How to Avoid Creating Trash

Landfills are expanding every day. Between 1960 and 1990, trash production has doubled, and since then remains at about 4.5 pounds per person per day[1]. Despite a growing push to recycle and reuse, we must try to correct not the symptoms but the disease, and to do that, we should all reduce. Consuming intelligently and putting pressure on companies to use biodegradable and recyclable material without over-wrapping their products is part of the solution. The other part is using less first. Here are some things you can do right now.


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    Think about whether you need an item before you buy it. Can you make do with something you already have? The more you buy, the more trash you will create, so if you can make the items you already own do double duty, you will create less trash in the long run.
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    Do not buy overpackaged products.
    • Avoid buying items packaged in individual serving sizes. Buy one larger bag or bottle instead of many smaller ones. Since you are paying for less packaging and shipping, you may also pay less by buying in bulk.
    • Ask your butcher to wrap your meat in peach paper only, then attach the price on top to keep the paper folded. Peach paper is a strong, water- and oil-proof beef or pork wrapping paper normally used to split stages of meat inside a Styrofoam tray. It is available in rolls or in sheet.
    • Buy fresh, unpacked, fruits and vegetables.
    • Buy grains, pasta and dried fruit in bulk.
    • Look at whether the package is recyclable in your area before you buy.
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    Use your own bags when you go grocery shopping. Both paper and plastic bags do the environment little good.
    • Bring a canvas bag with you to the store.
    • Ask store clerks not to bag items that have their own handles (milk, bottled laundry detergent) or already have bags (produce) or packages (cereal). Often, the package an item comes in is at least as convenient as putting that package in another bag.
    • Ask for no bags if you only bought items that you can easily carry or if the items are going straight from cart to car to kitchen.
    • Pack your purchases yourself. You can pack them your own way and save time and bags.
    • If you cannot avoid getting a plastic bag from the store, reuse it as a trash bag for the bathroom, bedroom or kid's room.
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    Go Paperless! Paper makes up about 30% of average American garbage[2].
    • Don't print pages if you can see the information on the computer screen.
    • Use a note-taking or journaling app to collect information you wish to save.
    • Receive and process bank statements, pay stubs, bills, and many other documents electronically.
    • Read newspapers and magazines online if they are available there.
    • Avoid collecting brochures and flyers. Were you going to read them, anyway? If you do want to follow up with somebody, take a business card, or take a photo of their literature or sign.
    • Use reusable gift bags. You can even make your own out of fabric.
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    Stop your junk mail. A few phone calls or web page visits can work wonders. It will save you time, clutter, and possibly money, too.
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    Give away or sell what you don't need. Try Freecycle, Craigslist, or your local charity.
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    Purchase used products from garage sales, classified advertisements, or anywhere else they are available. You'll save money and reduce the demand for new products. Buying used is a direct form of recycling.
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    Choose to reuse.
    • Use fabric napkins instead of paper napkins or paper towels. Find two or three per member of your family (hint: thrift stores and garage sales are a great source). If they do not all match and they are not too dirty, family members can use them for more than one meal.
    • Pack a waste-free lunch. Use a lunchbox, not a paper bag.
    • Use reusable food containers instead of plastic bags or prepackaged drinks, both in your lunch box and at home. If you do use plastic zipper bags for food storage, you can wash and reuse them several times. Do not reuse bags that contained meat.
    • Avoid using paper plates, paper or plastic tablecloths, and disposable flatware.
    • Use a washcloth instead of a disposable face wipe.
    • Use fabric, not paper, towels, in the kitchen and bathroom.
    • Clean with terry towels instead of paper towels or wipes.
    • Use cloth diapers, at least when you are at home. Wash the diapers instead of throwing them away.
    • Use a menstrual cup or washable fabric pads.
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    Use less.
    • Buy only as much of something as you know you can use before it spoils. Plan your menus ahead, and aim for a one-week supply of perishable foods.
    • Portion what you take. If you can do with less than an entire paper towel, tissue, or dryer sheet, consider cutting it into smaller pieces.
    • Empty the trash without replacing the liner, unless the liner is heavily soiled. Separating especially messy trash, such as vegetable scraps for compost, will keep liners usable for longer. Reuse grocery bags for trash can liners wherever possible.
    • Use only as much soap and detergent as you need. Open your washer during the cycle. If the water feels slippery, and (in a top-loader) looks sudsy, try cutting back just a bit on the detergent you use, regardless of what the cup says. See how little shampoo and dish soap you need, too. Many products have concentrated ingredients. Remember, beyond the amount necessary to do the job, more soap does not mean cleaner. It just means more rinsing.
    • Cook at home. Raw ingredients often come with less packaging than prepared, boxed foods.
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    Compost and mulch your garden with what you grow there. It will cut down your yard and vegetable waste (often around 15% of the waste that households produce) and it will improve your soil and your garden without the use of chemical fertilizer. If you can use mostly materials you were producing anyway, such as grass clippings and fallen leaves, you will also save many trips to the nursery or hardware store to buy mulch and soil.
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    Borrow, lend, rent, and share. If you and your neighbor both do your own gardening, do you each need your own lawnmower? Could you rent a tiller, pickup truck, or cement mixer for the day or week when you need it?
    • Use your local public library. Borrow books, music, movies, magazines, newspapers and then return them to share with others instead of creating more, or storing them forever.
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    Maintain and repair instead of replacing. Don't throw out your vacuum cleaner if it isn't picking up. Check the bag and the belt and make sure the hoses are free of clogs. Take it to a shop and ask if you can't repair it yourself.
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    Buy for durability. Whenever possible, choose a product that you will use for a long time and be able to maintain and repair should it be necessary. It may cost a bit more up front, but it will save waste and money in the end.
    • Durability goes for style and fashion, too. It is not always possible to tell before buying something how soon it will be hopelessly out of date. However, it is usually possible to buy simple, classic styles that you like and can wear or display in your home for a long time.
    • Search the web for "buy it for life," or the abbreviation "BIFL." You'll find forums and product recommendations for exceptionally durable products of all sorts, from tools and utensils to things you might not expect, such as socks. If you're looking for something and don't find a "buy it for life" recommendation, ask for one in a forum concerned with the topic.
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    Reuse and Recycle!


  • Reducing waste can often save you money. Washing your own cloth diapers is less costly than buying disposable or paying for a service. Bringing your own lunch from home in reusable containers saves you the costs of purchasing bags and lunches at school or work.
  • Look in your trash can before you take out the trash. What's in there, and how might you avoid creating as much trash in the future?
  • Donate washcloths, towels, and sheets to your local animal shelter or veterinarian. They will be glad to have them.
  • Find out if you can reduce your garbage bill if you reduce your waste. Many cities charge by the can or bag, or offer a lower rate for using smaller or fewer bins for weekly set out.
  • Sometimes, disposable items are the best solution for messy or temporary situations. Packaging helps keep foods safe and fresh. It also helps in shipping and delivering delicate products without damage. Use your judgment to vary your approach properly.
  • Question products which look like plastic but claim to be compostable.[3] Many are only compostable in industrial composting facilities—which are still few and far between—and they still may not break down entirely. In the environment or the landfill, they may last just as long and decompose as badly as conventional plastics, and they are not recyclable. A reusable item is best; otherwise, a recyclable plastic is likely to be the better choice both in terms of waste reduction and of energy used to manufacture and dispose of the item. (Wood, paper, and cardboard are compostable, unless they are covered in plastic or foil.)


  • Launder washcloths, fabric napkins, and towels regularly. Have enough that you can replace them as they get wet or dirty. Wash them with your regular laundry every week or so.

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