You can cut landfill waste by 96%. Here’s how I did it


A tale of two trash piles: The plastic peanut butter tub in the foreground contains all the landfill-bound trash KCRW reporter Caleigh Wells made in a week. The bags in the background represent the waste of her friend Sydni Goodrich. Photo by Zacile Rosette.

Yeah, climate change can be scary.

No, you can’t solve it on your own.

So sure, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of a global problem.

But if you’re itching to do something, there’s plenty in your power that you can control.

Here’s one option: Reduce the amount of trash you throw away.

But why?

Because landfills are one of our country’s largest producers of methane, which is among the most potent greenhouse gasses warming the planet. And 14% of the nation’s methane comes from landfills.

But how?

Well, that depends on just how far you’re willing to go. Some might call this reporter’s lengths extreme. But our childhood best friend (and all-around good sport) who’s never tried to limit her trash agreed to do a test-run on garbage reduction, and she figured out how to cut her trash in half without having to change her lifestyle much at all. (Check out the audio to hear how our week-long experiment in trash reduction went.)

If you’re here for the tips, we’ve organized them from simple to more demanding.

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit.

Easy: Use the other bins

Organic waste (think food scraps) is some of the heaviest and bulkiest garbage in the bin. Luckily the state of California has made it a lot easier to compost it instead of tossing it in the landfill. We did a whole story about how to better use your green bin, or what to do if you don’t have one. In many cities, you can put more in there than you think – including chicken bones, coffee grounds, and even unbleached paper towels.

The blue bin for recyclables is far from perfect, but knowing what to put in there increases the chances that it gets recycled properly. California has this guide for what you can recycle, including links to specific local municipality rules.

Easy: You can give away more than you think

It’s more than donating clothes to Goodwill. There’s almost no limit to what you can gift by joining your community’s local Buy Nothing chapter. And if you don’t have one, there are countless trade and swap groups on social media. Anecdotally, searching your neighborhood and buy/sell/trade on Facebook frequently turns up the best results. This reporter has turned to her local Buy Nothing group to give away used candle containers, plastic takeout utensils, half-finished knitting projects, tattered towels, and full dressers that went on to live a second life with a neighbor.

Easy: Plan ahead for meals

Bring tupperware to the restaurant for your leftovers. Swap out plastic produce bags for reusable mesh ones. Ask the coffee shop to fill your travel mug instead of giving you a cup. Bring the metal straw and a set of silverware to the in-office potluck. Invest in the reusable water bottle.

These require you to spend a little time or shop a little differently.

Medium: Trek to a recycling center

It’s not every day you need a new dishwasher or computer, but big items fill up the landfill quickly. Household appliances, tires, old electronics, mattresses, carpet, used oil and paint are some of the items that require special disposal, or can get recycled at specialized facilities. Sometimes that means getting the company delivering your new mattress to haul away the old one, or dropping the old electronics off at the nearest Best Buy.

Recycling in the blue bin is an option, but there’s no guarantee the stuff in there will actually get recycled. You can increase the chances your old beverage containers (think aluminum cans and beer bottles) get a second life by bringing them to a redemption center. Plus, you get money for returning them.

Medium: Diversify your grocery shopping trip

The farmers at a farmers market will usually take back the rubber bands, egg cartons, honey jars, and berry baskets they give you, and reuse them for the next customer. Shopping at the local markets also means your fresh produce doesn’t have those stickers that have to get tossed, and it’s less likely to come wrapped in plastic. You can also buy in bulk to avoid packaging at some grocery stores. Sprouts and Whole Foods sell shelf-stable goods like rice, flour, and nuts in bulk, and you can load up reusable bags. Smaller bulk sections are sometimes available at larger grocery store chains like Kroger and Safeway, but the selection varies by location.

Medium: Rethink the bathroom bottles

Soap and shampoo comes in bars, not just plastic bottles. Toothpaste comes in tablets. Some toothbrushes are compostable. Some brands sell floss and deodorant refills for your reusable containers.

Now we’re getting into the lifestyle changes that could add minutes to your day and really cut back those last bits of plastic from your garbage can.

Hard: Skip the premade lunches and pre-cut produce

Diced onion, pineapple chunks, and minced garlic are convenient, but to avoid tossing out the containers they come in, buy the produce whole and get chopping. The rice and popcorn that come in the convenient microwavable bags often are available loose in the grocery store’s bulk section.

Hard: Make your own [insert food staple here]

Nut milk, tomato sauce, vegetable stock, all-purpose cleaner, sourdough bread. This reporter has tried all of the above and, truthfully, only keeps up with the vegetable stock and all-purpose cleaner consistently. By collecting and freezing vegetable scraps – onion ends, carrot tops, celery bulbs – and then steeping them for several hours every couple months, you can have a steady supply of soup stock ready. All-purpose cleaner comes from combining a few household products in a matter of minutes.

Making tomato sauce, nut milk, and sourdough bread is doable. It just takes a while … and, at least in this household, gets used up pretty quickly.

Hard: Creatively reuse the single-use stuff you do generate

Plastic bags become dog poop bags. Paper bags turn into gift wrap. Cardboard boxes become free gifts for that friend who’s moving.

Hard: Stop getting takeout

Okay, so this one isn’t difficult to figure out, but we know it’s a sacrifice. And giving up your favorite taco from your favorite truck might be a non-starter. But since the packaging is inevitable, and a lot of it isn’t recyclable, consider how often your meals involve single-use containers, bags and plastic forks. And look for places to limit those orders to the ones you care about most.