Tech Shortcuts for Life

Hack Your Way to Zero Waste

Save money, reduce consumption, and support local businesses

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Tech Shortcuts for Life is a weekly column from Thomas Smith on Debugger exploring the apps, automation, gadgets, and other tech tricks that can make your life more efficient.

In 2019, my family and I challenged ourselves to reduce the amount of trash we threw away with the goal of getting as close to zero waste as possible. Despite being a family of three at the time — and cooking about 30 meals per week for family and members of our community — we leveraged tech and used simple shortcuts and hacks to reduce our landfill waste from 96 gallons per week to less than 20 by the end of our nine-month experiment. That’s the equivalent of less than two kitchen garbage bags per week of waste sent to the landfill.

Part of the motivation for our experiment was environmental. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American generates 2.45 pounds of landfill waste per day, or 2,682 pounds per year for a family of three. By weight, that’s a Honda Civic’s worth of trash each year. Between five and 13 metric tons of plastic waste worldwide ends up in the oceans, too, where it can harm wildlife and disrupt ecosystems.

Part of the motivation was also economic. Our trash service at the time charged $88.53 per month for a 96-gallon waste bin but only $26.06 for a 20-gallon bin. That’s a difference of almost $750 per year. A family that switched from a 96-gallon bin to a 20-gallon one and invested the price difference would be about $10,300 richer in a decade (assuming a 7% return). That’s a lot of cash for a change that also benefits the Earth.

We leveraged tech and used simple shortcuts and hacks to reduce our landfill waste from 96 gallons per week to less than 20 by the end of our nine-month experiment.

When we first switched from a 96-gallon trash bin to a 20-gallon one, I remember seeing the fresh, slim plastic bin newly delivered at our curb and thinking, “Hey, that actually looks pretty big! This should be easy!” Then I opened the lid and discovered that about two-thirds of the bin was blocked off by a divider. I had to laugh. So few people in our city managed to produce under 20 gallons of trash each week that our trash provider apparently hadn’t bothered to buy 20-gallon bins—they just took a 64-gallon bin and effectively lopped off the bottom part of it.

Seeing the comically small bin-within-a-bin, I didn’t believe we could ever produce that little trash each week. Yet in a few months, we were doing it. Here’s how we made simple changes and used tech to drastically reduce our landfill waste and how you can do it, too.

Define your goals and do a trash audit

When people say “zero waste,” they often mean different things, and the term itself can be fraught. Some feel that zero waste means wasting absolutely nothing and would consider curbside recycling a form of waste. Others define zero waste as sending nothing to landfills and incinerators or as sending less than 90% of trash to these endpoints. As Vox points out, the term can also be problematic from a feminist perspective because much of the work of achieving zero waste often falls to women.

Before starting your own journey towards zero waste, decide on your own definition of the term and your own goals. We followed a definition similar to the city of San Francisco’s:

Zero waste means that we send zero discards to the landfill or high-temperature destruction. Instead, products are designed and used according to the principle of highest and best use.

Our goal was to use our landfill bin as little as possible. We also resolved to use tech as much as possible, to stop our experiment from creating too much extra work for any member of our family, and to make the process as automated and efficient as we could.

The next step is to perform a trash audit. The goal here is to get a sense of how much waste you’re currently discarding and then make a plan for how to eliminate as much of your waste as possible. A trash audit can take many forms. For the hardcore auditors, you can put on gloves, tip your trash can onto a big tarp on the day before trash day, and log every item into a Google spreadsheet. You can then categorize the items according to whether they’re landfill, recycling, or compost and create a chart showing your relative breakdown.

An easier solution is to go about your day-to-day life while taking the time to be mindful of what you’re throwing in the garbage bin. In our case, I found it helpful to snap a quick cellphone photo of potentially recyclable items before throwing them away. I then reviewed the photos periodically in Google Photos, did some online research, and came up with a plan for recycling or composting each item.

