Daily Dose of Waste. Part 2.

The phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” is one crafted with intention. It is an instruction or hierarchy of priorities when thinking about the waste we create. We should start by reducing our production of waste. We should then reuse any waste we can. Once it’s served its purpose we should recycle anything that can be.

When we start taking a hard look at the amount of trash each of us produce, it’s easy to see that reducing our consumption is the best way to reduce our total production of waste. But at the end of the day, when we have the amount of trash we create laying in front of us, we need to dispose of that trash correctly. However, this isn’t something to be rushed and given little thought because things like misplaced recyclables can lead to contamination of an entire batch of recyclables.

As discussed in the previous blog in this series, the photo above shows 1 day worth of trash accumulation for me. Throughout the day, we make quick judgments about where we think our trash belongs. I would imagine you often want to reach for the recycling bin whenever possible, but the reality is that about 50% of our waste ends up in a landfill.

Despite our best efforts, most of us use products that don’t have much value and the cost to benefit ratio results in them ending up in a landfill. The amount of our waste that ends up in a landfill is likely inflated due to the contamination mentioned earlier. When you and I put items that don’t belong in the curbside-recycling bin like food scraps or plastic bags it can end up contaminating the entire lot of recycling. It ends up being too expensive for waste processors to separate the good from the bad and it all gets sent to the landfill. This is why it’s so important for us to be educated in what is recyclable and what isn’t, but we’ll get into more depth on that on a later blog post.

Separated day of waste

After my day of trash collection, I went ahead and separated everything into its appropriate place. I was refreshed to see that a large portion of my waste from the day could be recycled curbside, which is on the far left. Front and center you’ll see my compostable waste. We are also lucky to live in an area that offers composting so I was able to turn everything from my banana peel to my paper towels and coffee filter into a valuable resource. If you don’t have a compost facility near you, I highly suggest you start a compost of your own. It can be really rewarding!

Unfortunately I was still left with a good chunk of waste that I needed to go through store-drop-off for recycling or had to go to a landfill. In fact nearly 4lbs of my 8.2lbs of waste ended up getting sent to the dump. Things like the freezer gel pack for my meal delivery kit add up quickly, which is a reminder of my need to reduce my waste production.

 The upper left corner represents the plastic products that cannot be recycled curbside. These items don’t work well with standard recycling equipment and need to be brought to store-drop-off locations. Things like plastic grocery bags are a great example of this. But rest assured, that I reuse the heck out of them first!


In my next few blog posts I will give you much more information about exactly how and why this plastic is treated differently, the difference in all the plastic you see, how to tell the difference, and why its such a problem when we recycle incorrectly.  But until then, make sure you are thinking twice before tossing anything into that recycle bin.

Daily Dose of Waste. Part 1.

Quickly after thinking up this trash blog project, I got to wondering: How much trash do I really throw away? I mean, I like to keep the environment in mind. I have to be keeping my waste to a bare minimum, right? I figured, what better way to get to the bottom of this than to collect all the trash I created during 1 day.

1 day of trash accumulation

           

24 hours later, this is what I had to show for it. 8.2lbs. in all. I can’t say whether you think this looks like a lot of trash, but personally, I was somewhat appalled with what I had to lay out in front of me. When you multiply this by 365 days in a year and the nearly 330 million people that live in the united states, the amount of trash is staggering. According to the EPA the exact amount of waste is about 292 million tons annually. That means the average person produces almost 1,800lbs. of waste annually. Based on what I happened to produce today, I am far above that number at 2,900lbs.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) breakdown by materials

It’s easy to forget all the small things we get rid of on a daily basis from the cotton swabs and floss picks to start out the day to the countless wrappers and packages we receive our products in. Throughout this process I had to stop myself from instinctively just tossing these things into the garbage. This served to show me how second nature our trash is to us. We often don’t give it much thought at all. We simply toss it in the bin and other than maybe moving it out to the curb, it’s mostly forgotten. This is precisely why I think our environmental issues have grown to the state they have. Out of sight is out of mind.

I also had an unexpected lesson from this process: you can tell a lot about a person from their trash. Looking through it, the daily decisions I make become a lot more apparent. It was evident that many of the pieces of trash I had accumulated were a result of using a product/service that was a more convenient option. While I love the convenience of an at home meal delivery kit, there is a lot of individual materials that end up getting tossed because of this desire. Really the direct to consumer products (the things shipped directly to ourselves) are likely the largest contributors to the total trash creation in my case.

I would challenge you to do something similar for yourself. You don’t need to actually collect your trash like I did, but in order to think differently, you need to approach your day-to-day life differently. Spend at least a day or more taking a mental note of every little piece of trash you throw away. Think about was this piece of trash really necessary or was there another way you could have avoided it. Through small actions like this, we can collectively reduce our consumption and thus make a large impact on our total waste production.

Unpacking Our Environmental Dilemma

While I was in college I had a professor that told me I would make trash for the rest of my life. To most people that would be an insult. However, to me and the thousands of others that work in the packaging industry, it’s a reality (thanks for the insight Dr.Batt!). We make products that accomplish exactly what they are designed to do, but we often aren’t successful in the end of life for these packages.

Packaging is typically designed to accomplish a few things. Specifically, to contain, protect, promote, and transport a product. By this measurement we are effective, but I would argue there is a major over-site. We aren’t always designing with the packages end of life in mind. I want to change that.

Once our packaging is utilized, it’s tossed in the trash and that’s the end of it. My hope is to inspire both others in the industry and consumers using these products to think differently. But this isn’t just about packaging. This is about everything we use. Only through a holistic perspective can we improve the complex world we live in.

As environmental concern has grown over recent years, consumers have demanded more, and rightfully so. Like many others, the packaging industry has begun to answer that request in a variety of ways and is continuing to develop new materials and methods to do so. However, this request for brand owners and manufacturers to solve this dilemma alone is futile. It’s you and me. It’s the consumers of these products that also have a responsibility to use our products and dispose of them in an appropriate manor. We have the power to buy from brands that we believe in. Brands that keep the environment in mind when creating their products and packaging.

You see, this isn’t a blog just for my packaging industry colleagues. They likely already know much of this information. This is an opportunity for anyone to educate themselves in everything trash. Knowledge is power, even if it’s just on garbage. I will be exploring things ranging from some of the foundational information about what our products are made out of to some of the complex and creative ways different industries are solving this environmental dilemma we find ourselves in. So let’s unpack this box of environmentalism knowledge and see what we can learn together. Careful, this might get dirty.