The Personal Waste Audit
Know thy enemy. In this particular case, the enemy is the mound sitting inside your trash can.
Discovering others who had successfully reduced the trash they produce to practically nothing has been incredibly inspiring for me.
It was proof that with a little effort and a few conscientious choices, we don’t have to be mindless consumers, trash producers, and unwitting contributors to the junk piling up on our soil and in our oceans.
Hopefully, you being here and reading this means you too are intent on cutting down on your waste (yayyy, friend!).
The road to reducing our trash is going to be a long, gradual one - and it all starts with knowing what our trash consists of.
The Personal Waste Audit
I first started on this trash-reducing journey in 2015. For a few months, at the end of every week, I would glance into my trash can and note the items in there. Here’s what I would typically find:
A lot of paper, plastic packaging (including plastic bottles, plastic cups, plastic bags, plastic boxes, saran wraps), glass, tin cans, and disposable utensils and chopsticks from take out food.
Some tissues, feminine hygiene products, toothpaste containers, toothbrushes, shampoo/ soap containers, and stickers.
Some organic waste from cooking.
Occasional craft waste like fabric, thread and miscellaneous art supplies.
Results of my personal waste audit
You can go a step further and quantify the amount for each category, but I was pretty happy with simply eyeballing it.
Waste Audit Worksheet. Click to download.
Once you have a list of the most frequent inhabitants of your trash can, the next step is to figure out what to do about each and every one of them.
Use the table below to go through the questions below for each item on your trash list
Zero Waste Alternatives. Click to download.
First, ask yourself: Can you eliminate it altogether?
Sometimes we bring home a lot of things we don’t even want or need: flyers from the salespeople at the mall, free pens from conferences, extra shampoo bottles from hotels, junk mail, plastic bags on top of plastic bags on top of plastic coverings…
Can you find a way to stop them from coming into your life?
Can you say a friendly ‘No, thank you’ the insistent salesperson and his flyers?
Can you leave the free but unnecessary freebies behind?
Can you actively request to be removed from the mailing list to stop the flood of junk mail?
If the thing cannot be eliminated, then ask yourself: Can I reduce the amount I use?
In a lot of instances, you can get by with a lot less than you think. For example, we have been convinced that we need a cleaning solution for the dishes, another for the windows, and yet another for the floor. We really don’t. What the companies don’t tell you is that just vinegar and lemon can clean basically anything.
Can you find a way to reduce the amount you consume?
Can you simplify your life and routines so you need less?
Can you cut down on the number of products you use down to the essentials?
Can you buy in bulk to reduce unnecessary packaging?
Once you have reduced a thing, ask yourself: Can I reuse it, or can I find a reusable version of it?
The disposable culture is a terrible thing these days. More and more products that used to be made in a sturdy and lasting fashion have been replaced by flimsy excuses that barely last one usage. Luckily, it’s easy to overcome this disturbing trend. Simply opt for the non-disposable, reusable version of everything you possibly can.
Can you, as much as possible, opt for reusable things and not disposable ones?
Can you use a washable handkerchief, not wads of tissue?
Can you switch to the old-fashioned strong metal razor with replaceable blades, not the cheap plastic razors?
Can you write with a refillable fountain pen, not the scratchy plastic one-time-use pens?
Can you repurpose old things for new uses, like glass jars for storage and old clothes for sewing projects?
Once a thing has served its purpose, ask yourself: Can I recycle this?
The things we purchase serve us for a certain amount of time, and will eventually reach the end of its usefulness. Typically, they get thrown away, which is the easy and lazy way out, but a better way is to have them be recycled and reborn into a new life or with a new owner.
Can you, as much as possible, opt for things that can be recycled at the end of its life?
Can you buy items in packaging that are recyclable?
Can you support the secondhand market and be a patron of thrift stores?
Can you be creative and practice the art of upcycling?
Can you take advantage of Freecycle communities where people are happy to take what you no longer need?
For organic things, a different question needs to be asked: Can I compost this?
A large amount of trash that goes out of our homes consist of organic food waste that would be better off composted and recycled for their nutrients instead of being sent to the landfill. Beyond food, there are also compostable or biodegradable versions of things, including toothbrushes. You can also compost your hair and nails!
Can you, as much as possible, opt for compostable/biodegradable items?
Can you make sure they actually get sent to the right place to be composted?
Can you switch from a mixed-plastic toothbrush (that are impossible to recycle) to a bamboo toothbrush?
Rinse & Repeat
As you go through the waste elimination and substitution process, it would be good to repeat the waste audit every 6 months or so to see how you’re faring.
Typically, you’d be able to note the difference right away by the less frequent need to empty the trash bin or the lighter weight of the trash bags you carry out, but it’s always good to do a full audit.
You may find to your delight that you have completely eliminated a particular type of waste, which calls for a celebration (a trashy party, anyone?).
Or, you may find to your dismay that a new category of item has entered into your waste stream that you haven’t dealt with yet – see it as another chance to get creative!
Next… before we get to the eliminating, reducing and substituting, let's first figure out where each of us stand in how we manage our waste.