to the waste stream. Do your part to reduce that amount by composting those trimmings, leaving grass clippings on the ground where they can decompose into a natural fertilizer, or joining the no-mow movement.
And make a habit of recycling everywhere. Designate a spot in your closet to collect clothing to donate. If you have a home office, station a paper recycling bin right by your desk, and set up a box for other recyclable items like batteries and printer cartridges. When it’s time to part with old electronics, look for e-waste drop-off sites or events where you can hand over your discards to an e-Stewards-certified company, or find out if your town offers a municipal e-waste collection program.
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