In doing this, I realized, for example, that our city takes back household batteries for recycling and also that we could recycle certain plastic bags by bundling them together each week and either placing them in our recycling or taking them to the grocery store. I also learned that Nestlé would take back and recycle the copious number of used Nespresso capsules we use each week. Each set of items you can divert away from the landfill gets you one step closer to zero waste.

Overall, we found that much of our trash was either food waste or potentially recyclable plastic and paper products. We set out to divert as much of this waste as possible.

Leverage your green bin

Like many trash services, our provider gave us a landfill bin, a recycling bin, and a green waste bin. I assumed that the green waste bin was just for yard waste, like leaves and small branches. It turns out the green bin is indeed for that, but it’s also for so much more.

In our city, like many others, the green waste bin is a general-purpose compost bin, whose contents are broken down and used as Earth-friendly fertilizer on farms. According to the blog Garbage Day, that means the bin can often be used for items including “fruit, vegetables, meat (including bones), eggs, coffee grounds, tea bags, ice cream containers, soiled paper towels” and much else. Our city specifically encourages residents to put “all leftover foods” as well as “paper take-out containers” into the green bin.

Check with your own city to see what goes in the green bin, and then use the hell out of it. We found that we reduced our overall landfill waste by at least half just by diverting organic waste to our green bin. To do this effectively, it helps to make throwing items in the green bin as easy as possible. Buy a large, dedicated trash can for your green waste with a tight-fitting lid (green waste can start to smell quickly) and put it in your kitchen. My favorite is Simple Human’s 50-liter can. You can also add the company’s Odorsorb system, which uses activated charcoal to remove smells.

Next, line your bin with a compostable trash bag. These bags act just like plastic trash bags, but they’re made using special polymers derived from plant starches, making them fully biodegradable. Look for one which meets the ASTM D6400 standard. I like bags from UNNI.

They won’t fit your Simple Human can as perfectly as the company’s customized (and plastic-based) liners, but they’re good enough. You can also get a Simple Human Compost Caddy to add to your existing trash bin. It has a smaller capacity but uses compostable code Z liners. The advantage of high-tech plant polymer bags like both these options is that they make using your green bin just as easy as using a normal trash bin. This streamlines the process of diverting organic waste. One caveat: Compostable bags are more prone to holes and leaks than plastic ones, so I found it helped to take out the compost at least every two to three days.

If your city doesn’t provide a green bin, don’t worry; there are plenty of ways to compost organic waste at home. You can build a DIY compost pile, buy a self-contained barrel composter, or even combine sensors and an Arduino to make a DIY automated composting system.

Another option is a composting appliance like the Vitamix Foodcycler. It looks a bit like the fictional Mr. Fusion appliance from Back to the Future. But instead of supplying 1.21 gigawatts to a time-traveling Delorian, it uses heat to break down food scraps (including hard-to-compost items like chicken bones) into garden-ready fertilizer in a matter of hours.

Perhaps the best way to process green waste at home, though, is to get chickens. My backyard flock (now six strong) ate basically all of my family’s leftovers over the holidays. They also eat much of our day-to-day food waste, transforming it into nutritious eggs without the waste even leaving our backyard.

Recycle wisely

Again, learning to maximize our green bin reduced our waste by over 50%. To reduce it further, we worked to recycle as much as possible. Like everyone else, we buy a lot of stuff online. The good news is that packaging from companies like Amazon is increasingly recyclable.

During our experiment, I learned that our city accepted flattened cardboard boxes for recycling if we stacked them beside our blue recycling bin. It also accepted plastic films (like plastic bags and Amazon bubble mailers) if we bagged them separately and placed them in our blue bin each week. Diverting these items—which I’d long assumed weren’t recyclable—took another big chunk out of our waste stream.

Recycling other plastics can get complicated, as there are at least six potentially recyclable types of plastic, many of which aren’t accepted in certain cities. The free Trashly app can help. Trashly allows users to photograph any potentially recyclable item and then uses machine vision to determine what the user has photographed, what type of plastic it’s likely to contain, and whether it’s recyclable in the user’s city.

