22 Tips for Minimizing Trash

The best way to keep trash out of a landfill is not to make it in the first place.

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It's been said before that the most important of the three R's—reduce, reuse, and recycle—is the first. The best way to keep garbage out of landfills is not to make so much of it in the first place. It's a notion that's starting to take hold across America, where some communities and restaurants are going waste-free. According to the New York Times, the community of Nantucket has a stringent recycling and trash sorting program that has caused the percentage of residents' trash that is landfill-bound to drop to 8 percent, compared with 66 percent for the rest of Massachusetts. Their mentality is similar to that of many Europeans, who generate far less waste than Americans: After all, if your trash was only picked up a few times a month, you wouldn't want to make much of it either. Restaurants and corporations are getting in on the act, too, by composting their food waste, and Honda has jettisoned their dumpsters at eight plants—recycling has eliminated the need.

The Times' waste-free story was fortuitously timed to coincide with the first No Impact Week. You'll recall Colin Beavan, the New Yorker who tried to live with the smallest possible impact on the planet for a year, taking his wife and daughter down the rabbit hole with him, and emerging with a book deal. Beavan found that a waste-free lifestyle with a tinier footprint actually made him a happier person. He thinks it could make you happier, too. So with his non-profit, the No Impact Project, Beavan has designed a one-week program that encourages anyone to replicate his feat (or stunt), and decide how they feel: inconvenienced? satisfied? restricted? relaxed? Each day has a different focus, from food to transportation to energy. And this week—the Inaugural No Impact Week—Monday's focus was on eliminating trash. Another blog, EcoSalon, has accounced the beginning of "Trashless Tuesday" to encourage waste-free living at least one day a week (The day is a companion to "Meatless Monday," an initiative that goes back to World War I).

The point of Beavan's take-home experiment is that participants can decide which of the tasks are easy enough to maintain forever, but trash is a toughie when everything we buy comes double-wrapped. Here are some tips to minimize the amount of trash you make each week.

  1. Avoid overpackaged items. Buy items like nuts and cereal from bulk bins.
  2. Purchase products packaged in recyclable materials, i.e. eggs that come in cardboard, not styrofoam.
  3. Bring your reusable mug to the coffeeshop, and your reusable water bottle to the fountain.
  4. But don't stop there—get reusable utensils and napkins, too. Instead of sandwich bags, use Tupperware, or those plastic containers from your takeout.
  5. Consider composting your waste, and using the fertilizer to garden.
  6. Keep your paper towels out of reach, to encourage you to use a sponge or dishrag instead.
  7. This cold season, instead of going through boxes of tissue, get some handkerchiefs.
  8. Banish junk mail from your house with a service that takes you off of mailers' lists.
  9. Bring your own bag to the grocery store.
  10. Learn how to fix items that break, instead of immediately replacing them.
  11. Donate old books and clothing, or reuse them. The really worn-out towels and t-shirts can be made into rags for the kitchen.
  12. Use scrap paper for notes instead of Post-its. Recycle the paper when you're through with it.
  13. Make your own versions of food that comes individually packaged, like yogurt or granola bars.
  14. Consider cloth diapers instead of disposable ones.
  15. Keep razor blades out of the trash by buying a straight razor.
  16. Purchase rechargeable batteries.
  17. Take your financial transactions online.
  18. Opt out of using a straw or lid at fast-food restaurants.
  19. A washcloth works just as well as cotton balls or disposable sponges.
  20. Buy a fabric softener ball instead of using dryer sheets.
  21. Refill your printer cartridges instead of throwing them out.
  22. Make your morning brew with a reusable coffee filter.