what your trash says about you

I’ve noticed that I can make a few snap judgments about my family’s life based on our trash output. We are not a particularly “green” family, although I am passionate about environmental issues.  Trash output is one are where I definitely talk the talk but walking…not so much.   If you take a close look at your trash, you’ll notice that the decisions you make on a daily basis affect both the quantity and “lack of quality” of your trash.  I have noticed a few areas where we can make improvement:

Reduce the volume.

The mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” is universal by now. The focus is far too often on recycling.  Recycling your plastic bottles is a good step to take, but not buying them in the first place is infinitely superior.  I’ve written about this before, but the excess packaging that surrounds us has become insane.  Given a choice between two otherwise equal items, I’ll go for the less excessively packaged item most of the time.  Every time you buy loose fruits instead of fruits in fancy containers, for example you’re doing well.  Using a reusable bottle for your daily water instead of a Poland Spring drink-and-toss bottle is an improvement.

Consider your long-term choices. We didn’t think much about disposable diapers – we just headed right down that path.  With a 500 year decomposition time our decision to use disposable diapers will affect our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-….grandchildren (you get the picture).  I buy so many items without stopping to pause and realize:  that crap is going to be here FOREVER.

Don’t throw it away.

Hoarding items can become an annoying habit or a frugal, environmentally friendly way to live – but the border between them is razor-thin and constantly shifting.  I’ve saved boxes before, and let’s face it:  if you’re a member of Amazon Prime, or shop through drugstore.com, you get boxes all the time.  However, if you get an Altoid tin, it can make an excellent storage container for nails or other small items in your tool storage area (just make sure you have a labelmaker handy)!

Composting isn’t easy or fun. In an urban environment, or a condo association, it may be outright forbidden.  At the same time, if you can do it I think it would feel much better to throw organic waste into a composting bin rather than tossing it in a landfill.  It might be a “self-smugification” action, but so be it.

Give it away. Often if people have large items they don’t want anymore it’s easiest to put them in the dumpster.  We finally jettisoned old, broken down bachelor furniture I had dragged around for many years, but we gave it away rather than dumping it (my first instinct).  If there is a Salvation Army or Goodwill near you, take a shot.  Freecycle or hit craigslist.  Sometimes it’s hopeless – my massive 500-pound Sony TV is so heavy that nobody has ever been interested, even for free.

show me your horse

photo credit: mugley


I’m going to be beating a dead horse here, but the amount of trash you generate is probably proportionate to the amount of money you spend. If you spend a lot, you probably generate a lot of trash.  Cut back on your spending, and you will generate less.  It’s not always true – getting a free cell phone with a 2-year contract and getting a $500 iPhone both generate a lot of junk packaging waste.  But as a general rule, you’ll be better off with trash if you spend less.


I am lazy. Throwing an unwanted Land’s End catalog in the trash is not hard.  Bundling it up for recycling takes five more minutes, and that’s usually five minutes I FEEL I don’t have.

Make choices at the source. We can recycle our plastic and glass bottles in my community – but not aluminum cans, or juice boxes, or paper milk cartons.  Buying containers that can be recycled, as opposed to ones that must be thrown away makes a slight – but important – difference.

Think about needs.

This relates to reducing, but simply think about needs. Are you going to go throw a gallon of milk a week?  Buy a gallon, not quarts of milk.  Are you going to eat 50 apples before they go bad?  No?  Maybe buying 6 or 7 is enough, even if you’re missing out on a good deal on 50.

You may think you need those steel-toed boots for gardening, but you know what? You’re not Sven the Hardy Pioneer, you’re Sven the Twice-a-Year-Hole-Digger.  Use your sneakers.  The boots are going to end up in the dump practically unused.

Think about the future.

I have noticed that there is often a conflict between health and the environment. I like to use paper towels.  We have small kids, and I like to know that after I get raw meat on my hands cooking I’m not washing and wiping my hands on the same rag I might use to wipe my son’s hands after an energetic painting session.  Paper towels give me peace of mind about hygiene.

Yet at the same time, I have always been blown away by this thought:  almost every single thing you have ever thrown away – paper towels, apple cores, packaging, a bottle you forgot to throw in the recycling bin – is still lying in a pile somewhere on this planet.  EVERYTHING.  If you threw away a yo-yo in 3rd grade, it’s sitting in a pile somewhere.  Forget the environment for a minute.  Forget the toxins in the air from manufacturing that yo-yo, or transporting it from Taiwan to you, or the plastics it’s made of:  that yo-yo still exists.

Everything I ever threw away still exists. It didn’t become fairy dust.  Someday there may be a magic incinerator that can turn trash into edible food, or oil, or fuel (a la Back to the Future).  Yet the simple fact is that future generations will come and go hundreds or thousands of times over, and that stupid plastic packaging that your iPhone headphones came in will still be sitting there.  Daunting.

6 Replies to “what your trash says about you”

  1. My neighbor and I had a joint yard sale this weekend – my first – and I was amazed at the stuff she was able to sell. Stuff I would have just thrown away if it belonged to me. I sold some bigger items that I don't use anymore, but now that I know that the old “one person's trash is another's treasure” is really true, I have some other things I am going to try to sell at the next yard sale instead of putting them in the trash!

  2. You are so right about not buying things in the first place being more important than recycling. When you do buy something, try to buy something that is composed of a high degree of post-comsumer recycled material. Growing the market for post-consumer materials is an integral part of the whole process. If there is a market for it, you won't need to go to the recycling center, people will be stealing your trash!

    Also, if you can't compost, try vermicomposting. It's easy, doesn't take up much space, doesn't smell and can be done in the house. My worms not only take care of all my vegetable wastes, they eat all my junk mail as well. Those catalogs – e-mail the company and request to be taken off their mailing list.

    Great post.

    1. Mary – thanks, I had never heard of vermicomposting – I will have to look into it. And as far as the catalogs, I feel like it's a losing battle – I've signed up with every “do not mail” service, I call the companies, and yet every time they seem to slow down for a few weeks BAM! they come right back again.

  3. Mary – thanks, I had never heard of vermicomposting – I will have to look into it. And as far as the catalogs, I feel like it's a losing battle – I've signed up with every “do not mail” service, I call the companies, and yet every time they seem to slow down for a few weeks BAM! they come right back again.

  4. You can’t throw it away unless you bought it in the first place so I bet trash volume and spending are at least a little linked. My family drilled “waste not, want not” into my head from a young age so I try to minimize anything being thrown away that could be usefully salvaged even if it’s through donation.

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