What if you had to keep all the trash you generated for a year? How would you look at things like disposable water bottles, fast-food wrappers, and little things like straws and Q-tips?
For the coming year, Alicia Ebaugh is going to be doing just that. The educator and public outreach coordinator for the La Porte County Solid Waste District has embarked on a year-long experiment to see what types of waste are created in the normal, every-day life of a person.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, in 2013, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash and recycled and composted about 87 million tons of this material. On average, the U.S. recycled and composted 1.51 pounds of its individual waste generation of 4.40 pounds per person per day.
At three weeks into the journey, Ebaugh already realizes that preparation is a big part of reducing her waste. Forgetting lunch at home leads to fast food for lunch and to waste packaging that can’t be recycled.
Each week, Ebaugh snaps a photo of waste she generates, including recyclables. She then writes about the process, making observations and suggestions for simple ways to reduce waste.
“I’m allowed to recycle during this experiment and I compost. I’m taking a picture of all of the waste I’m creating, but I’m only keeping the trash. So at the end of the year, this is the stuff that I wasn’t able to find another outlet for,” she says.
The 48-gallon trash bin on her patio is all Ebaugh is allowing herself to generate for the entire year.
“If I produce more than that, then I just can’t make any more waste.”
After the first few weeks, Ebaugh has produced just two little sacks of waste.
“So I think I’ll be ok,” she says.
Ebaugh teaches classes about recycling and waste reduction for the solid waste district.
“I teach the three Rs - reduce, reuse, recycle - and they’re in that order for a reason. I have already come into this experiment with that mindset, so the waste I create is already different from what I have seen that other people may be making.
“I know that reuse is much better at conserving resources than recycling, so even though water bottles are recyclable, I also know my first priority is to avoid creating waste in the first place,” she wrote in her blog last week.
Small changes like a reusable water bottle make a difference.
“It’s a simple thing that I did. Behavior change is the target here. We’re human beings. We don’t want to change things. We’re good doing what we’re doing, and a lot of people don’t want to be bothered doing that other stuff. I want people to know that I am living up to what I’m saying, and it’s easy for them to do it, too.”
Ebaugh also carries a reusable straw, fork and even chopsticks to reduce waste. But even with planning, waste happens.
“I obviously expected issues with keeping the trash. But of course, you create trash in more than one place. So I’m finding myself carrying home a paper plate from a party in my purse, and napkins from eating out and containers and stuff, which is annoying.”
Additionally, she occasionally argues with herself over whether she really needs ketchup for her fries or jelly on her toast if it means hanging on to those little packages to dispose of in her bin.
“Sometimes I take one for the team,” she says.
It can take some planning, but some steps are simple enough, she says. It’s about changing those habits.
“People are just used to throwing things away. You just throw it in the trash can and it’s out of the way. You take it out to the garbage, you forget about it and it’s gone. The premise behind that is that it does go somewhere. That’s what I want people to realize – that when you’re throwing stuff out, it doesn’t just go away or disappear. It goes somewhere else, and it sits there instead of in your house.”
Food waste is another serious issue that Ebaugh hopes to address during her experiment. “You don’t see food waste in my pictures, because I really don’t waste it,” she says.
According to New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Americans throw out 40 percent of all food generated in the U.S. Ebaugh wants to help people understand how serious it is.
“The waste of food in the United States is just horrendous,” she says.
Sometimes trash is personal.
Packaging and water bottles are one thing, but personal hygiene items like Q-tips, tampons and even dental floss are a little less comfortable to share with a large audience.
“It’s waste,” she says. “But I don’t really want to tell people how often I floss,” she joked.
However those items, too, are waste products she plans to address when necessary and to blog about how to reduce even that waste.
“People should talk about that stuff. Even if it makes them squeamish,” Ebaugh said.
When teaching a class called Garbology, the science and study of garbage, Ebaugh often tells students that garbage tells the story.
“I tell the kids that your garbage doesn’t lie about you. It tells people exactly what you’re eating, where you shop and depending on what else you put in there, where you’ve been. It says a lot about you as a person. It’s interesting to look at my own trash and think, ‘what does this say about me?’”