Op-Ed: I Live Without Making Garbage, and You Can Too

The average American sends more than three pounds of trash to the landfill every day.

(Photo: Joel Sartore/Getty Images)

Feb 17, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Amy Korst is the creator of the Green Garbage Project, a certified master recycler, and high school English teacher.

I live a zero-waste lifestyle—meaning I live without creating trash. This started about four years ago, when my husband and I dreamed up what became known as the Green Garbage Project, a journey where the two of us vowed to send as little trash as possible to the landfill for an entire year. This would certainly be a challenge, considering that the average American sends more than three pounds of trash to the dump each day.

Over the course of one year—during which we saved any landfill-bound trash in a shoebox—my husband and I produced just four pounds of trash between us: an odd little mélange of miscellany, including a dog squeaky toy I ran over with the lawn mower, a popped balloon, some medicine bottle seals, and a broken Christmas ornament.

Guess what? Living trash-free was easy. People don’t believe me when I say this, but I mean it. Once we had a few systems in place, we didn’t give our zero-waste lifestyle a second thought. We just went about our daily business like average Americans. How we did this—and how you can too—is detailed in my new book, The Zero Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less.

What I expected to be a yearlong challenge has since turned into a lifestyle and, dare I say, an obsession. I never would have dreamed that my life’s work would be literal garbage, but there you have it. I check out books from the library on trash, I save my Subway sandwich wrappers for recycling, I worry whether or not things like M&M’s packages are recyclable.

After all this obsessing, here is my major, if completely unsurprising, observation. Trash is everywhere. More to the point, we make trash constantly, and we walk around leaching it like some farcical version of Charles Schulz’s Pig-Pen character.

A display I encountered at the Oregon Caves National Monument Visitor Center a few summers back drove home this point. While waiting to tour the caves, I ran across a clear plastic box filled with trash. A small sign accompanied the refuse: “Oregon Caves have so many cracks and crevices that it can be quite hard and sometimes impossible to retrieve items accidentally dropped. You can help keep the cave clean and healthy by removing lint, wrappers, extra pieces of paper, and other unneeded items from your pockets before you enter the caves.”

Most of us don’t litter intentionally, but we do create a massive amount of trash each day without blinking an eye. This awareness is the first step toward reducing our society’s obscene trash output. Once you are holding a piece of trash in your hand, take a second to think about it before automatically reaching for the garbage can. Unless you can think of some ingenious way to reuse that item instead of throwing it away (old shower curtain as tarp? pickle jar as penholder?), it is likely trash. The key is to ask yourself how you can avoid making that trash next time.

The easiest way to start your own zero-waste journey is to think about trash before you buy it. Most of the garbage Americans create is in the form of packaging. Often, if you look at packaging before you buy, you’ll find that two similar items are packaged differently. Choose the one with recyclable packaging (or consider not buying that trashy item in the first place), and you’ve taken the first step.

Really, if for no other reason than your mother taught you to clean up after yourself, we all have a responsibility to leave the world a little cleaner and a little greener.