Our garbage challenge has had mixed results so far. It isn’t going especially well from the standpoint of reducing garbage output. We filled an entire kitchen garbage bag in the last week. That’s half of what we normally bring out to the curb, but it’s still a lot. In terms of learning and bringing positive changes, however, the challenge is going great! Perhaps predictably, we’ve observed that food packaging and diapers make up almost all the garbage we produced in the last week. That’s actionable information.
Here’s what we’ve settled on to reduce the amount of food packaging coming through our house: We’ll eat through the food we’ve already bought, since it’s too late to undo those purchases. Unfortunately, some of that food is packaged like Russian nesting dolls. For future food purchases, we’ll switch to bulk goods to the greatest extent possible. The Zero Waste Home blog is rife with tips on bulk purchasing with minimal waste, and a little Googling revealed we have bulk purchasing options nearby for dry goods, oils, honey, shampoo, and other grocery items we buy regularly. I haven’t yet researched how switching to bulk goods will impact our grocery spending, but if our spending goes up I’ll think of it as a tax on our decades of shitting on the environment by thoughtlessly producing waste.
Then there are the diapers. At an output of 215 diapers and pull-ups a month for our two kids, I reconsidered getting back into cloth diapers. We used to use cloth but sold our supply out of sheer laziness. Previously I assumed it was too late to switch back and still make it out ahead financially. But confronted with a big pile of dirty diapers that, all else equal, will quadruple in size by the end of this month, I felt compelled to do the math on cloth vs. disposables for us at this stage.
It turns out cloth is still better for us even now. Our oldest may drop pull-ups any day now, so let’s assume we’ll go down to 125 diapers a month soon. That many diapers costs us $28.31. If our youngest child wears diapers until age 3, that works out to a total of $425 for all the disposable diapers he’d wear. If he wears diapers longer, obviously the cost goes up even more. Then there’s the cost of trash disposal and the (unpaid by us but still steep) environmental cost.
So I set out to buy a stash of used cloth diapers. Craigslist revealed that this could be done for less than half of what we’d spend on disposables in the next year. Last weekend I snagged 24 all-in-one diapers and inserts, plus two wet bags for $155. I hung onto one wet bag from our previous cloth diapering life, which means we’re all set in the wet bag department. The final step was to get cloth-friendly laundry detergent, which I bought at $33 for enough to wash 100 loads—this will last us a year. All of this totals $185. Making this change was a no-brainer.
A tax on significant trash hauling?
A related change I made was to switch from a 65 to 35-gallon trash can. This can is the smallest on the market where I live. It holds two kitchen trash bags, which is still a shitload of trash to produce in a week. That change brought trash hauling costs down from $9.25 a month to $7.25 a month, saving us $24 a year. And I think I could get my neighbors to go in on a small trash can soon if my family can reduce our weekly waste output even further. That step would save us an additional $43 a year. I’d hoped all this reduction in trash output would make a bigger difference financially, but that’s okay. What we’re saving is still a lot of money if you look at it the right way.
By the way, it should cost WAY more than $24 a year to haul away an extra 104 FULL KITCHEN TRASH BAGS! That’s only $0.23 per bag on top of the base price to haul away two extra full bags each week! Households that could afford it like mine can—that is, we could still do stuff like put food on the table—should have to pay for trash hauling at rates that keep us from ignoring our environmental impact. What we pay should, at a minimum, reflect our total impact, including costs like landfill space, methane coming out of the landfill, truck exhaust, gas used by the trucks, wear and tear on infrastructure from the heavy trucks, and environment-related healthcare costs incurred by people who can’t choose to move away from locations made more toxic by our waste. Instead, haulers conveniently make gigantic amounts of trash disappear from our lives for a minuscule fee.
I don’t blame all this on the trash haulers, who have to set rates to compete with each other (my city doesn’t have a uniform trash hauling contract). Rather, I see a need for city-wide policy to change. I’m off to look into and support whoever is working on this type of thing around here…