empty can trash litter on a pier

Tracking My Trash


So after my big declaration of wanting to move more towards a zero waste lifestyle, I approached it the same way people wanting to make big money changes should: tracking all your expenses so you get an accurate picture of your current situation.

I decided to track all my trash for one week.

At work, at home, on the go.

Every cup, wrapper, paper, bag, container, and paper towel.

And this is what I had after 7 straight days:

tracking your trash budget epicurean zero waste lifestyle

Minus a few things from our travels:

  • a Starbucks to go cup and sleeve
  • an empty water bottle
  • a paper bag and to go container
  • wrapping from a Torchys taco
  • a paper plate and 2 napkins
  • a paper plate and tin foil
  • a synthetic wine cork

I’m not going to lie, I was a little surprised. I thought we already did a pretty great job of recycling and not buying a whole lot. But this was quite eye opening. This is only 7 days worth of trash!

The empty box of ziplocks is evidence that I have or had at least 50 more plastic bags somewhere in my house. A plastic takeout container that I had been reusing for work lunches got smashed to pieces. A styrofoam container from portobello mushroom caps. A plastic wrapper from a stick of butter. Some non-recyclable plastic windows from mail envelopes. We run through sunscreen and bug spray like water in the summertime.

With the obvious exception of toilet paper, anything I normally would trash at work got put into a plastic bag. Things that I might normally toss that could be composted, I brought home instead to toss in my compost bin. Like a banana peel, or some yellowing leaves from my lunchtime salad.

And this is the bag I kept at work:

tracking your trash budget epicurean zero waste lifestyle

And you can see it is much less heavily food-focused and more weighted towards snacks and paper products. I have always brought my own lunches to work in reusable plastic or glass containers, and have a set of silverware and cups there that I wash daily. This helps cut down on my overall waste at work.

I honestly do not think I could, nor do I really want, to get my household waste to less than a mason jar full per year. But this definitely showed me that there is more room for improvement.

I love the aptly named “Near-O Waste“, which more accurately describes the lifestyle I’m shooting for. I still want to enjoy modern conveniences and not live like it’s the 1800s. But I also want to be gentler to Mother Earth.

Lesson #1

I use a lot of paper products! Like, a silly number of kleenex and paper towels throughout the day. Obviously to blow my nose, but also to wipe up small spills around my desk, to blot grease or lipstick, after washing my hands or my lunch containers. And every single time I use the restroom at work, I use 2-3 paper towels.

Paper takes a lot of energy, water, and deforestation to create. And we waste a LOT of paper products as a species. Toilet paper, paper towels, actual printer paper, magazines, books, newspapers, paper plates… the list goes on.

With how much paper waste we produce yearly, we could build a 12 foot high wall from New York to California. Not that we should. Paper also gives off a lot of methane when it rots in a landfill, rather than being composted. And taking away trees means decreasing oxygen production, and less protection against climate change.

What can I do about it?

Well, I’m going to bring an actual kitchen towel to work. When you wash your hands after using the bathroom, they are clean, right? You just need a towel to dry them. Lets see how long it takes to get comments or weird looks 😉

I’m also going to try to remember to bring home any paper towels that I use (because you know I’m not going to remember or bring a towel every time). At least once a day I’d toss the towels in the trash and just as I walk out the door think shoot! I meant to keep that to compost… so clearly this will take some re-training.

Lesson #2

Even the Budget Epicurean, who revels in homemade goodies and snacks like energy balls, KIND barsgranola bars, and homemade granola, has emergency packaged snacks, and uses them. Sometimes it’s a crazy day, or the afternoon munchies hit, and for the good of my co-workers I must keep the hangry at bay.

What can I do about it?

Stock my desk and pockets with homemade, no waste goodies. This includes things like my homemade bars and balls, but also whole fruits and bags of nuts or trail mix. If you have any great zero waste snacks you love, please share in the comments!

There is a balance between tasty yummies that can sit at room temperature for days at a time without getting gross. Perhaps I will try bringing weekly batches, which will require more memory muscles. Or else get comfortable with being hungry until I get home.

Lesson #3

We go through a lot more packaged food than I realized. When I think of “packaged food” I think junk food. Which is a big part of the SAD (Standard American Diet) and a general no-no in my house.

However. ‘Healthy’ foods can also come in packages.

See above: edamame, sliced cheese, granola bars, frozen mixed veggies, frozen berries, radishes, carrots. All healthy, whole foods… yet all are also wrapped in plastic that gets thrown away. Not great.

What can I do about it?

I am now moving more towards ‘zero waste’ principles when grocery shopping. I will be scoping out the options in all my usual shopping haunts, as well as branching out more into my Durham co-op market and Farmers Market.

Ethnic grocery stores are also usually pretty good options for things like cheap produce, baked goods, and I’ve found a place I can buy seafood and whole fish right off the ice. I will start preparing better for shopping trips, asking more questions, and seeking out package free food options. And next year, we may get a CSA.


Is There Any Good News?

This week also made me much more aware of not just my own habits and consumption but also those around me. Waste and plastic packaging has become so convenient, normalized, and ubiquitous.

We don’t even think twice about using multiple plastic cups, straws, utensils, and bottles. Daily.

I think we should think.

The good news is, we are starting to catch on. More stores are offering bulk food sections, package free produce, local produce, discounts for bringing your own bags or mugs. The Zero Waste lifestyle is spreading, as awareness of the plight of and concern for the environment becomes more mainstream.

