Paper towels be gone!

I stowed the paper towel dispenser in the basement (despite much grumbling from the hubby). We will now use dishrags in place of paper towels.  I also replaced the paper napkins with cloth napkins.

It should be noted that I did not purchase these reusable items.  I simply took them out of the cupboard and moved their disposable counterparts out of reach.

When I was keeping my trash diary last year, I didn’t realize just how many paper towels, paper napkins and tissues I used on a daily basis. So when I started The Rubbish Diet last week it came as no surprise to find them still filling up my bin.  While it won’t take much weight out of my trash bins, these items are definitely disposable products I can easily do away with.

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The Rubbish Diet – Week 2

Uh-oh.  I’m barely into week 2 of The Rubbish Diet and I’m already increasing my weekly generation of trash rather than decreasing it!

Last week was a busy week for me.  I wasn’t home much and thus not generating a lot of waste at home (although I was generating a lot of waste out and about).  On Sunday I finally had time to catch up on chores around the house.  Those chores included cleaning out the fridge (left overs that went bad because I didn’t eat it in time) and cleaning out the kitty litter box (I’m talking switching out the whole box, not just scooping. I do this every 6 weeks or so).   These two actions doubled my trash generation!

Mondays and Thursdays are my trash pick-up days.  Last week and the week before I only put out a few bags on Thursdays.  Yesterday I put out the kitty litter bag (about 13lbs) and the kitchen trash (about 9lbs).  Two heavy bags on a Monday!

If I were thinking ahead I would have completed these chores PRIOR to the start of The Rubbish Diet.  Instead it got me thinking about how I not only have to think about recycling more but wasting less.  Purchasing habits are part of wasting less, but lifestyle changes and matters of ‘convenience’ also play a part.  It’s time to do more…

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Plastic bagless shopping trip failed

I had to run to the grocery store last night to pick-up a few things.  I made a list of the things I would need over the next few days so as not to over purchase. I brought my reusable shopping bags to avoid the whole extra plastic bag thing.  That part worked out great!  I only got what I needed and everything I bought fit into one bag.

Another awesome thing was that I bought coffee! That was the main reason I went to this store: to buy coffee.  They have bins upon bins of bulk coffee. I selected a nice certified-fair trade organic blend and had them grind it for me.  They put it in a paper bag that I can bring back next time.

I also selected a nice hunk of cheese that was cut at the store and wrapped in minimal plastic.  Not perfect, but better than the alternative. The thing that really tripped me up was the meat and the produce department.  I thought I’d get some meat from the butcher to avoid packaging.  As expected they wrapped up my selection in some paper wrapping, but then they wrapped it again in plastic (saran wrap type plastic). I made a mental note to ask for no plastic next time.

In the produce department I started out good.  A couple of apples rolling around loose in the cart.  A few zucchini joined the mix.  But then I got to the brussel sprouts.  A good bin slimmer would have just gone with some other vegetable, but I did not.  I shamefully took a produce bag and piled in a few handfuls of the little green things.   I felt a little better knowing that I can recycle that bag, but not much.

The Rubbish Diet creator, Karen Cannard, has some good tips on how to think about your waste while shopping.  I may not have had the most successful venture this time out, but I definitely was thinking about packaging the entire time.

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Plastic bag recycling

Welcome to our plastic bag storage area.  We used to religiously take our reusable shopping bags to the grocery store.  Then we got cats (the curious felines pictured here) and needed a few plastic bags for kitty littler clean up.  Since then we’ve gotten a little slack in taking our own bags and wind up with an overflowing plastic bag cupboard. It’s amazing how they multiply.

In 2009, New York State passed a plastic bag recycling law (which superceded the NYC law passed just months before).   The plastic bag recycling law should not be confused with plastic bag bans in areas of California, Washington state and Oregon.

The NYS plastic bag recycling law basically requires large retailers to take back plastic bags through collection points in visible, accessible areas in their stores.  These retailers must have these bags taken away by a vendor that will recycle them, and must report quantities recycled.  Additionally, large retailers can still provide plastic bags to their customers but must provide reusable bags for sale.

Is this solving the prevalent plastic bag problem?  It’s hard to say.   I couldn’t readily find any stats on how much material has been recovered for recycling as a result of this law.   Also, I’m a little skeptical on whether or not bags are actually being recycled.  I work with a lot of commercial businesses and private waste carters in NYC, and it is very easy for things like this to go by the wayside.  On the other hand, I know that private carters do recover a lot of plastic liners used to bag recyclables and can (and do) easily bale plastic bags with this stream.   Since it is a state-wide law, NYS is responsible for enforcement and it isn’t clear on how or how often compliance is checked.

As a consumer, this plastic bag recycling option is great.  You can take back more than just plastic bags (which I didn’t know until I just looked it up the other day).  Plastic film (dry cleaning bags) and other plastic bags and wrapping for things such as paper towels, bread, produce, and frozen vegetables – even ziplock bags.

