waste audit

Know your waste: how to conduct a waste audit

After working with Cal Recycling and Refuse Services (CRRS) while in college at UC Berkeley, I became a pro at waste audits.

Yes… I spent hours (paid hours!) digging through trash to determine the amount of waste that could be diverted from the landfill by “rolling-out” composting and recycling bins in campus buildings. It was 2012 and very few buildings outside of the dining halls had composting or recycling.

Because of this time conducting waste audits, I neglected to realize that most people don’t even know where to start when I suggest conducting a waste audit as an initial step on their waste reduction path.

I have had waste on my mind long before going zero waste…

I have had waste on my mind long before going zero waste…

As you can see by these great pictures…

As you can see by these great pictures…

Just posted them here for fun :)

Just posted them here for fun :)

So, here is a guide to conducting your own waste audit.

First, if you just happened upon this post, my name is Sarah and I have been trying to reduce my waste to minimal levels since August 2019. I recommend a zero waste audit to start your process towards zero waste because to reduce your waste you must know your waste.

STEP 1: Take out your trash, recycling, compost, etc.

DONE!

STEP 2: Start fresh.

Mark the date when you begin filling up your new trash bag, recycling container, and/or compost bin. Act normal! Do as you normally would for 1-2 weeks or until your bins are full. Try to bring all of your daily waste home with you so that you can get the full spectrum of waste you produce, and designate one trash container in your home to put all your waste (from your bedroom, bathroom, etc.). I also recommend cleaning out any containers that you throw in the recycling/trash…it makes the audit process a lot cleaner!

STEP 3: Dig in!

Grab a pen and paper and make tally marks on what you find in your bins. Address each bin separately.

Photo from my most recent recycling bin audit (at-home recyclable waste produce over span of 2-weeks).

Photo from my most recent recycling bin audit (at-home recyclable waste produce over span of 2-weeks).

If you have a compost bin, I recommend weighing the bin and doing a visual check of what items you find. Are there mostly veggie scraps or fruit skins/cores? Did anything go in the bin because it went bad, like moldy bread or overripe bananas? Could any of this waste have been avoided or minimized?

For the recycling bin, tally items like plastic containers, aluminums cans, glass bottles, etc. and consider where most of these items are coming from. Are they being produced in the kitchen, the bathroom, or did you bring them home with you from eating out, etc.? These areas are where the majority of our waste comes from.

And most importantly - for the landfill bin, what is ending up in the trash? If you do not have composting in your area you will find that a lot of food ends up in the landfill bin (which can make a waste audit a lot messier!), but what else? Tally items like styrofoam containers, plastic wrapping, plastic packaging, diapers, toothpaste tubes, etc. And then, similar to the recycling bin, categorize these and organize by the frequency at which you found them in your bin. For example, when I first started I had a lot of “soft plastics” in my landfill bin like plastic wrap and plastic bags.

STEP 4: Find the low-hanging fruit.

My zero-waste produce shopping cart!

My zero-waste produce shopping cart!

What is something that makes up a large part of your landfill bin that could be easily avoided? To avoid the soft plastics that overwhelmed my landfill bin, I invested in some glass containers and used some plastic containers that I had laying around to store food. I also stopped letting people give me plastic bags in grocery stores, drugstores, or shops and committed to always carrying my own bag.

And, I stopped putting my fresh fruit in plastic bags at the grocery store and instead just let them roam free in my shopping cart. Decide where you can make an initial big impact (and get instant gratification) on your waste and make a goal of reducing that specific waste item first by finding alternatives or just making a change like bringing reusable bags to the grocery store.

Zerology founder, Claire Kaufman, having a date with these dumpling and her reusable to-go containers, and myself!

Zerology founder, Claire Kaufman, having a date with these dumpling and her reusable to-go containers, and myself!

PLEASE, don’t try to be zero-waste overnight…decide on a few manageable first steps and then build upon them as you move forward. Trying to reduce everything all at once will likely make you crazy, and maybe slightly dejected, so find a balance that feels sustainable for you. At this moment, being 100% “zero-waste” is not a possibility for most of us, whether because of availability of resources, time, money, or services (like municipal recycling and composting). With our current system, there will always be unavoidable waste (for example, contact solution, tofu packaging, medication, receipts, etc.)

I am lucky (i.e. incredibly privileged) to have access to a number of grocery stores that sell many items in bulk, to live in Cambridge, MA where composting and recycling are available, to have the time to invest in researching waste topics and cooking at home daily, and the income to support the upfront investment of buying low-waste items such as my 1-2 (costly) grocery runs a month where I fill up on all my bulk items (something that did not feel financially viable when I was living on an Americorps budget in San Francisco, CA last year).

So, don’t be hard on yourself! At Zerology, we want to support everyone’s path of waste reduction no matter what it looks like.

STEP 5: Repeat

Check in on your trash, recycling, and compost every few months to see how it has changed. What is still going to the landfill? How often are you filling a trash bag? Keep checking in with your waste as you move forward.

Note: “Zero-waste” can mean different things to different people. Many people view “zero-waste” as zero landfill waste and thus talk about diverting waste away from the landfill and towards the compost/recycling. Although this is an important aspect of waste reduction, if you feel ready, I suggest taking a comprehensive look at your landfill, recycling, and compost waste because I think it is important to remember that these still are waste streams that we should consider reducing in the long-term. Numerous natural and non-renewable resources go into producing the food we eat and creating the products that we use often in under a week (like milk cartons, yogurt containers, etc.). Understanding what is going into these streams is an important part of the bigger picture of waste reduction. More on that in a later post.

Good luck and feel free to comment and ask questions! And most importantly, don’t get bogged down by what you can’t do or change, keep looking towards what you can do!