Waste is arguably our best area. We have very little garbage waste, producing on average about 1 kitchen trash bag per week for five people, if that much. In fact, we now have so little waste that I need to rethink my kitchen garbage set up because it begins to smell from sitting too long before getting filled. One great side effect of this has been canceling our curbside garbage collection and saving quite a bit of money. We were going to the dump for the recyclables anyway; now, Jim just throws the trashcans in the truck along with everything else when he heads up there. For a minimal fee, we can take our own garbage to the dump rather than paying someone else to do it for us and without adding an extra trip.
Pretty much anything that can't be reused, recycled, composted, burned*, or fed to the animals, winds up in the garbage—primarily packaging plastics, unfortunately. We buy in bulk whenever possible, which cuts down significantly on the waste, as does growing most of our own food. Cooking from scratch eliminates an enormous amount of waste from all those prepackaged foods. Meats, of course, we do package ourselves in freezer bags that can't be reused, but we're still saving tons on the styrofoam and other packaging that comes along with grocery meat, not to mention all the waste inherent in the industrial systems that produce that meat.
We have a multi-tiered system that makes perfect sense to us because we live it every day, but which seems to confuse the hell out of visitors—at least those who don't really get the ideas behind the separating. All meat scraps and bones go to the dogs and cats. Fruits, veggies, dairy, and grains go to the pigs and chickens. All other kitchen waste—rotten foods, eggshells, onions, banana peels, etc.—go into the compost pile.
Paper waste either gets recycled or used as kindling to start fires. Plastic, glass, and cardboard get taken to the recycling center. Plastic bags get reused or taken to the grocery store to recycle. Unfortunately, our county recycles only #1 and #2 plastic, something I plan to actively lobby to change in 2008. Last year, they began accepting paperboard in addition to corrugated cardboard, and that made a huge difference for us in the amount of waste we produce. For now, I reuse small yogurt containers for planting and the large ones for food storage. Large orange juice type containers can be reused for oil changes or goat's milk storage, for instance, or can be cut into nice scoops for feed, seed, or whatever.
We've eliminated much of our waste simply by changing our habits. We haven't used tissues, for instance, for years, but this past year we finally switched over to cloth napkins and paper towels, and that's helped. I've found that the cloth napkins and rags really don't take up much room in the loads of wash I'm already doing, and one goal for '08 is to be better about using our napkin rings, reducing the number of times I need to wash napkins.
Laundry in and of itself is a huge area that can be reduced for lots of folks. Napkins, towels, pajamas, and some clothes don't need to be washed after every use, and that's something I've just started working on with the kids. We've always hung and reused our towels: after all, we're clean when we use them, for heaven's sake. For napkins, as I said, we've gotten rings to differentiate each person's, allowing us to reuse them several times before putting them in the wash. For clothes, the kids are finally getting old enough that their clothes aren't always covered in... something... and so can be reworn, an idea that's sinking in slowly. Funny how they can wear the same shirt for days when they like it, but to think about putting something back into the clean clothes is another step they're just not ready to take. Kid logic just doesn't think about clothes and laundry the same way adult logic does. Kind, gentle reminders go a long way towards helping them think in those terms. By the same token, reusing cups, glasses, and snack bowls can help reduce the number of dishes that need to be washed—anything that's not greasy, sticky, or milky.
Something that kids are great for, however, is their ability to repurpose things, and we can all learn something from them here. When kids look at trash, they see treasure. They see infinite possibility for creativity and invention, and this is something we actively encourage in our home. Often, things still get thrown away in the end, but not before they've been used and reused as art supplies and imagination fodder. Just recently, for instance, my youngest daughter and my mother-in-law sorted through my recycled food containers in a fit of frustration after Thanksgiving. They paired every container with its appropriate lid and piled all the remaining mateless pieces on the counter, all of which I put down in our art center. The containers without lids will hold tiny bits and baubles, and the lids can be used any number of ways, from circle templates to Chinese stars, which my oldest daughter made for her brother for Christmas. Kids can reuse just about anything!
Freecycle is another great way to reduce waste, allowing lots of things to find good homes rather than ending up in a landfill, from old appliances to left over building supplies to unwanted craft supplies. It's amazing what people find homes for on that list.
One of my personal goals for '08—and sorry about this fellas—is to switch over to a menstrual cup. I've been considering this for a couple of years now without quite getting myself to make the switch. I've considered washable products, but that hasn't happened either, and the cup seems so much more sensible than having one more thing to wash. So, this is another personal hurdle for me to jump in '08.
What are your goals for 2008?
*A note on burning: I'm very conservative about what I burn, being sure it's comprised only of paper. Unfortunately, I have some neighbors who are willing, or so my nose tells me, to burn plastics. *sigh* On our burn and kindling list are: toilet paper rolls, flour bags, newspaper, those little magazine inserts, paper-based animal food bags, and the occasional paperboard box when we're running low on other starters. Most waste office paper gets reused for art before heading to the mixed office paper recycling bag.