5 - 2009

What’s In Your Garbage?

I’ve been wondering this very thing. Some weeks, I have no garbage to put out on the street. Other weeks, I have a lot. Typically, our weekly garbage pickup includes a couple of small (kitchen-size — 13-gallon) trash bags. So I got to wondering: Just what goes into our garbage?

The answer is: Mostly plastic. Garbage from eating out. As it happens, a lot of used tissues (although we are stocked with cloth handkerchiefs, I am the primary cheerleader for them, and I just don’t need to blow my nose that often, biologically. The household’s primary nose-blowers have been using paper, and I’m seldom there to catch them, twist their ears and make them use reusable). Et cetera.

Last week, I took photos of each day’s garbage. Here’s the score — along with some notes about what did not go into the garbage can.


The biggest item in Monday’s trash was totally avoidable: A Starbucks cup and lid. I try to almost always grab my emergency latte at a locally owned shop near my house, but it’s a mile out of my way, and last Monday I was rushing to my office for a conference call and Starbucks was closer. I didn’t bring my reusable mug to school drop-off because I thought I was heading home. That was, of course, before the siren song of caffeine reached my ears. Lesson learned: Always bring the cup.

The other items I trashed on Monday were an empty prescription bottle from my dog’s medications (Rx bottles are very tough to recycle), the lid to a vitamin bottle (the bottle itself was recycled), the lid to a Yoplait container (the container will go to recycling), and a Good Earth tea packet. This tea comes individually wrapped packets; I can’t resist its spicy sweetness, the quotations on the tabs and the fact that it is sugar-free and caffeine-free to avoid adding extra juice/calories to my day.

What didn’t get tossed:

I was about to throw away this popcorn bag from our family trip to the movies on Sunday (and no, Mlle. Cheap didn’t see “I Love You Man” — it was all “Monsters Vs. Aliens” for us). Then I thought, maybe I can compost it! I tore it up and threw it into our compost bin.

The beer bottle and carrier will be reused for homebrew.


On Tuesday, I was a bit worried that I was on a serious upward trajectory. Here are that day’s additions:

  • A cereal bag from Mr. Cheap’s breakfast. He usually has eggs, but our egg CSA pickup is on Tuesdays, so we were out of eggs by Tuesday morning. (I often use these for gift bags, but I have way too many accumulated right now.)
  • A label from a new credit card.
  • A Band-Aid wrapper.
  • A spiral from a document that I unbound and recycled.
  • Two Yoplait lids (containers recycled).
  • From our delicious dinner, a packaging bonanza: a wrapper from goat cheese, a tray and plastic wrap from salmon, a butter wrapper, and a sticker from a lemon.
  • The sheet from mailing labels that I used up.
  • The wrapper from some chocolate-covered pretzels that I found hidden in a secret location (that was the last one).
  • A plastic CD holder from a desk organizer that I don’t even own anymore. Didn’t think any thrift-store shoppers would appreciate that item.


Phew! Wednesday was much better than Tuesday. Two contact lens packages, the package from my dog’s monthly heartworm pill, the package and remaining half of a Benadryl given to Schnauzer Cheap for his unbearable allergies Tuesday night, another tea container and the cellophane from some Thin Mints.

On the way back from a veterinarian appointment I decided to grab some fast food for lunch. But this was my only waste from dining out:

… and I washed it off and tucked it away in the cupboard to reuse. I love that I can eat at Chipotle, have relatively well-sourced food (the meats are natural and local), request no bag and come away with no garbage. Because you choose your own straw, napkin, condiments, etc. (or don’t), you never have the surprise of a big wad of garbage after you’ve left the restaurant.


Thursday wasn’t too bad:

  • Another Band-Aid wrapper (I had an unfortunate run-in with the knives  on my magnetic knife rack when I was unplugging the toaster — nothing serious, but barked the edge of my hand pretty well).
  • More Yoplait lids (we looove Yoplait, and while I continue to strive to develop Yoplait-like yogurt, a good sale weakened my resolve not to buy it).
  • The package from a sleeve of whole-grain Ritz crackers (another “craving” purchase).
  • Two envelopes from hot cocoa mix for an after-school snack. (I do buy cocoa mix, usually in a bulk canister, but again these were almost free on sale, so I gave in.)

What didn’t go into the garbage were these items:

The stir stick (from coffee in the morning, in a reusable cup) went into the compost. The bottle cap went into a container where we are saving bottle caps with the idea of possibly making a craft, like the bottle cap wreaths we saw in the Colorado Governor’s Mansion at the holidays. The promotional plastic credit card went into an envelope of credit cards, possibly also to be repurposed into something like this mosaic frame.


Last but definitely not least … Friday. This shot shows a pull-string from some sort of package, two Babybel cheese wrappers (one for me, one for Mlle. Cheap), a granola bar wrapper from my breakfast on the run, a cheese wrapper from Mr. Cheap’s egg-and-cheese sammy, a wrapper from the candy bar we all shared for dessert the night before (not something we usually purchase — left over from months ago), more Yoplait and a plastic wrapper from … something.

Not pictured? Dinner. We were all exhausted and cranky on Friday night, and after bickering for 45 minutes about where to go eat, Mlle. Cheap requested Popeye’s and we gave in. Not free-range chicken. Not low waste. We threw out a couple of boxes and a couple of mashed-potato containers, plus napkins etc. Yikes! That meant that despite my relatively compact waste during the week, we ended up with a full trash can after Friday night.

Lessons learned

Almost all of what’s going out in our garbage is nonrecyclable plastic. Almost all of this plastic originates from convenience. I would say I very seldom eat something like a granola bar, but once a week is likely par for the course. We don’t eat a lot of single-use convenience foods, but lately we’ve had some. And dining out (or worse, takeout) can unleash an avalanche of waste. Clearly, choosing where to eat out, for instance, can make a big difference. Finally, we always have a bag of dog poo in our garbage; I am currently investigating solutions for that issue.

On the other hand, with our hectic lives, it’s hard to say that a livable answer is “make everything from scratch.” I can also look at the small triumphs:

  • Most days last week, we ate free-range eggs from our CSA or bulk-purchased oatmeal cooked in a pot for breakfast, as we usually do.
  • Every night but Friday, we cooked a meal at home from scratch.
  • Every day, Mlle. Cheap took her lunch to school in a reusable lunch box, with no waste from lunch or snack except Yoplait lids and one cheese wrapper.
  • After Monday, my coffee consumption came in reusable cups (and not every day — and I switched from a latte to an Americano to save money, too. Baby steps).
  • Last year, we almost always had two bags for pickup every week. Now we average about 3/4 bag per week. That’s a more than 50 percent reduction.

Have you taken steps to reduce your garbage? What has worked for you? What do you suggest for the rest of us?

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