A Year Of UnNew Month 10: October
You are what you throw away
"I audited my trash to better understand what I consume" Emma Athena Mure
For the first nine months of my Year of UnNew—my experiment to buy nothing new for an entire year—I focused exclusively on what objects, materials, and resources I was bringing into my life. Vetting everything I buy has become second-nature; a Year of UnNew has changed my purchasing habits in immeasurably positive ways: I’m a different, more conscientious consumer in this world because of it.
But last month, after listening to low-waste-lifestyle-consultant Cindy Villaseñor on the Pre-Loved Podcast (which I detailed in last month’s installation of living UnNew), I began thinking about what I throw away—in other words, the exact opposite action of my year’s heightened focus.
So many of the environmental benefits stemming from living a life dedicated to second-hand goods have to do with keeping items out of landfills. Textile waste is a huge problem in the U.S. According to the BBC, “Around 85% of all textiles thrown away in the US ... are either dumped into landfill or burned. The average American has been estimated to throw away around [81.5 pounds] of clothes every year. And globally, an estimated 92 million [tons] of textiles waste is created each year and the equivalent to a [garbage] truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second. By 2030, we are expected as a whole to be discarding more than 134 million [tons] of textiles a year.”
And that’s just textiles—I haven’t found impact reports for more technical outdoor equipment like tents or bikes or backpacks—I hope that’s because not as many end up in the landfill (fewer exist on the globe to begin with, and they have greater resale value than basic clothing).
Landfills, to a certain degree, are necessary. We need a place to put our waste—that which cannot be reused or recycled. But landfills not only take up space in our environments; they pollute the air and nearby water sources, so it’s imperative that we minimize them as we move toward a greener future. That looks like scaling down what we throw away and reducing the need for new landfills to be built.
All this prompted me, as Villaseñor recommends, to do my own trash audit. I wanted to see what types of objects I was throwing away on a daily basis. The idea is to get familiar with your trash so you can better understand what you’re adding to landfills and how you can reduce your waste output through smarter purchases. It all comes back together: Whatever you bring into your life, you’re responsible for it’s disposal.
So, for a week, I documented my trash. I wrote the items down and categorized them, and I even took photos. All this helped me understand the types of objects I throw away, but also the reality of how I’m currently limited in my ability to reroute many of the items from a landfill, given my current situation. I’m temporarily living in Mexico City, where, for example, I don’t have access to composting (like I do at my home in Colorado). Also in Mexico, trash and recyclable materials are collected together. I’m told they sort the materials, but I have no way to confirm this, so I counted all my recycling in my trash audit as well. Given these limitations, through intentional observation, I was still able to make some changes.
Organic food waste:
egg shells (8); spinach and kale stems; garlic peels; avocado rinds (5); broccoli stems; tomato tops; date pits; lemon rinds; onion peels; bell pepper innards and top
Food packaging waste:
spiced nuts (2); hummus container (1); shrimp packaging; chips packaging; sprouts packaging
coffee to-go cup (1); salsa to-go cup (1); dish soap bottle (1); berry basket container; defunct pen; sparking water bottle (3)
coconut milk can (2)
receipts (5); toilet paper roll (1); shrimp packaging
Changes I made:
- I love carbonated water (at home in Colorado I own a soda stream that eliminates the need to buy bottled sparkling water). But here in Mexico City, I have to buy sparkling water in plastic bottles, which has transformed it into what I’d consider a luxury item, due to the fact that it’s not essential to my health and the plastic it requires. As such, I’ve made a deal with myself: like an allowance, I get to buy one 1.5-liter bottle of sparkling water each week.
- Using my food more efficiently. Organic food was, by far, the largest category of waste in my audit. In my photos, I noticed that I was throwing away parts of vegetables that I could technically use. Since I can’t compost here, I have resolved to make use of every possible part of my food so that I can reduce my trash.
- Buying less snacks wrapped in plastic. There are plentiful bulk stores in Mexico City, including one down the street from my apartment—they sell everything from dried fruits to chocolate-covered almonds, chips, nuts, popcorn, and so much more. I resolve to buy my snacks there and bring my own bags and jars to carry them home.
- Buy more liquids in cans, rather than in plastic-lined cardboard, like Tetra Pak cartons that most oat and almond milks now come in. According to Forbes, “The combination of materials makes it more difficult and costly to recycle than aluminum—and plastic, for that matter—because the metal and plastic must be stripped out.”
To read more about my Year of UnNew, see the September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January installments.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.
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