Zero waste conjures images of someone who has completely streamlined changed the way they live and has just a mason jar of trash to show for a year of living. I may do a pretty good job of reducing my waste compared to the typical American, but I am far from zero waste.
We have the smallest size of garbage can offered by our city, but most weeks it is still half full. We grow a decent amount of summer produce, but we still order take out most weeks. We do pretty well, but pretty well still means a significant amount of trash over the course of a year, let alone a lifetime.
After Budget Epicurean’s guest post last month, she followed it up with one on her site where she recapped a week of tracking her trash. She’s been a real inspiration to me in jarring me out of my “good enough” complacency, and I decided to take up the challenge myself. For one full week, I wrote down and keep track of every single item I threw away. Just like I’ve learned with finances, there is no substitute for tracking your real progress.
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A Week Of Waste
Whenever I start a new challenge for myself, I tend to just jump in feet first once I’ve decided to go for it. With this, I specifically wanted not to prepare for the week because I wanted a better snapshot of what a regular week actually looks like in terms of waste production.
I decided to only count waste created by just me, or waste shared between the three of us, so I didn’t have to try and figure out what trash was created by my husband or son when I wasn’t around. This might be an imperfect process, but this way I can track another week some time in the future and compare to how I did this first time around.
Tracking my trash by itself only does so much good; in order to make this a worthwhile experiment, I needed to figure out how to make changes in my life to move forward with less waste in the future. I don’t expect I’ll ever get down to that single mason jar containing a year’s worth of my trash, but I should at least be heading in that direction.
Weekends tend to be simpler on the trash front because we eat the bulk of our meals at home, and if we do go out to eat, we tend to have the time to sit and eat there and use real dishes and silverware for the meal. Breakfast and lunch were simple meals and didn’t create any waste (at least at the time).
Looking back, I realize I didn’t include packaging waste for something if I didn’t use it up at the moment, so the next time I do this I’ll have to keep track of that as well. Coffee made at home, for example, had no waste this week because I use a French press, which has no disposable filter, and the only thing I add to the coffee to drink it is half and half, and that bottle is recycled.
However, the coffee beans I buy don’t come in zero waste packaging. For the purpose of this week’s experiment, I didn’t include that bag in this list, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t thrown away before I added my coffee beans to their storage container. I also didn’t track recyclables like the half and half bottle.
That being said, the only fully trash items I created on Sunday were the plastic freezer bag the local grass fed beef came in that was part of our dinner and the wrapper around a new stick of butter. I went into this week with images of piles and piles of trash in my head, so this small list for the first day made me feel like I might be doing a little better than I give myself credit for.
- Plastic freezer bag from beef for dinner
- Butter wrapper
I have a reusable Keurig pod that I use at work, so in theory I shouldn’t create any more coffee drinking water than at home, but in reality, this wasn’t the case. Our office has those individual use creamer cups, and I use one or two of those in each of my coffees (usually once a day). And those little plastic cups have no recycling symbol on them and have to go straight in the trash.
Previously, I knew I was creating too much waste by using them, but they were free and easy, so I didn’t make a change. The reusable Keurig cup was easier because I drink decaf coffee and the decaf Keurig options are pretty terrible as well as so obviously wasteful. The little creamer cups, on the other hand, taste just fine, and seem small enough not to matter so much. But ten a week (conservatively) means that I might go through FIVE HUNDRED of them over the course of a year. Suddenly, those little creamer cups didn’t seem so innocuous.
So I armed myself with a bottle of half and half to leave in the work refrigerator and have started to use that instead, and I’ve offered the use of it to others in the office as well. This may be slightly more expensive over the long run since I’m buying the bottle myself versus using the free work creamer cups, but it’s a very small price to pay to reduce my work waste in a significant way.
And then on to the other drink besides water that I usually end up drinking at least a few times a week: the hot chocolate packet. Like the coffee, I should probably switch this over to one of the big canisters of hot chocolate versus the individual serving packets. I adore hot chocolate, so I will keep drinking it, but I think I will see if the next time we order some it can be the bulk tin instead. I almost didn’t drink any hot chocolate this week, but I felt that would be disingenuous as I really do drink it every week.
I heated up some soup for lunch in the microwave, and it made a little bit of a mess. Usually I would just take some paper towels to clean up what spilled over, but since I was paying closer attention to my waste creation, I used the hand towel I keep for drying my hands and cleaned up the microwave with that instead. I think from now on I will keep a few extra in my office for cleaning up spills from here on out (I use these).
I snagged the leftover red pepper flakes from a work pizza lunch a while back which would have otherwise been thrown away after the meal, so maybe this isn’t “my” waste in the same way as some of the other trash from this week, but the packet did end up in the garbage after I used it on my soup, so I’ve decided to list it.
- Hot chocolate packet
- Individual red pepper flakes packet
- Half and half bottle wrapper
Tuesday morning I took advantage of leaving the house a bit early and took my son to get a doughnut for breakfast before preschool. We don’t do this regularly, but he really loves the special mommy and son mornings out, and so do I. We checked out a doughnut shop right near his preschool for the first time, and when I asked to have them “for here” I got told that they were “fast food, not a sit down restaurant.” The doughnuts really were great, but I think we will just stick to the coffee shop across the street in the future where we can have our food on a plate instead of a to go bag.