And I had several small wins throughout the week:

  • A friend asked to meet up for afternoon tea at Starbucks to catch up. It was spur of the moment, but I had brought coffee from home in a to-go mug. So I rinsed it out and took it, rather than use a Starbucks cup. Bonus, I got 10 cents off! And, maybe, planted a small seed in my friends’ head to bring her own cup in the future.
  • While walking to my office, I saw 2 paper napkins on the ground that must have blown off someone’s lunch or breakfast. I usually would at least pick it up and toss it in the trash. This time I took it to my desk to put in the ‘take home to compost’ bag.
  • One day there were 2 plastic bins with broken lids sitting by the recycle bins. Clearly they were no longer usable for their original purpose, but they could be perfect for another idea I’ve got brewing… so I snagged them and took them home to perhaps give them a second life.
  • When collecting mail from the week, I realized… it is super easy to make paper from old paper scraps. So I pulled out the little plastic windows, and got crafty. I even sprinkled wild flower seeds into it so the paper can be planted when I’m done with it! I think I’m going to use it to create a nice wedding shower card.
  • I saw an awesome bag that said “I used to be a plastic bottle“, and asked about it. That led to a fun conversation about plastic and waste and how we can all do better.

So there you have it, week one of my Near-O waste initiative, and lessons learned. I’m sure this will be a very long process, with a lot of ups and downs. Much like everything else in life. 🙂


Want to join me??

I’d love that! Just keep all your non-compostable and non-recyclable items, for one day, one week, one month. And then come back here to comment, or post about it on social media (maybe we can make #TrackYourTrash a trending phrase on Twitter?) and tell me what you learned.


Have you done a trash tracking week? Where do you struggle with low or no waste options? Do you have any zero waste snack ideas besides nuts or raw veggies??

15 thoughts on “Tracking My Trash”

  1. I love this idea! My oldest is home for the summer and I have noticed that our trash footprint has significantly increased. We are usually a one garbage bag a week family but I have been changing it two or three times a week since she came home. Hmm… You got me thinking about how we can do better for sure!

    1. I’m sure it would be very educational to track it for a week, and could be a great convo to have with your daughter too. Just put a big cardboard box by the trash and toss things in there. (Stuff that is wet or legit gross can keep going in the trash) and then at the end of a week pull it all out. See what you have the most of, what you are surprised by, what you can find a way to avoid in the future. Let me know if you do it!

  2. Okay – starting a take-home-to-compost bag today! I’ve thought about it some when I chuck a banana peel or apple core into the trash at work, but haven’t done anything about it yet. Thanks for writing this with such clear next steps to take. Also – I’m considering mailing you a care package with flatfold diapers because they make THE best wipe up everything rags.

    1. Yay! One more step in the quest to save the world! Haha… I definitely still feel a little weird with a big bag full of peach pits and paper towels, but it’s worth it. Now I need to start another compost pile, we have outgrown our trash can.

  3. There’s a small compost container in the yard of my apartment and I have GOT to be better about actually saving my food scraps and putting them in the compost, not the trash.

    SO MANY THINGS at the grocery store come in plastic. Cheese. Bags of rice (because it’s cheaper to buy that than at the bulk containers in Whole Foods, whoops). Bread. Even bundles of herbs have that twist-tie on them. So although I haven’t reached for a plastic produce bag in months, I still bring home so much plastic from my groceries, booooo.

    I keep thinking one day I’m going to stop buying paper towels. And I hardly use them anymore, but it’s not my place to tell my roommate to not use them either. But at least I’m trying not to use them: I’m trying to be conscious about using dish towels to dry my food containers and hands when I’m in the kitchen at work (need work on finding an alternative when I go to the bathroom. Because of weird things about where I work, bringing my own towel could be a bit logistically difficult…), and I try to save paper towels at home for only using when I’m wiping out grease. But for everything else, I just discovered European dishrags, which are like a cross between a sponge and a paper towel. They’re reusable and you throw them in the dishwasher to sanitize them. So far I love them!

    1. Yes, even the tiny bits of plastic are nearly impossible to avoid if you shop at a regular grocery store. And especially for one person, it’s not fair. Smaller packages all individually wrapped… that’s very unfortunate that the bulk section isn’t cheaper. 🙁
      I would agree on not telling roommates what to do.. much like vegetables, this way of life will take a lot of show-by-example and convincing to get the boy away from paper towels. He just loves convenience SO MUCH. It’s a work in progress. Towels you sanitize in the dishwasher?!? I love that!

  4. I’m in. I will track my trash for a week. It might be frightening to see how much trash our family goes through. It will be a good visual for my children to see. Thank you, budget epicurean.

  5. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now and haven’t gotten around to it, so thanks for writing this and giving me extra motivation to track my trash! The grocery store is a tough one because of all the packaging – it’s on the salad greens, berries, bread, milk, cheese, basically everything I buy and even the produce that isn’t prepackaged usually gets put into a plastic bag. I’ve become much more conscious about using re-useable bags and trying to reduce the pre-packaged products I use, but it’s definitely a work in progress.

    1. Glad to hear it Emilie! I can’t wait to see the results and hear what you’ve learned. Agreed that grocery stores are terrible plastic traps. It would be great to say “everyone just shop at farmers markets from now on”, but that’s just not feasible. Hopefully our culture will shift towards making better choices for all.

  6. This is something that I battle with all the time. I am pretty good at home, always using (or bringing with) a reusable water bottle, coffee mug, straws, utensils, shopping bags, etc, but I really struggle with the initial purchase from the grocery store. So many things come wrapped in plastic and boxes and it has started to bother me. I try my best to avoid those products, but sometimes I am forced to buy it since there are no other options. Keep up the good work BE!

    1. You are absolutely right Mrs WOW, all the individually wrapped things are just basically ubiquitous now. I think our germaphobe society is out of control, that we need to shrink wrap individual bell peppers, which are going home to be washed anyhow. Sigh. We can all do little things, and keep advocating for change! Thanks for your support 🙂

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