While cleaning out my basement recently, I found miniature peat moss cups and string-bean seeds left over from a middle school science experiment. I used to like writing out a hypothesis, and patiently waiting to see how an experiment played out.
As I packed away the leftover seeds and cups, a thought struck me: why not assign myself a science project just for fun?
So I did. I did a little research and found that according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces 4.4 pounds of garbage each day. Total U.S. municipal waste increased from 2.7 pounds per person to 4.4 pounds per person per day between 1960 and 1997.
In the United States, we produce more garbage daily than European residents, who average 2-3 pounds daily.
My experiment was simple. For three days I would record every thing I threw away, no matter how big or small, and would make no changes to my daily habits until a full three days was complete. I didn’t think there would be much garbage at all, what with the reusable tote bags and water bottles I use regularly, not to mention that I consider myself to be eco-conscious. What I found in my research astonished me.
If the average person actually does produce 4.4 pounds of garbage per day that equates to 30.8 pounds per week, 128.2 pounds per month, and 1,478.4 pounds per year. The Environmental Protection Agency lists the most common landfill residents as packaging, office paper, diapers, and plain plastic bags.
The end of day two, I collected the things I had “thrown away” and placed them in a plastic bag. I weighed myself on the scale, cringed a little, then weighed myself holding the bag of trash. I subtracted my weight without the bag from my weight with to reveal a difference of 2.5 pounds. I did this again at the end of day three and got roughly the same amount (my home scale is accurate to a half pound, which is fine for anyone who isn’t a body builder). I guess my findings make me more European than American, but still—two and a half pounds a day? That’s more than I’d like to settle for.
On my way to work the next day, the car in front of me had a bumper sticker that read, “The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.” I felt a jolt of inspiration.
It was the first day of my new garbage reduction experiment. After carefully analyzing the contents of my trash lists, I found that most of my trash was consistent with the EPA’s list of common landfill items.
My four biggest downfalls were packaging from takeout, cleaning supplies, paper, and beauty supplies. Here are some of the corrections I made to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Take Out: Three simple changes: I ordered less often, something the environment and my wallet were pretty happy about. On the days I did order food, I used utensils and a cloth napkin from home, and politely asked the restaurant to send just food (no napkins, utensils, ketchup packs etc). This cut down on a lunch-sized brown bag full of things I wasn’t going to use anyway.
Paper: I proofread things a more carefully before printing now. This helps to cut down on typo-inspired trash. Also, I started a paper recycle box under my desk for scrap paper. Instead of writing by hand, I switched to Google Docs. The switch from hand-writing to typing wasn’t as awkward as I thought, and it allows me to share my work with friends. Google Docs inspired me to try online journaling. Penzu.com is free, and the variety of fonts, colors, and page options make me feel like I can truly customize my writing.
Another unexpected bonus was that I didn’t feel I had to censor myself so much in case someone should “accidentally” find and read my journal.
Beauty and Cleaning Supplies: Most cleaning and beauty supplies are meant to be disposable for convenience. Paper towels, Qtips, cotton balls can add up to some serious environmental weight. The EPA estimates the amount of paper used by Americans in 1995 to be just over 81 million tons.
To reduce, I brought a small hand towel to work to use instead of paper towels. It comes home and into the laundry each night. For beauty products, Maxim, Seventh Generation, and Organic Essentials all materials made with organic cotton. For cleaning, I started using old clothing scraps for dusting and cleaning the house and eco-friendly products like Method and Seventh Generation. All of the above brands are available at a variety of retailers, , and drugstore.com for a minimal price difference.
Even with all the new changes, I found myself wondering about the waste we can’t personally measure; using more laundry soap than needed, letting our cars idle on chilly mornings, leaving lights on, etc. etc. Becoming eco-friendly is a process. It requires careful thought, creativity, and planning. Most importantly, it requires consideration for future generations to come.