Go Green

Household waste audit: a ‘front-row seat’ to consumption


KIMBALL, Neb. - Larissa Thomas, director of Keep Kimball Beautiful, is not afraid to tackle a dirty job for the sake of the environment.
Several months ago, she was among volunteers at the Kimball Recycling Center who put on gloves and prepared to dive into a data collection project.
On the floor in front of the volunteers were bags of trash collected from Kimball-area households. To one side was a scale. Behind them were multiple bins. The task: household waste audits.
A waste audit is a process in which the amounts and types of waste are measured with the aim of learning about disposal patterns and identifying ways of reducing waste.
In Kimball, 40 households were asked to gather their garbage for five days, leaving out any perishable food waste. The volunteers then took each household’s trash, sorted and weighed it by category and tallied the results.
One of Thomas’ goals for the waste audit was to substantiate the need for recycling programs in Kimball and identify materials for which a new recycling program could be established. This data is helpful for grant applications, she explained.
Another goal of household waste audits is to give people “a front-row seat to their consumption,” Thomas said. She believes that the amount of material Americans consume and discard - about 900,000 pounds over a lifetime, according to United States Environmental Protection Agency figures - is so high in part because it is an out of sight, out of mind problem.
“People throw it in the trash can and they never have to look at it again,” Thomas said. “If you had to stack your garbage in your garage for a year, you would run out of room.”
A waste audit can provide a bigger picture of household waste and lead people to change their behaviors to reduce the amount of waste they generate, either by recycling more or making different purchasing decisions, she said.
Thomas said she audited her own household waste and found a big component of her trash was plastic food bags. She is trying to reduce the number of bags she discards by putting food into reusable containers instead.
One household that participated in the waste audit generated 33 pounds of trash over the five days. Of that amount, only about 13 pounds were truly trash. The other 20 pounds were materials for which recycling programs already exist in Kimball.
Thomas said that sometimes, people would like to recycle their trash, but they don’t know how. The two most common questions the Kimball Recycling Center gets are ‘what do we recycle?’ and ‘where do we take it?’
She said education programs, such as those funded in part by Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality grants, help make community members aware of what recycling programs exist.
Overall, of the material collected from the 40 Kimball households, 51 percent of the weight came from material that can be recycled in Kimball and 40 percent from non-recyclable items.
Some of the non-recyclable items that turned up in the audit were things that should not be put into the trash - like electronic devices and batteries - because they contain toxic materials that could leak from the landfill into groundwater. Electronic devices can be disposed of during special collections that Keep Kimball Beautiful sponsors. She asks that people store the electronic devices at home until there is an electronics drive because there is no room in the tiny Recycling Center to store the items.
The remaining 9 percent of the weight in the trash audit came from non-corrugated cardboard, much of which comes from grocery packaging like cereal boxes or toilet paper tubes. While people in the Kimball area cannot currently recycle this type of cardboard, Thomas is looking into the possibility of developing such a program in the future.
Aside from data about the trash habits of Kimball area residents to support grant applications, Thomas said she has gained another benefit from the waste audit process.
Many of the people who participated in the audit suddenly became aware of the true amount of waste they generated and the difference they could make by changing their habits. They started asking for advice on how to set up recycling bins at home and how to get their families involved in the recycling effort.
Thomas would like to encourage as many people as she can to perform their own household waste audits and analyze how they might change their habits to reduce waste. She said many online resources are available to help walk people through the process.

February 24th, 2011
Topic: Environment Tags: None

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