A Week’s Worth of Waste

It’s been six months since my family has taken on the challenge to reduce the amount of waste we generate – it’s probably more accurate to say that it been 6 months since I decided we were going to take on this challenge – my family has been kind enough to humor and support me in this effort.

Now that summer is here and I have a little more free time I decided to do something I’ve been thinking about for a while – conduct a personal waste inventory.

“ A what”? My husband asked with a slight look of concern on his face asked when I brought up the idea. I explained that I wanted to track every piece of waste we generated in a week’s time, which included everything that went in the trash or recycling bins. So, like the good sport he is, he got a pad of paper and a pen and placed it on the counter near our waste receptacles.

As a side note, we compost our food scraps, and since I am not a detail-oriented person anyway I decided trying to document all of our food waste would result in my becoming overwhelmed with the process and quitting within 24 hours. (I did track any non-food scrap material that got put into the compost pile).

Thanks to the comprehensive curbside recycling program offered in Davis, there are very few items that we found we had to put into the garbage instead of the recycling bin. In the week we tracked, my family of four threw away 27 individual pieces of garbage.

A majority of these items were non-rigid plastic food packaging, aka plastic bags or wrappers. The other items included some foam from our couch, as the dog’s summer project is apparently to systematically shred this piece of furniture, a broken pottery bowl that my son made which fell victim to the dog’s tail rather than his teeth, a useless-by-design one and a half inch marker that somehow ended up in our house, a bread tie, a deodorant container, and an empty heartworm medication tab.

Because we compost we are able to divert a lot of waste that would otherwise end up in the garbage, including all of our food scraps. This week we also composted 7 paper towels, 3 cardboard blackberry containers, 2 paper plates from when the kids got pizza at the pool, a paper bread bag, and 7 Popsicle sticks.

When I first encountered the idea of zero waste I made the assumption that as long as something wasn’t going in the trash it didn’t count against my zero waste effort. What I’ve come to learn is that while recycling is a much better alternative to the garbage can, it is not always a great one, especially in when it comes to plastic.

Plastic is often “down-cycled.” When materials like glass, aluminum, or paper are recycled they are made into products that can be recycled again and again. This is not usually the case with plastic, since its quality degrades every time it is recycled. So very few of the plastic containers collected for recycling are actually made into similar or recyclable products again, plus not all the plastic that heads to the recycling center actually gets recycled. If there is not a market for it ends up in a landfill or an incinerator.

For these and other reasons I’ve made a serious attempt over the past 6 months to reduce my purchases of items that come in plastic. Honestly, this has been my biggest challenge, as plastic seems to be everywhere and in almost everything.

The beer I bought at the Farmers Market came in a plastic cup, so do the fruit icies that my kids get, which also come with a plastic spoon. Most berries that I find in the grocery store come in plastic containers; this week we recycled 2 strawberry, a blueberry and a black berry container. Then there are my son’s favorite yogurt – 4 containers of which we recycled this week.

For all of my efforts to avoid plastic, it still made up the greatest percentage of items my family discarded this week.

In January I took a few steps to limit the amount of unwanted mail we received in the form of unwanted catalogs and credit card offers. I registered at www.catalogchoice.org, a website that allows me to opt of catalogs, and www.optoutprescreen.com, a website which allowed me to opt out of pre-screened credit card offers. Since doing so, I’ve noticed a huge decrease in the amount of mail we receive and thus a huge decrease in the amount of materials that were going straight from our mailbox into the recycling container.

That being said, we still receive unwanted mail in the form of local advertising and flyers. But, like with plastic, most of the paper recycling this week was in the form of product packaging.

Tracking my family’s waste for a week, while a little tedious, ended up being an educational and worthwhile exercise. It made us more conscious and aware of the waste we were generating, where this waste came from, and where it was ending up.

In closing I’d like to thank the city’s Conservation Coordinator Jennifer Gilbert for being such a great resource when I have had questions about our recycling program. I’ve also found the answers to a lot of my waste questions at the city’s website: http://recycling.cityofdavis.org.

If you would like to follow my family’s zero waste efforts, please check out my blog http://zerowasteindavis.org.

About The Author

Michelle Millet is a 25-year resident of Davis. She currently serves as the Chair of the Natural Resource Commission.

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  1. Tia Will

    Hi Michelle

    “the dogs summer project”

    It would seem that your entire family is quite “project” oriented. More seriously, you remain an inspiration and source of great ideas about how to live more lightly on the land. Thanks for the tips.

  2. 2cowherd

    Thanks for the article Michelle.

    It seems like Earth is soon going to have to change her name to “Plastic World”.

    Keep reminding me to buy food with less packaging.

  3. anonymous

    Imagine if we were all so concerned about the waste we generate! We, too, try to be very careful–but as you implicitly point out, many retailers don’t seem to care much.

