If you pay for garbage service, getting that monthly bill can sting, especially with prices rising across the U.S. in response to rising costs for handling fees and programs intended to encourage people to cut down on their waste production. The agony is even worse when you don't just pay for it and you're also the one who takes your trash to the dump. Even if you don't pay for garbage service, reducing the amount of waste you generate ought to perk up your ears, because it makes a big difference to the environment.
Fortunately, those of us with years of rural living experience have some skills we can bequeath to you when it comes to the garbage reduction department, because there are few things we enjoy less than taking a load of trash to the dump. Not only is it majorly gross, it's also a sober reminder of exactly how much waste we generate on an annual basis (4.4 pounds per person per day in 2011!).
So, how can you get your trash habit under control?
Photo: Matt DeTurck/Flickr
1. Bring home less stuff
This might seem obvious, but it bears repeating. Everything you bring into your home needs to be processed in one way or another; if it can't be used up, recycled, or repurposed, where does it end up? The garbage.
Thus, buying jam in jars can be a good decision, because the jars can be sterilized and used for home canning, used as storage containers, or turned to all kinds of creative crafting uses. Buying meat packed on a styrofoam tray? Not such a good call, because all that shrink wrap and styrofoam is ending up in one place: the trash.
Think about what you need and how you plan to use it before you buy, and try to avoid unneccesary products and packaging. You may also want to consider the waste stream of the products you're buying. Some industries are notorious for generating high amounts of waste (for example, bleached virgin paper involves substantial resources to fell trees, process timber, pulp it, and bleach it to give your paper that gorgeous white color) and you might want to consider turning to alternate sources, like post-consumer products that use recycled components.
Photo: Andrew King/Flickr
There's no reason food scraps should be going in the trash (although composting fish, meat, and dairy can get complex and isn't recommended unless you're an advanced composter). And yard trimmings should be getting composted too. But did you know there are a ton of other things that can totally get composted? Paper, cardboard, and fiberboard scraps, dust bunnies, hair, pet food, cupcake cups, and more can all be appropriately disposed of in the compost.
Scared of compost, or don't have the room? Lots of cities, like Portland, offer curbside compost pickup and take greenwaste to a central processing facility. Others provide compost containers free or at low cost, along with a quick orientation, to residents who want to take up composting. Ask about composting programs in your area.
Photo: Jason Jones/Flickr
Another one that might seem obvious in a recycling-heavy world, but hang on a minute. First of all, the number of recyclable things is a lot larger than you might think, and you might actually be able to get money for your recycling. In addition to curbside pickup, most cities have a transfer station that provides buyback and redemption credit for residents who bring recycling with the right markings, including glass bottles and some types of cans.
Not only that, but mandatory buyback and takeback programs for lots of products are also in place in a number of states. That means that instead of throwing something away, you can not only return it for recycling and processing, but get some cash for it. Pretty cool, eh? If a required takeback program doesn't apply, a product might still have one through a manufacturer, dealer, or support organization; for example, old cell phones can often be given to domestic violence organizations, who use them to provide survivors with phones they can use to place emergency calls (you can dial 911 from a cellphone even if it's not connected with an active network).
Obviously, the most fun of all. It's easy to turn trash to treasure if you're motivated, and a lot of products can find new life as something else, or as a component of another thing you're using around the house. Before throwing something out, assess why you're tossing it, and think about potential alternative uses.
For example, holey old socks are terrible for wearing, but they actually make great dust mitts. Slip one over your hand and run it along hard-to-dust surfaces, and watch the grime lift away! Likewise, ragged tees and other clothes can be cut up into household rags for cleaning, used in rag rugs, and added to the stuffing of pet toys, allowing them to bypass the dreaded trash can.
5. Compression central
Inevitably, you're going to generate some garbage. Give yourself some motivation by downscaling your trash service to the smallest possible container, so you'll be limited each week. If you end up with extra because of a special situation (like when you're moving), take the extra trash to the dump or consider asking for an extra can for just that week.
