Do you do new year’s resolutions/goals? I used to, but haven’t been as gung-ho about it the past few years. That being said, I like the idea of having a new year as a fresh start – BUT, I don’t limit myself to starting something in the middle of the year if I feel like doing so.
So whether you do new year’s resolutions (or goals) or not, you’re here reading this, so I’m guessing you want to reduce your waste. And since we’re already in December, the next logical time to start a new habit is the first of the new year.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…
You’re here for the two things you need to do in order to reduce your trash in 2019. I’m going to guess you have a ‘why’ for why you want to start doing this (if you don’t, it’s important).
Maybe your ‘why’ is because of the nerve-racking climate change reports that have come out recently. Maybe you want to save money. Maybe you’re just feeling called because you feel it’s the right thing to do.
Whatever your reason, having a ‘why’ is important to keep going if things start to get difficult (they can), or if you have setbacks and are feeling discouraged (totally normal).
Write down your why somewhere you can see it, and remind yourself of it regularly. Mine is pretty easy, I just have to look outside or look at my 3-year-old son.
It doesn’t have to be complicated.
Ok, I digress. Jumping right back to the two things…
These two things made the most significant impact in my family’s waste reduction journey – something that allowed us to reduce our waste by an average of 40 lbs PER WEEK.
I am not only going to tell you what those two things are, but how to do them yourself.
Here is what the post contains:
- I talk about what these two things are
- Go in detail about HOW to do them
- Already doing these two things? I added some ‘advanced tips’ and included additional resources at the end of the post
I won’t delay any longer. Let’s go.
What is a trash audit and why do I need to do one?
The first thing you must do in order to start reducing your waste is a trash audit.
You may be asking: ‘why’? And: ‘What is a trash audit’?
First, I’ll go into what a trash audit is.
A trash audit is exactly what it sounds like. A means to discover what you are throwing away.
If you are brand new to zero waste living, this is a great, and in my opinion, essential way to know next steps on how to reduce your waste. Without it, you’re just guessing at what you need to tackle.
How to conduct a trash audit:
Now that you know what a trash audit is, you need to know how to do it! The good news is that it is super easy, and will only take about 10-15 minutes of your time. Even better, you can make it a family affair. Get the kids involved to help get them on board!
First, I created a free printable trash audit sheet to help you through the process. Print it out, or just follow the same format on any old piece of paper you already have laying around.
Next, go to each trash can you have in your home and take a general look at what’s in there (you don’t have to go digging through it unless you really want to).
Write down the answers to the following questions:
- What room is the trash can in?
- What is in the bin?
- What is taking up the most room (pick 1-3 items)?
Once you’re done, take a look at what you have written down.
What types of similarities do you see?
Anything eye-opening stand out to you? Or were your findings what you were expecting?
When my family and I did our waste audit, we found the following:
- Food waste made up about half of our kitchen trash
- Paper products – tissues and paper towels made up the next biggest amount in our kitchen and bathroom trash
- Animal waste from the dog and cats, and my son’s diapers made up the third biggest amount of trash
By doing the waste audit and seeing the results, we were able to pick 3-5 zero waste goals moving forward that we wanted to work on. Without the ‘data’, it works to guess, but it’s easier and more effective to KNOW.
Ok, so you’ve done your waste audit. Now what?
I’ll be 100% honest, we had help picking out our goals, which I was really thankful for. I know we could have figured it out on our own, but having someone there to help us determine what would be the best fit for our family, and provide resources to get us going really helped.
It was so helpful, in fact, that I wanted to create a resource for others to get the same assistance.
If you feel like you need help doing the following:
- Determining what steps to take after completing your zero waste audit
- Finding resources specific to your goals
- Encouragement and motivation from me and others also on their zero waste journey
…then I would highly recommend you join the FREE ‘Trash Talkers’ Facebook group. You can post your waste audit results, get feedback/goal suggestions, ask questions, get encouragement, and more.
You will also have access to my Zero Waste Resource guide with over 100 items in it. This guide is only available to Trash Talkers!
Feel like you’ve got everything under control? No problem! Keep reading.
