What do you know about waste?

Before I started simplifying, waste was one more thing I perceived as mostly out of my control.

When I started intentionally getting rid of stuff, however, I noticed how many decisions I was making. I compared each item I wanted to get rid of against a checklist: recycle, sell or give away, or put in the trash. I learned along the way that some of the things I had put in the trash could have been recycled (my city accepts cloth for rags, for example). Regrettably there were also instances where my husband and I put things in the trash rather than going to the effort of finding a way for them to be reused (<-not proud).

Since then—and since January when we started composting household organics—I’ve learned some things I’d like to share with you.

compostable hot beverage cup

Hospitals produce significant amounts of waste. The one where my husband works has taken a baby step in the right direction by switching to compostable disposable food containers.

Beyond cool—why should I care about waste?

There’s a whole lot more going on with waste than I realized. Many local and even national governments around the world have committed to waste reduction targets and working toward zero waste. Many manufacturers are working toward zero waste too, because throwing stuff away is expensive and why produce something you can’t sell?

New technologies and developing markets and distribution channels give second and third lives to things we previously sent to landfill, and there’s real money to be saved and made.

I’m fortunate to have a waste expert in my extended family (how many people can say that?!), and she’s helped educate me on what’s possible, especially when it comes to organics.

  • Do you know how a landfill works? Here’s a 12-minute video about one in Oregon. Landfills and incinerators should only be used for stuff that truly cannot be reused or recycled.
  • There’s huge opportunity for capturing the energy and other additional uses in organic materials like manure and food waste. Anaerobic digesters can break down these organic materials into gases and solids. The gases can be captured and separated into methane gas, carbon dioxide and trace gases. Methane gas—also known as a powerful greenhouse gas—can be used like natural gas. Sweden is the world leader in using biogas for transportation fuel, and what isn’t used for buses and private cars is put into the existing natural gas system for heat and energy production. Depending on the original organic material, the solids left over after anaerobic digestion can be used for animal bedding, fertilizer, potting soil and mulch, and as a replacement for wood pulp in particleboard.
  • New York is joining cities like Austin, Texas, Portland, OregonSeattle (for commercial customers), and San Francisco in rolling out municipal organics composting programsMinneapolis has two household organics drop off sites and St. Paul has multiple sites (in addition to yard waste collection points), but without curbside collection the vast majority of organic waste from businesses and households still goes to landfill. What a waste!Here’s a story from the Huffington Post about a small restaurant in Chicago where the owner is working very hard to achieve zero waste—imagine what could happen across the industry if it were easier?
  • Many municipal and state governments are using incentives and bans to meet waste reduction goals. Two examples include the state of Massachusetts, which has implemented a “food ban” requiring large producers of organic waste to find alternatives to landfill disposal, and the state of Vermont, which is now implementing a law banning recyclable and compostable material from going to landfill.

One of the easiest things we can do at the individual and household level is learn what resources are available in our community. There may be more options since you last checked.

The next easiest thing we can do is patronize businesses that are working to reduce waste and ask for more of that. National stores like Whole Foods that build their brand on being friendly to the environment should be leading the use of compostable disposable containers and cutlery and should be using their economic might to push for organics recycling in the communities they serve, as one example.

I’m going to challenge myself to ask my local elected officials what they’re doing to expand organics recycling and other common sense waste management practices, and let them know it’s a priority. I have heard many times that most American citizens are so passive that when they actually call or email an elected official with a legitimate concern, the elected official pays attention. Give me a month and then feel free to ask how it went!


One thought on “What do you know about waste?

  1. Here’s a story about the effort of some Moscow residents to recycle in a city without a municipal recycling program:

    “As Moscow’s Landfills Near Limits, Recyclers Do Whatever It Takes,” New York Times, September 18, 2014


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