Throw out your garbage assumptions
The average American makes about 5 pounds of trash per day.
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Now you see it. Now you don't. It's an adage that applies to many things in our ultraefficient society, most notably trash. The average American makes a lot of it — about 5 pounds per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That's a lot of chicken bones and pasta boxes that are bagged up and tossed in a bin, never to be thought of again. Add it all up, and it's almost 1 ton. Per person. Per year.
Like a lot of self-identified greenies, I've been trying to clean up my act. I not only compost and recycle, but also have transformed my purse into a filled-to-bursting receptacle for reusable bags and stainless-steel drink bottles and other eco-accessories that polish my halo.
Still, I wanted to know exactly how trashy I was, so I conducted an obsessive-compulsive exercise. For one month I monitored exactly how much garbage I was sending to a landfill. And I let all the recyclables I'd ordinarily throw in the blue bin pile up in the corner of my kitchen.
I was hoping to learn what sorts of trash I make most and to see whether I could profit from changing what I did with it all. Was there some alternative to paying $36.32 a month to L.A.'s Bureau of Sanitation so it could haul the stuff away?
I started by calling the 800 number on my bill but was told I could get a reduction in fees only if I had a low income.
"There is no way to contest the fee for light use?" I asked, as I already was generating less than a third of the average trash for a household of two.
"No," I was told, $36.32 was just what I had to pay. Click.
The city rolled out a pilot program called RecycleBank last year, providing residents with a financial incentive to increase the amount of trash that's recycled and diverted from landfills from the current average of 65 percent to 70 percent by 2013. The program assesses the level of recycling in an entire neighborhood and distributes a share of the recycling proceeds back to participants.
But that pilot isn't in my neighborhood, and the Bureau of Sanitation won't comment on when, or if, RecycleBank will roll out to the city as a whole, so I decided to provide my own incentive and consult a private recycler.
I wanted to know: How much were my recyclables really worth?
For the first couple weeks of Project Garbage, my collection was a random assortment of newspapers and newspaper bags, spaghetti sauce jars and junk mail. It was all easily contained. By Week 3, it was beginning to overflow with the occasional plastic water bottle and Chinese takeout containers. By Week 4, the bin was positively exploding with recycled kid homework and glossy magazines, a wine bottle (or two), a whipped cream canister and a repurposed grocery store bag I used to house Items of Questionable Recyclability: candy wrappers, soy-milk Tetra Paks, coated paper Metro tickets and compostable plastic.
Then I sorted everything by type and weighed it. My total haul, excluding the food scraps to be composted in my backyard: 51 pounds of recyclables.
Most of the weight was paper — 31 pounds of the Los Angeles Times, 5 pounds of cardboard and 4 1/2 pounds of magazines, scrap paper and junk mail. The next biggest culprits, by weight, were glass jars and bottles, at 8 1/2 pounds. Plastic bottles were 1 1/2 pounds. Metal weighed half a pound.
A sanitation official said window envelopes and Kleenex boxes could be placed whole in the blue bin; the paper-washing process separates the paper and plastic. Cardboard, such as a cereal box with a plastic liner, also can be placed into the recycling bin whole.
The plastic mesh bag that held my Clementine mandarins, the white plastic thing that's tied around my newspaper and the crinkly plastic ramen noodle and lollipop wrappers that don't have a recycle number on them — they all had to be trashed.
Tetra Paks, those boxes made of cardboard, foil and plastic that contain soups and soy milks, are not recyclable in L.A. now but could be by spring.
Disposable coffee cup lids, plastic caps on soda bottles and metal lids on glass jars are all recyclable, as are most food jars, plastics and plastic foam packaging and clamshell takeout containers. L.A. just wants them free of liquid and somewhat cleaned — preferably wiped with a rag that was already in the trash, so you're not generating additional garbage or wasting water.
Although one-third of the items thrown in the blue bins is actually deemed refuse and diverted to a landfill, almost everything that can be recycled through the city and can generate a profit is being recycled. The city saves about $60 to recycle a ton of material instead of sending it to a landfill — a figure that includes revenue from recyclables as well as money saved by reduced disposal costs. Of the refuse that I collected in one month, only 3 pounds were actually trash. That felt good.
Ultimately, what I learned is that trash costs. Whether that cost is environmental or fiscal, it eventually trickles down to the individual. Recycling is good, but reducing waste is even better. My goal for 2011 is to generate zero garbage. In the months and columns to come, I'll find out how possible — or impossible — that will be.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
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