Zero waste: our progress so far

Garbage dumpA few weeks ago I wrote about how the “zero waste” movement had inspired me to look for ways to cut back on the garbage our family generated. I’m not aiming to eliminate all the waste. I’m looking for ways to be a bit gentler on the planet while, hopefully, saving money and not adding inordinately to my workload. Turns out there are plenty of ways to do that.

Here’s what has happened so far:

The composter’s in place. I bought this beauty for $20 from the City of Los Angeles, and got a worm bin for an additional $5. (The worm bin is basically a plastic tote with a few holes drilled in the top.) Then I bought an attractive little bin to sit on my countertop for another $20. Nope, the little bin wasn’t at all necessary, but it’s easier to use than the large plastic peanut butter jar with a screw-top lid it replaced…and it looks a heck of a lot better sitting out in the open. My husband’s an artist, and he’s taught me to consider aesthetics at least occasionally.

The little bin holds about 12 cups of food scraps, vegetable peels and other kitchen waste, and I empty it into the composter at least every other day. That’s a lot of garbage being redirected to a better use.

This is also getting me to think more about ways to cut back on kitchen waste, particularly on food that’s not getting eaten. That’s meant more consistent meal planning and using up leftovers, which helps reduce our grocery bill.

The reusables are getting used. I bought a reusable plastic cup with lid and straw from Starbucks and keep it in the car along with a commuter mug. So far, all the places I’ve asked—Jamba Juice, coffee joints, even fast food restaurants—have been fine with letting me use my own cup instead of one of their disposable versions. This doesn’t save me any money (well, maybe 10 cents at Starbucks) but it doesn’t cause much inconvenience, either. Ditto for the reusable shopping bags, which now live (mostly) in the car rather than scattered throughout the house.

I’m giving props to my city. I had a vague idea that Los Angeles was recycling more stuff than in the past, but the list has gotten amazingly long—way longer than in many other communities I’ve read about. In addition to the usual suspects of glass, paper, aluminum and plastic, LA recycles:

  • Styrofoam containers
  • Wire and plastic hangers
  • Drink cartons (for juice, wine, milk, heavy cream…you name it)
  • Plastic bags (including grocery and dry-cleaning bags)
  • Aerosol cans (with the plastic tops removed)lastic toys
  • Plastic toys
  • All aluminum, tin, metal and bi-metal cans
  • Clean aluminum foil
  • Clean film plastic

I’m still looking for ways to reduce the volume of what we discard (more on that in a later post), but for right now I’m pleased that a lot more stuff can go into the blue recycling bin and a lot less into the black trash bin. Again, no big savings that I can see, but also no inconvenience encountered.

If you’ve found ways to reduce waste and save money, I’d love to hear about them!


In case you missed it: credit score myths, zero waste and baby dilemmas

YCS4 coverToo many people believe too many lies about credit scores, and it’s costing them money. Read the real scoop in my MSN Money column “Credit score myths that need to die.”

Our family may never achieve “zero waste,” but we’ve started some easy ways to reduce the amount of garbage we generate. More in “Are you ready for a zero-waste lifestyle?

Kyle has a good job, and better health care coverage than her husband. He thinks those are reasons to keep working and create a more flexible schedule. But daycare is eating up most of her paycheck and she’s wondering if she should quit to stay home with their baby. Read my assessment, plus what you need to do if you’re considering becoming a stay-at-home parent, in Marketplace Money’s new feature “Financial Feud.”

Some financial missteps may not show up on your credit reports, but they’re big red flags that you’re headed for trouble. Read more in’s “Danger ahead: 5 warning signs that won’t show up on your credit report.”

Are you ready for a “zero waste” lifestyle?

Garbage BoatMost of what we buy or consume requires trade-offs. When it comes to some of the most important features–convenience, thrift and environmental friendliness—we often settle for one or two out of three.

A book and a few Web sites devoted to the “zero waste” movement have convinced me to try a little harder on the third count.

At first I was skeptical of claims that the typical American produces more than four pounds of garbage a day. Just observing our household patterns, though, convinced me that we’re generating a lot more trash than I thought. And too much of that trash either wasn’t being recycled or couldn’t be recycled. (We’re not alone…I found this rubbish map from the Economist showing the U.S. and Norway, of all places, are tops at producing trash.)

I’m not ready to go to some of the lengths that the truly devoted advocate to reduce our trash to what would fit in a Kleenex box.  But we’re taking a few baby steps:

We’re finally getting a composter. We composted on the farm where I grew up, but it was a pretty simple chore. Compostable food scraps went into a bucket Mom kept under the sink. Every few days it was my job to take the bucket and a shovel to the garden to bury the scraps. They disappeared almost magically. We never turned up an eggshell or coffee filter later on. The small lot we live on now doesn’t allow that kind of “lazy composting,” but the city of Los Angeles offers a $20 composter I’m going to try.

I’m remembering to take my reusable bags to the store. They’re way better than the flimsy plastic bags grocery stores provide (and that LA is about to ban). But I managed to ignore that until a lovely, expensive bottle of olive oil fell out of tear in one of those flimsies and shattered on our driveway. Now my groceries come home in strong, resilient, reusable totes that don’t let the contents roll all over my car.

I’m thinking about packaging before I buy. There’s usually a choice between recyclable and not. Surprisingly often these days, you don’t have to pay more for the greener option. This extends to fast food outlets. Carl’s Jr., a favorite burger chain here, wraps its food in paper and cardboard. McDonalds, by contrast, continues to use Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic. The purists would bring their own plates, cups and cloth napkins to a fast food joint, or avoid such restaurants altogether, but for now I’m content to pick Carl’s.

We just had an almost-zero-waste BBQ. I’d convinced myself you couldn’t have a party without filling a trash bin, but I was wrong. I made pitchers of lemonade and cucumber water instead of providing bottled water. We used cloth napkins, regular cutlery, and real plates and glasses for the most part. The plastic cups for the kids were recyclable (as were the beer and wine bottles). I even managed to skip the Styrofoam trays that usually accompany meat: We bought some lovely tri-tip roasts from a local butcher, who wrapped them in paper. At the end of the night, the only thing that went into the trash were the hot dog wrappers. It was fun, and the cleanup wasn’t that hard.

Some resources if you’re interested in learning more:

The Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less” is a book by Amy Korst that suggests ways to reduce, reuse and recycle that range from the easy (like remembering those tote bags!) to the advanced (Diva Cups, anyone?).

Zero Waste Home is the blog of Bea Johnson, who wrote a book by the same name. I especially like the posts where she talks about zero waste and raising kids.

The Nonconsumer Advocate is a perfectly delightful Portlandian named Katy Wolk-Stanley who describes herself as a “library patron, leftovers technician, Goodwill enthusiast, utility bill scholar, labor and delivery nurse, laundry hanger-upper, mother and citizen.” Her commentary about some of her more absurd Goodwill finds—found under the heading “Goodwill, Badwill, Questionable-Will”—are particularly hilarious.