How to keep food, plastic, and fabric out of the landfill

Tackle life on the principles of reduce, reuse, and recycle.
outdoors compositing pile with veggies
Composting is a great way to reuse food scraps. Eva Elijas / Pexels

Waste production has become a huge issue. The US Environmental Protection Agency says industrial waste “is often a significant portion of solid waste, even in small cities and suburbs,” and even though there’s no exact number as to how much that is, some estimate it up to seven billion tons every year

The waste individuals generate is much less, but still important. In 2018, landfills received 146.1 million tons of trash from places like households, offices, shops, schools, and hotels. Food makes up for 24 percent, followed by plastics at more than 18 percent. Other contributors included paper products, rubber, leather, and textiles. 

People around the world are doing their part in trying to reduce their daily landfill contributions, but sometimes this is harder than it seems.

“Not everyone has the money or time to be running to buy fresh things that are not packaged all the time,” says Elizabeth Mazzolini, a University at Buffalo professor and co-editor of Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice

Regardless of your income, following some simple tips and tricks that work for your lifestyle can help you reduce your contribution to landfills across the country, and feel more confident in the environmental legacy you’ll leave behind. 

Start with the low-hanging fruit

One of the simplest things you can do to reduce your waste is shopping with reusable bags. Use an old canvas tote bag to pack your groceries so you don’t contribute to all the plastic and paper bags that ultimately end up in the trash. Keeping a folded tote in your bag or in the trunk of your car will ensure you never hit the store without it. 

[Related: Reusable grocery bags aren’t as environmentally friendly as you might think]

In addition, consider replacing single-use items such as paper towels or napkins, or disposable diapers, with reusable versions. When they need a wash, try gathering them all in one full load of laundry to further reduce their environmental impact. If you’re already cringing at the thought of reusable diapers, that’s ok—they just might not work for you at the moment. Try doing what you can when you can.

Reducing landfill waste is also about how you spend your time. Choose environmentally-friendly activities, like taking a walk or riding your bike ride. Adopting a hobby that’s not only waste-neutral but makes a positive impact on the environment, like volunteering at a local forest preserve, is even better.

We all deserve to indulge in a soy latte from a local coffee shop from time to time, but when you do, be sure to bring your own reusable mug so you can forgo the traditional paper cup. If you need it, also bring your compostable or reusable straw. Finally, boycott disposable water bottles by carrying a reusable one wherever you go, and always opt for non-disposable kitchenware. 

Eliminate food waste

Start by making the most out of the leftovers in your fridge by transforming the food you already have into a new menu. For example, you can turn rice into croquettes, or chicken into a tasty soup.   

If your creative juices are not flowing and you don’t know what to make with what you have, let the internet do the heavy lifting and type in the ingredients in your fridge and the word “recipe” into a search engine. Maybe you’ll find a dish you can put together with a few extra ingredients, or even without going to the store at all. In the long run, this will have a positive effect on the environment and your wallet. 

At the store, choose foods with less packaging—you can buy a bunch of celery in lieu of a plastic container of pre-chopped celery sticks, for example. If you have the option to shop from a farmer’s market, even better. 

Produce with less packaging or found at a local farm can be more expensive, but fortunately, there are ways to balance out that price hike. Start cutting down on your groceries by taking inventory of your fridge and pantry at the end of each week and stick to a shopping list. That way, you’ll make sure you’re only getting what you need.

But no matter how organized we are, there are always food scraps. Before you throw them away, make sure you get the most out of them. Veggie peels and bones can make a tasty broth, and you can always freeze that chicken, burger, and bacon fat to reuse later. 

Whatever is left after that, you can start a composting pile at home, which is a relatively inexpensive, low-maintenance way to reuse all those food scraps. If you don’t have a backyard, you can opt for vermicomposting, which uses worms to transform vegetable peels and other materials into nutrient-rich soil.

But compost piles are bulky, so if you can’t spare the space, pick-up programs are a great alternative. Do your research and find out about what compostable materials your city accepts, and what you need to do to coordinate pick up or drop-off of your food scraps. Sometimes commercial composting services for businesses, like restaurants and offices, will also pick up piles from people’s homes, so check out that option if your city doesn’t have a program of its own. 

If none of those is an option for you, starting a compost pile for your neighborhood, office, or school could be a good idea. You can even bag and sell the finished product to raise school or community funds.

Buy responsibly

When buying clothing, your best bet is shopping at second-hand stores. Once there, opt for high-quality, timeless items you’ll be able to wear for several seasons without looking dated. These same shops often buy clothes as well, so if you have some good items of your own you no longer want, close the cycle by selling them or donating them. 

But if you absolutely have to shop for something new, try finding stores with programs that will take your old garments and recycle them. Brands such as Levi’s H&M, The North Face, and Madewell are good examples. 

[Related: What actually happens to the clothes you donate depends on where you live]

Purchase cosmetics with packaging you can either recycle or reuse. For example, LUSH cosmetics lets customers return their empty pots for recycling, and INGLOT sells refills you can plug into their reusable makeup palettes

Lastly, don’t be afraid to repurpose. Start “shopping your house,” which is where you look around your own home for items you can reuse, upcycle, or breathe new life to. Be inventive—use old pill bottles to grow seedling plants, or those empty takeout containers to hold spices. If you have the skills for it, try creating handkerchiefs from old shirts, dish towels from used sheets, and napkins from tablecloths. This is not only environmentally friendly, but it will also save you money in the long run.

Reuse what you have

To really solve the waste production problem, it helps to think upstream. 

Rather than focusing just on what you’re throwing away, think about what you’re buying. Whenever your mouse or finger hover over that “Add to cart” button, or you’re standing in line for the register, ask yourself if you really need the things you intend to buy. If you don’t, just don’t get them.

Avoiding getting new stuff also spares you from having to throw that item’s packaging in the trash. But if you do buy new items, think about how you can reuse its packaging. If it’s plastic, try getting as much use out of it as possible before recycling it, and if it’s a paper box, use it when you have to ship something else. 

It can be easy to get bogged down and overwhelmed at the detail and the sheer scale of environmental issues, but there’s reason to have hope. Recycling and composting have been on the rise since 1960, and in 2018, the US recycled 24 percent of solid waste and composted approximately 9 percent. 

It might not seem like it, but a little goes a long way. Doing our part and inspiring others to do theirs can help us live in a more sustainable way, and leave future generations with more than landfills covered with heaps of garbage.