Trash Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

by Bill Chameides | October 21st, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Lose less, reuse more. Your trash may be worth some cash. (Photo: David Stuart)

Looking to lower your impact on the planet? You don’t need to look any further than your trash bin.

We Americans produce a lot of trash (aka garbage, waste), by some estimates about 250 million tons of the stuff per year. That’s enough waste to fill about 1,000 new Yankee Stadiums.*

What’s to be done? Obviously the first and most important thing any of us can do is produce less trash. Next step is to appropriately sort our garbage for recycling.

But is there anything beyond that? Well, you can make like David Chameides (a distant cousin, I think) who decided to cohabitate with his garbage for a year. (Here’s a profile of him.) But that‘s a little extreme.

As an alternative, how about looking for the beauty and value hiding just beneath the surface of your garbage can.

10 Ways to Value Your Trash And Lower Your Environmental Footprint


In 2007 the United States composted or recycled about 33 percent of the 250 million tons of trash, which:

  • reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by almost 200 million tons and
  • saved the energy equivalent of almost 11 billion gallons of gasoline.

But 33 percent is nothing spectacular.

In Curitiba, Brazil — a city of more than two million people — 90 percent of the residents recycle almost 70 percent of their waste.

1. Advocate for Your Trash. Send your garbage off to the landfill, sure, but insist that it be used as an energy source with appropriate pollution controls, of course. A typical landfill can generate between three and eight megawatts of electricity for 50 to 100 years.

2. Let It Stew. Separate out the usable organic material (veggies, plants, eggshells, coffee grounds, newsprint, etc.) to make compost for your garden or the few potted plants you might have around the house.

3. Not So High Art. Make like Duchamp. See here and here.

4. Holey Socks! Just because your toes are sticking out of your socks, doesn’t mean they’ve reached the end of the line. You could darn them.

But if, like me, you are not a darner, you can still make great use of them. I’ve found they work really well for polishing shoes — the hand-inside-the-sock feature keeps your fingers smudge-free. (Other old clothes also make good rags.)

5. Put More Than a Tiger in the Tank. Make biofuels! Okay, we haven’t yet figured out all the technological challenges for commercial scale deployment, but there are many a biodiesel co-op out there. Maybe there’s one near you.

Donate old clothes at thrift stores and check out their offerings. Lose less, reuse more. It sounds simple, but we could be tossing away a lot less trash, folks. (Photo: Erica Rowell)

6. Garbage Fashionista. Buy clothes made from trash. (There are a lot trashier outfits out there than the ones actually made from trash IMO.)

But for more practical choices, try here or here. Or simply shop at second-hand stores.

(And remember — don’t toss out your old clothes. If you’ve lost a passion for them or are merely de-cluttering, as long as they’re in decent shape, take them to a Salvation Army, Goodwill, or local consignment shop.)

7. Waste Not Want Not. According to a U.N. report out earlier this year, over half of the food produced globally is lost, wasted or discarded, and in the United States, 30 percent of all food, worth about $48 billion, is thrown away each year. Become a freegan and take advantage of discarded supermarket and restaurant food. (For more info, watch this.)

8. Dive for the Gusto (only for the adventurous and at your own risk). Acquaint yourself with the best spots to dumpster dive or just walk the streets the evening before trash collection. For example, on move-out days, universities can yield great finds. But learn the local laws first. (Listen to this radio piece and view the related slide show from the “Environment Report” or check out Andrew Revkin’s post “Zen and the Art of Dumpster Diving.”)

9. The Many Uses of Newspaper. We all know to recycle old newspapers. But newspaper can be put to many uses before it goes to the recycle bin. A favorite of mine is washing windows. Newspaper is lint free and so it does a great job making your windows clear and bright — a whole lot better than paper towels, tsk tsk. Newspaper can also be used as a wipe in other settings as well — I will let you figure that out on your own.

10. Outdo the Three Little Pigs. Forget straw, wood, and bricks, build your home with garbage. Sound far-fetched? It’s already being done — check out here and here.

At the end of the day you’ll have to decide if any of these options are right for you, and you may have a few favorites of your own to share with the rest of us. In the meantime, remember that one person’s garbage may be another person’s feast, literally, … or it can be used to fill up hypothetical Yankee Stadiums of trash year after year after year.

* Assumptions for Yankee Stadium stat: one ton of trash takes up 50 cubic feet and Yankee Stadium has a volume of about 13.5 million cubic feet. Thus, ~250 million tons of trash would fill roughly 1,000 Yankee Stadiums.

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