How to Put Less Garbage Into the World

Have you seen what a garbage dump the Internet has become lately? The news cycle has ranged from dismaying to devastating, and reactions from a surprising amount of my fellow Americans have been uglier and less compassionate than any time I can remember, including post-9/11.

If people making Internet comments were at a party or a bar, I’d leave and never return, but they’re in a machine in my pocket and they don’t stop and I can’t turn away for long. I unfollowed a few knuckle-dragging acquaintances who I previously kept in my Facebook feed just for entertainment, but I know they’re still out there in droves.

Amidst the ongoing spewing of negativity, it’s been difficult to feel like any positive change can come on an overcrowded planet with so much contention and small-mindedness. But something about my own household trash offered a glimmer of hope.

I recently noticed we’ve had the same box of 13-gallon trash bags since my boyfriend and I moved into our loft just over a year ago. In fact, 13 remain of the original 80. And these aren’t the big ones — these are medium-size bags that line a knee-high, Oscar the Grouch- style kitchen trash can. So (considering some bags were recruited to other purposes), we use just barely more than one of those bags per week.

Since the average trash output is about four and a half pounds per person per day, and there are two of us, what accounts for this minimal output? Recycling diverts a large portion, and that includes the scads of plastic bags we still acquire despite my vigilance at stores with reusable bags (you can drop off collections of plastic bags at supermarkets for recycling, and it’s not a great system, but it’s something). We stash all chicken bones in the freezer to recycle into stock.

But most of the rest of the food trash goes out to the yard.

We dump organic kitchen waste like coffee grounds, eggshells, and fruit and vegetable trimmings into a closed, ventilated bin in the back corner of the yard, then forget about it as nature takes its course. It’s kind of hard to mess up — organic matter wants to break down.

This is composting, and you can do it whether you have outdoor space or not — but it’s a no-brainer when you have a yard. I’ve used small indoor compost bins, and apartment-dwellers without yards can also bring their collected scraps to urban collection spots like farmers markets. (Or simply feed everything to your dog, the greenest composter of all, capable of turning your kitchen waste into fuel.) (Kidding, kinda.) Our current building uses an Earth Machine, which works great, or you can DIY a bin. Again, you are just putting vegetable matter outside to decompose, so you don’t have to get out your wallet.

Likewise, before your daily trip out to the bin, you can collect your scraps in the kitchen in a specially made canister, or just use a 30 oz. coffee can like we do.

Like the Paris agreement, this is nothing near a fix for environmental woes, but it’s something.

Composting is satisfying because it makes a quantifiable difference. Unlike recycling other materials, it pays off in a few other ways you see yourself: by converting into black gold, nutritious material to mix into dirt for gardening and other plantings. Mentally, you’re part of a healthy process of contributing something good to the world, and becoming more connected to nature, while physically putting out less trash to molder in a dump.

Bonus: this pile of refuse will conspire to send up green shoots — volunteers (pictured here). These are viable sprouts growing from the seeds of vegetables you’ve composted. You may not know what all of them are at first, but you’ll be glad you kept this trash around. My garden this year had many more tomato plants than I planted.

As with gardening, composting can be a learning process. There are ways to do it better, which I don’t bother with yet, and you’ll need to decide on some specifics to get started. But if you want to vastly reduce the amount of trash you’re sending to the landfill, the main two steps to work into the household routine are:

  1. Separate out your food scraps
  2. Bring them to the composter.

It’s so easy a kid can do it. (In fact they should — send ’em out to the bin in the snow when it’s too cold for you to go out. It’s character-building.)