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3 Ways to Slash Your Trash: Zero Waste Is Recycling 2.0
Admit it — you take out the trash and try not to look at how much garbage you create in your house. But zero waste experts say Americans need to stop looking the other way and start seeing their opportunities to be part of the solution.
“Each American creates about a ton of garbage every year, and about 90 percent of that is reusable, recyclable or compostable,” says Eric Lombardi, executive director at EcoCycle, a nonprofit zero-waste service in Boulder, Colo. “We have a system that takes a valuable resource from nature, uses it once and then destroys it. We need to stop managing waste and start eliminating waste.”
Zero waste advocates aim to put the world on that path by promoting reuse, recycling, composting or rethinking of most materials that otherwise go into landfills. America is recycling about 30 percent of its waste — but countries including Germany, Canada, Holland, Japan, the Philippines, Norway and New Zealand have successfully implemented comprehensive zero waste policies that eliminate 80 percent or more of all landfill waste. U.S. cities including San Francisco, Seattle, and Boulder, Colo., have adopted zero waste programs.
While most U.S. communities still lack commercial zero waste pickup services like EcoCycle, experts we talked to say there’s a lot you can do right now to get closer to zero waste.
1. Reduce, reuse and recycle (in that order).
Even the most efficient recycling process uses energy and resources that can often be avoided. “First reduce your waste by choosing products that use less packaging and by reusing items whenever you can,” says Robin Burton, EcoCycle’s zero waste program administrator. Here are some ideas for reducing and reusing:
Use reusable water bottles made from materials like aluminum and stainless steel vs. buying disposable plastic-bottled water. Put a filter on your faucet or get an (energy efficient) refrigerator with a built-in filtered water dispenser on the door.
Use a refillable coffee mug vs. paper cups from the coffee shop. Some chains offer a discount if you bring your own container.
Keep a clean reusable container in your car so it’s easy to grab for carrying leftovers when you eat out.
Keep reusable shopping bags or old paper or plastic ones in your car or bag so they’re convenient when you stop at the market. (San Francisco recently banned plastic shopping bags and mandated biodegradable alternatives, and other major cities are considering similar policies.)
Buy in bulk and avoid single-serving packages.
Avoid processed and frozen foods whenever you can; their packaging creates excessive and hard-to recycle waste.
Look for ways to reuse containers. Large plastic tubs make great storage containers for toys or crafting supplies.
Use rechargeable batteries. You'll save $200 a year by using them instead of disposables in just one CD player used two hours a day, reports Earth 911.
Shop farmer’s markets and/or grow some vegetables at home to reduce your usage of produce packaging.
“Precycle” by choosing products and packaging made with recycled content.
If you don’t like how a company is packaging their product, tell them — and opt for an eco-friendlier alternative.Sell, exchange or give away your unwanted items. Have a garage sale, ask friends and neighbors, or take advantage of an online reusable-items exchange program such as FreeCycle.
While reducing and reusing should come first, recycling is still important — and it’s worth the effort. Recycling uses 40 to 95 percent less energy than manufacturing with raw materials, according to The National Recycling Coalition. And EcoCycle reports that recycling creates 10 to 25 jobs for every one job in landfilling.
Recycling also helps fight climate change: If you recycle just half your household waste, you’ll reduce your carbon dioxide footprint by 2,400 pounds — more than the emissions from a commercial flight from New York to Los Angeles.
“Be sure you’re informed about what your recycler collects,” advises Burton. “It’s usually better not to put something in the bin if you’re not sure it’s recyclable. Handling those items adds costs to recycling,” she adds, noting that plastic containers are a common trouble area. Contact your collection service for a guide to what they accept and how to sort it.
For items your curbside service won’t accept, look for a drop-off center or other alternatives to the landfill. Earth 911 offers a national directory of companies that accept hard-to-recycle items such as cell phones, computers and packing materials. They’ll also help you find a curbside service if your neighborhood doesn’t have a regular pickup service.
2. Start composting at home.
“Landfills are sealed over every day,” Lombardi points out. “In that environment, organic waste like food scraps and yard waste creates methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. But if it’s made into compost instead, organic waste can return valuable nutrients to soil.”
“Some people think of composting as kind of a ‘hippie’ thing to do,” says Burton. “But it’s actually pretty simple to set up a composting area in your backyard, and it’s not smelly the way you might think. You can turn vegetable scraps, used paper towels and egg shells into a really valuable soil amendment.” Get started with our article "5 Tips on Making Compost in Your Yard."
3. Ask for zero waste programs in your community and at work.
If you can’t find zero waste or composting pickup services in your area, write to the office that oversees waste management in your community (usually the city council or county supervisor’s office). The Grassroots Recycling Network offers resources including a model resolution, zero waste event guide, and zero waste tool kit for local governments.
If your office is recycling only paper, talk to your office manager about recycling glass and plastic bottles, aluminum, and steel, which can be collected in a single bin in many communities. Then encourage your company to ask waste haulers and city officials for commercial collection of additional recyclables, as well as compost.