If only blog posts could have background music when you click on them, eh? This one needs a pump up song, because you're probably reading it if you're far into the marathon of this low waste living journey. You've made some changes, been motivated, worked away, and now maybe you're a bit stuck and you're not really sure what to do next. You deserve some big applause because you're already making impacts, and now you need some fresh inspiration. Enter a pump up song - ba da ba! Ba da ba.
If only it were so easy to stay on the course and moving forward! I find that it can be a little bit lonely on the journey and after you've really gotten into it, tough. People will start to notice what you're doing, but you don't feel like you're fully there, and it seems like there is this all-or-nothing thinking surrounding a lot of it. It's polarizing. It's exhausting. You worry that suddenly you're shown to be a hypocrite because one day you need to opt for the convenience route on something you've been working so hard at. Corporations and their ongoing mountains of waste start to loom. Watching others throw plastic water bottles in the garbage after a lunch break starts to grate on you into the afternoon. Someone rolls their eyes when you say you have your own cutlery and refuse the plastic. I could go on - and on! There are a lot of reasons to lose the heart behind it all. It's really tiring sometimes. So, if I could, I'd play you a song. You're doin' great, and this is all part of it.
A waste audit is a great process to find some fresh inspiration when you're not sure what to do next and a bit of a road map to focus on and get planning with the next step rather than get bogged down.
So, what's a Waste Audit?
To begin with, audits never have a good vibe. Usually they involve money and decision making that cuts back on things you like to do or the impending feeling that you will have to sit in a tiny school chair while someone wags their finger down at you in shame. No one wants to get audited.
But your trashcan does!
An audit is basically a collection of data to inform decision making. You are going to be looking at your trash, mentally or physically sorting it into categories, and then making decisions that will inform planning and next steps.
You can do a waste audit at any time - they are helpful at any stage of the journey, really. You can even think of it as a reset or a renewed awareness of your waste over time, because things are always changing. It's a tool that can be generalized and useful in many settings along the path, which is great, because everyone has a different life, family, household setting (etc) and we all have different challenges and habits. A lot of people aren't sure where to begin in minimizing their waste or what to do next, and a waste audit is basically a tailored answer to that question in your own home, and is completely free to do.
The How-To: Get right in there
There are a couple of ways to do this - but basically, you're going to try to be 'aware' for a period of time or physically get in there to collect the data (what's going into your garbage) in order to inform your decision making and action planning (changes to your routine to decrease the waste).
1. Choose a waste area in your home.
Generally it is easier if you attempt one waste area at a time (bathroom, kitchen, or recycling bin). Awesome on ya if you want to choose one thing to work at in each area at a time, but if you want to just do one change at a time, that's amazing, too.
2. Sort the waste (physically or mentally) into categories.
I recently shared on my Insta stories how I did this in the bathroom. I dumped our bathroom waste basket on an old towel, and sorted it into different piles. I had floss, packaging for my TP rolls, cosmetic packaging waste, an old sock, cotton swabs, some toothbrushes, some disposable razor pieces my husband is using up, etc.
Alternatively, you can just make a plan to be aware of what's going into your garbage can. You can either make a little note as you go (an easy way to do like a category and tally situation) or just frequently open your garbage can and visually assess what's there until you have a grasp on it all. I find though that if you're not trying to categorize it and record it in some fashion that it can be pretty easy to miss or dismiss some of the waste in there (like maybe just how much food waste there really is, or saying "oh that was just this one thing in this one situation that I threw in there") and you'll miss out on the reflections on those areas that need to happen to really consider the bulk of your waste at the end of this.
3. First, divert items from Landfill
Divert from Landfill - some items in your trash have an alternative place you can be collecting to send them to, rather than dumping them in the trashcan. Depending on your waste, there are different options, and some may need research or some time to consider how to make it easiest for yourself.