Already completed a waste audit? Here are some ways to go a little bit further:
- Do an audit for your recycling and/or compost. See if there is anything you can reduce
- Join the Trash Talkers Facebook group to get ideas, resources, help others, and more
- Check out zero waste posts on my blog to learn the next steps and tips to further your zero waste journey
- Check out other zero waste bloggers to follow for inspiration and tips
- Visit my Pinterest boards for tons of zero waste resources
- Start weighing your trash. My family and I weighed our trash for four weeks without making any changes. This helped us get an idea of how much trash we were throwing away. Then we started implementing our changes and continued to weigh our trash weekly. This helped us in tracking our progress, staying motivated, and more. If you’re a numbers person, someone motivated by data, or someone who likes to see tangible results, this method might be for you!
Remember how I said that two of the three most prevalent items on our waste audit were food and paper items like tissues and paper towels?
I personally was fairly surprised that these two things came out on top. And I know my family isn’t alone. In helping others with their waste audits, those items seem to be pretty common.
So what can you do?
The answer lies in the second ‘thing’ you need to do in 2019 to reduce waste.
And that is:
If you’re already composting, good for you! You rock! Scroll down to the bottom of the post to find additional/advanced tips.
Eek! I said the scary ‘C’ word – at least, it was for me before I got started on my own composting journey. But let me say, it is So. Much. Less. Intimidating. then I was making it out to be. Seriously. I promise you.
I live in an urban setting with a small backyard, and I was terrified that I was going to screw the compost up and it was going to stink up the whole neighborhood.
Good news: that hasn’t happened yet.
More good news: I quickly learned there isn’t really a way to ‘screw compost up’. If something seems a little astray, you just make a minor tweak and you’re good to go.
Even more good news: Once you implement composting into your routine, it is easy and very low maintenance.
Now that I’ve debunked a handful of composting myths I believed before I started, let me get into a few more (or maybe more accurately an FAQ of sorts):
Why do I need to compost? Doesn’t food just break down and decompose in a landfill?
Short answer: Yes, but not in the wonderful breakdown-of-food-into-fertilizer sense. It’s actually much worse.
I believed this for a long time, so if you do/did too, you’re not alone. I think this is a really common misconception. But as you’ll read below, composting requires simple yet specific ‘ingredients’ to work.
When a traditional compost pile is ‘working’ properly, a fancy-smancy chemical reaction happens to create heat and break down the compost pile contents.
Please know that although I have my masters in Natural Science and Environmental Education, I did terrible in Chemistry and am nowhere near chemist level knowledge. However, I do know that traditional compost piles need four main ingredients:
- Carbon (brown materials: leaves, twigs, branches, cardboard, paper, etc)
- Nitrogen (green materials: veggie scraps, fruit peels, egg shells, grass, etc)
- Oxygen (self-explanatory)
- Water (self-explanatory)
These four ingredients provide the necessary ‘habitat’ for what I like to call ‘little guys’ (actually called microorganisms/bacterial organisms) to break down the content. These bacterial organisms are aerobic, meaning they need oxygen.
If you think of a landfill, there isn’t much oxygen getting anywhere below the surface of the pile.
So, if there isn’t any oxygen, there isn’t any composting. So what is there?
Methane. Lots and lots of methane. A greenhouse gas that is significantly worse than carbon dioxide and that accelerates climate change at an alarming rate.
And considering that 40% of all food in the US ends up in landfills….
I’ll let you do the math (also not a strong subject).
Composting is a super easy and cost-effective way to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Why? When conditions are right in a traditional pile, as the little guys break down the organic content, heat is generated. As heat is generated, the contents break down faster. Eventually, you’ll be left with beautiful, rich ‘garden food’, as we like to call it in our house, aka, natural fertilizer. All made from stuff that would have ended up in a landfill producing methane.
Isn’t composting expensive? Don’t I need to buy a bin?
It definitely doesn’t have to be.
There are a number of composting methods out there, but I’ll only cover two main ones:
- Traditional composting (method described above) done outside in a bin, pile, or container. Compost process is done through microorganisms using four main ingredients.
- Vermicomposting using worms – perfect for small spaces such as apartments or condos. You feed the worms, the worms do all the work.
I’ll go into detail about each of the two options I mentioned above, but there are many other types of composting. For even more options check out this blog post from Misfit Gardening.
Traditional composting is done by storing kitchen scraps in a bin inside and then taking them outside to a larger bin or pile.
The easiest way to compost using this method is to have a waste reduction company or city who collects organic waste via curbside collection. Check with your waste reduction company/city to see if they offer this service. Using this method you only have to worry about collecting the scraps and bringing them outside when it’s time for pick-up.
