First Steps to Reducing Household Waste


Did you know, the average American tosses out 4.5 pounds of waste a day.  Our per capita average in Oregon is much higher, sitting at around 7.6 pounds of waste a day.  It is important to note that waste is defined by the United States EPA to include all materials thrown in the trash bin and the recycle bin.  It may be helpful to consider waste as, anything that you or your household no longer has use for, no longer needs and thus will eventually be discarded.  When you think of waste per individual over a year, you are able to understand the magnitude of the problem. The average Oregonian generates 2,774 pounds of waste in a year, and plastic only comprises an average of 185 pounds of that waste, less than 1% of an individual’s total waste (based on weight).  Plastic comprises a larger portion of an individual’s waste when you think of it in terms of volume instead of weight.

Knowing that waste is defined to include both recycling and landfilled items it may seem like there is little options in the way of waste reduction at the bin.  However, this is not true as it is imperative that you know what you are throwing away to better understand how to reduce your waste. You can assess your waste through a waste audit, where you examine a full bag of garbage prior to sending it on its way to the landfill.  The intent of a waste audit is for you to see the waste, categorize it, and consider how to reduce it. 

For the first step in your waste audit, determine how long you want to track your waste and how many receptacles you are going to track it in.  Are you going to track all your waste, including recycling or just your trash.  Generally, we suggest that you start with just your trash bin.  The next thing to decide, as mentioned, how many bins are you going to track? Note, if your house has multiple trash cans it may be helpful to consider reducing the number you have. Lastly, determine the length of your audit.  Do you want to track a day, a week, or an entire month?  If tracking more than a week, we suggest breaking the audit down to weekly audits, so that you do not store a month’s worth of trash.

The next step in your waste audit will occur after you have collected your materials for the determined time period.  It is important to prep your space, noting that you will likely need a tarp or clear concrete surface (for easy clean up) ideally indoors. You may also want a pair of gloves. We recommend using a pair of gardening gloves so that they can be washed when you are finished.

Now it is time to organize all your waste.  Assuming that you choose your trash bin, we recommend categorizing into the following categories: Food Waste, other organic waste (including pet waste), potential recyclables (paper/metal/glass), plastics, and everything else.  Once you have completed this, the next step is to chart or record the items.  You can be as detailed as you would like (count each specific item) or you can generalize by weighing each category and making notes on the most common items.

For those who choose to audit all their waste, you can break your recyclables down into the following suggested categories: OR deposit containers, paper/paper board, cardboard, plastics, glass, and metals. You would then proceed to sort and record as you did with your trash. *We hope that your plastics are separated from curbside recycling, and set aside to bring to a Recycling Take-Back.*

Now that the mess is cleaned up, you are able to fully assess your household’s waste.  The first step in reduction is knowing.  Now you are able to decide what actions you can take to reduce what your house’s discarded items.  In some instances it is a simple switch to a different brand with less packaging. Such as going from Chobani yogurt to a brand without the outside shrink wrap on the container. Another option would be to change to a brand whose packaging is recyclable. For instance switching from Franz bread packaged in #5 or #7 film, to bread bagged in #2 or #4 film.  Or you can opt to ditch the plastic packaging and go to a local bakery for your bread, and compost the paper bag if it gets to dirty to recycle.

A benefit of a waste audit is that you are also able to look at all the waste at once.   You may find that there are things that have been discarded that could be reused or upcycled.  We encourage you to look for ways to reuse items. Those butter containers and lids provide a cost effective opportunity to organize your shop, garage, craft room, or kids rooms.  There are many creative ways to reuse items.  If you are struggling on coming up with ideas, a google search of the item and “upcycle” should provide you with some great examples.

You can find resources in the News and How to section of our website, that will help you conduct a waste audit (www.ecogeneration.org).

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