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One Family's Trash

Knowing what you're throwing away is the first step to reducing your waste

By Steve Carter-Novotni · April 15th, 2009 · News

I overestimated my ability to go green.

Before I heard the term “waste audit” — a study of all the trash a corporation produces so that it can move toward improving its recycling rate — I was intrigued by the idea of being honest with myself. How much waste was my family producing? What’s our share of humanity’s descent into Wall-E world?

I decided on a two-week project. For the first week, I’d keep track of everything my family of four (two adults, a 2- year-old and a baby) threw away and would change nothing about our behavior. Week 2 would be business as unusual and we’d reuse, recycle or reduce almost everything.

I ended up with two weeks of data about our wasteful behavior. The life changes required to live my aspirations, however, will take longer to achieve and plan. Minimizing our carbon footprint is doable, but it’s going to take work.

How our garbage piled up

With a lot of help from my wife, I separated the waste into five categories: general household (product packaging, bags from the grocery, batteries, pizza boxes, dryer lint and tea bags); cat litter; diaper waste; compost; and recycling. I kept five different containers for each of the categories and weighed each on a bathroom scale.

Week 1
Household trash: 38 lbs. (I was cleaning out the basement)
Cat litter waste: 2 lbs.
Diaper waste: 28 lbs.
Compost: .25 lbs.
Recycling: 6 lbs. (some additional from the basement)
Total trash: 68 lbs.

Week 2
Household trash: 15.5 lbs.
Cat litter waste: 3 lbs.
Diaper waste: 23 lbs.
Compost: 1.5 lbs. (we tried to compost much more this week)
Recycling: 3 lbs.
Total trash: 41.5 lbs.

With 109.5 lbs of trash total for two weeks, 51 lbs. was diaper waste. Yuck!

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, an average American adult generates a daily 4.4 lbs.

of garbage or 30.8 lbs. a week. If you figure that we have 2.25 people in our family (I’m betting low because my kids are so young) we should, on average, produce 69 lbs. a week. Even with diaper waste accounting for almost half, we’re slightly below U.S. standards (which, admittedly, suck).

I was most surprised at how much of the waste was made up of used diapers. A year ago, we were still using cloth diapers and were proud of how much money we saved and how little we were sending to the dump.

Around the time my son turned 2, his ability to produce urine outpaced the handling capacity of the cloth diapers. We abandoned our daily diaper laundry for disposables and ended up using them for our new daughter as well.

It’s clear to me that we can significantly reduce our impact by switching back to cloth for our little girl and getting our son potty trained soon. If we slash carryout and processed foods, electing to buy primarily from Findlay Market, we’ll be able to go even further. (More gas use will be involved, but we’ll also support local farmers.) If we used green cat litter, we could compost that, too, but handling it is so gross that I’m not sure I’m willing.

A negative carbon footprint

Mike Reynolds, who earned his architecture degree in 1969 at the University of Cincinnati, sees garbage in a completely different way: To him, it’s a resource.

Reynolds uses waste materials — old tires, bottles and more — to build homes that are completely unplugged from the grid, producing their own electricity, collecting water and managing their own waste. His Greater World Community in New Mexico includes more than 60 of these experimental homes.

“Packaging, plastic bottles we use them, glass bottles we use them, cans of all kinds we use, of course compost we use,” he says, “and if you grow a lot of your own food We produce a lot of waste. you’re going to be using less packaging.

Reynolds and his crew collect scrap material from landfills around the country. Old appliances are especially useful, he says.

“They have these really good, porcelain, baked-on enamel panels,” Reynolds says. “We go and harvest those for roofing shingles. They’re fantastic.”

Because his community produces nearly no garbage and imports what others consider trash, it actually has a negative garbage output and a negative carbon footprint.

“Once you get into the frame — into the context let’s say — of seeing garbage as a resource, it just never stops,” Reynolds says. “Your concept of ‘dump’ becomes goldmine.”

[Note: Hear more of my interview with Reynolds in CityBeat's Green Issue podcast.]

Moving toward a balance

Northside resident Braden Trauth teaches locals about permaculture, the practice of bridging the gap between agriculture and ecology, man and nature. Permacluturalists believe that historic farming practices have stripped soil of its nutrients and have changed fertile lands into deserts. Trauth says contemporary, throw-away culture is similarly spoiling the Earth.

He says it’s important to reduce, reuse and recycle and also to repair what we have and refuse technology that’s not sustainable.

“We look, first off, and ask, ‘Is it biodegradeable? Is it well built?’ ” Trauth says.

He says that while most people might not be able or willing to completely unplug from the world monoculture of waste, we can all make changes. Buying food from farmers markets, refusing cars or appliances that are cheaply made and mitigating our impact is crucial.

“They have to come from some from somewhere and they have to go somewhere,” he says. “It’s a system we’re caught up in but trying to move beyond.”

 
 
 
 

 

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