Solutions for this might look like:
- setting up a composter
- collecting items to reuse first for crafts (like TP rolls) or upcycling
- sorting to drop off at a local Terracycle point
- or washing them out/breaking them down to be recycled (like a pizza box - only throw out the sections that have grease on them, and recycle the rest)
How I sorted my Bathroom Stash
For an example of how you might divert, here's what I did:
- The sock from my audit is going into a pile now to be used as a rag for any wood staining that we need to do. It's clean, just holey, and still usable.
- The floss and toothbrushes can be composted.
- The TP rolls are headed to make a craft later today
- The razor bits and cosmetic packaging will go into the Terracycle box in the shop once I wash them out.
4. Reflect, Plan, Simplify
Look at the categories and determine if you're actually disposing of things properly, or if you need to set things up in an easier fashion to make proper disposal work.
Let's take the floss as an example. While you can definitely throw out your compostable floss, maybe you actually want to compost it, but the used period products in your can prevent you from wanting to sort through and make it happen. A solution? You can grab a small jar (or something suitable out of your recycling) that can sit beside your floss where you can stash used floss in that you'll empty out occasionally. Our bathroom has a salsa jar that collects contact lenses for our eye doctor's Terracycle bin, and a jam jar to collect discarded cotton swabs for the compost.
Another useful bathroom tip that I learned from someone else earlier in my journey was to have a an extra can for collection in the bathroom alongside the garbage can, in order to make sure things were being disposed of properly and easily.
This can was for compostable items, items bound for other areas (like a Terracycle or the craft bin), or things that needed to be sorted away and dealt with to keep them all separate from the "true" garbage. This helped a lot during the periods of "using up" items before swaps to a reusable option or sustainable swap occurred. Cotton swabs (if plastic free), compostable floss, and recyclables like TP roll tubes and packaging went in there, and I would sort that out at the end of the month so that I didn't need to dig through the grosser garbage can. Now that there there are no used period products in there (having switched to reusables and a cup) or used facial tissues (having swapped to hankies), we do not have that nastiness to deal with in sorting. Once those switches were made, we were able to remove the garbage can as the bathroom virtually switched over to being zero waste with the need for only the compost/recycling can.
For the rest of the categories that don't have a waste cycle option other than straight to the landfill, you can now determine what you want to change. For me, I had a couple of options to work away at changing, even at a later stage in the journey. I had a pile of single use cotton swabs and a pile of toilet paper packaging (paper exterior wrap and tubes) that I knew could be decreased. I am going to finish using up the swabs that I have and switch to reusable silicone swabs. That category won't exist on my next audit once that switch has happened! The paper packaging and rolls can be eliminated with the use of family cloth, but I know that's not realistic for us at this time, but something that is now on my radar. If I wanted to switch to that right now, I would make a plan to make it happen - the collection/creation of cloths, and a set up in the washroom to collect it all and ways to make sure it was successful. In a recycling bin audit, we noticed an excessive number of sparkling water cans, and made a plan to watch for a Soda Stream on sale and stock up on reusable straws and citrus to squeeze in the water rather than buy a bunch of packaged syrups. The planning stage can take as long as it needs to and you can slowly figure out what will work best for you.
There's always something that will pop out that you can move forward with. It might be a concrete plan to get started with a habit change, a simple product swap, or even just a simple awareness that a behaviour has morphed into a habit that maybe needs to change. For example, you might notice that you need to simply start politely refusing the exterior plastic baggie on the sub you buy twice a week, or figure out a different spot in the fridge to put leftovers so that they actually get eaten up instead of thrown out. This piece will truly look different for everyone!
You can move on over to another waste collection area of the house now and do the same process, or get started on a swap you've noticed needs to happen and save this waste audit tool in your pocket for the next time you need it. In reading this post over again, I can see that it might seem quite intense to be analyzing your waste in this way, but it's a great way to help us all take stock of the waste we are creating and learn to move towards taking responsibility for it. I haven't ever finished up this process with only one idea or takeaway, and I hope you feel the same when you're done!
Thanks again for all your work - it's not easy confronting the negative outcome of our own actions.
Thanks for doing the work, moving forward, and making such a positive impact. And ya know, turn on some pump up music while you get into it, because you're running your own marathon, and it has a pretty beautiful and rewarding finish line to head towards.
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