Knowledge is power! The first step toward reducing your household waste is learning what goes where. What can I repair? What should I donate? What can I recycle? What can I compost? What goes in the trash and how can I reduce my trash load? The following guide is meant to help you answer these questions and get you started on your journey toward a less-waste lifestyle.
The first and simplest way to avoid throwing things away is not to buy them in the first place. Shop wisely for items that will last a long time and only buy things when you really need them. The less stuff you bring into your home, the less stuff needs to be taken out of it. Every time you are about to buy something, pause and consider how you will dispose of it. This often keeps me from buying things I don't need. Read The Joy of Less, if you want some inspiration.
Many things we throw away can be recycled. Each town has it’s own list of acceptable and unacceptable items for curbside recycling and you’d be surprised at some of the things you can recycle easily (here is Concord’s list). But many items not accepted curbside can still be recycled. Plastic bags can be recycled at the grocery store and broken electronics can be recycled at the electronics store. Terracycle is a great place to get started with recycling less-common items. Once you learn what can be recycled, change what you buy.
The less packaging your purchases are wrapped in, the less packaging you need to throw away. Growing and making your own food is, of course, the easiest way to do this, but shopping for locally grown and produced items usually means less packaging too. Buy used and avoid individually wrapped items whenever possible. And while we’re on the topic of being naked, disposable diapers are a major contributor to household waste too, so choose fabric diapers and compost them at their end of life. And, ladies, your period doesn’t have to mean lots of trash – learn how to have a zero waste period here.
FIX IT, PATCH IT, CLEAN IT
Could the item you are planning to toss be repaired? If you still want to use something, but it’s not working, missing a piece, or broken in some way, try contacting the company first. You’d be amazed how easy it can be to troubleshoot a common issue or to get a new part (usually for free or minimal cost). And, if you can’t repair it yourself, ask around before you toss something. I have found someone who could replace a zipper, repair a 100 year old typewriter, and sharpen all my knives and tools. The internet is a wonderful resource!
LEARN TO COMPOST
One of the largest contributors to household garbage is food waste. We throw away the skins, cores, pits, leaves, and other leftovers each time we cook and then we throw away what we don’t eat of our meals. In order to avoid this – and to keep your garbage smelling fresh – compost all food scraps. To learn more about composting basics, please read Composting 101 below. And remember, some surprising things can be composted: pet and human hair, anything 100 percent cotton, latex, or other natural materials, shredded paper, and wood ash, to name a few.
THINK OUTSIDE GOODWILL
Before you toss something, ask yourself: Would anyone, anywhere use this again? If the answer is yes, then donate it. I always try to find a home for an item myself before sending it to a donation center because then I know it will be used. Churches, shelters, and other charities often know of a family in need who is happy to take your worn out couch or faded jacket. Freecycle sites are great for this! If you can't find someone, donate the item to Goodwill. Worst case scenario, the donation center will trash the item (at least you tried!).
WHAT IS COMPOSTING AND WHY SHOULD I DO IT?
Composting is the system of turning kitchen waste, garden waste, yard waste, and other assorted organic waste materials into a rich soil amendment. It works because microorganisms in the soil feed on and break down the materials.
Composting greatly reduces the amount you send to the landfill and it recycles your waste into something very useful. What's not to love?!
WHAT KIND OF COMPOSTING IS RIGHT FOR ME?
Composting systems vary greatly. Which system you use depends on where you live, how quickly you want to make the compost, and how involved you want to be in the process.
I suggest you use this chart to figure out which composting system is right for you and choose your materials accordingly. Our family uses a tumbler, but I'd love a cedar three bin system.
WHAT DO I NEED TO GET STARTED?
The compost system you choose will determine what set up materials you need. Systems can be as simple as a pile in the yard or as complex as you want to build or buy. You can also compost through a service or with a community garden.
No matter what method you use, I highly suggest a small bin on your counter to collect kitchen scraps throughout the day. Several companies make counter bins with filters to prevent smells (you can find them at your local green goods store or online) or you can use any covered container.
WHAT CAN I COMPOST?
The reality is, anything made from a plant or animal material, will eventually break down. I compost cotton and wool fabrics, natural ceramics, paper, cardboard, hair, and lots of other stuff you might not think of. But, if you are just starting out, stick to kitchen scraps (avoid meat and dairy), garden waste (not diseased plants), and yard waste (avoid pet waste and anything sprayed with chemicals). BUT, if you want to make good compost quickly, try to stick to the Magic Ratio (see below).
WHAT IS THE MAGIC RATIO?
If you want to make a good compost for your garden, you'll need to try to keep the ratio of "browns" (carbon-rich) and "greens" (nitrogen-rich) to about 3:1 or 4:1. This may sound like chemistry class, but don't worry. It's easy!
Basically, browns are dry stuff like paper, dry leaves, cardboard, dry grass, straw and hay, and dryer lint. Greens are moist stuff, like table scraps, weeds, fresh grass clippings, flowers, barnyard manure. So, you want more dry stuff than moist stuff, generally, though, honestly, you'll be fine as long as you keep the ratio above 1:1.
WHAT DO I NEED TO DO?
The amount of time you spend on your compost is totally up to you. Ideally you would turn your compost (with a pitchfork or in a tumbler) bi-weekly, which breaks it down faster, but doing it every three to four weeks is fine. If you don't turn it at all, things will still break down, it'll just take longer. The three bin system, which is the Cadillac (or Tesla) or composting, allows you to have compost at several stages of decomposition at the same time. This is a great system if you want compost quickly.
WHEN CAN I USE MY COMPOST?
Compost is ready to use when you can't recognize most of the materials you put into it. Some things take longer than others, so don't worry if there are still a few avocado pits, tea bags, or whatever in your compost. You can still use it!
The speed it takes to make compost is totally dependent on the materials you are composting, the system you use, and how much work you put into it.
HOW CAN I USE MY COMPOST?
Compost made at home can be used just like compost from the garden store. Work it into the top few inches of your soil with a pitchfork or metal rake before you plant or top dress your plants with compost by spreading the compost around the surface of the soil around your plants.
You can also use partially finished compost on top of your garden if you don't mind a bit of smell. I usually do this at the end of the fall so I start the winter with an empty bin.
WHAT ABOUT THE WINTER?!
Although things break down more slowly in the winter, it's totally possible to compost through the winter with a few preparations. First, empty your bin or start a new pile in the late fall (before things freeze). This will give you plenty of space for adding materials over the winter. Second, keep a bag of fall leaves on hand to add periodically if you don't have enough paper and other "browns" (dry stuff). Third, keep a bigger food grade bucket outside your back door for those cold days when you don't want to go out. Then empty it into the bin/pile once a week or so.