Waste Audits: A Tool for any Stage of the Low Waste Living Journey
If only blog posts could have background music when you click on them, eh? This one needs a pump up song, because you're really only reading it if you're into the marathon of this low waste living journey. You've made some changes, been motivated, worked away, and now you're 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 that way. I find that it can be a little bit lonely on the journey and after you get 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 thing so that you're not the hypocrite that uses plastic wrap one day after you've brought your little reusable baggies for two weeks, or you can't manage the reusable bags one week and you reluctantly accept some plastic because you forgot but you can't go back home and grab them. Corporations and their waste loom, watching others throw plastic water bottles in the trash at lunch sits with you into the afternoon, someone rolls their eyes when you say you have your own cutlery, so no thanks to the plastic. There's a lot of reasons to lose the heart behind it all. 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 way 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 rather than get bogged down.
What's a Waste Audit?
To begin with, audits never have a good vibe. For sure they have the vibe of a greasy thin little moustache and the colour of washed out taupe. Usually they involve your money and the decision making that makes you cut 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 'mindset' or an '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 lives. 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 free to do.
The How-To: Get right in there, girlfriend
There's a couple of ways to do this - but basically, you're going to try to be 'aware' for a period of time to collect the data (what's going into your garbage) in order to inform your decision making (changes to your routine to decrease the waste).
1. Choose a waste area in your home.
I think 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 can 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 'conscious' 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. I find though that if you're not trying to categorize it and record it in some fashion that it is pretty easy to miss or dismiss some of the waste in there (like maybe just how much food waste, 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. Review the waste cycle for items categorized.
Some items in your trash have an alternative place you can be collecting to send them to, rather than dumping them in the trashcan. Setting up a composter, collecting items to reuse first for crafts (like TP rolls and fun recycling) or up cycling, sending to a local Terracycle bin, 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) can help you out first.
For example, that sock is going into a pile now for the wood staining that we do, because it is clean, just holey. The floss and toothbrushes will be composted. The TP rolls are headed to make a craft later today, and the razor bits and cosmetic packaging will go into the Terracycle box that we have. We don't fill our can too often in the bathroom, but if you do and you're at a different stage in the bathroom (like using up a lot of cosmetic packaging or your plastic razor stash before you switch something over to a more low waste option), you may want to grab an old bread bag and start collecting packaging or razor waste separately.
4. Reflect + Plan
So, now's the fun part. The motivating part.
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 it 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 and the period products in your can prevent you from wanting to sort through and do that. Solution? Grab a small jar or something out of your recycling that can sit beside wherever you store your floss that you can simply stash all your used floss in that you'll empty out when you empty your trash. Or, those bread baggies I mentioned for your waste that can be dumped into a Terracycle (as theoretically, this is just a short term thing until you can switch over to something more low waste, like a refillable or reusable).
Another useful bathroom tip for that I learned from someone else earlier in my journey was to have a compost/recycling can/collection in the bathroom alongside the garbage can, in order to make sure things were being disposed of properly and easily. Cotton swabs (if unbleached), 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 or so and be prevented from needing to dig through the grosser garbage can. Now that there are no period products and we now use hankies, we do not have that nastiness to deal with, and 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, 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 buy next audit now. 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 (I would likely start with just family cloth for #1 as #2 I'm not even sure how that gets all cleaned up; and luckily being the only female in the house, I would just need to get me on board with starting it out). 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.
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 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.
You can flit on over to another area of the house now and do the same process, or get started on a swap you've noticed needs to happen (and get to the thrift store for supplies, or get making hankies, or whatever) and save the waste audit tool for the next time you need 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.
So, I understand if these instructions get a little questionable, maybe a bit gross to most people reading this. I don't ever mind sorting my bathroom trash, but I tend to avoid doing the physical route with this in the kitchen, because there's always some food waste in there and I am so bad at cleaning out the fridge. The food that is in my trash is so gross that I would not make anyone sort it out. So choose whatever works best for you, but remember, confronting the waste we create is an important step in making any change for the better. There's too many generations before that had, erm, their head in the sand a bit when it comes to their impact, and changing that toss 'er over your shoulder habit means you have to turn around and look at the pile, and it's a gross pile.
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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