At the same time, compress your trash. Tightly compacted trash fills a can more slowly, obviously, and allows you to waste less space. Turn dump trips to an every six months endeavor instead of every month, and prevent constant overflows from your trash bin every week.
Photo: Jordan Dawe/Flickr
6. Say no to rats (and other pests)
If there's one thing we all know about garbage, it's that it tends to attract unsavory elements. By keeping a lot of waste out of your can, you'll make your garbage much less interesting to visitors like Norway rats. It's especially important to make sure food waste and trash contaminated with food never ends up in the can, because if it does, it will appeal to raccoons, skunks, rats, cockroaches, and other creatures you definitely do not want stopping by. Remember that insects can show up anywhere, but they especially love old, established cities with a rich history; if you're enjoying a handsome pre-war home in Hyde Park, for example, you might need a Chicago exterminator to help you eliminate cockroaches and start with a clean slate.
A skilled handyman can help you build a trash enclosure that also doubles as a sorting facility, giving you a chance to engage in last-minute interventions to keep things that don't belong in the trash out of it. Your enclosure should have high fences and locking doors to ensure animals can't get in and knock your cans over to get at the trash. If repeat pests are a problem, tie or lock the lids down to keep animals out.
7. Think outside the box
Many of us use specialty products in our lives that tend to generate a lot of waste in the form of packaging and other components, even though we don't really need to. For example, it's not uncommon for people to maintain a huge array of cleaning products with separate types for windows, counters, tubs and tile, and so forth. Did you know that you can use an all-purpose cleaner, including one you make yourself, instead? A jug of vinegar will meet a lot of cleaning needs, with a lot less waste.
You might be able to think of other ways you can cut down in your life, making fundamental lifestyle changes that reduce your impact on the environment. This won't just keep things out of your trash. It'll also reduce for ecological footprint and lighten the burden on the Earth.
Photo: N Stjerna/Flickr
8. Get out of the disposable mindset
Get things made to last, or to be recycled. That goes for products varying from fashion (so-called "fast fashion" is a huge industry for people who want cheap clothes, but these products tend to be poorly made and don't weather time well) to electronic components. While the up-front cost is higher, the long-term costs are much lower, and your choice will definitely be better for the planet, too.
Think about the little things: buy a reusable mug to use for your morning coffee drink (most baristas are happy to take mugs from home!), acquire handkerchiefs instead of tissues, and pack silverware so you don't have to use disposables.
9. Get by with a little help from your friends
Ever need something for a project, but know you'll never need it again? Or find yourself wishing you had a somewhat expensive item that you can't really justify, but you could legitimately really use for a few days? Stop thinking that the only things you can use are the ones you own: expand into renting and borrowing.
Many communities have tool libraries, which offer free and low-cost loans of tools and other supplies. It's possible to rent products ranging from bicycles to tablesaws, along with smaller things you might need for projects. Your neighbors might also have something you could borrow, or they could be willing to pitch in on a purchase of a shared item; everyone on your road doesn't need a lawn mower, for example, if you can agree to split the maintenance and upkeep.
Photo: Hugh Adams/Shutterstock
10. Maintain and repair
A lot of products fail because they weren't given the routine maintenance they needed. Give the things in your house a break by following product maintenance recommendations (like that 10,000 mile service for your car you've been putting off for 2,000 miles) and staying on top of painting, replacement of leaking faucets, and other chores. Preventative maintenance helps extend the life of your belongings and it also limits the risk of a costly repair...
...but if something does break, repair it! Resole your shoes, have a technician take a look at your computer, and reupholster that gross couch instead of kicking it to the curb. Repairing helps keep things in use and takes trash out of circulation, which is good for everyone.
Photo: Anthony Hall/Shutterstock
11. Buy used, sell used, and donate used
If you can, consider buying something used. It won't directly control the contents of your trash can, but it will help keep things out of the waste stream. Likewise, you in turn can sell your own used goods to collect extra cash and keep them out of the trash. If you can't sell an item, consider donating it to a thrift store or similar organization. Your donations can make a big difference for someone else.
Did I mention they're tax-deductible if you donate them to qualified nonprofits?
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