By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the term “zero waste” or “minimizing waste” over and over. Maybe you have a fairly decent understanding of what that means. You may also be super overwhelmed by the thought of where to begin and how to obtain ZERO waste. Those tightly packed trash bags seem to be glaring at you now and you immediately feel a sense of defeat. 

Hold on though. Take a deep breath. Remind yourself that getting started is always the trickiest part and everything gets easier with practice. 

I’ve been in your shoes, and I’ve taken enough steps to say confidently that you CAN do this. 

Now, I personally prefer using phrases like “minimizing your waste” over the very daunting “zero waste”, but that’s the term with the most popularity and it’s widely recognized. So, keep that in mind when you see me or others out there advocating for zero waste — it’s more important to just start somewhere and keep doing the best you can do.   

Which is why one of my top recommendations for knowing where to start is to audit your trash

… Sounds gross, right? You’re probably imagining getting your hands dirty and spreading out your trash everywhere. I mean, you can do that if you want to (I know people who have!), but I’m going to describe how to audit your trash in a clean and simple way because, you know… cleanliness.

woman auditing her trash by sorting what's inside the bags

But First, Why Should You Audit Your Trash?

Let me give you some basic statistics to start: 

  • We throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour in the U.S., which equals 42,000 per minute, and 695 per second. 
  • We could recycle 75% of the waste in America, but we only recycle 30% on average.
  • Every year, the amount of plastic wrap produced could shrink-wrap the state of Texas.
  • Glass and aluminum are infinitely recyclable!
  • Americans use 65 billion aluminum soda cans per year.
  • In one day, the energy used to create and distribute junk mail in the U.S. could heat 250,000 homes, and almost all of that product ends up in landfills (it’s called “junk mail” for a reason).
  • ONE American consumes roughly two trees per year in paper products.
  • The United States throws away $11.4 billion worth of recyclable containers and packaging every year (can you imagine throwing that many dollars into the trash?!)
  • And here’s the kicker: “There are 25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea.” Not to mention how all that waste is impacting our wildlife, their habitats, and our overall ecosystems which WE rely on. 

(Source for all above)

When reading these statistics and more, I’m stunned at how normal all this waste has become. The fact that we typically have to pay more for recycling and compost services than for trash to be dumped into a landfill seems completely backwards. What’s even more disappointing is when we find out that much of the recycling we’ve paid for with our efforts and money is being dumped into a landfill anyway. This New York Times article outlines the “crisis… in the recycling movement right now” and how this is influencing “amplified calls for limiting waste at its source.”

person climbing mountain of trash at giant landfill

So, How Do You Audit Your Trash Then?

In order to take part in those “amplified calls” to action, we must raise our awareness. The responsibility is not completely on the consumer’s shoulders (downstream), the pressure needs to be placed on the corporations producing such waste (upstream). That will not change, however, if the individual consumers aren’t raising their voices, voting with their dollars, and demanding change. 

(see my post on zero waste take-out for some inspiration regarding individual actions becoming the “masses” that inspire real change in major businesses) 

Start by raising your own awareness as you audit your trash for just ONE week! 

Follow these simple (and clean!) steps to find out what you’re consistently throwing away. Then, you can find a clearer direction in how to minimize your waste. 

Step One: Choose a reasonable timeframe and track it somewhere

calendar to choose timeframe

You could easily commit to audit your trash for one week and gain some valuable insight in that timeframe. Pick a date to begin (why not today?) as well as the final date. I would recommend plugging that into your calendar and having some kind of a digital reminder each day to help you remember. 

Step Two: Decide on ONE trash can to use for the week and place a notepad beside it (or use your phone) to track what you throw away. 

notepad and phone to track items when you audit your trash

If you have multiple garbage bins in your home, it’s easiest to audit your trash when everything is in one place for the week. Once you’ve decided, the only thing you need to do is track each item you toss. For example, if you throw out a banana peel, Q-tip, tissue, and an empty box of cereal, write down each one of those items. Use tally marks to note multiple items so you don’t have to write them down over and over. Also, it’s important to be genuine in order to show completely accurate results. Don’t change your habits just yet, that’s coming next! 

Step Three: After the week is over, go through your notes and make categories for the items you consistently threw away.

computer to help track categories

If you threw away lots of food items, make a “food” category. If you threw away lots of packaging from food, make a separate “packaging” category. Q-tips, tissues, toilet paper wrapping, toothpaste tubes, and more could be placed in a “bathroom” category, and the list goes on. 

Step Four: Now that you have your categories, pick the ONE where you want to focus your efforts first. Save the rest for when you’re ready to come back to them. 

number one to symbolize picking one thing from your trash audit to focus on changing

You don’t want to overwhelm yourself and no one makes meaningful, lasting changes overnight. You can totally start building the foundation for lifelong habit changes, though! Remember, it’s all about taking one step at a time. When you’ve picked the category you want to tackle, focus your efforts on just that for now. The rest will come. 

Step Five: Focus your efforts following my simple-step process. Approach. Budget. Live. Repeat. 

(see my full post outlining the importance of this process here)

approach, budget, live

First, approach. Let’s say you chose the food category. If you found that you threw away a lot of excess food, you could start by learning to plan your meals at the beginning of the week so you only buy what you’re going to use and any leftovers can be eaten for lunches. If you begin implementing that practice and find you have leftover food scraps, you could look into the composting options available to you. When it comes to the “budget” and “live” steps, you want to commit to something that’s actually doable. Can you afford to look into a composting service in your city (if there is one)? Can you purchase a small composter for your home? Does it make sense to build your own compost pile if you have a backyard? Take the steps you can right now, and you’ll know when the time is right for you to repeat the steps with a new category.

No matter what category you choose to focus on first, there are many resources out there to support your journey, including the person writing this post! I have tons of content prepared to publish on a weekly basis, and if you haven’t already signed up for my email list, don’t miss out on the weekly tips and resources I’ll be sending! If you’re interested in a more personalized plan and need some guidance, I’m available for consultations (both in-person or over video-chat). And if you’re in the Denver-Metro area, I can even accompany you on a zero waste shopping experience! 

The Impact After You Audit Your Trash

I recently read this article and found it really helpful in my own personal growth, and this excerpt felt applicable here: 

And there’s the crux of searching for self-awareness: Do we embrace the “ignorance is bliss” adage when a bright light shines on our flaws? Do we simply escape the reality of who we are and let the tides of the day carry us adrift? Or do we face ourselves and move onward towards a path that allows us to reinvent ourselves to embrace our best, truest selves, regardless of how painful it may be at times?

When you audit your trash, it can feel very vulnerable and eye-opening. It may highlight where you could be making healthier choices in your life, or the amount of excess you may have that you don’t really need. You have a choice then. Do you stick with “ignorance is bliss” or do you commit to taking one step at a time toward something better, something powerfully meaningful? 

Raising your awareness is key. I believe in you, and I believe you can decide where, when and how to make changes — just one step at a time. 

I’ll leave you with one final quote from the wonderful Maya Angelou: 

When you know better, you do better.