Garbage is a Terrible Thing to Waste: How to Reach Zero Waste

It all started innocently enough. Following the Holidays and New Year of 2007 we emptied out all of our garbage and recycling to clean up for the New Year. Many months later (May 14) it was time to put out our first bag of garbage and it dawned on me that in over four months we had only created a single bag of garbage. I wondered where could we take it to if we really dug in? Well …

  • A few months ago we put out our fourth bag of garbage in more than four years
  • Our most recent bag took 26 months to fill
  • We have reduced our residual waste output (a.k.a. garbage) by 40%,
  • We “process” nearly 75% of our own “materials” on site into beneficial compost
  • We have achieved a 99.6% waste diversion rate; and
  • I’ll let you in on a little secret — it was easy!

You might think anything that took more than four years to complete couldn’t be easy. When I say easy, I mean that we didn’t spend any great amounts of money to fix it nor did we enroll in any post-graduate courses in waste management. We simply created a system where we were able to observe our waste and develop simple solutions over time to reduce it.

And by waste, I am referring to both the verb and the noun. For example, we still use about the same amount of tissues we did before, but now we only purchase tissues made of recycled paper. We have a system to easily collect the tissue and compost it on site, rather than wasting time sorting through bins, pulling out used tissues, or wasting fossil fuels to transport tissues to a landfill or central composting facility.

Our system simply involves observing where the waste happens and putting something in place to reduce it. For example, most tissue is used in kitchens, bathrooms and kids rooms, so we put dedicated receptacles in each area. These receptacles can be as simple as an old cracker box with the lid removed and placed inside an old garbage bin to make a homemade recycling unit. Most people think of tissue as just a piece of garbage. But when you understand waste you begin to appreciate that garbage is a terrible thing to waste.

Photo by katesheets on Flickr.

We now have a better understanding of waste (the verb) and waste (the noun). What we have learned is that if you take care of waste (the verb) then waste (the noun) will take care of itself.

You are probably asking yourself, what does this have to do with sharing? The answer to that is that sharing is an integral part of a ZERO WASTE life and future. Sharing can be one of the most effective tools to encourage engagement with others, save money and reduce our impact on the world around us — but only if we apply it throughout our entire lives. Sharing camping gear with friends and neighbors is great, but it’s a long way from a truly sustainable lifestyle. On the other hand, buying stuff we barely use and then throwing it away is simply wasteful. We have adapted many aspects of sharing into our ZERO WASTE life. Some quick examples:

  • Charitable donations: Sharing stuff we really don’t use all that much with others who can put it to better use keeps it out of landfills.
  • Buying used: I recently bought a North Face down jacket that retails for over $200 new at a used clothing store for $20.
  • Kids Clothes: My daughter wears clothes in step two of a four-to-five year family arrangement of hand-me-downs in which the clothes get worn by four-five different kids in a steady stream. This keeps her drawers full and our storage space empty.
  • Tool Sharing with family and friends: Tools are some of the best things to share, as they can help you fix household items that might otherwise be thrown out.
  • Garden Sharing: We work in an older neighbor’s large back garden, and in return they share our crops. What’s left over goes to a local food bank, making this a win-win-win for all involved.
  • Car sharing: My wife and I share our car, filling in other trips with walking, cycling, public transit or Skype. We have been a one car family for 12 years now and it is by far the wisest financial decision we have ever made.

I feel comfortable (and honest) calling ours a ZERO WASTE home. From it, we run a ZERO WASTE business. With no further adieu, let me share what we’ve learned. These steps can be applied as easily to your home life as to your work life. Even if you only adopt one of them then it’s a step in the right direction for us all.

Photo by andyarthur on Flickr.

