Cutting Back on Waste

Modern civilization throws out too much stuff, and that waste is affecting the climate. The U.S. produces the equivalent of 4.6 pounds (2.1 kilograms) of waste per person every day. That number is a little lower in the U.K. — about 3.1 pounds (1.4 kilograms) per day — but it's risen 9 percent in nine years. That garbage sits in landfill sites, producing methane gas, one of the most serious greenhouse gases. (Refer to Chapter 2 for more about methane.) Add to that the fuel burned in transporting trash to the site and the energy exhausted to create that unwanted stuff, and humanity has a real problem on its hands. Happily, people have the power to remedy the situation by making some adjustments to their lives.

^ Some communities offer limited recycling or composting options. If yours is one of those, try calling your local government and asking if they have any ■ (oj■ plans to expand these programs. Write a letter to your mayor or the editor of your local paper. If you don't demand action, who will?

Producing less garbage

Aim to produce zero garbage. It shouldn't be too hard: You can recycle or compost about 90 percent of what normally gets tossed in the trash. And sadly, a lot of what people do throw out they didn't need in the first place. Did w you know 25 percent of all food that U.S. households buy gets thrown out?

■ Coll You can cut back on non-recyclable, non-organic waste in the following ways:

l Plan meals. When you know exactly what you're going to eat for the week, you're unlikely to buy more than you need. Avoiding food-related excess cuts down on both food waste and garbage, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

l Reuse containers. Avoid disposable plastic bags for your lunches and leftovers, opting instead for sealable containers that you can use over and over. (Be careful, though, to use non-plastic containers so you don't get nasty chemicals leaching into your food.) Not using disposable bags cuts back on fossil fuels used to make that plastic, saves the energy used (and emissions created) from making the bags, and reduces emissions by producing less waste. As an added bonus, you save money.

l Avoid individually packaged products. A lot of products now come prepackaged for individual use. Sure, they're convenient, but they're not worth it in the long run. You pay more and create a whole lot more waste. Instead of going for the individual packages, buy in larger quantities and create your own individual portions in reusable containers.

l Buy in bulk. At many natural food stores, you can buy not only food but washing detergents and shampoos in bulk. Save and reuse the containers for bulk purchases.

l Avoid disposable bottles and cans. When possible, buy products in refillable containers — but be sure to get them refilled! (Check out Chapter 5 to see how much energy goes into making aluminum cans.)

l Avoid ordering take-out. Driving your meal to your home, the waste from the disposable containers, and so on — the problems with take-out are many. If you do order take-out, ask what kind of packaging the restaurant uses to find out whether you can recycle that packaging.

l Try not to buy on impulse. All it takes is a pause to think about why you're buying something — more often than not, you don't really need the product, and it just ends up in the garbage, contributing to the global warming problem.


Recycling saves energy: It takes much less energy to melt down an aluminum can to make another can than to process the raw materials to make a can from scratch.

Most materials are recyclable, but what you can recycle depends on where you live. You can call your city or town, or visit its Web site, to find out what you can recycle in your area, as well as what gets picked up on the curb versus what you have to drive to the depot yourself. Here are the materials most commonly recycled in city centers:

l Aluminum: Rinse aluminum cans and foil that you want to recycle.

l Glass: You often have to sort the glass by color (green, brown, and clear). Wash jars and remove their labels. Many countries give money for certain glass containers, such as beer, wine, and soda bottles.

l Paper: Separate newspapers, magazines, and cardboard from regular paper and flatten boxes. If grease-stained, pizza boxes go in the garbage.

l Plastics: Plastics are generally categorized by numbers — including plastic bags. You can usually find these different numbers on the bottom of the containers. Check which numbers your city or town collects. Many cities and towns don't yet recycle plastic bags.

l Tetra-packs: You can recycle juice boxes and cartons used for milk, juice, and even wine. Just rinse and flatten them.

Throw only recyclables into the recycling bin. If your city takes only number 1 to 5 plastics, don't put in number 6 hoping it'll just get mashed in with the others. Workers at the plant see that misplaced item and often toss your whole bag in the garbage — which is more efficient than sorting through your mistake.

Where you can recycle these things depends on your area. If you have curb-side recycling, you can recycle as easily as you can toss something in the garbage. Unfortunately, not all cities collect recycling yet. You may have to bring your recyclable products to recycling bins, which you can usually find at your local dump.


When you put food waste in a garbage bag, you create the perfect conditions for methane to form because when organic material decomposes in the absence of oxygen, it generates that potent greenhouse gas. If you compost that material — enabling it to break down into nutrient-rich material that you can use as fertilizer — you stop methane production, keep bags out of rapidly-filling landfill sites, and (best of all) create a wonderful substance that nurtures plants. What's not to love about composting?

Home gardeners have been composting their vegetable peels, plant trimmings, leaves, and grass clippings for ages. Now, many municipalities are providing compost curbside pick-up or central drop-off locations. Municipal programs typically accept a wider range of compostable materials than a home compost pile, including meat and fish products, bones, bread, pasta, paper towels and tissues, pet wastes, and disposable diapers. These additions can go a long way to making yours a zero-waste home, and the municipality can use (sometimes even sell) the compost they produce.

If you live in an apartment, or if your city doesn't pick up your compost on the curb yet, you can opt for vermicomposting. If the name makes you squirm (like it still does for Zoe), it's fitting — vermicomposting literally means composting with worms. A little creepy, but, with fans like Martha Stewart, it's a good thing. The little guys simply live in a bin, munch on your food scraps, and send those scraps out the other end as compost. They're quite happy to compost your scraps, and they break down your food rather quickly. You just need a bin with air holes, soil, and the worms. Or you could opt for a worm condo, like the one that Oprah has — a fancy stacked and aerated bin.

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