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09 December, 2011

Taking Out the Garbage

A few weeks ago, the city dropped off the new trash can. Last year, some rats chewed a hole in the bottom of one, set up house, and were eventually relocated to the landfill. Maybe we called about it, or maybe it was just garbage can replacement week, but in any case, now there's this snazzy new receptacle that says I have a Waste Wise Home. I am wise about so few things that this makes me puff up with pride. 

But alas, I am a data junkie and a skeptic, so I have trouble accepting accolades without knowing I've earned them. A quick look on garbage day confirmed that for a block in either direction, there are only two or three of these little trash cans, so maybe I am generating less trash than a typical neighbor. (Rolling the tiny trash can back down to the house, my burgeoning sense of pride made up the difference in volume.)

I don't have reliable figures for how much garbage my neighbors produce, and I don't feel like going down the road with a scale to find out for sure, but the EPA reports that nationally, 4.3 pounds per person per day is the average. We Americans apparently make more trash than actual products. We may be the value-subtracted champions of the world. 
But compared to 30 years ago, we at least recycle more, an average of 34%, say EPA figures. This means that the average person only produces 2.9 pounds of outright garbage every day. More or less what we threw out 30 years ago, as it turns out, so we seem to have increased junk production to keep pace with the recycling fad.

I don't know how big or small a pile 2.9 pounds of garbage is, and estimates in the weight/volume conversion game vary. New Mexico cites a hefty 225 pounds per cubic yard, King County (where Seattle lives) lists 177 pounds per yard, and Honolulu a mere 100 pounds (ah...I remember the lighter garbage of the tropics). My Waste Wise can holds 20 gallons, which is about a tenth of the 202 gallons contained in a cubic yard, so a full load equals somewhere between 10 and 22.5 pounds.

Sounds hefty, but four people live in this house, and garbage pick-up happens bi-weekly, which means the weight of the full can must be divided by 56 to yield pounds/person/day. Run those numbers, and you get somewhere between 0.18 and 0.4 pounds/person/day. This is about 10% of the alleged average output. I have a little bit of a smug grin right now. 

How is it that my family can be an order of magnitude lower than average? A big factor is that we compost almost all of our food waste. Other than occasional fowl bones, it all goes out to the back corner the microbes and possum buffet. 
Another factor is what we remove from the garbage portion of our waste stream. Our recycling bin is about twice the volume of the trash can, and although I have no figures, the percentage that is recycled--by weight or volume--has to be well over 50%. The table below (also from EPA) shows paper, glass, metal, and plastics amounting to 54.5% of total output. Except for a small portion of plastic that is not recyclable, almost all of the weight in these categories gets recycled around here. 

Of the remaining categories, there are a few that never make it into a trash or recycling container. Olympia offers food and yard waste recycling, but I covet my biomass, and either compost it or feed it to the wild-ish area in back under the alders. Wood? I cannot remember there being an occasion for wood to be thrown out; trimmings and windfall stay in the yard (the occasional larger alder ends up as embers under salmon), old furniture ends up being sold or donated, and leftover lumber from projects either gets stashed for future smaller projects, or turned into kindling. Leather, rubber and textiles? Pretty unusual for them to reach the discard pile. 

What's left is mostly plastic. The un-recyclable lids of containers, plastic-coated paper, and packaging. Some of what any modern American brings into their house inevitably ends up as garbage. Lots of packaging has no secondary use. There are things that will never qualify as hand-me-downs. The best way to deal with these is just to avoid bringing them into the house in the first place. Minimal packaging is a criterion when I shop. By growing some of my own food, I eliminate a bit more, and one of the benefits of canning is that those jars can last forever (take it from an archaeologist), and each time I use one that's one less can inthe recycling bin. I really should start making beer again, so I can pull the same trick with bottles...yeah, that's it, making beer is good for the environment. 

So, that's the lowdown on garbage production at this residence. Well below average, but it does not take much effort. At some point in the future, landfills will be mined for the minerals and petroleum-based products they contain, but until then, it would benefit us all to aim low. 

How low? Think personal. By filling the garbage can 26 times, I am producing somewhere between 66 and 146 pounds of trash every year. The EPA's figures indicate most people are pumping out just over a half ton; Americans are getting fatter, but even that is way more than most people weigh. If everyone aimed to produce no more than their weight, we'd see an 80% or more reduction in trash going to landfills, which would benefit is all (except maybe those future garbage miners).


  1. I am sitting here a tiny bit chagrined: mom and I just recycled your beer bottles - what, two months ago? - when we cleaned the basement.

    Yes. Including those rad ones with the ceramic seals ...

    This said, I produce a pretty low pure-garbage output myself (speaking materially, of course - not philosophically), taking out the gi-normous rollaway only once every two months, if even that. And it is rarely anything like full. Recycling goes every two weeks, and that is a pretty small container but I don't tend to overflow it nor end up in adjunct piles very often.

    Most of my personal trash and recycling output is the mail coming into the house. Coupons upon coupons for high-packaging-content things I do not buy, services I do not patronize ... advertisements ... offers for credit cards ... loads of mail from a cable company I broke up with something like 14 years ago, which just keeps saying "Baby forgive me, please, I'll be so good to you." If the incoming snail mail is reduced by the upcoming cuts in budget for the USPS, I'd be surprised if my total recycling weren't cut by a third ...

  2. My neighbors around here tend to stick their feet in water they shouldn't be treading, they've dumping their recyclables into my bin for years now and I still haven't caught them at the time of night they do it. They're sly.

    -Land Source Container Service, Inc.