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How much garbage do I make?

Waste is unavoidable. Americans produce up to 220 million tons of waste yearly, and each piece of trash makes an impact on the environment and the economy. However, the habits and materials you employ can reduce waste production and make a big difference. Trash takes up landfill space, generates greenhouse gases, and wastes non-renewable energy sources. However, recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions and conserves our natural resources. If you want to shrink the carbon footprint of your household, you’ll need to know exactly how much waste you are generating and how much of it could be recycled instead. Waste audits are the best ways to do this.

We all want to protect the planet. The first step is to assess a waste audit of your home as most of us don’t even know how much waste we actually produce!

Planning a waste audit

1. Gather Your Supplies

Before conducting your waste audit, gather or locate all of the following supplies:

2. Organize Your Audit

Decide how long you want your audit to last. Do you want to measure your daily waste production, or extend the time frame to a week? We recommend a full workweek to give you a realistic perspective of your fluctuating household waste.

Now, divide your waste into different categories. If you hope to recycle, compost, or reuse more of your waste, your audit should measure the waste that falls into each of these categories. For example, the following waste categories cover many types of reusable and recyclable materials:

  • Glass
  • Paper and cardboard
  • Plastic and rubber
  • Hazardous/toxic waste
  • Compostable/organic waste

After you’ve decided on your method of organization, it’s time to get started on the audit itself.

3. Sort Your Trash

You have two options for sorting and weighing your trash: measuring each item as you throw it away, or sifting through your waste bins at the end of each day. The first method is more time-consuming and may interrupt your daily activities, but the second comes with hygiene and accuracy issues. It may help to meet in the middle and ask everyone to separate their recyclable and compostable trash before throwing anything away.

4. Record Your Findings

Tally up the weights of each piece of trash, or weigh the trash from each category. Make sure you document each number in an organized spreadsheet that includes the specific categories.

5. Graph Your Results

You have the raw numbers, so now it’s time to interpret your data. Map the information visually to make sense of all those numbers, using pie graphs or charts to show the stark difference between categories. If you have children, this could be a great learning opportunity! When the data collection is complete, analysis will be the last and most important step of your waste audit.

What to do after the audit

Your waste audit should have revealed the types of waste you produce most frequently, places or times in which people are particularly wasteful, and how many different types of waste you generate in a given week. Now, take these trends and turn them into solutions.

Identify Areas of Excess

What kind of trash do you produce the most? If it’s non-recyclable and non-perishable, there’s probably a more efficient alternative. For example, if plastic packaging makes up a bulk of your waste, phase out individually packaged food items by buying in bulk. If you waste a lot of textiles or rubber, there may be more durable or eco-friendly materials available for your home.

Switch to Recyclable and Reusable Materials

One-use cups, forks, and even documents are increasingly unwelcome in the modern home. Identify the items that create unnecessary waste every time you use them, and switch to recyclable materials and products instead. Use real plates and cups in the kitchen and avoid paper products. Invest in a water filter instead of stocking up on bottled water. Digital files are the ultimate reusable materials, so go paperless whenever possible too.

Conduct Another Audit

After a few months of proactive waste management strategies, conduct another waste audit. Use the exact same categories and collection methods as you did the first time to make sure the comparison is as accurate as possible. You may be surprised by your results and how much your household has improved!

Watch Your Waste!

Earth is the only planet we have, and it’s already running out of landfill space and other non-renewable resources. Your home is worth preserving, so as you crunch your budget and tweak your household habits, don’t forget to prioritize your waste management methods too. Pay attention to the amount of waste you generate, how you dispose of it, and how you can change your behaviors. Be sure to get the whole family on board so you can feel good about doing your part to protect the environment.

“My Garbage Journal” – An example

List every single item of waste that you generate in a day from the moment you wake up in the morning for seven consecutive days.

Example 1. A regular day at school.

  • Breakfast – Napkin? Cereal box? Any wasted food that is thrown out?
  • In class – Crumpled construction paper, used writing paper? Unusable pens, broken calculators?
  • Lunch – Juice/milk boxes, food containers, food wrappers, napkins, utensils, wasted food?

Example 2. An average Saturday or Sunday

  • Breakfast – Napkin? Cereal box? Any wasted food that is thrown out?
  • Sports practice/game – Drink container? Snack wrappers? Food containers?
  • Going to the Movies – Popcorn container? Drink cup? Napkin?
  • At the Mall – Store bags to hold purchased items? Shoe boxes and tissue papers in the box, hangers, receipts, snack wrappers, drink cup? Any wasted food?
  • Cleaning out the closets – unused clothes and shoes? Unused purses? Unused jackets? Old board games? Old video systems and games?
  • Cleaning off your desk – old notebooks, old books and magazines, old pictures?
  • Dinner – Napkin? Any wasted food that is thrown out?

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Contact the ACS Office of Science Outreach