When Budget Epicurean first approached me with the idea of her guest post on zero waste, I didn’t realize that it would grow into the start of a whole series on my blog, but I did immediately realize I wanted to spend year two writing a lot more about sustainability. And I have, including one of my very favorite posts on this blog, about why I think sustainability is a whole heck of a lot more important than early retirement.

While I have found myself immersed in the personal finance community in general and more specifically in the financial independence / retire early (FIRE) subsection of that, I’m finding that there is a lot of crossover with people interested in financial independence as well as sustainability. The more I think about it, the more that makes sense. If you’re paying attention to ways to make your life more efficient and spending just on what you truly value, it makes sense that you’re more likely to pay attention to your whole world impact as well.

What I didn’t expect though was that two of these guest posts would be popular enough to land themselves on my top twelve most viewed list for 2018, and one even ended up with a Rockstar Finance feature. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that sustainability and zero waste is getting the attention it has been lately. In a world and a country where we are seeing more and more impacts of climate change and yet are doing so little to mitigate them, it’s a balm to my soul to know that at least some people do really care. Perhaps some day it will be enough to make the big changes we need to see.

After writing her guest post on my blog, Budget Epicurean went on to track her trash creation over the course of a week, and she inspired me to do the same. It’s been months since I completed that challenge, and I have made some clear changes in my routines to reduce my trash creation as a result. Perhaps it’s time for round two to step it up a level once again.

As always, I’m a big proponent of making slow, small changes over time that you’re more likely to stick with, and then once you’ve incorporated them into your routine, only then is it time to make new changes. Too many and too extreme at once and you’re likely to toss them all out as too hard over time.

When I found out that Erik over at The Mastermind Within was challenging himself to track everything for a month, including his waste, it was only natural to have him write a guest post here specifically about that experience.

As I’ve learned through my week tracking my trash and my first No Spend month, there’s no substitute for actually recording something for a set time period. Until you actually write it down, you don’t really know how you’re doing in real life. Well, Erik wrote it down, and did so for an entire month. I really enjoyed reading about his experience, and I hope you will too. Without further ado, I’ll turn the rest of this post over to him.

Zero Waste: A Month Of Tracking My Trash

Hi, I’m Erik. Over the past few months, I’ve been looking to live more intentionally. I’m someone who takes a lot of action and tries to become better over time through little steps each day, but I was in a little bit of a rut. I needed a spark to get me going in the right direction again.

In November, I decided to do something extreme. It seems that Angela and I have a similar attitude towards action: jump in feet first and hope for the best.

After being inspired by Angela’s post on a week tracking her trash, and also inspired by one of my favorite quotes, “What gets measured, gets managed”, I decided to do something crazy.

I decided I was going to track everything in my life: my sleep, my work, my eating, my exercise, my expenses, and most importantly, my waste.

Before I started, I thought to myself, “I don’t really consume all that much and produce a lot of waste… do I?”

I really didn’t realize how much waste I produced on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis until I started tracking.

It was definitely a little nerve wracking at first, but now after completing a full month, I’ve already started making adjustments for a more intentionally sustainable lifestyle.

Here are my results, takeaways and action steps from tracking my waste for an entire month.

My Results from Tracking My Trash for a Month

Before the month started, I never really thought about how much trash and waste I actually produced on a monthly basis. Sure, during my environmental science class in high school, I learned about the size of my carbon footprint, and my mom always told me about the benefits of reusing things over time. But I never realized how much waste I was producing on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis even with a pretty normal lifestyle.

For me, I take the bus to work, eat in for at least one meal a day, buy in bulk, and use reusable containers. At the same time, I don’t always use reusable bags at stores, have paper towels in my kitchen, eat food from wrappers, and I order things off Amazon a few times a month.

I also don’t compost, so there was certainly a lot of room to improve, but I felt that it wasn’t a horrible place to start.

Here was my waste for the month of November:

Takeaways from Tracking My Trash for a Month

First off, wow. I produce a significant amount of trash.

A few things that I want to focus on and call out here: paper towels, plastic bowls and spoons from fast causal places, the potential to compost, and Amazon packaging.