Simple Steps to ZERO WASTE

  1. Continuous Improvement: Some might say “you’re ZERO WASTE — your work here is done!” We still make little tweaks to what we do and don’t do. We greatly reduced our paper recycling by reducing our daily newspaper subscriptions to once a week and only taking our community paper one day a week. That involved only two phone calls.
  2. If it is important, measure it: People are often surprised by how little waste we generate, but I think even more people would be shocked by how much waste they do create. Take a week, a month, or longer and take a look at what goes into your waste. You’ll be amazed at how much of it you spent good money on only days or weeks before. If you don’t do it for the environment, then do it for the pocketbook. ZERO WASTE is a highly efficient and effective tool for running a tight ship, be it a business or a household. In today’s economy, can any business or household afford to just throw money away? Take a look at what you are wasting and you will be surprised to find you’re doing just that.
  3. Compost, Compost, Compost: Simpler is often better. Composting doesn’t have to be fancy — you can start with a pile in your back yard. Yard waste can (and should) be composted onsite, and makes the finished product much better. The secret is in the balance of “browns” and “greens”. As well, we added a second composter that makes beautiful black earthy compost. Composting can also be done in apartments or office settings easily.
  4. Public Commitment: Ego plays a big part, and if you think others are watching, you will be less likely to slack off. However, most of what we do is easier than the old way so there is little incentive to revert back.
  5. Source Separation: We only have two dedicated garbage cans in the whole house: one under the kitchen sink and one in the garage. All the others we converted into mini-recycling depots. The old garbage container in my office has a separate container for tissues, and the bottom of a plastic juice container serves as the garbage can. All my paper goes in a separate paper recycling bin and I only empty this monthly. When we empty it don’t have to touch any of the contents.
  6. Less is More: In the spirit of the statement, lets just leave it at that.
  7. Get organized: Don’t waste space. For example, shelves are awesome. They let you buy in bulk and put a lot of stuff all in one place so your house doesn’t feel like a mess all the time. Property taxes are often charged per square foot, so if you have a closet, room or entire garage that is unusable due to clutter then you are wasting money. Give a bunch of the stuff away, and get some shelving to organize the rest and put the space to use. Otherwise it’s a waste of space and money.
  8. Bulk Up: Buy as much in bulk as you can manage. We buy recycled-content toilet paper in full size rolls by the case from Staples. We only have to shop for TP every six months, which is much cheaper. We store the extras on shelves down in the basement.
  9. Learn the new 3 R’s (in the right order): Train your kids, your friends, and make it fun. You cannot do this alone. Attempts to do so alone may lead to you being alone!– Changes you instill in your kids will have the biggest impact, as they will be around longer than you. Plus you’ll be surprised at how much they have to teach you.
  10. Re-use > Recycle: If you need new stuff see if you can buy it used. For example, I bought two kayaks used for less than half the price of one new kayak. If you have stuff you no longer need, post it to Craigslist or Kijiji. I have given away a lot of stuff online, from an old couch to a bunch of cardboard boxes, and never waited longer than six hours for it to be gone to a new home!
  11. Contain the smell: My wife invented a solution using a heavy gauge plastic jar with a screw on lid. We put all potentially smelly stuff in there to contain the smell, and then download to a heavy gauge bag for disposal. Composting takes care of most potentially odorous stuff, and it doesn’t stink. Our composter is less than three meters from our kitchen door and has no smell.
  12. Focus on plastics: Our local municipality only recycles a small amount of different plastics. We try not to buy products using other types, but when we do we bunch them up and take them to a neighboring community’s Recycling Depot twice a year. Check around to see what your community recycles, but a good tip is to not buy overpriced plastic products in the first place. You may be paying more for the plastic than what is inside.
  13. Shop for recycled content. If you recycle, but don’t buy recycled, then you are missing a key part of the supply/demand curve. Look closely at the labels, particularly on paper products. A tissue box may be recycled, but if the tissue inside is made from virgin materials then it’s not much of a gain.
  14. Design. Focus not only on the design of how you manage waste in your home, but look at the design of that which you bring into your home. Anything that is a single-use disposable has a poor, wasteful design.
  15. Do all of the above for energy, health, and transportation. Most cars are used on average only one hour per day on average, meaning the average two-car family is spending their hard earned money on transportation services that sit idle for a total of 46 hours each day.

Those are some simple steps to get to Zero Waste. Try one, or try them all. Trying is the most important part. Good luck, and have fun!

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