    I love that you actually cataloged this: “This week we also composted 7 paper towels, 3 cardboard blackberry containers, 2 paper plates from when the kids got pizza at the pool, a paper bread bag, and 7 Popsicle sticks”

    1. Alan Miller

      “many retailers don’t seem to care much”

      Reminds me of when I stopped at an espresso shop in a vast automobile-oriented, suburban wasteland in far southern California. I asked for a coffee “for here”. When it arrived in a paper cup, I said, “I wanted this, ‘for here'”. The person behind the counter said, “uh huh”. Turns out the store didn’t even have porcelain cups. For all we do in the ‘progressive’ enclaves of our ‘progressive’ little town, remember that the vast quantity of suburban culture is somewhere between ‘unaware’ and ‘don’t care’.

    2. Topcat

      “Imagine if we were all so concerned about the waste we generate! We, too, try to be very careful–but as you implicitly point out, many retailers don’t seem to care much.”

      And most consumers don’t care much either. For example, I frequently get coffee at a popular coffee shop which gives a 10 Cent discount if you bring your own coffee cup or mug, which I do. I rarely see anyone else bringing their reusable cups. Instead they get disposable cups.

  4. Tia Will

    Michelle and Anon

    Retailers will only care when there is enough individual action on the part of consumers choosing non packaged goods.
    Such simple choices as buying from the bulk foods isle instead of the “pre packaged” grains, beans , nuts and the like are small steps in the right direction. Expressing an interest to the store manager encouraging stocking of minimally packaged goods is another step that if enough of us acted might lead to change, especially in stores where we are regulars.

    I always look forward to Michelle’s Zero Waste posts for ideas ! You go Michelle.

  5. Anon

    Just as an aside, tho recycled plastic may not be truly recycled, nevertheless the city has to abide by a state permit, which is demanding a certain amount of recycling. So keep recycling whatever plastics you do use, so the city can meet its permit requirements! I would say so much of the plastic comes from the purchase of bottled water and drinks.

  6. DavisBurns

    I’m not sure how you compost paper plates and paper towels. We don’t seem to have enough food scraps or enough nitrogen to keep a compost hot. We used to use our grass clippings for nitrogen but then we got an electric mulching mower. I nabbed grass from green waste piles around the neighborhood a few times but realized they might have had weed and feed used on them. My daughter has four chickens so they eat most but not all the food scraps and provide fertilizer we mix with straw bedding to age before reuse. I long for a neighborhood compost site where where we can have three bins and enough material to make it work.

    I buy a food box from Robert Ramming at Pacific Star Gardens so when I get those plastic strawberry boxes from other sources, I clean them and use them over and over. Ditto plastic veggie bags. I have never had a single use plastic bag but don’t feel smug…they don’t degrade any faster just because they got used many times. I saw a headline last week that said Brown might sign a statewide plastic bag ban. We’ll see.

    My biggest challenge is the awful plastic that encases most of the non food things I buy. I’d like to see a ban on that stuff. Consumers don’t like it. It is used to reduce shrinkage and mayb to make display and shipping easier. I’m old enough to remember when everything wasn’t swathed in plastic requiring a knife or scissors or open. I also remember the time before plastic bags. The sun still rose in the east and people carried their purchases home in paper bags that didn’t cost them a dime. And in Europe they were using cloth ‘carry bags’ for the first 2/3rds of the 20th century.

    I want to put a word in for using glass instead of plastic and aluminum for liquids. Glass is Reuseable. Once upon a time it was collected, returned to the bottler, washed and reused. It requires more labor but we seem to have plenty of people who need work. Supermarkets don’t like it because it consumes space and attracts vermin but we are so good at solving problems, surely we could come up with innovative solutions and re-learn how to reuse (instead of destroy and remake) glass bottles. More jobs, less waste! Michelle, what would your waste stream look like if all the containers you currently used and recycle were reused?

    Regarding products made using recycled plastic, I have two wood decks and one made of recycled plastic. After three years the seams are lifting and the nails starting to work loose (some of the same with the wood decks) but the plastic stuff gets much hotter than wood and seems to hold the heat longer. Water beads on the plastic and sits there for many hours unlike the wood which dries out soon after the sun comes up. I find the park and greenbelt benches made of plastic to be unusable before noon when I want to walk because they are wet from dew. Wood is a renewable product. When the re-manufactured plastic products need to be replaced, they are still non-biodegradable plastic. We only delayed their endless afterlife in a landfill.

  7. South of Davis

    Michelle wrote:

    > In the week we tracked, my family of four threw away 27 individual pieces of garbage.

    It would be interesting to see if you can make it to the end of the year without filling your black bin.

    I typically take the garbage out every other week (why take the time to move two bins that are less than half full) and once (when we were out of town quite a bit) we made it a full month without taking the bins to the curb.

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