Minimizing Trash

How I do my part — and how you can do yours.

Earlier this week, NPR did a story about the food waste ban in Massachusetts. It led with the following fact:

Americans alone, on average, throw out about 20 pounds of food a month, most of it hauled away with the trash.

They’re talking primarily about excess food thrown away by institutional organizations (think hospitals, schools) as well as buffet restaurants. But there’s also the food waste that we consumers create, often through spoilage or simply preparing more food than we eat and throwing away the leftovers. The end result of all this is ever more added to our landfills, which are already overflowing with detritus of our wasteful lifestyles.

The article appealed to me because it confirmed that my own personal efforts to reduce what I put in landfills can make a difference if others did the same. I thought I’d share what I do with readers, possibly to give them ideas of what they can do make a difference. And hopefully, they might share a few new ideas with me.

Recycle

First and foremost — and actually required in many places — is recycling. I’m fortunate to have “single-stream” recycling available to me. That means I get a big garbage pail and put all recyclable items into it together. No need to sort or have multiple bins.

I keep a small blue recycling garbage pail in my kitchen, right beside my garbage pail. They’re the same size, but I wind up emptying the blue pail at least twice as often — sometimes every day. I put anything other than styrofoam that has a recycling logo on it into that pail. (My local waste company does not take styrofoam.) This includes the plastic “cans” that Penny’s dog food come in, junk mail, paper waste from bills and receipts, paper and cardboard packaging, cans, newspaper, and plastic bottles. (I save glass bottles, such as wine and cider bottles for art projects; more on that in another post.) You can imagine how quickly this might get filled up at a home that consumes a lot of packaged foods. (I don’t.)

I also get a lot of mail order items for my various hobbies — beekeeping, warm glass work, etc. — mostly because they’re simply not available locally. These items come in cardboard boxes. I cut down the boxes and use them to fill any empty space in my big recycling bin before I bring it out for collection.

Garbage Pails
Yes, my recycle bin is about twice the size as my garbage bin. And yes, I did draw a smiley face on my garbage pail so I could distinguish mine from my neighbors’.

It does cost me an extra $8/month to have my big recycling bin, but I think it’s worth it. The waste management company collects it every 2 weeks, which is about the same frequency I take out my much smaller garbage bin. The big drawback for me is that I have to take both bins 2 miles out to the end of our private road for collection. But I think the cost and inconvenience are worth it so I can do my part.

Upcycle and Reuse

I mentioned above that I save glass bottles for art projects. I will eventually do a blog post about that. But it’s just part of my “upcycling” efforts.

Upcycling is where you take something that could be discard it and turn it into something else that might even be more useful. I’ve done quite a bit of this with pallets, scrap wood, and glass bottles.

I also reuse a lot of things — plastic containers that food comes in and large plastic paint buckets are two pretty good examples.

The trick is to look at an item before tossing it out and think about how it might be reused. Large yogurt containers make excellent scoops for chicken feed and potting soil. The single-serving yogurt containers make great seed starters — I started my avocado plant in one before transplanting it to a nicer pot. They’re also good as open storage containers for small items I need while working on projects around my home. If these things are damaged during their second (or third or fourth) use, so what? They go from that use into the recycle bin.

I also collect packing peanuts, other packing foam, bubble wrap, and air bags used as padding for items shipped to me. I stow them in large bags that I drop off at a local shipping place for them to reuse. I recycle most paper padding, but do save some of it as starter for my beekeeping smoker or fire pit.

Upcycling and reusing make sense not only because they help minimize waste, but they save you money. A search for “chicken feed scoop” on Google, for example, results in a list of plastic and metal scoops ranging in price from $2.69 to $15.93. Mine were free and when they break, I’ll be able to replace them for free.

Compost

If you have a garden, you should be composting. Period.

Seriously, why wouldn’t you?

According to the EPA‘s “Composting at Home” web page,

Compost is organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow. Food scraps and yard waste currently make up 20 to 30 percent of what we throw away, and should be composted instead. Making compost keeps these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Although I don’t think this page is the best source of detailed information about composting, it does have this two-page, illustrated composting guide that explains the whys and hows of composting, including the all important difference between greens and browns and lists of what should and shouldn’t be composted.

Spinning Composter
This composter can hold quite a bit. With stirring rods inside, spinning it on its horizontal axis aerates the contents.

I’ve been composting rather haphazardly for years. Back in Arizona, we had a compost bin that we’d occasionally throw items into. It wasn’t properly maintained, especially after I started going away for the summer each year for work and my wasband began living at home only on weekends. I don’t consider it a success. But here in Washington, I’ve embraced composting as a source of soil for my garden. I bought a rotating composter and, when that filled up last week, built a new pallet planter to hold additional end-of-season garden waste to compost over the winter months.

Pallet Planters
With two spare pallets from my bee yard, I simply built a fourth pallet planter and filled it with excess yard waste. With luck, it’ll be full of something resembling soil next spring and I can use it as another planter.