First, let’s talk about paper towels.

At work, I had gotten into a habit of using 2 paper towels each time I washed my hands after using the bathroom. I drink a lot of water and liquids at work, and probably went to the restroom a minimum of 5 times a day.

This means I was using (at a minimum) 10 paper towels a day or 2520 paper towels a year (just at work!).

I’ve stopped doing this and now air-dry my hands at work. (Thanks Angela for the suggestion!)

Second, let’s talk plastic disposables at fast causal restaurants.

I love going to D’Brian’s, a healthy salad and sandwich shop in Minneapolis. The salads are great, but they come in a plastic bowl:

After realizing how much waste this was, I started bringing my own lunch. This way, I could control what I was eating and my waste more effectively then (also, this saved money!):

This helped cut down on some waste as well.

Next, I want to talk about composting… which I need to start doing.

Every day, I have a banana and apple, and throw away the banana peel and apple core. Both of these scraps are compostable, but because I don’t compost, these are thrown in the trash. Unfortunately, when mixed with other trash, they will no decompose, and are the equivalent of trash.

As shown above in my tracking results from the month of November, I think I could remove about 30% of my waste just by composting (egg shells, banana peels, apple cores, other food scraps).

Finally, one last call out is Amazon and shipping packaging. If you’ve ever ordered something off Amazon, they do an amazing job of packaging your stuff, but also, it comes with a ton of plastic which is not great for trying to work towards zero waste.

Taking Action to Produce Less Waste in the Future

What gets measured gets managed.

Now that I’ve gone a full month tracking my waste, I can and have started to make adjustments for the better.

For me, I don’t believe that trying to go full zero waste will be possible in the short term, but I can always take baby and teenager steps towards becoming less wasteful over time.

My action plan includes the following:

• Stop using paper towels at work, and use cloth towels instead

• Start buying in bulk, cooking in bulk, and bringing my lunch to work

• Compost, grow my own food, and continue to learn more about ways to “do it myself” vs. buying new

As I discussed a little bit above, my paper towel consumption was a lot before the month of November.

Now, I’ve purchased hand towels for the kitchen, and have stopped using paper towels at work.

This will reduce my waste by at least 3,000 paper towels a year! Second, I’ve started buying in bulk and cooking in bulk for the week, so that I don’t use as much food wrapping and disposables at local restaurants.

This will reduce my waste by at least 100 plastic forks, bowls, and paper napkins (and at the most, about 250 – 50 weeks of 5 days a week!).

Third, I’m already brainstorming and making plans to build 2 4’x8’ raised beds and a compost bin in my backyard.

As I mentioned above, I truly believe that through composting, I could reduce my waste by over 30% just like that. What’s cool about a lot of trying to go towards zero waste is the impact not only on your waste, but on your wallet!

From Reducing Trash to Reducing Expenses

I’m on the path to financial freedom. One of my personal goals is to become wealthy at a very young age and by doing so, I will be able to do whatever I want with my time and energy. One of my biggest “ah ha” moments from trying to reduce my waste is on my budget and expenses.

If I’m not buying paper towels anymore, that’s potentially $50-$100 in savings a year. By bringing my lunch to work, I’ll easily save $200 a month more than I was before (I usually spend about $425 a month on food, and in November, I only spent $212!) If I start growing my own food, and continue to buy in bulk, I’ll further reduce my expenses. By putting these ideas into practice, I will be reducing my expenses, but also, I will be reducing the amount of money I need to become financially free.

Through a few small changes, I will be freeing up $3,000 in my budget just like that. If I can find a few more things to change, I could see this savings be at least $5,000 a year.

What could you do with $5,000 more a year?

Becoming Less Wasteful and Working Towards Zero Waste Will Result in a Better Life

Working towards zero waste certainly will be a change for me and my life, but I’m confident it will result in a better life. Why?

Just a few weeks of tracking, understanding my habits, and making a plan for the future, I’ve already increased my savings by $5,000 a year.

Speaking in general a little more, I also believe that these changes will result in a healthier and more fulfilling lifestyle. Learning how to cook a little more has been incredibly enjoyable, and I’m always surprised at how much fun it is to dig through the different spices and foods at the local co-op to come up with the next great dish.

