So, what’s in a week’s worth of waste?

By From page A16 | July 27, 2014

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 six 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 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 that trying to document all of our food waste would result in me 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 (the dog’s summer project is apparently to systematically shred this piece of furniture); a broken pottery bowl that my son made, this fell victim to the dog’s tail rather then his teeth; a useless by design 1 1/2-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 otherwise would end up in garbage, including all of our food scraps. This week we also composted seven paper towels, three cardboard blackberry containers, two paper plates from when the kids got pizza at the pool, a paper bread bag and seven Popsicle sticks.

When I first learned about 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 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 of the plastic that heads to the recycling center actually gets recycled. If there is not a market for it, the plastic ends up in a landfill or an incinerator.

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

The beer I bought I bought at the Farmers Market came in a plastic cup, and 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 two strawberry containers, a blueberry container and a blackberry container. Then there is my son’s favorite yogurt, four 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 that allowed me to opt out of prescreened 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 fliers. 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 at http://zerowasteindavis.org.

— Michelle Millet is a Davis resident with a degree in wildlife and fisheries conservation biology from UC Davis. She’s the mom of two kids, ages 7 and 9. Follow her blog at http://zerowasteindavis.org or contact her at [email protected]

Michelle Millet

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