A year has passed since I started tracking my garbage trips to the curb. From the time the bin was emptied on January 4th until the end of 2011, I took the bin to the street 5 times at the following intervals: 8 weeks, 10 weeks, 8 weeks, 11 weeks, and 12 weeks.
Now I must clarify. My Utah city provides one size of bin: LARGE. Compared to zero-waste proponents out there, my 5 large trips out to the curb (for my family of 5) would be a shameful amount of trash. (I know of one Bay Area woman whose family of 4 produces approximately one quart of garbage per year.) That said, I’m guessing most of my family, friends and neighbors (and perhaps at times my husband) still think I’m a bit of a freak show.
A couple of years ago I called my city utilities office to see if it would be possible to forego my garbage service and share the expense of a can with a neighbor. I was told no. “Legally” each household “must” have (and pay for) garbage service. I pay $126.00 each year, which is an average of $2.42 each week. If I were to pay only for the weeks that my garbage was picked up, this past year I would/should have paid $12.12. During the year 2012, with a projection of 3-4 trips, it should be $7-$9. During the year 2013, with a projection of 2 trips, it should be $4.84. But it will be $126. Each year.
There are many cities across the country that offer a variety of bin sizes, thus allowing home owners to pay-as-you-throw, so to speak. In my parents’ California city there are 4 choices of bin sizes, the largest of which is smaller than my bin. The city encourages low-waste and rewards residents with significantly lower waste bills. An economic incentive like that may very well be what gets people thinking about how much they send to the landfills.
[As for the recycling bin, we have successfully reduced the number of trips to the curb by half our normal rate—from every 2 weeks to every 4 weeks, with the occasional 6-week-stretch.]
For those interested in reducing garbage output, I offer 5 tips to help you get started. None of the following ideas is expensive. At all. Each is not only cheap to do, but will save you money. Really.
1. PHASE OUT DISPOSABLES. Paper napkins to cloth napkins. Paper towels to washable rags. Paper plates to real plates. Plastic cutlery to real cutlery. Plastic zip-top bags to reusable plastic containers or glass jars. Adding cloth napkins and rags to the laundry—that you are already doing—is really no extra work. No need to spend your money over and over again on garbage. (It also saves on precious home storage space.)
2. CLOTH BAGS. Bring to the store (any store—grocery, mall, craft, hardware) a couple of sturdy tote bags, a chic woven basket bag—ugly or cute, any will work just fine. Refuse shopping bags if you really don’t need one (i.e. a few items you can easily carry). We have become so accustomed to accepting plastic bags everywhere we go. It’s simple to say, “I won’t need a bag, thanks.” Easy. Stop letting people give you garbage. Use smaller cloth bags (you can buy some or sew some) or zippered mesh bags (originally designed for laundering delicates) for your grocery store produce instead of the one-time-use plastic bags.
3. FOOD EFFICIENCY. Use salad plates in place of dinner plates to reduce over-serving, and by extention food waste. (You can always serve yourself seconds.) Save leftovers. I know some people like eating leftovers in packed lunches or later in the week on a busy night. Some people I know will not eat leftovers so soon after the original meal. In that case, freezing leftovers is a great option. Though some kinds of food do not freeze well, many do just fine. Use glass jars or plastic lidded containers (not one-time-use zip-top bags) and add a label with the contents and the date. Bring it out a month or so later and it doesn’t feel like leftovers. If you want to try your hand at composting (which is really not that complicated), you could go another step toward reducing your waste output. Increasing your food efficiency and composting will put a big dent in your garbage.
4. RECYCLE. If you haven’t yet signed up for your city’s curbside pick-up, do it. You could probably sign up online or over the phone in less than 10 minutes. Done. If your city does not offer curbside pick-up you could head down to a city council meeting and ask, “Why not?” In the meantime, one of the easiest mainstream locations for recycling aluminum, plastic and, yes, glass (difficult to find in Utah) is at Target stores. Sometimes as you drive/walk around town you may see dumpsters designated for cardboard, paper, etc. Some of those are private and are not open to public recycling contributions. Some, however, like ReStore locations (benefiting Habitat for Humanity) welcome recyclable materials from the public. Keep an eye out, though, for other options. And don’t be afraid to ask; the worst they could do is say “no.” As for an extensive resource for recycling locations—and the random items that can be recycled (like used carpet and carpet padding)—earth911.com is your go-to website. Enter in what you are trying to recycle and your zip code and up pops your search result.
5. WANT LESS. Zero start-up costs. Greatest amount of savings in space, time, and money. Most difficult to do.
The thing about garbage reduction, or any other life change, is that for most people slow and steady wins the race. Changes don’t happen overnight. I tend to pick just a few things to focus on at a time. Once those are routine, I find a few more things to try. When it comes to fast food, try one fewer trip each month/week/day(?). Buy one thing used instead of new. Refuse a shopping bag or bring a reusable tote from home. Little by little those lone gestures will snowball, and before you know it . . .
You’ll be the neighborhood freak show.