I had an apple with peanut butter for lunch along with some blueberries and tomatoes from the garden. I wasn’t paying any attention and tossed the apple core into my trash can since we don’t have a compost at work. I realized it right after I’d thrown it away, so I dug it out of the trash to take it to compost at home. Maybe a little extreme, but the act of pulling it out of the trash should help me remember better next time.
Part of Tuesday’s dinner was Annie’s macaroni and cheese, so the one piece of trash from the meal was the cheese packet from the box.
- Doughnut to go bag
- Macaroni and cheese packet
As I shared in last Friday’s post, we had a work lunch celebrating a coworker’s work anniversary. Free food, hooray! And Costco pizza, which is delicious, if not terribly healthy. Unfortunately, I had taken the plate I keep in my office home to wash and didn’t have one on hand, so this lunch was eaten on a paper plate.
We have a pretty regular routine of having dinner with my parents on Wednesday nights, and this week was no exception. We didn’t have a ton of time though, so my mom picked up Chinese food for all of us. The food was awesome, I had enough leftovers for two subsequent work lunches, but the packaging from that one meal overtook all of the waste from the rest of the week up to this point.
We’ve really reduced our number take out meals in this past year because of the cost factor, but it was really noticeable how much this has also impacted our waste factor without intentionally trying to do better on that point.
- Paper plate from work lunch
- Dinner take out boxes and bags
By this point in the work week, our dinners tend to get simpler (and unfortunately, this usually means more packaging). Thursday night was steak, salad, and macaroni and cheese, but the salad was one of the bagged ones that have all the toppings in separate little plastic bags.
We’ve tried to buy salad fixings separately in the past, but we just eat so much more salad when we buy the bag ready version. Healthier for us, perhaps, but certainly not healthier for the planet. Something I need to revisit. If you have awesome salad recipes, send them my way please.
- Steak packaging
- Macaroni and cheese packet
- Bagged salad kit
By Friday, I felt like I was really getting a handle on this zero waste (ish) thing, and then we went to Costco. Without even thinking, I snagged one of the sample cups, because who doesn’t love Costco samples? Before I’d even eaten the tiny sample cup of popcorn though, I looked down and realized I’d inadvertently grabbed more trash.
I love Costco samples, but looking closely at my waste makes me reconsider this practice. Unless I’m actually considering buying whatever is being sampled – and I’ve never eaten it before – there really is no reason for taking another sample cup. Tasty, but not worth it, especially because it is rarely just one sample.
Since we were at Costco after work, we had decided to just go to the food court for dinner. Again, it was a great frugal meal out ($8 fed all three of us), but my meal created more waste than if we’d eaten at home: the foil from the hot dog and the drink cup, though I didn’t get a straw or lid like I usually would.
- Hot dog foil
- To go drink cup
Saturday brought another meal out with my parents, breakfast this time, since they will be out of town this coming week and my son won’t get his normal Nana day. The restaurant we went to has those same mini creamer cups like at work, so I ended up using one in my first cup of coffee. I ordered oatmeal though, so I used some of the milk brought out for that in my second cup. Next time, I’ll think to just ask for some milk for my coffee and skip the creamer cup altogether.
We stopped at a farmers market later on and then had a light lunch at the cafe next door (jeez we ate out a lot the second half of the week). I didn’t think about it, and ended up with a straw in my latte because I didn’t ask them to hold it back. I do actually love straws for my drinks, but I don’t need them.
That afternoon had us off to a second birthday party, which meant more disposable serving ware. They are friends though, so I went inside and grabbed myself a real glass for my drink instead of one of the plastic party cups. I felt like I didn’t want to impose though, so I did use a plastic plate and fork for the cake. My friend later told me I should have just grabbed a plate from inside, and maybe I will in the future, but I definitely felt the balance of wanting to do better on my trash consumption versus not imposing on a friend’s party.
- Creamer cup at breakfast
- Iced latte straw
- Paper plate and plastic fork
One Week Of Tracking My Trash
I may not be anywhere near true zero waste, but this past week made me a lot more confident in the control I have over how much waste I produce in a given year. Habits take time to form, but once I pick off the easy ones off my typical trash production (namely coffee creamer, hot chocolate packets, and take out containers), I’ll start looking harder at what remains.
What I noticed most intensely from this past week is that all of the trash I created came from food; I buy very few things and am almost a year and a half into a clothing ban, so the packaging waste that comes from buying things just doesn’t happen for the most part.
From here on out, I’ll be taking any food waste from work to compost at home, but long term I would rather set it up to have a compost system for the whole office. Beyond that, the biggest hurdle I will have to tackle is the food waste associated with our meat consumption. If we were vegan – or even vegetarian – our dinner plastic waste would have been cut in half. We aren’t though, and don’t have plans to head that direction, so I’m feeling a bit stuck. We buy our beef direct from a local farm, but each cut comes separately packaged in a freezer bag so it will last a while.
That said, even eliminating the plastic waste from our meat consumption won’t get me anywhere near that annual mason jar of trash, though maybe I can get close to one jar a week. I think I’ll do this again some months from now to make sure I’m headed in the right direction, and to give myself that push to keep moving forward.
Do you have any suggestions for me that will get me closer to that elusive zero waste? Have you ever considered tracking your trash for a week to see where you land?
Want to get started living more sustainably?