What do I compost? Mostly filled coffee filters and vegetable scraps that I don’t feed my chickens, such as onion skins and potato peels. I keep a small plastic container — a used yogurt container, of course — on the countertop and fill it throughout the day. I usually empty and rinse it in the afternoon. And, of course, all that garden waste, including vines, stalks, and leaves.

Of course, when I clean out my chicken coop, all of their droppings go into my compost bin, too. If I had horses, some of their manure would also go in. (Might fetch some manure from a friend’s horses this week.)

The rotating bin makes it easy to mix up the compost — five half-spins seems to do the job. There’s already a lot of rich, dark soil in there.

I’ll likely stop adding to my compost bin in late winter to assure that the entire contents can be used in my garden in spring. Then I’ll start over and build up a supply for the following spring.

Feed Your Critters

Because I have chickens, I also have a place to get rid of most of my salad and vegetable trimmings. Chickens will eat nearly anything — they’ve been cleaning my brussels sprouts stalks and carved pumpkins lately — and turn them into the most delicious eggs you could imagine. They get most of what comes from my kitchen in the evening, after I’ve made dinner. When they see me coming, they all run to the gate to their pen to see what goodies I have: salad trimmings, carrot or apple peels, broccoli stems, tomato cores — you name it.

(And if you don’t have chickens but live in an area that allows them, think about it. They’re extremely easy to take care of and lots of fun to have and watch. And there’s nothing like a fresh egg still warm from the chicken’s butt. And no, you don’t need a noisy rooster to get eggs. Four hens should provide enough eggs for a couple or family of three. I have six hens and get about 3 dozen eggs a week.)

Penny the Tiny Dog gets any fat or skin I’ve trimmed off meat or chicken. I don’t like meat fat or chicken skin — I never have. All this stuff gets trimmed off either before or after cooking. If there’s a lot of it — for example, suppose I’ve roasted a whole chicken or made chicken soup from scratch — I put it in a plastic container in my freezer. Every day, I hack off a bunch of it, chop it up, and heat it in the microwave. I then pour it over her kibbles for her evening meal. If there’s fat trimmed off a cooked steak I have for dinner, I throw it in the fridge and use it the same way for her meals until it’s gone — then go back to the freezer source. She absolutely loves this. And because there’s so little of it — perhaps 1-2 ounces per meal — I don’t think it really counts as giving her “people food.” Most of her nutrition comes from the canned and dry food she eats. (And no, I’m not at all interested in cooking for my dog, taking her off store-bought dog food, or eliminating gluten from her diet.)

Shop Wisely

Of course, what really helps minimize food waste is to simply shop wisely. When I linked to the NPR article on Facebook, one of my friends responded:

I hate wasting food. Drives me absolutely crazy to throw it away. I never stock up on anything perishable and hit the market daily for whatever I’m making for dinner.

I’m with him. This is actually a habit I picked up years ago when I lived in New Jersey. The local market — which also had a real German butcher shop in it — was walking distance from my home. We’d walk over nearly every day after work and buy whatever we planned to eat for dinner. Later, in Arizona, I’d stop at the supermarket — it was on the way home — to pick up whatever I needed for the next day or two. I very seldom fill a shopping cart with groceries weekly (or even less frequently) as so many people do. The result: everything is recently purchased so little of it goes bad before it’s eaten.

But I take this a step farther with how I shop for produce items. I skip those plastic bags as much as possible. Unless I’m buying a bunch of small loose items — for example, brussels sprouts or new potatoes — I just throw them loose into my cart. Do you really need a plastic bag around those two apples? Or that head of broccoli or lettuce? You’re just going to take the food out of the little plastic bag when you get home, so why bother taking it?

Of course, you can also apply that to your grocery bags. Why use the plastic or paper sacks the supermarket provides when you can bring your own reusable canvas or nylon bags? My problem is my memory — I can’t seem to remember to bring them with me. But I’m working on it.

Minimize Waste

That’s just a few of the things I do to minimize waste. Of course, being a party of one with a tiny dog means I don’t generate as much waste as most households anyway. But can you imagine how much less waste we’d all send to landfills if we just made an effort to reduce it through recycling, upcycling, reusing, composting, and shopping wisely?

What can you add to my list? Use the comments form or link to share your experience.

3 thoughts on “Minimizing Trash

  1. I am an upcycler, also. Composting will get you batches of good soil pretty quickly. It’s so much fun to see that happen. Am thinking of getting worms involved. My next big project will be water management. Grey water and rain water.

    • I was very surprised how quickly the rotating composter turns organic waste into soil. There will be plenty for my garden next year. I just hope the planter bin I built does the job, too.

      I would LOVE to get a rainwater collection system set up. My building’s roof is HUGE and even though it doesn’t rain much, I bet I could accumulate a lot of water very quickly when it does. But that’s low on my priority list right now. Need to get my living space done first!

  2. Kudos to you for spending a little extra for a recycling bin to use alongside your skip bin. I’m sure that having to wheel your garbage two miles each way down your private road has helped you limit how much trash you throw away every week. I love seeing how people have been able to reduce their waste and recycle most of their waste. I feel tempted to start my own compost pile to use in my garden this coming spring. Every small recycling effort counts!