Becoming less wasteful and working towards zero waste will result in a better life.

-Erik, The Mastermind Within

Have you ever tracked your trash? Is it something you’d consider doing for a week – or a month? I’d love to hear about your results!

39 thoughts on “Zero Waste: A Month of Tracking My Trash (Guest Post from The Mastermind Within)

    1. Glad you shared! I’m still impressed you tracked for an entire month. Now to get you composting… 😉

  1. It’s so eye opening isn’t it?! Great job, Erik. Even before you made changes I think you’re a more responsible consumer than most. But every little bit helps. I truly hope our generation or the next one can bring the kitchen back as the heart of the home, and make gardening, backyard chickens, composting, and canning mainstream again.

    1. Well, it seems this generation (at least some of us) is heading somewhat in that direction anyway!

    2. Thank you for the comment and stopping by 🙂

      At the very least, if you consume less, your expenses will decrease drastically!

      Less storage, less cleaning, less worrying, more time spent on doing what matters, less waste, more money – its seems like a no brainer to at least pursue some level of reduced waste!

  2. Well done Erik! Since reading Angela’s blog I’ve been a lot more conscious about the waste I use everyday as well. I’ve completely eliminated paper towels use in my apt relying on towels instead, and seriously been thinking about each and every time I use my car and if that’s necessary.

    I’ve still got a long way to go, but my habits are slowly changing for the better!

      1. Awww well thank you both! I’d have to say, my impact on people’s environmental habits are even more important than the ones to their financial habits 😊

  3. Erik, this is great! I keep paper towels on hand for things like wiping large amounts of grease out of pans before I wash them (although if it’s enough, I’ll just heat the pan up briefly so the fat/grease is liquid again and I can pour it into my grease jar) and occasionally checking the oil level in my car, but other than that I don’t use them and I’ve stopped keeping them out in the kitchen/replacing them when they run out. If my roommate wants paper towels on hand in the kitchen, she can buy them herself. I’ve got plenty of kitchen towels as an alternative.

    That’s not to say I’m by any means perfect (I still use a paper towel at work after washing my hands 🙈), and this post is a good reminder that I need to be better. Starting with consistently utilizing the compost pile in my building’s back yard since I go through phases of collecting food waste and then go back to throwing it away!

    1. Yep, we still have paper towels in the kitchen for a few things still as well, but one Costco pack lasts us at least a year now.

  4. I just want one single simple statement to be brazen in the minds of the general public
    Laziness creates Wastefulness
    As an exercise they should each consider what actions because they are easy or convenient are hurting our world. By creating visuals such as keeping trash in a clear container or making spreadsheets for one week allow the true impact to become tangible.

    Erik, I see one big item you didn’t touch on while writing the article for Angela…and something she spoke of earlier this year and changed. You didn’t address your k-cup waste and how you planned to change your coffee habit. I counted 14 used in the month

    1. I love your statement!!

      You got me Chris 🙂 Yes, the k-Cups are definitely something I’m thinking about and something I need to make a change on.

      What I did buy was reusable containers where you put the coffee grounds in them from a separate bag. This reduces the plastic waste, and then I’ll need to figure out what to do with the grounds.

      Thanks for the comment!!

      1. Hey Erik, to follow up with this I am holding myself more accountable and just started keeping all my plastic in a clear bag as I want to see how much I generate even as a mindful waste consumer.

    2. And to be perfectly honest, the keurig makes a subpar cup of coffee anyway. I love my French press, and someday I will get a pour over (but one with a reusable filter).

  5. This is absolutely amazing and very shocking results. IMO K-cup is a really big waste as they aren’t recyclable and must go to landfill. Have you considered just brewing a cup of coffee using either a French press or brewing a single shot espresso on the stove? Or give up coffee completely?

    1. K-Cup is definitely a huge waste. What I’ve gone to now is reusable containers, and then you put the coffee grounds in those containers. That way you don’t use as much plastic.

      When my Keurig breaks down, I’m definitely going to look at a French press or something else. But also like you said, do I need coffee? I’ve only had 1 cup the last 2 weeks!