If you don’t have access to this option (like me), and you have a yard, an outdoor compost bin or pile is your next best option. This is what my family and I do!
But what receptacle do you choose?
There are many varieties all the way from a simple pile on the ground to a compost tumbler. There are some you can buy premade or there are many different DIY options.
My family and I have one that came as a kit that we assembled (by we I mean my husband) out of some wood and chicken wire.
We also have another one that I started as an experiment, but has actually turned out to be a decent compost bin. I found a tall hamper that someone was giving away for free, and wanted to see if that would work. I’m pleased to say it did!
I’ve also seen wire dog kennels, old Rubbermaid storage bins, old garbage bins, and pallets all being used as receptacles.
As you can see, the possibilities are endless.It all depends on your handiness skill/desire, budget, and space.
Interested in building your own? Here is a great post with 16 DIY Compost Bins.
Looking for a pre-made one? Some cities or counties offer discounted bins to residents – something worth checking in to!
When looking for a bin, whether you are making your own or buying one, the important things are:
- Ventilation in order to provide oxygen for the microorganisms
- Room to stir
- Capacity (how much will your bin hold versus how much organic waste you produce?)
- Critters such as mice, squirrels, etc (we don’t have an issue in ours, but something to consider)
One more thing about traditional composting: weather.
I live in Minnesota, and if you’ve ever heard of Minnesota you have probably heard one thing: it gets cold. And guess what. Composting still works year-round (and is actually easier in the winter)!
In the winter, we just keep adding scraps to the pile as normal. In the spring or even some warmer winter days, the pile will compress down, and you can then stir as needed. That’s it!
Still not convinced? Or maybe you live in a small space and a large outdoor bin isn’t possible. That’s OK! There is a second method I haven’t talked about yet, and that is vermicomposting…aka, worm composting.
What is Vermicomposting?
Before I lose you to the whole worm thing, let me tell you, it isn’t as creepy as it sounds.
I’m going to be 100% upfront with you here, I don’t have any experience in worm composting, so I can’t speak from experience. Because of that, I’ll link to a lot of great resources I found in case you’re interested in learning more. But I think it’s important to give an option for anyone interested in composting, whether you have a yard or not.
Vermicomposting is composting using worms in a small container versus instead of the having a large outdoor bin. This means that worm composting is perfect for anyone who doesn’t have a yard or lives in a really small space.
Instead of the Carbon, Nitrogen, Water, and Oxygen reaction, the worms do all the work. All you need to do is make sure they have all the food they need (aka compost and shredded paper or newspaper), and that their bin doesn’t get too hot or cold.
This post from Queen Bee Coupons (don’t let the name fool you) has a lot of really great information about worm composting, including DIY instructions for making your own bin out of two storage containers and a troubleshooting guide.
Here is a similar post with great information from the EPA. As you saw from the link above, DIY worm bin options are readily available.
Otherwise, you can purchase one like the options below:
Ventihut Bin: Perfect for a porch or balcony, as long as it doesn’t get too warm or cold. Otherwise, can work indoors.
Don’t forget to get the Worms! There are specific types of worms you need to get (red wigglers are most recommended because they can break down material quickly).
I live in a small apartment/condo/house with a small yard, and I’m not into the worms. What can I do?
If you’re looking for other ideas for apartment/condo composting, check out this apartment composting guide from Going Zero Waste.
This post from Apartment Therapy talks about creating a DIY compost bin (similar to the ones outside), but for indoors.
You can also check in with your city or county to see if they have a drop off site (our local nature center has one). Or check in with your local farmer’s markets, co-op, or garden center to see if they offer community compost.
What types of things can I compost?
Both traditional and worm composting can effectively break down similar organic materials such as:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Fruit/vegetable scraps
- Tea and coffee grounds
- Bread/pasta (with no dairy or oil)
- Paper products such as napkins, paper towels, tissues, shredded paper, newspaper
- Grass clippings
- Sawdust and wood shavings
- Dryer lint
- Vacuum contents
- Dust/dirt from sweeping
- Any type of compostable disposables
- Toilet paper and paper towel rolls
- Hair (animal or from your hairbrush)
- Beans and lentils
- 100% all natural fabrics
Things you can’t compost or feed your worms*:
- Grease and fat
- Sanitary products
- Greeting cards
- Wrapping paper
*If you have access to an industrial compost – usually through a city or trash company pickup, you CAN add in meat and dairy.
