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The Great Big Waste Audit: What We Learned From Tracking Our Trash For a Week

It’s easy to throw something in the bin and forget about it, so a waste audit is a great way to stop and think about what you’re really sending to the landfill each time you tie up a garbage bag.
trash bag next to trash can in a kitchen - triplepundit waste audit

(Image credit: Pixel-Shot/Adobe Stock)

The term waste audit may conjure up images of people sifting through garbage, elbow-deep in a trash can. While that’s sometimes the case with large audits for cities or businesses, an at-home audit can bring you the same benefits without digging through week-old waste. 

It’s easy to throw something in the bin and forget about it, so a waste audit is a great way to stop and think about what you’re really sending to the landfill each time you tie up a garbage bag. By tracking what’s thrown away, you can identify ways to decrease your waste. Maybe you’ll start switching disposable items for reusables, take up composting, or shop at a refill store more often afterward. 

We’ve done a few personal waste audits over the years, and inspired by our Sustainable Living Challenge, we decided it was time to reassess. So, over the past week, we tracked our trash. 

How to do a simple waste audit 

Digging through a week’s worth of your own trash by hand leaves a powerful, lasting impression. TriplePundit's editorial assistant Taylor Haelterman did it for her first-ever waste audit and vowed to find a better way.

The new favorite method: Keep a piece of paper and a pencil near the garbage can to list items as they're thrown out, using tally marks to count duplicates. This offers an easy, visual reminder, but you can also keep track virtually on your phone’s notes app or in a spreadsheet.

Once you’ve documented everything you’ve thrown out over a period of time — we recommend one or two weeks — you can move on to sorting the items on your list into categories like food scraps, packaging and personal hygiene, for example. The number of items in these categories will help you determine where making the effort to divert your waste will have the biggest impact. 

The great big waste audit: Our results

Taylor Haelterman, TriplePundit editorial assistant. I’m shocked that I used almost 50 tissues in one week when I wasn’t even sick. I was reminded how quickly the small things we throw away add up the day that I marked down 13 tallies next to the word “tissues” on my garbage list. Switching out disposable tissues for handkerchiefs is something I’ve yet to make the leap to try, but after this week I might be convinced to give it a go. 

My personal hygiene category gave me the most pause overall. Tracking the floss I threw away twice a day kept me pondering potential alternatives for my dental products, too — something that hadn’t occurred to me until recently. 

The other most common thing I threw away was food scraps, which was less of a surprise. There’s no composting program where I live, and researching my composting options has been lurking at the back of my mind for months.

Though they are small, an apple core here and a bell pepper stem there add up to a pile of waste that could be put to use creating nutrient-rich soil instead of emitting greenhouse gases in the landfill. Keeping track of the tiny pieces of food I was tossing throughout the week was the push I needed to begin my search for a composting method. And I’ve started freezing vegetable scraps to make stock at home

Mary Mazzoni, TriplePundit executive editor. Considering I cook at home almost every day, I expected most of my waste audit to happen in the kitchen. But some of the things I'd been throwing away without noticing did surprise me. 

It started to irk me to see how frequently a half-plate or so of leftovers were ending up trashed after going off in storage containers in the fridge. Once I became more aware of it, it seemed easier to remember to toss that last bit of roasted veggies into today's stir-fry or add that half cup of rice to a fresh pot of soup. If left up to chance that someone will microwave it later, it'll probably end up in the bin, but making use of ingenuity and the online recipe libraries devoted to leftovers seems a straightforward way to cut it off at the source.  

Another thing I noticed was the tortillas. So many tortillas. My Mexican partner eats them at almost every meal, and I can't believe I didn't realize how often we were trashing them — some toasted for meals and not eaten, others the remnants of paper-wrapped packs from the Mexican grocer that went stale too soon in the fridge. The sad thing is that reusing them is so easy. Stale ones are perfect for tostadas or tortilla chips — just pop them in the oven or some oil in a frying pan until crispy. My personal favorite way to use them is in chilaquiles, a dish of tortilla chips cooked in a spicy salsa and topped with beans that is typically enjoyed for breakfast, though I love it any time. 

Beyond these (yes, very specific) examples, eating more seasonally seems a good strategy to keep my kitchen bins empty for longer overall. Cans of my beloved San Marzano tomatoes, for example, do start to pile up, and while steel cans are readily recyclable, choosing seasonal ingredients more often — or maybe even canning some freshies myself in the summer season — could certainly reduce waste. I also tend to use frozen vegetables more often in the winter months, and those plastic packs are not recyclable. 

Tossing an empty tube of sunscreen also made me think about my skincare addiction and its effect on the planet. While most of my moisturizer jars and serum vials end up washed out and reused for other things, I haven't figured a way to reuse tube packaging yet, and most of it is not recyclable. I generally choose plastic or glass jar packaging where possible for this reason, but I've yet to find an option like this for sunscreen. While I'd never stop wearing it just because I'm tossing a tube a few times a year — seriously guys, wear sunscreen, skin cancer is a thing — I'm curious to learn more about this. If anyone has any ideas for a lower-waste sunscreen option or a reuse solution, I'm all ears

The next steps

In the coming months, we'll start implementing changes to reduce the waste we've observed in our waste audit, moving slowly and steadily to avoid disengagement by swapping or replacing one or two things per month.

We'll keep track of how it goes — such as if we grew to love our replacement items or if we went back to the old — and report on our progress in July for the next Home Month in TriplePundit's Sustainable Living Challenge. If you decide to trade out something in your own home to reduce waste, we'd love to hear about it! Get in touch with us here

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The editorial team behind TriplePundit covers sustainability and social impact through the lens of solutions journalism.

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