In honor of #FuturisticFebruary, a movement started by Carly Bergman, I decided to save my trash for an entire month.
That’s right. I decided to save every piece of trash I produced for one month. It was a really eye-opening experience and something I’m glad to have done.
In today’s post, I’m going to cover this process, which is called a trash audit. I’ll share with you the importance of conducting a trash audit, the actual steps to do so, and reflect upon what my experience has taught me.
Without further ado, lets get into the post!
What is a trash audit? And why should you do one?
Simply put, a trash audit is saving all of your garbage for a predetermined time and then assessing your waste at the end. It really is as easy as it sounds!
By saving all of your garbage for a set length of time, you can evaluate your consumption habits and evaluate the lifestyle changes you need to make to reduce your impact.
Most people create much more trash than they realize, and oftentimes they overlook the most wasteful parts of their lifestyle.
To prove my point, consider this question:
What is in your trash can right now? How many frozen pizza boxes, milk jugs, granola bar wrappers, etc.?
If you do actually know the answer to these questions, kudos to you! I’m impressed. However, don’t feel bad if you weren’t able to. Most people can’t.
Mindless consumption and disposal is something ingrained into our society. Breaking this cycle and being conscious of the decisions we’re making takes effort.
Everyone has different lifestyles and different consumption patterns. No one formula is going to fit everyone’s needs.
This is why I believe a trash audit is a necessary step for individuals interested in being more sustainable — it enables you to see which changes you need to make to have the biggest impact.
How to conduct a trash audit
1. Choose a duration for the audit
Picking a time frame for your audit makes the whole process seem easier. I’d suggest saving your trash for a week, two weeks, or a month. A week is enough time to get a basic idea of your waste production, but I prefer a month long audit. A month gives you enough time to really see what you’re consuming and to pick up on any patterns that are present.
Keep in mind that you’ll need time at the end of the audit to actually sort through and analyze everything you’ve saved.
2. Save your trash
Once you’ve committed to a length of time, save every. single. piece. of trash that you produce. Be sure to have a designated area to keep your trash items in to make the process easier. I personally tossed everything into a big box in my closet.
Some people also save food waste, but I chose to only save non-perishable items. This makes the process much less daunting, especially for your first time.
During this step, be sure to be honest with yourself. Consume as you would normally, don’t censor your habits! As time goes on, you’ll notice when something has packaging or find yourself getting uncomfortable knowing that you’ll have to put an item in your box once you’ve finished with it.
While bringing these issues to your awareness is super important (and one of the things I loved about this project), don’t alter your actions just to make yourself look better at the end of the audit. That totally defeats the purpose!
Instead, try to be as to true your consumption habits as possible. Having accurate results in the end will enable you to honestly evaluate yourself, and therefore allow you to make changes that will have a genuine impact.
Finally, and I can’t stress this tip enough, wash your trash before putting it in the box! Rinsing out any food containers and allowing them to dry before saving them will make the entire process much easier. You won’t have to deal with any gross smells during the audit and going through your trash in the end won’t be gross.
It takes ten seconds to do. Just trust me on this one.
3. Sort your trash
After the not-so-exciting task of saving your waste, now you get to do the fun part: analyzing it.
The first thing you want to do is take everything out and spread it on the floor. Take a minute to just look at everything you’ve amassed.
This isn’t meant to be a guilt thing or to make you feel bad about yourself. I just think it’s important to really be aware of the waste we produce.
We all have to start somewhere. This is your starting place. Going into the audit with this attitude will make the whole thing easier.
The next thing you’re going to do is sort the trash into piles. What types of piles you make is completely up to you! Some suggestions I have are:
- Recyclable/Non-recyclable items
- By materials (plastic, cardboard, metal, etc)
- By category (food packaging, personal care, junk mail)
Re-categorize your trash as many times as you need to and record the results. These notes are meant to help you analyze your waste output and give you something to look back on. Be as detailed as you like with them.