For small purchases we always refuse bags, but we can definitely do more to remember our reusable bags for trips to the grocery store.  Plastic bag recycling is a great option for our accumulated excess, plus it’s a great way to get some plastic food packaging out of our waste stream.

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Love my coffee, love my K-cup?

A good recycler like myself should not purchase single-serve individually packaged anything.  Yet, we have a Keurig coffee machine that uses single-serve coffee units called K-cups.

We got the Keurig machine about two-years ago.   Prior to that we used to grind our own fair-trade, certified organic, shade grown, locally roasted beans. We used paper filters and had a conventional 12-cup coffee maker.  This was practical for us on the weekends, but the idea of weekday convenience prevailed and the Keurig entered our lives.

We buy the little coffee cups in bulk because it’s cheaper per cup (so there’s a plus with reduction in packaging) and the cardboard boxes they come in are recyclable (another small victory).  I also prefer to get the fair-trade, certified organic coffee varieties whenever possible.  Even though we are wasting a lot less coffee than before, those k-cups are now part of our daily waste stream.

According to Keurig’s website they are looking into how they can make a recyclable k-cup and still maintain the coffee quality.  They do make a reusable filter so you don’t have to buy k-cups at all, but it is a bit of a hassle to use.  It gets too hot to re-use right away and it’s just plain messy getting the grounds out…  But enough with trying to justify the convenience.  I am on The Rubbish Diet.  It is time to stop complaining and start making my coffee making habits as waste free as possible.

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Week 1 Trash Pick-up

Monday and Thursdays are trash pick-up days in our neighborhood in Queens, NY.  Thursdays are also recycling pick-up days.

Last night we put out one bin with one bag of trash from the house, and the small bag of litterbug trash I collected from our yard on Tuesday.  That’s my husband taking out the trash – smile Steve!

Total trash weight:  8 lbs.  No recyclables to put out this week.

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The Litter Dilemma

Litterbugs are not helping my rubbish diet.  Yesterday, I cleaned up other people’s trash from my yard.  That plastic bag I’m holding is about 2/3 full of plastic cups, random pieces of paper, mini-booze bottles, a cigarette box, and snack wrappers.  There’s a middle-school a few blocks down (lots of kids walking by) and on weekends we get a lot of church-goers parking on our street.  Of course there’s other people out walking in the neighborhood and drivers who for whatever reason choose to stop in front of our house and clean out their car (we’ve watched it happen.  People are weird).  And then there’s random stuff that blows around on windy days.

I do wonder though, how can we get more people to recycle when there are people who just can’t be bothered to find a trash can?  I see it all the time on the subways and on the streets.  What gets me is that they try to be sneaky about it, like, oops, just happened to not notice that I dropped my candy bar wrapper.  (I’m convinced this is why NYC the street sweeper things, to come through and pick-up after everyone.)  But I digress.  Right now the litterbugs are putting a cramp in my rubbish diet.

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My rubbish bins

As week one of The Rubbish Diet continues I thought I’d share the bin set up in our kitchen.

For our trash we have one of those trendy pull out cabinet things with two 41-qt bins.  The front bin is for trash.  The back one is for glass, metal, and plastic.  Right now the trash is getting a bit full.  There’s some food packaging, the ever present paper towels, coffee k-cups, and some plastic bags and plastic wrap from some organizing I did over the weekend.  There’s also a gigantic cat food bag that is taking up most of the space (we go through one every few months).  The glass, metal, plastic bin has a milk carton and some tin cans in it right now.

The other pic is our not-so-attractive recyclables and redeemables area.  The top container is for mixed paper.  It has some paper board, catalogues, egg carton, and random bits and pieces of paper.  We put out a big bag full of paper and cardboard last week and will likely not do so again until next week.

The bottom container is for redeemable water and soda bottles. We rarely buy soda or bottled water.  As you can see, beer is a different story.  This is about a couple of months worth of redeemables.

New York State has a returnable container law also known as the “bottle bill” which applies to “carbonated soft drinks, water, soda water, beer, malt beverages, and wine cooler containers under 1-gallon” (juice and sports drinks don’t count).  Every time you purchase these items you’re making a ‘deposit’ of 5-cents per bottle.  Stores that sell these items have to give you your deposit back if you bring back the empties, but only the empties of the things they sell.

The thing is, the people usually bringing back empties are urban scavengers trying to scrape a few bucks together.  Not quite what the law makers had in mind when they were trying to reduce litter and increase recovery of these containers.  In any case, we take our redeemable containers back for a little cash, which we typically just put towards our next beer purchase.

So there you have it.  One trash bin, one for glass metal plastic, a larger container for paper and one bin plus floor space for redeemables.

