Americans have a one-track mind when it comes to our trash. We want it out of sight and out of mind—as soon as possible. As "stuff" has evolved to address our demands for convenience, particularly in the food and beverage industry, we've started to perceive everything we buy as disposable.
The average person now generates 4.3 pounds of waste per day, with 55 percent of it ending up in landfills. If that isn't a sign that a bit of holistic thinking is in order, I don't know what is.
Before you toss your waste in the trash bin, here are some simple questions to ask yourself:
1. Why is it trash?
Let’s say you ripped a small hole in your T-shirt—would you try to mend it, upcycle it, resell it, donate it, or throw it in the trash?
At what point does a product and its packaging become waste in the first place? The answer is actually a matter of perspective. It becomes easy to look at objects as disposable when they can be easily replaced with new, mass-produced, relatively inexpensive goods. Living a more zero-waste existence starts with taking a tip from nature and looking at "waste" as a potentially valuable material.
2. What material is it made of?
Identifying the materials in your trash is the first step in figuring out how to dispose of them in a more responsible way. According to the EPA, about 28 percent of the solid waste stream in the United States consists of food waste and yard trimmings. These can be composted to divert material from landfills and prevent the generation of methane and other greenhouse gasses. Paying attention to what metals, plastics, paper, and glass materials are in your bin is important, too, which leads me to my next question.
3. Can it be recycled?
Everything is technically recyclable, but an item is considered highly recyclable when most public recycling systems accept it. Research your town's or city's recycling system and find out what it accepts before you throw anything out that could easily be returned to be repurposed. For example, some states have mandated recycling initiatives on plastic bags. The shelf-stable and refrigerated cartons that hold soups, milk, and juice are now recyclable in some communities too.
There are ways to responsibly deal with items that are not accepted curbside or through a public system, too. My company, TerraCycle's free, brand-sponsored recycling programs can solve for unexpectedly recyclable items like used toothbrushes and old toys. We also have turnkey recycling boxes for you eco-warriors who want to recycle everything from coffee capsules to the contents of your bathroom.
4. Does it have waste on it?
Once you decide to recycle an item, you need to make sure that it isn't covered in food or other types of waste, as this can interfere with the recycling process. For example, cardboard pizza boxes soiled with grease and food remnants are not recyclable until you remove the tainted portions. When paper products, like cardboard, are recycled, they are mixed with water and turned into a slurry. And water and oil just don’t mix.
Do your best to scrape all the solid food scraps out of jars and cans before putting them in the bin, but keep in mind that small amounts of food don’t interfere with the glass, steel, and aluminum recycling processes, as those materials are recycled using heat.
5. Can you hold on to it until a solution is available?
Have you ever noticed now many public areas like parks, train platforms, and street corners don’t have recycling bins? It’s easy to toss your waste into the nearest trash bin when the alternative is littering, but holding on to your recyclables until you are able to place them in your blue bin at home or the nearest public recycling drop-off is a significant way to divert these items from landfills.
Thinking of all trash as having a place within the recycling system helps us align our human consumption with nature and promote a more sustainable world. Let's get started!