4. Analyze the results
While sorting your trash and seeing just how much you produce is eye-opening, I believe this step is the most impactful. Either using the notes you made or physically sorting through your trash, try to identify any patterns in your consumption.
Did you throw away a lot of plastic water bottles? Do you have an overabundance of candy bar wrappers? Are you surprised by how many cotton rounds you used?
Really look at what you’re throwing away. Having a greater understanding of our waste makes it easier to pinpoint just what we need to change in our lives.
5. Set goals
Speaking of change, the next step is deciding what you can change to make a difference. This is, in my opinion, the most important part of a trash audit.
Once you know exactly what you’re throwing away, you can set goals or make lifestyle adjustments to reduce your waste in these areas. Using my above examples as a guide, you could do the following:
- Buy a reusable bottle to replace the plastic water bottles
- Make your own zero waste snacks or buy some in bulk
- Use a washcloth or buy reusable cotton rounds
These in and of themselves aren’t earth-shattering, life-changing swaps. However, making swaps that replace your biggest sources of waste is an important part of leading a sustainable lifestyle.
My trash audit results
I saved my trash for 29 days (the month of February 2020). I didn’t save any food waste items or tissues/paper towels. I already make a conscious effort to avoid using tissues/paper towels so I don’t think it would have made a huge impact on my results.
I’d also like to reiterate that everyone’s lifestyle is different. I’ve been actively attempting to make more conscious choices when it comes to consumption for three or four months. I’m not a seasoned member of the zero waste community by any means, but I’m also not completely new to the concept either.
Please don’t compare yourself to my results and beat yourself up for producing more trash than me. Likewise, don’t critique me for the items I have purchased with packaging.
We’re all at different points in our journey, and that’s 100% okay. Every effort makes a difference.
With that said, here is a photo of my trash:
All things considered, I don’t think this is that bad! There’s obviously some room for improvement (like less packaged and processed snacks), but I’m not mad about this audit.
I’m not going to break down my audit piece by piece in this post, but I will share two key takeaways I got from this practice.
The first is food packaging vs. non-food packaging
Going into the month I expected the majority of my waste would be food packaging. I wasn’t prepared, however, for just how much of it was food packaging! I was going to take two separate photos for the categories, but once I saw the proportions I decided it’d be more effective to just mark which items aren’t food packaging. The items circled in red below are the non-food waste items I produced:
Three receipts, a deodorant tube and the plastic safety cap from the new one, and three vitamin bottles.
Everything else I produced was food packaging waste!
The Terra chips and Enjoy Life protein bites were given to me and past their best by date, so I wanted to eat them quickly so that they tasted their best. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have bought them for myself, but I didn’t want them to go to waste. I still have an obscene number of the protein bites, so I anticipate my trash will be filled with those for the foreseeable future.
With those two exceptions, everything here is something I’d regularly choose to purchase. My takeaway from this assessment is that I want to opt for more sustainable snack options. Much of the packaging comes from snack foods, and with some planning I’d be able to make ahead low waste snacks to have on hand.
The second breakdown I’m choosing to share is recyclable vs. non-recyclable items
Non-recyclable items definitely outnumber the recyclable items, but I don’t think it’s as bad as it would have been just a few months ago:
It’s important to note that I’m determining whether or not an item is recyclable based on the availability in the area where I live. Thin, filmy plastics, type 5 plastics, and tetrapaks are all examples of items that can be recycled elsewhere, but not where I live.
Seeing this comparison definitely encourages me to pay closer attention to what the packaging of a product is made out of. I’ll never be perfect, but making an effort to make more sustainable packaging choices is doable!
There you have it!
I hope that this guide to trash audits has been helpful for you! I’m planning to participate in #FuturisticFebruary again next year, so it will be interesting to compare my results and see how I’ve progressed on my sustainability journey.
Have you conducted a waste audit before? Or has this post inspired you to? If so, I’d love to see your results! Feel free to tag me in your posts on Instagram (my handle is @aflourishingsoulblog) or comment your findings below!