Devil Fish

The Trash Talk
by Emma Kelley -- October 3rd, 2013

How much trash does a single person throw away in one day?  The answer is surprising, and slightly horrifying.  The EPA’s 2008 report estimates that each day, each person in the United States throws away 4.5 pounds of trashAnother study by BioCycle and Columbia University puts that number at 7 pounds.  This compares to only 2.68 pounds per person, per day in the 1960’s.


Ok, almost 5 pounds of trash per day.  That doesn’t sound good, but maybe its not so bad?  Then I did some simple math –in a single year, I generate 1,642.5 pounds of trash, and in my entire 22 years on this planet, I have generated 36,135 pounds of trash.  WHAT?  I must have my own personal mountain of garbage somewhere!


Let’s take a step back for a second.  What first got me thinking about trash?


During my junior year at the University of South Carolina, I lived in the “Green Quad” on campus.  The Green Learning Community   based in this dorm held a week of activities to engage students in sustainable living.  This week was right in the thick of the fall semester, when papers were piling up and mid-term exams were looming overhead.  BUT, students could receive extra credit for participation. I’ve never been one to turn down an extra few points, so I chose to participate in an event that sounded easy.  The challenge was to carry around all the trash you generate throughout one whole day.  Easy, right?


I had no idea what kind of eye-opening experience this would be for me.  By noon I had a plastic bag full of a coffee cup, my to-go breakfast plate, the paper bag and wrapping from my lunch sandwich, and even a Styrofoam drink cup, with the straw and straw wrapper.  I became so frustrated that I threw the bag away before a group meeting in the library.  But the lesson stuck.


This experience opened my eyes to all the trash in my life.  Do I really need a paper bag for my sandwich?  Its already wrapped in a layer of paper.  What about those silly cardboard covers I put my coffee up in each morning?  Couldn’t I keep one in my bag?  Or just bring a travel mug instead?


I started doing some research and found those staggering trash statistics mentioned above.  I also learned more about the consequences of such a large trash output on the marine environment.  I had heard of the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but for the first time, I connected it with my own trash habits.  Watch this informative (and entertaining) video on the Trash Gyre.  How many of us have ever flicked away that pesky apple sticker without a thought?


In addition to the depressing facts, I also found incredible stories about people who have all but eliminated their trash output.  People Magazine wrote a story about one family, who decreased the amout of trash they dispose of each year to a one-liter mason jar.   Another story I found hit home to me, and I hope Duke students reading this blog can also relate.  Rose Brown worked measuring the health of waterways and could no longer ignore the impacts her own actions were having.  She started a challenge to completely eliminate her trash output.  This article reviews many of her strategies, or you can read her blog here.


Ok, so as a graduate student, moving from apartment to apartment each year, I can’t exactly start composting (I feel like my landlord wouldn’t love my dinner scraps hanging out next to the pool).  But what can I do?


Throughout my time here at Duke, my goal is to decrease my overall trash output.  Like anything else, it’s best to start small.  Here are my three sustainability/trash goals for this month.  I hope you will join me.

1. Use reusable or recyclable containers for coffee, food, etc.

2. Buy in bulk to avoid throwing away individual wrappers.

3. Don’t be lazy -FIND A RECYCLING BIN.  A huge part of recycling is just being willing to take that extra minute to find the recycling bin.


Next month, I’ll start thinking about substitutes for the disposable items I use.  For example, my mother (my environmentally-conscientious role model) has replaced the harsh cleaning chemicals in our house with vinegar and water.  Instead of the disposable cleaning wipes I use in my apartment, she uses a rag and her vinegar cleaner.  Which one of us is the environmental management student?


  1. Tawnee
    Oct 3, 2013

    This is such an important post that reveals that even our simple daily actions have a HUGE impact on the environment! And talking trash is something many people don’t like doing, which is why I think it’s so under-covered. You linked to some great articles and video (the one -liter mason jar family has serious dedication) — thanks for those and for the recycling tips/challenge!

    Funny related story: I was traveling this weekend, and once the man sitting next to me on the plane found out my degree was in environmental management, proceeded to ask me about two issues: fracking and trash. ‘Where does all of it go?’ he asked me — apparently he hasn’t seen any landfills in North Carolina since he moved here from Russia.

    • Emma
      Oct 17, 2013

      Thanks Tawnee,

      I actually haven’t seen the NC landfills – that might be an adventure for another post!

  2. Ranjith Annepu
    Oct 4, 2013

    Good post. Personal awareness about and responsibility for individual resource consumption is one of the first steps towards a more sustainable planet.
    Keep writing
    All the best

    Ranjith Annepu

  3. Maria
    Oct 5, 2013

    Great post! It’s an issue of great interest to me, particularly the plastic gyre. The extra credit assignment was great! Thank you!

  4. Chris
    Oct 26, 2013

    Hi Emma, I enjoyed the read, and although I recycle the hell out of everything, compost our food scraps at home, use cloth diapers, wash and reuse ziplocs, refuse to use a plastic bag at the market and pull plastic cups out of garbage cans, I hate to admit that we (my wife and daughter and I) throw out one grocery bag worth of trash 52 times per year. I wonder how much that adds up to.

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