The year of measuring trash: How much stuff do you throw away?

Eco-Tip | By Scott A. Rappe 

Have you ever wondered how much stuff you throw away? For years I wanted to measure our household waste stream. My opportunity finally came when Santa brought me a small spring-balance weighing scale. It took a lot of persistence, but I found the effort very enlightening. Here’s a breakdown:

Trash discarded by my family of four, during 2009 (1,800 pounds total)

First, I was amazed by how much paper we accumulated. Beyond an occasional Sunday newspaper and typical food packaging, the bulk of it was junk mail — 600 pounds of junk mail!

The next number that struck me was glass. No pretenses here: With two kids and two stressful professional lives, we drink a lot of wine.

The plastic number is a bit misleading. While the weight (47 pounds) was almost equal to that of the metal (43 pounds) I would bet that the volume was at least 100 times larger, so diverting it from landfills is really important. But while metal is recycled, plastic is only down-cycled, becoming less valuable with each successive use. Nonetheless, more than 60 percent of our non-food garbage ended up in our blue carts.

I am particularly proud of the quantity of food waste we diverted to the compost bin. We are a vegetarian family that cooks most of our meals at home, so we generate a prodigious amount of food waste. We separate our food waste into two streams: raw (peels, cores, rinds, seeds, roots, leaves, wet paper, coffee grounds & filters, etc.) which goes straight to the compost bin, and cooked (plate scrapings, pot scrubbings, moldy cheese and food-tainted paper) which goes to a bokashi fermentation bin, where it pickles for a few weeks before going to the compost bin.

All the compost produced is spread on our front and rear yards. We produced nine 5-gallon buckets last spring; I expect much more this year. Almost 30 percent of our garbage never leaves our property. Now that’s something!

I was disappointed that 10 percent of our waste still ended up in our black bin. This trash included everything that cannot be recycled in Chicago, mostly unmarked plastic, plastic films, foam containers, chemical-tainted paper and cardboard, etc. Missing from this tally are batteries and electronics, which were dropped off at the Goose Island recycling center, which the city operates off Division Street at 1150 N. North Branch St.

I suspect our total of 1,800 pounds is probably lower than what the average American family of four tosses annually, since we try to be very aware of what we purchase and discard. But it is still far above what any family of four should be throwing "away." This year we will continue to be vigilant with our purchases and do our best to reduce the amount of junk mail we get.

Watch for an upcoming article on our composting system.
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