How do I collect the organic waste inside before adding it to a bin, and should I use compost bags?
My family and I use compost bags from the brand UNNI and LOVE them, but you don’t have to use them. Some people put their waste right into a container without a bag.
There is no right or wrong way; just whatever works best for you.
As for bins, we use a regular old Rubbermaid storage container or just a bowl with the bag in it on the counter. It only stays out a day or two, and we’ve never had an issue with smell. Sometimes we also put it in the fridge if it has been a couple of days and we’re not ready to take it out yet.
Once the bag is full, we take it out to the main bin! That’s it.
There are ‘official’ compost pails available that come with proper, smell-control venting if that is a concern for you.
Here are some options:
Ok, you’ve convinced me. How do I get started?
First, you need a bin (see above). If you are worm composting, you can revisit the links I provided earlier on how to get those set up.
If you’re going the traditional method, here are the steps:
- Set up your bin
- On the bottom of the bin, put branches to help create some air flow to the bottom of the pile
- Add in some brown material – leaves or cardboard are great options
- Pour some dirt on top (can be from your garden or yard, doesn’t have to be fancy)
- Then, add in whatever scraps you have
- The brown/green ratio should be about 3 times the brown for 1 green. This is just an estimate though – don’t feel like you have to measure anything out
- On top of the scraps, add some more brown material (we save all our leaves from the fall to use for our compost)
- Add some water
- After a few days, you should start to see an area in the middle of the pile that looks like it has sunken in. If you hold your hand over that area, you should feel some heat. This means your pile is working!
- Mixing: You will want to mix your pile every 1-2 weeks to make sure those microorganisms aka ‘little guys’ (remember them) are getting enough oxygen. I use an old shovel and just mix the contents around a little bit.
- Each time you add ‘green’ materials, make sure you add approximately three times the brown
- Your compost is ‘done’ once you have beautiful, brown, soil-looking material! If you find a few pieces that aren’t fully broken down yet, add them back into the pile.
- Smelly: If your pile starts to smell, it’s probably too wet. Add some more brown materials and you should be good to go
- Dry: If your pile does not seem to be composting, try adding some water. I usually sprinkle some hose water on the pile each time I water my garden.
- Not breaking down: If your pile does not seem to be composting, you may need to add some more green materials.
- Soil: If you’ve tried adding some water and more greens, and your pile still isn’t breaking down, try adding some soil in.
Neither of these tickle my fancy. What can I do?
As I previously mentioned, check with your local county or city to see if they collect organic waste at their drop-off facilities – some do. If you go that option, you can freeze your organic waste until you drop it off to ensure you don’t have a ton of rotting food sitting around.
I’m also going to gently encourage you to step out of your comfort zone. Composting can make a huge impact on climate change. I know change can be hard. Implementing more into your routine can be hard. But you know what? The alternative (our climate changing to catastrophic levels) is a lot scarier, in my opinion.
Composting was really intimidating for me as well, as I’ve already mentioned. But I’m SO glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and did it. If you need a little more encouragement, my friend Jen from Honestly Modern has a FANTASTIC series called ‘You Can Make Dirt’, where she interviews everyday people about their composting journey. The interviews are what I wish I had when I was first looking into composting because they would have eased a lot of my fears.
If you are still on the fence, take some time to look through the interviews to ease some of your concerns. I think it will help!
Composting is great, but what about food waste?
Last but not least, in a post about composting food waste, I would be irresponsible not to talk about food waste in general. And while food waste in itself is a whole separate post, I wanted to quickly bring up a couple of things.
First, yes, composting is awesome. It keeps food waste out of landfills which means less methane in the atmosphere. But it’s important not to use that as an excuse to become lenient on food waste. Even with composting food, you are:
- Throwing away money
- Wasting all of the resources that went into growing, harvesting, and transporting that food
- Literally throwing away food when some of our fellow humans are going hungry
Remember, 40% of all food is thrown away. And while composting is a great solution to avoiding the landfill, let’s also focus on reducing food waste!
For some great resources on how to do that, check out my Food Waste Pinterest Board here.
Advanced Tips for Composting
Already composting? Here are some advanced tips:
- Advocate for city-wide composting – whether it is curbside pickup or drop off at a local location.
- Offer to take some of your neighbors organic waste to compost
- Help others start a compost pile of their own
- Work on reducing your overall food waste