This post is part of our Conscious Consumerism series to encourage our readers to live – and buy – responsibly. As marketers in the purpose economy, we see it as our job to help people make purchasing decisions that align with their values and contribute to the greater good. Want to learn more about our mission? Download our Manifesto.
The U.S. is known for producing blockbuster films, fast food and a really insane amount of trash. We make up less than 5% of the world’s population yet generate 15-20% of its waste. Bottom line? The average U.S. citizen produces 2,076 pounds of trash per year.
Whether you blame it on our affinity for consumption, the built-to-break approach to modern manufacturing or our never-ending quest for convenience, it’s clear that our habits are far from sustainable. In an effort to reassess our personal contributions to this gargantuan problem, The Pegs decided to follow in the footsteps of fellow B Corp Sustrana and try for A Day Without Waste. To participate, we all kept track of what we reused, recycled and threw away.
Here’s what we learned:
1. “Waste” Means Something Different to Everybody
When our graphic designer Kiana reported back on her waste, she included the gas she used to drive to and from work. I didn’t even think to include fuel consumption on my list! That got me thinking about what else I might have wasted but failed to record:
- The electricity and natural gas used to power, heat and light my home and our office
- Water that I use when brushing my teeth, running the washing machine, showering and doing dishes
- Less tangible resources like time and opportunities
Long story short: we waste more things than we realize. In fact, I’d bet money that I’m still forgetting something!
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2. Food Packaging is The Enemy
If you’re avoiding waste production, you better avoid eating. Over and over again, my colleagues and I encountered food packaging that couldn’t be recycled.
- The foil top on single-serve yogurt
- The plastic wrap on whoopie pies
- The plastic covering on a single-serving Rice Krispie treat
- The foil on approximately 100 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (surprisingly, this one wasn’t me)
- An oatmeal packet
The real culprit here is the convenience of single-serve food items intended for those on-the-go. Which means the actual culprit is those of us (myself included) who buy individually packaged food items to ease the stress of a busy lifestyle. In my defense, some products aren’t available in other packaging. That said, some are.
While it pains me to think of giving up my cute little Babybel cheeses, I will definitely be scrutinizing my list of individually packaged purchases. Keeping a jar of applesauce in the office fridge is totally doable.
3. We Need to Start Composting
Food scraps and yard waste make up to 30% of solid waste. That’s HUGE – and it’s all organic material that can be composted to become fertile, nutrient-rich soil (instead of put in plastic bags and landfills!).
Unfortunately, few municipal buildings offer on-site composting at this point, and most counties don’t offer composting services the way they offer trash and recycling pick-up.
Our founder Polina composts at home. If you want to start composting at home but don’t want to deal with it yourself, there are great compost services to choose from. Check out Compost Crew to get started – they’re one of our clients!
4. Everything is Disposable
There are a lot of disposable things out there and though we tried not to, we all ended up with items like paper towels, napkins, and tissues on our “trash” lists. Plastic baggies also showed up as well as paper cups and plastic cutlery. Toilet paper didn’t make it onto anyone’s list but I imagine there was some that went right down the drain, so to speak.
The truth of the matter is that as U.S. citizens we’re surrounded by things that are made to be trashed. At one point in time, cloth napkins and handkerchiefs were the mainstay but now I only see the former at upscale restaurants and the latter when I watch Mad Men.
It’s hard to resist the easy disposables out there. Some people are really dedicated to doing so (think reusable toilet paper) but even a moderate effort can have an impact. For me personally, sticking to real silverware and buying reusable snack bags will be a fairly effortless way to reduce waste.
My big epiphany at the end of the day was that a heck of a lot of our waste is avoidable, but that it isn’t particularly easy to avoid producing it. Sustainable behaviors often require more time, energy, thought, preparation and money.
If we want to reduce our waste on a large scale, we need to create an environment where it’s convenient to do so. I don’t know how many people would schlep their food waste to a composting facility but if the “trash guys” were also the “compost guys,” I think a lot more people would compost.
It’s a similar story when it comes to transportation. I drive to and from work and it takes me around 45 minutes each way. I’d like to take public transportation, but that would take me 3.5 hours. Admittedly I do live in a suburb, but if there was an option that didn’t multiply my commute time by a factor of five, I really would consider it.
Sometimes it seems like governmental support for sustainable initiatives is lacking even though legislators and governmental agencies are often working hard to encourage sustainable behavior. We saw there some efforts firsthand working with our local county Department of Environmental Protection to develop tools like MyGreenMontgomery.org and campaigns to reduce stormwater pollution and increase the area’s tree canopy.
All the same, when we talk about sustainable innovation, it increasingly seems that it’s up to the private sector – to B Corps, social enterprises, socially responsible businesses and the rest – to find ways to make the good-for-the-world option an easy choice instead of one that eats away at time and money.
Do you engage in any waste-reducing behaviors with a minimal hassle-factor? What do you think it would take to significantly cut per capita waste production where you live and work? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
This post was originally published on May 6th, 2015 and updated on May 14th, 2019.