      1. Yeah, I have a reusable k cup as well but it really does make a sub par cup of coffee.

    2. Give up coffee?! Gasp. That escalated quickly 😉 But definitely agree there are better ways to brew a cup!

  6. I really like the idea of tracking your trash. Some of the trash-free initiatives are a bit too extreme for me. I think this heightened awareness of trash helps you decrease it in small ways that add up over time. Bravo!

    1. Yeah, I don’t expect I will ever be anywhere near the “one mason jar of trash a year” level. That doesn’t mean doing better and tracking your process isn’t useful, because it certainly is! Every bit better counts a whole lot in my book.

  7. Thank you Erin for your comment!

    I would add though to the second point… for your side hustle in particular, there are rules around using paper towels for washing hands, so some waste is definitely not removable. But being cognizant and trying to become better over time will lead to some great results as you mention 🙂

  8. Great job Erik on keeping track on your trash. What’s funny is that since reading Angela’s Budget Epicurean’s posts on tracking their trash, I’ve been a bit more conscious on what I throw away especially with paper towels. I realized that I could use toilet paper for some instances instead of paper towels because it seems more efficient to do that. Like wiping a small spill on my kitchen counter, I could just use toilet paper because the accident wasn’t that big and if I used paper towel, it would have been a waste to use that thick of towel for a small accident.

    1. Hooray!! It makes me so happy to hear that this series is making some real changes to people’s lives 😄

  9. Its interesting to me to see this when I still recall when recycling started in my area in the 1980s. A lot of the repair, reuse, and repurposing talk that I see and hear now is nearly identical in effect, although not in cause, to the way my grandparents spoke and acted to the end of their days. They lived through the Great Depression and were poor even before it started. They were all about the 3 R’s, and encouraged ev3n us kids to be the same way. Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that its a good idea. I like the repurpose part as I tend to do that with a lot of the things that I build and use around my home. Its just fun, and my son likes the creative aspects of it.

    1. You make a good point. To be honest, it’s frustrating to realize how not far we’ve come over the last few decades. We really went backwards as a society when disposable culture took hold.

  10. Nice work, Erik! And I like your plan of action. Like you, my wife and I really need to compost. Most of our waste is food waste that can be compostable. We plan on doing it this year!

    1. Since we fully switched to composting our food waste at home (thanks to our curbside pickup) I am SO aware of how wasteful it is to toss that stuff in the trash if we’re out somewhere that doesn’t have a compost option.

  11. Fun post! I agree with the comments of several others that your level of waste was much lower than the average consumer, Erik, and applaud your efforts to do even better!

    Like GenX FIRE, my grandparents lived through the depression, and I remember how they reused everything, had a huge garden, collected rainwater for the garden, and generated very little trash – they even went as far as removing the paper from tin cans & flattening the cans to be recycled! As a child, it made an impact on me.

    Although I have lots of room for improvement, too, I am happy to report I haven’t bought paper towels in years. Instead, I’ve sewn cloth napkins & use small, inexpensive washcloths & hand towels for everything.

    After reading this post & all the comments, I was surprised that no one referenced the 2009 documentary movie “No Impact Man” based on the book by Colin Beavan. The book and/or movie is available at the library. It tells the story of one man’s effort to “go green” for one year, including his family’s effort to reduce waste. It’s very thought provoking & if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it! Here’s the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9Ctt7FGFBo

    1. Funny how far we’ve come from the depression era, isn’t it? Makes sense though – once you’ve lived through that kind of deprivation your kids end up not wanting to live that way.

  12. Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking of doing a “trash autopsy” to see what ends up in the trash bag, but I suppose tracking would be a lot less gross! We compost, and it definitely reduces the amount and gross-ness of our trash. If you want to grow your own food (anyone on this thread), here’s a freebie link to a course I created in Udemy for those of us living in cold climates: https://www.udemy.com/gardening-in-cold-climates/?couponCode=FROSTDAY

    1. Trash autopsy 😂😂😂 Well, at least for my house, it wouldn’t be TOO bad, because all food waste goes in the compost.

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