I’m a seasoned bin sifter by now. I wonder what my Couchsurfers thought last week, when their host emptied a month’s worth of recycles and soft plastics onto the kitchen floor so I could take photos before work (at least I did the landfill sifting outside). I had to record what we’d accumulated in the last month of Plastic Free July so that I could empty the bins. They were overflowing. But it was a whole month’s worth.
When I went to write up this post, I was sure I’d written about something similar before but I couldn’t find it. Oh. It’s in my vast store of unpublished posts. Oops. I wrote it last August, but time slipped away and then it was too late to publish. I want to compare how we went this year, so I’ll publish both last year’s and this year’s in the same week. Here’s how to do a bin audit, and what was in our bins this July 2018.
Joining an online course is a great way to start learning about waste, like the Spiral Garden Zero Waste Families E-Course or the Katanning Landcare 10 Week Bin Transformation Course (worksheet above, from 2017). These courses have a small fee. You’ll get support, resources and great ideas. You can also join one of the many Facebook groups that are popping up in response to growing community awareness about waste, spurred by the ABC’s War on Waste. The War on Waste has teamed up with Good For The Hood to help you find local community groups in Australia who discuss how to reduce waste. I got excited to see there was a group in my own town, but the link led me to my own Facebook group. 🙂 I’m glad someone has added me in.
Why do I pick through my bins? Because measuring something gives you clear goals to aim for, and surveying what’s there leads you to strategies tailored for you. You can take photos for visual reference, count the items in categories or weigh the bin contents. It also gives you a baseline, and a record so you can see how far you’ve come. So don’t be afraid to start. We all have to start somewhere.
To begin with, you need to know how long you’ll be surveying for and what’s included. I’ve done a bin audit in a tiny community, with housemates, and this year just myself and my son (definitely easier with only one adult!). Let everyone know what you’re planning to do and why. It’s safer and more hygienic to count or weigh things as they go into the bin, but also more work and impossible with non-dedicated bin users. I prefer to go through the small household bins before they are tipped into the big green bins outside. If you have individual rubbish bins that are collected in a shared large bin, you could choose to only audit your own bin. It’s really only useful to gather information about rubbish sources that you have some sort of control over. If you want to gather whole household information, you can also just do business as usual and upend the big green bins onto a tarp to inspect before the contents is disposed of. If anyone in the household uses disposable nappies, you may wish to bag them separately or designate a separate bin. Tally them if you want to include them in your total.
It’s a good idea to do a full audit before changing any waste habits. You could follow up with another after a month or a year, to see what’s changed. Or just do a one off survey to see where things are at. You’ll get a lot of information if you do a weekly or monthly audit, but it also takes more time.
Gloves are a good idea (although… disposable plastic!…). Be prepared for rotten food, medical waste and broken glass. Most organic matter goes to rabbits, chooks, worms or compost here so our rotten food count is almost nil. If you don’t use gloves, either be careful and wash your hands well afterwards or turn the rubbish over with a stick. Don’t buy a plastic pick-up-thing that will break after a few uses; just use an actual stick. That is totally fine for poking with. Have a brush and shovel ready to sweep up debris.
Choose a still day to pick through the bin contents, because you don’t want bits of paper and plastic fluttering away. Find a flat place you can spread stuff out on, and put the tarp down if you’re using one. Tip each bin out one by one and count or photograph the contents.
If any waste is in the wrong bin, re-sort it as you go. Make a note of contamination or incorrect bin usage, so you can tackle it at the source. Make a note of what items make up the highest volume of waste, how much organic waste is in there, and what waste items you could easily replace (like plastic water bottles or coffee cups).
If going through your trash is all just too icky or time-consuming, the most basic thing to measure is how often you put your bins out for collection. You can note how full they are too – quarter, half, full, overflowing? Do you put all your bins out as often as possible – weekly or monthly? Can you stretch your bin frequency to every fortnight? This method won’t give you the information about what issues to work on, but it can motivate you to drop one more collection service.
For 2018 our household just consisted of myself and my son for the month of July. Last July we had a housemate, and during the year we’ve had up to seven household members at a time, plus guests. Since last year we’ve settled into the house and developed systems, like regular breadmaking, that reduce waste. I’m still finding some plastic packets of things in my pantry from ex-housemates.
