how to conduct a trash audit (with kids!)

Getting a good idea of what and how much we are throwing away is a key step in reducing our household waste. How much are you truly sending to the landfill? How often? Are your blue bins overflowing? How much food is being (or not being) diverted to compost? I think we all have a general idea, but a closer look can help us focus on solutions that will be doable for our unique families.

This exercise is always very eye-opening for us, despite being several years into our zero waste journey! A good reminder that examining our habits often is key to thoughtful and eco-friendly behaviours. Remember that nobody is born knowing how to reduce/reuse/recycle. We learn by doing and it takes practice! A waste audit is a great way for the whole household to begin to consider the entire life cycle of the goods you use from raw materials, to the shops, to your home, and finally into the waste stream.

There is no such thing as ‘away’.

When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere.

~ Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff

Nothing breaks down properly in a landfill – not even food. That environment typically lacks oxygen and so organic waste breaks down in an anaerobic process and emits the greenhouse gas methane. Moreover, nutrients in food scraps are lost to the landfill, rather than being returned to the soil. In some areas, waste is incinerated for “energy” and recycling may not be what we imagine. For example, only about 9% of plastics are actually recycled worldwide, and glass may be collected with recycling but crushed for landfill or road cover. Getting to know your local rules will certainly be illuminating!

All this being said, I am NOT into trash jars in the least. Taking stock of your waste is very useful, but twisting yourself into knots over trying to fit everything into a mason jar simply isn’t realistic. Just use that perfectly good jar for something else!

How NOT to Go Zero Waste

There has been a lot discussion lately as to whether or not Covid-19 restrictions on reusables mean the end of the zero waste movement. Although I began my low waste journey about 20 years ago, quarantine has thrown some thoughts about living “zero waste” into sharp relief for me. To be honest, I struggle with…

How to Conduct a Trash Audit

What You Need:

  • 3 buckets or bins
  • Your trash (kitchen or bathroom)
  • Gloves
  • Working surface (counter or table)
  • Pencil
  • Rags + cleaner

And don’t forget to download your FREE Household Waste Audit tracking sheet!

What You Do:

  • Decide on a length of time that works for you. Try starting with waste from just one day and work up to a week. The time between your waste collection pickups or between grocery shops are also good choices.
  • Separate items by the most common waste streams: Landfill, Recycling, Compost/Organics*
  • Group like items (e.g. bread bags, wrappers, yogurt cups, banana peels) and do a simple tally. You can also do this as items are added over the course of your audit, but I like the big sort for the big picture.

Note: This activity will require you to get familiar with your local collection rules, which is a good idea for a refresher as rules are different everywhere and subject to change. These should be publicly available on the municipality’s website.

A trash audit is a great way to get kids interested and motivated in reducing, reusing, and recycling!

What To Do After Your Trash Audit

Okay, so you have come face to face with your bins. Now what?

Identify frequent items. What popped up most often in your bins? Are they recyclable in your area? If not, is there another brand that does come package-free or in recyclable packaging (cardboard, glass, or metal)?

Choose 3 things to work on. Brainstorm ideas with the kids! For example, did you have lots of individual yogurt cups? Try buying the biggest possible container and dishing it out into smaller reusable containers to reduce overall packaging. Better yet, think of a way to reuse THAT container to keep it in use even longer! Be honest about what is possible and practical for your family at this time.

Set some goals. Are you trying to cut your garbage in half? Make less recycling? Get into composting? Set a doable goal in each category and see how you do!

Re-audit! Check back to see how you are doing. You can do this every month or every season. It’s a great way to check your progress and keep on top of what your town’s rules are and how they have changed.

Extension Activities for Kids

There are so many curriculum and real world connections for kids with this activity. Not only is it fun, it is also an exercise in data management, writing, planning, communication, and cooperation! This can even be done in the classroom and just might be the push your school needs to start composting or a school garden.

Keep the conversation going by researching local rules, having the kids write to their reps about issues they care about, brainstorm upcycling ideas, make art from trash, write a journal about each audit, etc. Please let me know what you come up with!

Have you ever done a trash audit? What changes have you made since then?

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