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by Amelia Greenhall - 04/09/2019

Each week, on average, we (a household of two adults) make:

  • 1 brown paper grocery bag of trash
  • 1 brown paper grocery bag of recycle
  • 1 compostable gallon bag of compost

(Seattle has plastic/glass/metal recycling pickup, and compost pickup, which is why it is split that way.)

Some weeks we make less, occasionally we’ll make more, but it’s been pretty consistent the past few years, and often people seem surprised to learn it’s that little. So I thought I’d write about some strategies we use to make less trash.

Above all these strategies there’s an overall mindset of not buying stuff/not buying much (some reading recs), and taking a lot of care with food and drink choices, in terms of waste and packaging. And this is all a reflection of privilege, definitely not something I expect everyone to have the energy/money/time/interest to think about or do or know how to do. I’ve been figuring it out over the past 15 or so years and and am still sorting it out and trying to improve. Sharing in case it’s useful and because my mind is constantly circling around climate change and individual and structural responsibility and change.

Small bins

First of all, we have small trash and recycle bins (14L / 3.5 gallon ~ 15x30x30cm, from Muji), which we use without bag liners. For reference, typical kitchen trash bags are 13 gallons - about 4x bigger. The rolling cart trash bins that many individual households in the US use to take trash to the curb have are 33, 64, or 96 gallon size.

The bathroom bin is also small (~10x20x20cm, from Muji).

This means we have the expectation not to make much trash. Look how small those bins are, my brain thinks. You should not be making much trash. It’s weird and inconvenient to make much more than a bag every week or so.

We tip the bins into paper grocery bags (2.5-5 gallon size) to take out to the pickup bins. (We get a big stash of paper bags from our neighbors occasionally.) Without plastic trash bags, I think twice before putting something gross or smelly or wet in there. Since I’ll basically immediately pay the price.

So no bag liners and small bags both reinforce my desire not to make trash, since it’s the easiest/laziest thing to do.

This doesn’t seem weird to me any more, but it’s a big change from how I thought about making trash when I was living at home with my parents in the suburbs. We had a kitchen trash bin the size of a backpacking backpack, took bags down from it multiple times a week, and the huge trash bins went out to the curb each week. We were diligent about recycling and read some early-mid 80s books about global warming, and definitely did stuff differently from our neighbors and extended family. But it was just really easy to make a lot of trash as the default.

Minimizing trash from buying stuff/food

One of my main criteria when I’m buying something is to not buy stuff with trash surrounding it.

Some good places to get stuff without packaging:

  • Free piles on the street
  • Free or swaps/trades from friends/family/neighbors
  • Buy used - thrift stores, garage/yard/stoop sales, craigslist
  • Buy from farmers markets or farm stands or neighbors
  • Buy locally instead of ordering online (not always possible or better, but often)

And picking less packaged or minimally packaged things in the store.

And then reusable bags to carry that kind of stuff home.

We also buy in some stuff in bulk to minimize packaging. Some things you can get from bulk bins, like at co-ops or some grocery stores, or places like the PFI. Other stuff, you can buy in a larger than usual size package, which saves money and packaging and shopping time. Obviously not everything is affordable or desirable to have in that kind of bulk, but over the years we’ve found some consumables that we use at the right pace for its shelf life, like rice, shampoo and soaps, flour for sourdough.

Eliminate some categories of purchases entirely

I like to do the exercise of thinking of small things that can make a lot of trash added up over a lifetime. I visualize how much trash I’ll be personally responsible for, if I did it weekly or daily or whatever the pace of using it is, and then imagine that in a pile of the trash I’d create a month, year, my whole life. I think the first time I did this was in middle school, when some presenters came and showed us visualizations of the piles of trash we’d make, and dollar bills we’d spend, over a lifetime of smoking cigarettes. That was enough for me to never smoke a cigarette, but it also fed into a way of thinking of other stuff that way.

This has led to a growing list of things that I decided that I personally don’t use, ever, or hardly ever. Some examples for me:

  • straws
  • tampons/pads (menstrual cup)
  • soda pop and most drinks besides water that comes in bottles
  • paper napkins (at home) and paper towels (mostly - we use 1-2 rolls a year for really gross clean up)
  • plastic water bottles

And so on. There’s always a couple changes I’m working on at any given time.

I asked my friend Caitlin, who lives in France, what stuff she’s done like that: “I replaced buying mineral water and plastic straws with a Soda Stream and metal straws - those are two things really I really really like.” She’s switched to only cloth napkins at home, and is working on all rags instead of paper towels. She always brings her own bags - even veggie bags. Current project? “Trying to buy less and less food that’s prepackaged. And making her own fermented vegetables.”

Make it last

When I do buy stuff, I intend each thing to have as long a life as possible - to wear/use it until the fabric disintegrates, or it breaks beyond repair. This leads to less trash (throwing away used up object, packaging from the replacement one.)

I really imagine this before I make any purchase. Can I see myself using it until the end of it’s lifetime? If not, I try not to get it. (I’m not always right, and learn from that. Or sometimes I forget something and have to buy something on a trip that I can’t figure out a way to do without.)

Some stuff is just naturally hardy and inexpensive, like a cast iron pan, but sometimes it makes sense to delay a purchase and save up for durable things that will last a long time. Many times, I haven’t been able to afford the thing I want, but it would be hard or really inconvenient to do without it for a long time (like a couch), and I’ve bought a used one and then given it away or re-sold it for the same price later, once I’ve saved up. Higher quality/natural fabrics for clothing and linens will also last a lot longer with proper care.

Some strategies I use to make things last:

  • Mend (It took me a long time to get the “a stitch in time saves nine” saying meant it was saving nine stitches you’ll have to do later, but I always try to mend things, and I’m working on mending promptly before they go beyond mending.)
  • Dilute things like dish soap in half with water. We also like to keep it in a smaller, label-less bottle.
  • Use less (tp, shampoo, etc). Just using less in general, and having an awareness of how much you use/need.
  • Wash clothes less often - hang up and re-wear if not soiled. Hand wash delicate fabrics to extend their lifetime.
  • Learn proper care, especially for clothing and fabrics/linens, which will extend their lifetime dramatically. Depending on the garment type and fabric, I can get years of wearing out of it before it is too threadbare/un-patchable. (Also, for other cyclists - I got a Brooks leather saddle and immediately stopped wearing out the crotch of my jeans.)

I also reclaim the useful stuff off of used up things - zippers and pulls and hardware off of bags and backpacks, fabric from textiles, glass jars from food.

So those are my trash thoughts. I’ll write more about overall mindset on buying stuff and food (the two big categories for me) soon.

— Amelia Greenhall

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