Before starting a zero-waste lifestyle, it can be helpful to learn how to do a waste audit at home. To manage your waste, first, you will need to measure it. Knowing what is in your trash will help you make better choices and divert some landfill waste.
The waste audit may reveal items that can be recycled, composted, or otherwise kept out of the landfill. Auditing the amount of trash and types of waste you currently produce will give you a baseline for comparison later.
Benefits of doing a waste audit
Learning to manage waste not only benefits the environment, it can also save you money. If you’re paying for your trash to be hauled away, you could save money by having fewer garbage receptacles.
You may find a significant amount of food is being wasted and implement strategies that will help you lower your food bill each month AND keep food out of the garbage.
- Increase your recycling (and do it properly)
- Helps you reduce your carbon footprint
- Keeps food waste out of the landfill (reducing carbon emissions – composting releases fewer gases than food waste in landfills)
- Saves the earth’s resources (and yours!)
Home Waste Audit
These instructions are for doing a home waste audit, but if you are a business owner you might consider a similar audit for your company.
What you’ll need for conducting your waste audit at home
- A designated sorting area such as a tarp for sorting through the trash
- Camera or smartphone to take photos
- Labeled containers for recycling (cardboard boxes and sharpies will do)
- Rubber gloves, goggles, mask (as necessary)
- A scale to weigh stuff (you could use a bathroom scale or measure by volume)
- Worksheets & pens to track progress
- Trash bags for landfill waste
- Storage containers for recycling (preferably reusable- check with your local recycling programs to see if they provide bins)
- Cleaning materials
Sorting your recycling – remember you need to find out what is recyclable in your area. Never add items to your recycling in hopes that it is a recyclable item. Know for sure. If it turns out to be an item that is not recyclable, it will contaminate the rest of the batch.
Most recycling centers only allow a certain percentage of contamination before they discard the entire batch. We’d hate to contribute to the loss of other people’s recycling efforts and all that recycling ending up in the landfill.
Some items you may be able to recycle locally include
- Paper and Cardboard
- Plastic bottles and other types of plastic (look for number)
- Aluminum cans
- Food waste
- Materials packaging
Step by Step Waste Audit Instructions
When your trash can is full is the perfect time to start your audit. Going through your trash and getting a better idea of what you’re throwing away regularly is the best way to see what areas you need to work on.
Prepare for this audit by choosing a day and time when all of your households can be part of the process if possible. Getting everyone involved increases awareness. Make sure that your garbage, recycling, compost, cardboard, etc. is not taken out by another person in your house.
If you want this process to be less, well, icky, keep the food items out of your trash. Set aside a separate container and ask everyone in your home to put any wet or food items into a separate container.
Another word of warning. If you have children involved, make sure you aren’t dealing with any hazardous waste or items like broken glass, cans with sharp lids, etc. In addition, using protective gear such as gloves, goggles, a mask, etc. will help keep you safe.
You can separate your piles by reusable, recyclables, and trash. If you’re starting this from a beginner level, you may even need a donation pile.
- The first step is to collect all of the garbage in your home.
- Next, dump everything out on a tarp or in the designated area.
- Take photos and record your current waste amounts (whether by weight or volume)
- Sort by type (Reusable items, recycle items, composting, landfill, donation, drop-off stuff – like hazardous waste items such as paint, batteries, etc.)
- Weigh and measure the quantity of each of the categories
- Clean up by putting all the recycling and organic waste in the proper places.
Now that you have all of your waste separated, measured, and put in their proper places, what’s next? Here’s what you might consider as a follow-up to this activity.
- Set your recycling goals and work towards them.
- Schedule your next waste audit
- Keep working on waste management
- Use signage if necessary (especially if you have roommates or family members who aren’t into reducing waste – keeping it simple will help you achieve your goals.)
- Look for special events with a Zero Waste or Earth Friendly theme to attend to further your education!
Look at what you are throwing away and ask yourself how you can make changes. For example, if you find you are going through a lot of microwave popcorn packages, you might consider investing in an air popper and bulk popcorn which will reduce the packaging waste.
Every item we can keep out of the dumpster is a win. You can start to calculate you diversion rate after your second audit.
A diversion rate measures the volume of waste NOT sent to the landfill. Keep track of yours in a notebook or on the printable chart included in the 7 Day Project Plan. You can do a waste-audit in this 7 Day Zero Waste Mini Workshop. You’ll begin to see the effectiveness of your efforts by looking at your waste diversion over a period of time.
According to the EPA, the average American produces about 5.91 pounds of trash, with about 1.51 pounds being recycled; 4.40 pounds is the rough average daily waste per person.
Look at your city or county government website to find out what recycling program is available near you and what can be recycled.
Adding recyclable items to the waste stream is a lose-lose. One it adds bulk to the landfill and two, it’s a loss of the earths resources.
Set recycling bins near your trash cans to encourage waste reduction by others in your home. Use signage to keep them on track. Encourage sustainability by being open about your efforts. Remember, you don’t have to be perfect, you just need to make progress!
If you’re not already composting, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to create your own amazing soil for your gardening needs. Whether you use it for houseplants, flowers, or a vegetable garden, composting can add beneficial nutrients back into the soil.
Even if you aren’t a gardener, composting will benefit others. If you don’t want to compost, you could look into a Foodcycler. This is a handy item for apartment dwellers and those who can’t keep a compost pile for other reasons.
Some cities have industrial composting facilities, so you can do a search on the web to find out if one is available to you. If not, there may be private composting facilities, farms that will accept food waste, garden centers, etc. In Knoxville, Tennessee, we used Green Heron Composting while we lived in an apartment.
Food scraps are compostable and are an excellent way to reduce waste. Plus, the trash you do have will be less messy without food items thrown in along with the rest.
Not to mention it keeps food waste out of the landfill. You can reduce your carbon footprint by 40% and help build healthy soils with just this one step.
Our overall goal is to reduce the amount of waste headed to the landfill. So, measure the amount leftover after your waste audit that can’t be recycled, reused, composted, etc. This is the number you’ll be trying to reduce.
In the future, instead of auditing what’s already in your trash, you can determine how to prevent waste to start with. Do this by only purchasing quality items, low or no waste packaging, and items that you can reuse.
Here’s an infographic that will demonstrate how much waste one person can make and what a difference it will make for you to create that change in your home.