My Trash Can Overhaul (and the Recycling Conundrum)

My Trash Can Overhaul (and the Recycling Conundrum)

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Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. What’s that sound? The pitter-patter of little feet racing down the stairs in the morning?

Nope. It’s the trash can lid going up and down a hundred times a day.

Seriously . . . how do we make so much trash? And why is our house still bursting at the seams with “stuff”?

The good news is we have an efficient trash pickup service and that includes a recycling program. Recycling . . . the last of the “Three Rs” is our best friend, right? All of that stuff taking up space in your house can just be dumped in your recycling bin, set out on the curb, picked up by your friendly neighborhood recycling collectors, and then turned into something shiny and brand-new!

Or so we thought.

Turns out, the brilliant idea of curbside recycling isn’t the perfect solution we thought it was. Most of the materials you put in your recycling bin won’t end up being recycled at all.

Here’s a sobering statistic: less than 5 percent of it is recycled.

Some waste won’t be accepted by your local recycling company because it isn’t material they can process at their facility. If you fail to clean food debris off your trash, it will probably also be rejected due to the risk of contamination. If you don’t follow exact instructions (for example, tossing in beverage bottle caps when your local recycling company specifies “no lids”), your trash may also be headed straight for the dump because the lids may get caught in the company’s machinery and damage it.

Plus, a lot of the material is simply sold to other companies who can process it . . . and many of those companies are in China. However, China’s 2018 ban on American “trash” leaves our curbside recyclables with no end destination, besides the nearest dump.

And, let us not forget, plastic waste does not biodegrade. Every piece of plastic ever manufactured still exists in some form. Much of it is in landfills — and, sadly, in the ocean — and being consumed by fish and sea creatures, thereby leaching into our food supply and into our bodies, too.

Is that enough to send you screaming to your doctor yet?

So, what’s the point? If all this junk is headed for the landfill anyway, you might as well put all of your waste in the trash can, right?

Well, no, that’s not what I’m saying. But I do think we should be smarter about our how we handle our trash.

With a little strategic planning, I am happy to say we’ve reduced our household waste to one bag of landfill-bound trash per week. That includes kitchen trash, bathroom waste, and other odds and ends. (I thought that was pretty great until I did some quick math and figured that if every person on the planet threw out 1 bag of trash per week, that’s still about 8 billion bags of trash, so it’s definitely not ideal, but it sure beats 5 or 6 bags of trash, I suppose!)

It’s pretty simple to reallocate the trash by training yourself to stop and think briefly before throwing something in the can. Here is what we did.

First, we have three trash cans in our kitchen. (It seems like overkill, but we’ve had them so long we really don’t notice them anymore.) One can is for landfill trash — everything we can’t recycle. The second can is for recyclables, and the third (small) can is for compostable waste.

Yes, we started a compost heap this year! Exciting stuff, right? Who doesn’t love making their own dirt? But that’s a story for my next blog post.

We’ve trained the kids to use the correct cans. They usually ask for help if they’re not sure where to throw something. And honestly, I was amazed at how much trash we were able to divert from the dump simply by separating out our food waste. All of our excess fruit and veggie peels and rinds go into the compost bucket, along with eggshells, coffee grinds, etc. Then it goes out to the compost pile. It’s made a huge difference in the bulk of our trash can.

The recycling bin takes a bit more thought these days. Pretty much all of our paper products and junk mail can go in here, along with glass bottles, cardboard, and tin cans. Plastic is a problem, though. I don’t know about your town, but mine recently revised its recycling rules so that we are only allowed to recycle plastic jugs and bottles. They are no longer accepting plastic food containers, wrapping from toys, you name it—any plastic labeled #3-#8 is right out.

But for the items we can recycle, we make sure to thoroughly rinse them out and let them dry before putting them in the recycling bin so that we are following all of our recycling company’s rules, in hopes that our material doesn’t get rejected and sent to the dump. Be sure to look up your collector’s regulations online to be clear on what they’ll accept and what they won’t.

I, for instance, was unaware that our city’s agreement with the recycler specified that all of the waste be loose and unbagged. It turns out all those years I was tossing bags full of recyclables into our totes was an enormous waste of time! Thank you to one of our vigilant neighbors on the Nextdoor app for pointing this out.

But above all, we’ve become more mindful of how much we are consuming and what we are throwing away. Remember the first of the Three Rs? That’s right: reduce. The goal: Only buy and throw away what you need to. And the second R? Reuse. If we can find a product we can use multiple times instead of just once, why not do that?

Refillable K-cup pods are a great example of this. Or how about digging out your grandmother’s set of cloth napkins? Got a favorite stainless steel mug or tumbler? Take that to Starbucks for a refill instead of using a paper or plastic cup.

Being conscious about what we purchase in the store has gone a long way toward changing our trash habits, too. Do your kids love fruit cups? My daughter eats mandarin oranges by the pound. But I was getting frustrated with the single-serving plastic cups they’re sold in, so I switched to canned fruit since the tin cans are recyclable. And I try to buy juice in paper cartons instead of plastic jugs. Remember glass applesauce jars? I wish they’d bring those back!

A lot of what we buy is based purely on habit and we unconsciously reach out and grab it on the shelf as we go past. It is taking a bit of effort to retrain myself to look at the packaging first before putting it in my cart. But after admiring our emptier trash can, I’ve found it to be well worth the effort.

At least I haven’t thrown my back out lately trying to take out the trash!

About the author

Jennifer Bonnar is a Lake County resident, mom of a young son and daughter, and wife of fellow blogger Jason Lea. Her day job is in the publishing industry, in which she’s worked for 12 years. She graduated with a degree in journalism from Ohio University and earned her MBA from Lake Erie College. In her past life she worked in marketing at Cleveland Clinic and as an intern on the TV series “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Born in Pittsburgh, she receives regular razzing for her lack of interest in Cleveland sports. She loves to travel and keeps busy taking her kids to karate class, reading and writing whenever possible, and of course finding ways to live greener!

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