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Recycling in NYC

Here we go.  Week 1 of The Rubbish Diet is here!   I’ll be tracking my household generation of waste and recyclables over the next 8 weeks.

I live in New York City.  Since recycling laws vary widely across the United States from states to counties to municipalities it is important to note that NYC does things a little bit differently than other areas.

First of all there are separate recycling regulations for businesses and for residents.   All commercial businesses must contract with a private carter to pay for waste removal. All residential waste is collected by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY).  There is no charge for this service.

That’s right.  The city of New York collects residential waste and recyclables for free. Of course it is paid for through various taxes, but there is no direct financial incentive for an individual household to generate less waste.

Recycling is mandatory.  There are two main recycling streams residents are asked to separate: mixed paper (and cardboard) and glass/metal/plastics.   Cardboard is usually a no-brainer.  Mixed paper includes anything paper.  Glass/Metals/Plastics is where people get a little confused.  Beverage cartons and juice boxes go in this stream.  Only plastic bottles or jugs can go here, not other rigid plastic containers. Glass bottles and jars, and aluminum and tin cans (and clean foil) are ok.

DSNY primarily uses rear-load trucks for residential trash collection.  Trash pick-up is once or twice per week.  My pick-up is on Mondays and Thursdays.

Recyclables are picked-up in a split rear-load truck – one truck with two compartments. One side is for paper/cardboard, the other for glass/metal/plastics.  Recycling pick-up is once per week.  My pick-up is on Thursdays.

Everything must be placed curbside for collection.  Residents are not provided with any containers, so it doesn’t matter if you pile bags outside or if you use containers.  If you do use containers they must be 18-32 gallon capacity, have lids, and be properly labeled (recycling decals are free).  Recyclables must also be clear bagged.  We use containers with lids mainly to control pests (the garbage men never replace the lids by the way, which is awesome on windy days.)

Even though recycling is mandatory, and there are sometimes citations given to locations that have ‘improperly’ sorted or stored their recyclables, DSNY reported a 15% diversion rate for October 2011.   That’s pretty low.

Recycling has increasingly been making its way to the sustainability priority list. Last summer, the solid waste portion of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 update, focused on waste reduction.  At a solid waste forum last month, city officials and law makers discussed the $1 billion they spend on solid waste management, and options to reduce the $300m dedicated to transporting waste to landfills outside of the city.  In his state of the city address last week, Bloomberg announced a goal to divert 50% more materials from landfills in the next five years (I’ll save the incineration/waste-to-energy discussion for another post).

There’s a lot of room for improvement in recycling in NYC.  Even though it seems like my neighbors are doing a pretty good job (yeah, I take a look at their bags of recycling on Thursday mornings when I walk to the train) we can all be doing better.  While it would be great if all 8 million people in the city would take part in The Rubbish Diet, I’ll start us off.

I put out two bags of trash last Thursday, one big bag of mixed paper, and one small bag of glass/metal/plastic.  Today (Monday, a trash pick-up day) I do not need to put out any trash.  It can wait until Thursday.

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The Rubbish Diet

When I told my husband we were participating in The Rubbish Diet, he asked, “Are you eating less garbage?”  Well, kind of.

Starting Monday, January 23 I’ll be reporting how much trash and recyclables we throw out each week.  I will be ‘weighing in’ with UK based Karen Cannard with the intent of hitting zero waste by the end of the eight week challenge.

Karen started The Rubbish Diet Challenge in 2008 to reduce the amount of trash generated from her household.  She did it and has inspired many other households to do the same.

I started a Trash Diary last year about this time.  That lasted for about six weeks.  I shamefully stopped after that because we were in the midst of a kitchen remodel (that lasted through May) and my daily trash habits eventually went toward an increasing number of disposable plates and cups (convenience prevailed over lugging everything upstairs to the bathtub to wash).  Plus, the kitchen construction waste wasn’t handled as ‘green friendly’ as I had intended (although our contractor did salvage a lot of materials and reused much of the wood for other projects.)

In keeping my trash diary I learned a lot about what I throw away (food scraps, paper towels, and non-recyclable food packaging).  I also found that I do recycle nearly everything that I can, and that I already do a lot to reduce the amount of overall waste (such as using my reusable coffee cup.)  I also noticed a difference in my ‘at home’ waste vs. my ‘on the go’ waste.  Days that I had back to back meetings around the city I used way more disposable packaging than when I had an office day.

I’m ready to take another closer look at my household waste.  My two main goals for The Rubbish Diet are:

  • Identify what we throw away on a weekly basis
  • Identify ways to reduce the amount of trash generated

I anticipate there will be some things I will not eliminate right now (yogurt cups and individual coffee K-cups) and some things I have intended to do for a while but haven’t got around to (eliminate use of paper towels and begin backyard composting).

We shall see how our household habits change and what we learn about our trash over the coming weeks as participants in The Rubbish Diet.

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