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How low can your garbage go?

Tools for living    Stop waste before it starts    Waste reduction advice

Metro's recycling hotline operator Betty Shelley and husband Jon have put a major dent in their household garbage. Learn how they reduced their trash to just one can a year with simple steps over time.

Betty and Jon with 5 and a half months of garbage With gradual waste-prevention efforts, even five months' worth of garbage doesn't fill the Shelleys' 32-gallon can.

Getting started

Betty and Jon began recycling in 1972, but experienced an aha! moment 20 years later when a Master Recycler class got them wondering, "When garbage is thrown away, where does it go and what happens to it?" Then a Northwest Earth Institute course showed them that everything nature produces, it uses – there is no waste.

The Shelleys wanted to model that natural no-waste approach in their own consumer choices. They examined their trash and explored ways to continually eliminate as much waste as possible.

Moving up

As the Shelleys learned more about waste prevention, they stepped up their efforts:

  • switched to cloth napkins and largely eliminated other paper and disposable single-use products
  • began composting yard debris, buying a small chipper to process fir tree debris on their city lot
  • started composting kitchen scraps such as vegetable peels, tea bags, eggshells and more
  • took recyclable materials to drop-off sites if they weren't accepted curbside
  • avoided nonrecyclable items
  • dropped garbage collection service to one can a month, then to on-call service, followed by two cans annually and, finally, one can per year since 2006.

What's left in their once-a-year can? Only noncompostable food waste, unrecyclable packaging, vacuum-cleaner bags and the occasional item for which there are no other options.

Reaping the benefits

The Shelleys trimmed their costs, thanks to lower garbage bills, bulk-buying and reduced purchases. "Once you start reducing your household garbage," says Betty, "it can become like a game. You get more creative." They've also saved time and money on yard work and watering since replacing the lawn with mostly native plants. Another bonus? They feel more in control when shopping, especially bringing their own reusable bags and choosing products with recycled content and little to no packaging.

Keeping it simple

Whether new to waste prevention or already curbing your trash, discover how low you can go with additional tips from Betty and Jon:

  • Use the least amount you need of a product or material – for example, one squirt of dish soap, shampoo, etc.
  • Make your own cleaning products to avoid packaging and chemicals.
  • Buy products in the bulk section of the grocery store, purchasing them in your own reusable containers brought to the store. This eliminates both the product packaging and food waste, and saves money, by helping ensure you buy only what you need.
  • Share or exchange items with friends, family and neighbors to avoid unnecessary purchases.
  • Explore new uses for old items. When Betty and Jon took down their fence, they recut the wood, building a compost corral and a screen in the garden. The old pier posts from their deck were flipped over for use as pathway stepping stones.
  • Choose products and practices that support sustainability, focusing on quality over quantity, for example, and repairing rather than tossing.
  • Store noncompostable food waste – bones, grease and meat wrappers, for example – in the freezer until garbage pickup.
  • Take unwanted, still-good items such as pens, rubber bands, etc. to schools, shelters and other organizations that accept them.
  • Cook from scratch rather than buy packaged foods. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store to help avoid packaged foods.
  • Reduce multiple trips to the store by stocking up on essential items, thereby saving gas and reducing pollution.
  • Use durable goods such as thermal cups, permanent plates and utensils.
  • Avoid taking freebies that you aren't going to use.
  • Buy from thrift, vintage or antique stores.
  • Before buying an item for yourself or as a gift, consider where it will end up at the end of its use.

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