A bonus I find from going through my rubbish is more awareness of putting things in the right bin. Even when it’s just me in the house, I tip my bin out and look at the contents and think, actually I could recycle that. If you have other people in the household or visitors, clear labels are really important. This year we labeled our organic waste bins for three waste streams – chooks/compost (crush eggshells), worms (no fruit) and guinea pigs/rabbits (no soggy food). If guests aren’t sure, they always ask where things go because the labels prompt them.
I also have a collection box for Terracycle items (mostly guests’ toiletries) on the back veranda. I keep batteries and fluorescent light globes aside for hazardous waste disposal (never put these in landfill). I have a rag cupboard for clothing too worn to pass on, I burn unprinted cardboard and paper in the lounge fire, and all large cardboard boxes go to the garden for mulching.
If your recycle bin contains landfill and your landfill bin contains recycles, take heart; ‘I was literally a rocket scientist, but I couldn’t figure out which containers were recyclable.’ This is Anita Vandyke, who has written ‘A Zero Waste Life’ from an engineering background. It’s a short and simple read, aimed at professionals who don’t want to drastically change their lifestyle for the sake of the environment. Erin Rhoads’ new book Waste Not is also packed full of information and will walk you through doing a bin audit. Figuring out what goes in your council recycling bin can definitely be a learning curve. I won’t tell you how to do it because it varies depending on your local recycling facilities. Check with your council.
An unexpected side effect of striving to be zero waste is that people bring their waste to me because they believe I’ll have the answer. So I find myself sometimes taking stranger’s coffee sachets home to put in my soft plastic recycling. I pick up rubbish off the side of the road and the beach. Plastic packets even blow into my front yard regularly; whether from people’s bins or directly littered, I don’t know.
Not captured in this audit, but an occasional source of plastics, is dumpster diving. Plastic-wrapped things are a good thing in the skip, because they are more likely to be sealed and hygienic. In this case, I figure if the entire lot was destined for landfill, even if I eat the contents and send the empty packet to landfill it’s better than the original situation. And of course I do try to recycle the food packaging where possible.
So. Here’s July 2018, for a two person household:
Stuff I sent to landfill this month includes labels from glass milk bottles (I realised they are plastic and peel off in one piece easily), receipts (because they are lined with BPA and shouldn’t be recycled; I do refuse them where possible), a lead test in its packaging (to contain it, as it’s mildly hazardous), organic butter wrappers (these are all foil/plastic composites, none available in plain paper) and acrylic yarn scraps (my son is using up scraps of yarn for finger knitting from my several-decade-old stash).
Stuff other people put in my bin includes some food packaging, wound dressings, very old seeds, and a device containing corroded batteries that I am now wishing I had dug out of the bin to retrieve the batteries for safe disposal.
Recycles that the household generated included lots and lots of junk mail (about 1.5kg per week), some cardboard from cereal (no longer buying it), Japanese treats (occasional indulgence), packaging from ear candles and a glass pet water bottle, lots of paper from child’s arts & crafts, a couple of cans and a few bits of food packaging. Some of these things (toothbrush box, envelope, a few boxes) I removed to the fire for burning.
Recycles left by others included some food packets and shoelace packets. I have been doing my quick ‘how to use the bin system’ induction for most of my travelers, and it must be working because my Couchsurfer had separated the plastic and cardboard component of her packaging and put it into the correct bin.
Soft plastics this month included frozen pastry (an occasional shortcut), salt for preserving olives, bulk sodium bicarbonate, all those cereal bags and pasta packets. I also used a thick plastic bag of field peas, but I saved that bag for reuse so I didn’t count it. I might make a mini greenhouse out of it, before it goes to be recycled.
Soft plastics left by other people included plastic that blows into our yard, plastic that is handed over the fence, toys given as gifts and food packets. I don’t have much control over reducing these waste streams, but at least they were all in the right bin.
My goal this year was to make my own yogurt and pasta, and I did do the yogurt. Homemade pasta is delicious, but does take time. I had a few days of depression this month and ran out of reserves to do stuff like that. I still made all my own bread. That’s a routine that’s so well-oiled now that it takes little effort. Also, we embarked on a radical diet near the end of the month (the Failsafe diet, for behaviour regulation) and bought pasta was a quick permitted meal. As I mentioned in last year’s post, one of the reasons I use plastics is conflicting priorities; something else is just more important that week. Like physical or mental health.
So as always, start where you are, do what you can, and be compassionate with yourself. Everything you do with intention makes a difference.