About 7 years ago, we moved out to the country and, for the first time in our lives, had to start paying for trash pick up. For a while, we would just bag up our trash for a week or 2 and then deposit it in the dumpster of a nearby apartment complex. Hey, don’t judge! It seemed like a good idea and we were being thrifty. This scheme lasted for a month or 2 before we broke down and just paid for a garbage service. There were a bunch of factors that contributed to this change of heart, the biggest being the time it took to load up the trash, the smell of a week’s worth trash in our car, and, of course, the fact that it was kind of stealing. Somewhat morally questionable and definitely gross, the experience really made us think about the world of trash.
As we started to look for trash services, we found that recycling was both optional and secondary to trash pick up. You actually didn’t even have to get a recycling bin if you didn’t want to. Some of our neighbors certainly didn’t have them. We quickly realized that when we sorted our trash and recycling, the trash would be about half the volume of the recycling, but our trash service only picked up the recycling every other week. All of that and some buzz in our local news sparked my curiosity about recycling.
But where does it go?
When I started to dive into the logistics of recycling, I found that there weren’t any standards. In fact, it is usually up to each city to decide what happens with their trash and recycling. In our area, the local landfill had just shut down and the news released an article about how all of our trash was being packed onto trains and shipped away. That was completely crazy to me, but then I found out that our recycling was also being loaded up with the trash and shipped off because the city didn’t have a bidder willing to pay for it! But, wait, it gets worse! In the US, and in most of the world, recycling is shipped to China for processing. That is until, not long ago, China said, “Um, no more of that.” You can check out an article about that here: China stops it!
To me, all this information was almost enough to just throw up my hands and say, “Forget it!” What’s the point sorting out recycling if it’s just going to the dump? Or worse, being shipped across the world where it becomes someone else’s problem. Last time I checked, we are all living on the same planet and things aren’t going great environmentally. No matter where you stand on climate change, you cannot deny that the amount of trash filling the oceans is crazy! Ultimately, I just don’t think enough people think about where their trash is going after it leaves their home.
Make it the last option
My solution is simple. Stop counting on recycling. We all know the old hippy saying, “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” But what we need to recognize is that recycle is the last option, not the first. We need to focus more on reducing the waste that comes into our lives and goes into our trash cans. Figuring out how to reduce waste in your life takes time. It has taken us years to get where we are. If you start with a few simple steps, you will see how easy it is and, over time, realize more and more things you can do to reduce the amount of trash (and recycling!) in your home. Some steps may seem inconvenient at first, but I promise that they quickly become as easy and routine as anything else you do in your day to day life.
What happened to “Paper, please”?
First, let’s talk about paper, because that’s an easy one. Start by reducing the amount of paper that goes into your trash. The reality is that you don’t need to put any paper in the trash can at all. Take all of your paper and separate it out. If you live out in the country, you can burn your paper and then use the ashes around your plants to improve the soil. If you don’t live in the country, or don’t like the idea of burning paper, then try composting it. Pick a spot for a compost pile and start putting your food waste, yard waste, and paper waste there. Here’s a great article on how to compost if you’re new to the idea. If you want to get a little fancy, or if you don’t have a yard, try a worm bin! Worms love paper and you’ll use a ton of it taking care of them. You can also use paper as a mulch to keep weeds down. We’ve done this in the past with some success. The trick is to wet the paper and then put a layer of mulch over it so that is doesn’t dry out and blow all over your yard.
Getting control of your paper will help you in the next step of reducing, which is cutting out plastic. I challenge you, as a first step to reducing your plastic consumption, to stop using plastic grocery bags completely. I swear the employees at our grocery store see me coming and race to get my groceries into plastic bags before I can ask for paper. Now, I literally wait to load my groceries on the belt until I can make eye contact and ask the cashier for paper! Sometimes they even have to hunt around to find the stash of paper bags and, at times, even seem a little annoyed with me, but it’s worth it! Also, do you really need to put every fruit or vegetable in the produce section into its own plastic bag? No way! Forget about those clear plastic baggies altogether and put the produce in your cart as is. Plastic bags are a big deal, so I’m gonna hit you with some hard facts:
- The average family accumulates 60 plastic bags in only four trips to the grocery store.
- According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks, and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year.
- A person uses a plastic bag for an average of only 12 minutes.
- Plastic bags take between 400 and 1,000 years to break down.
- Nearly 90% of the debris in our oceans is plastic.
Did your jaw drop on some of those facts? I know, mine did, too! There are many more negative impacts that plastic bags have on the environment and all of us. You can read more of the facts here.
While paper bags still have an impact on the environment, they easily biodegrade, making them a much better option in the check out line. Want to reduce your waste even further? Cut out disposable grocery bags altogether by using reusable cloth bags! They are readily available, cheap, come in lots of cute designs, and are actually quite convenient once you get used to them. Check out this DIY tutorial on how to make a cloth bag
Let’s stop with that for now. Simply put, we would really be benefiting ourselves, and future generations, if we just stopped the use of plastic bags. Below is your challenge for this week. Yes, this week! We can’t take forever to make these changes when there are 380 billion bags being used every year in the US alone!
Your Challenge To Do Better:
1- Make the change to paper or cloth bags at the grocery store.
2- Find a way to keep all of your paper out of the trash and recycling bin; compost it or reuse it.
3- Think of one more way you can reduce the amount of trash you produce.