Thursday, August 2, 2012

Waste is a terrible thing to mind

Last night, while taking out the trash, Brian realized that it must have been at least a month since we'd last taken it out. (In case you're wondering how, he discovered some lipstick-blotted tissues in the downstairs bathroom wastebasket and reasoned that, since I don't wear lipstick—and neither does he—they must have been left there while his parents were visiting us at the beginning of July.) Since the amount of trash we put out was just about enough to fill one large trash bag, I concluded that our household's rate of trash production must be one bag per month (not counting recyclables, which are collected separately). I was pluming myself on this discovery, since most of our neighbors put out their trash once a week, and I assumed that our longer time between pickups meant that we were doing a better-than-average job of keeping our waste production low. But then I started wondering: is a bag a month really that low? How do we actually stack up against the average American, or, for that matter, the average human being on earth?

Finding statistics for American waste production wasn't too difficult, though interpreting them was a bit harder. According to the EPA's Office of Solid Wastes, the average American produces 4.3 pounds of waste per day, of which about 2.9 pounds ends up headed for the landfill. However, the site couldn't say what percentage of this waste comes from businesses rather than homes, except to note that it "is often a significant portion." Assuming, purely at a wild guess, that households account for about half of all the solid waste produced in this country, a two-person household like ours would be producing an average of 2.9 pounds a day, or 87 pounds a month. Now, I didn't weigh last night's bag of trash before we put it out, but I know it can't have been anywhere close to 87 pounds, or Brian would have had to lift the bag in both arms just to get it out to the curb, probably throwing his back out in the process. Since he was, instead, able to pick it up with one hand, I'd guess it weighed no more than 20 pounds, which works out to two-thirds of a pound per day—about 23 percent of the average household's waste production. This is a seriously rough estimate, obviously, but it tallies reasonably well with my earlier observation that we only need to put out the trash once a month while our neighbors generally do it weekly. So it looks like a reasonably safe guess to say that we produce somewhere on the order of one-quarter as much trash as a typical American household.

Fair enough, but how do we stack up against the rest of the world? I found a report from the World Bank that breaks waste production down by region, showing figures ranging from 0.45 kilograms per day in South Asia to 2.2 kilograms per day in "the OECD countries," which I take to mean heavily developed parts of the world like Europe and North America. The snag is that the report doesn't show what percentage of this waste is recovered or what percentage of the remainder is produced by homes rather than businesses. So, resorting to more wild guesstimation, I figured that if South Asia's total per capita trash production is about 20 percent as much as that in nations like the USA, then probably its household waste production is also about 20 percent as much. So if we assume, as I did above, an American home produces 1.45 pounds per person per day, then a South Asian home would be producing about 0.3 pounds per person per day. Extending this assumption to the other parts of the world, an African home would produce about 0.4 pounds per person per day, an East Asian home about 0.6 pounds, and one in Central Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East about 0.7 pounds. So our household, at one-third of a pound per person per day, is just a bit more wasteful than one in South Asia, but still less wasteful than others elsewhere in the world—always assuming that my rough guesses are anywhere close to right.

So, hey, not too shabby, right? Well, in absolute terms, right. But here's the snag: measurements of eco-friendliness aren't always made in absolute terms. Sometimes, rather, your success in "going green" is evaluated not by comparing you to the rest of the world, but by measuring your progress against your own baseline. As an example, last year for Earth Day, the city of Austin, Texas produced a reality TV mini-series called "Dare to Go Zero," in which four families competed to see how much they could reduce their household trash. If we'd been part of that competition, we'd probably have been the first family to be eliminated. We wouldn't set any records for waste reduction for the same reason that Kate Moss won't set any records for weight loss: there just ain't that much there to start with. We'd have to try and skew the baseline by making sure our our initial trash weigh-in was a full month's worth, like today's. (Maybe we could even throw in a large item that we'd been saving for a while, like the old box spring that we finally put out for bulk waste pickup this morning after we couldn't get anyone to take it on Freecycle. Wow, look, we went from 70 pounds to 5 pounds in just one week!)

This is a perfect example of a frustrating problem I've encountered often in my efforts to green our lifestyle: diminishing returns. Advice on how to make your life greener tends, not surprisingly, to focus on the low-hanging fruit, the stuff that provides the biggest bang for a fairly small number of bucks. The families in "Dare to Go Zero," for example, were given gifts of compost pails, reusable grocery bags, and reusable water bottles, with explanations of how using these items regularly could reduce their waste load. They also got advice on what to recycle and how. Similarly, it's common to see articles or websites promising that you can "cut your household energy use in half" by such simple measures as replacing incandescent light bulbs, installing low-flow showerheads, and adding insulation. But what if you've already done all the easy stuff? Where's your 50 percent savings supposed to come from then? There seems to be a serious shortage of advice out there on what to do next once you've already taken all the baby steps.

In our case, looking at the contents of our trash—plastic windows torn out of junk-mail envelopes, dental floss, bottle caps that can't be recycled although the bottles themselves can—the only thing I could think of that would reduce it at all would be to dump the contents of the dustpan (mostly cat hair and wheat-based litter) into the compost bin after sweeping. And given that I usually sweep the bathroom floor in the morning right before hopping into the shower, getting fully dressed to take the dust out rather than just dumping it in the nearest wastebasket would be a fairly big inconvenience in return for a fairly tiny reduction in waste. It seems like at some point, you may just have to shrug your shoulders and decide that one bag per month is good enough.

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