The app currently supports the San Francisco Bay Area and a few other regions, with more likely on the way. But even if your region isn’t supported, Trashly can help to determine if a given bottle, box, or container might be recyclable. How2Recycle, a voluntary labeling program from brands like Smucker’s and Walgreens, provides detailed recycling information right on selected products’ packaging, too.

During our experiment, I learned some useful information, like the fact that most junk mail can be recycled, even if it had bits of plastic, staples, and the like in it or contains paper of mixed colors. I also learned that many grocery stores will accept and recycle items I couldn’t recycle at home. Many Whole Foods stores, for example, will accept and recycle wine corks and plastic bags.

To maximize the chances that your recyclable items will actually get recycled, make sure to clean them before putting them in your recycling bin. A quick rinse (or a trip through the dishwasher) will usually do the trick. If you have dogs and want to recycle soiled food containers that held dog-safe foods, your canine family members are probably more than happy to “prewash” them for you. Our bichon frises were eager participants in our zero waste experiment.

In some cases, you can get paid to recycle. If you live in a bottle deposit state, you can bring your aluminum cans and soda bottles to most supermarkets and get between five and 10 cents back per can. Many scrap yards will pay premium prices for copper, brass, or other metal scraps, too. For strange items like those Nespresso pods, turn to Terracycle. The company uses special processes to recycle such things as contact lenses, Burt’s Bees products, and Solo cups.

Once you become mindful of recycling, you’ll be amazed how many items you can recycle and thus pull out of your waste stream.

Change your ways

Most people recognize the universal recycling symbol—it’s even been enshrined as a character in Unicode. But as recycling expert Adam Minter explains in his book Junkyard Nation, few people realize that the symbol’s three curved arrows are actually intended to represent three different concepts: reduce, reuse, and recycle. And even fewer realize that recycling is actually the worst of the three options.

The strategies I’ve shared thus far allow you to divert a large portion of your waste away from the landfill. But instead of just diverting waste, it’s even better to avoid creating it in the first place.

That’s where “reduce” and “reuse” come in. Reducing and reusing are much harder than recycling because they require making broad lifestyle changes rather than just throwing items into different-colored bins. But they’re also the aspects of going zero waste that allow for the most creativity and the most potential for long-term change.

One way to reduce waste is to reduce consumption. Browsing hashtags like #ZeroWasteLiving on Instagram can provide tons of inspiration. If you’re planning to maintain your current patterns of consumption, though, there are still plenty of ways to reduce the waste you generate.

When you go shopping, buy in bulk whenever you can. We bought bulk items at stores like Whole Foods during our experiment. Bulk purchases reduce the amount of package waste you generate. Buying at farmers’ markets is an even better option, especially if you bring your own basket or bag. If you prefer buying food online, Zero Grocery will send you over 2,000 foods in zero waste returnable containers. Imperfect Foods buys lumpy, blemished, misshapen, or otherwise imperfect produce and sells it directly to consumers, removing it from the waste stream while providing you with nutritious (albeit ugly) fruits and veggies each week.

Cooking at home helps to reduce your waste dramatically, too, by eliminating takeout bags, boxes, or the disposable containers used with many prepared foods. A big part of our journey towards zero waste involved using our Instant Pot to cook at home. Even though we were cooking more than 80 meals per week for ourselves, family members, and our community, we still reached our waste goals. It helps to cook your food in bulk and store it in a good set of reusable containers. I like Chef’s Path containers, which are pricey but durable (the company sent me containers to test). Ziploc’s meal prep containers are also reusable and cost much less but wear out faster.

We also reduced our waste by using reusable water bottles and a water filter (Terracycle will recycle your old Brita filters), patronizing restaurants like Gott’s and Boudin, which use compostable packaging, when we chose to order from DoorDash (the packaging goes right in your green bin when you’re done eating), and using reusable cloth dinner napkins in place of paper ones.

Reuse is important, too. Many cities have Buy Nothing groups—often organized through platforms like Facebook or the organization’s app—which allow locals to exchange unneeded items for free. We’ve gotten free tables, chairs, and toys through our local group. We’ve also passed along unneeded hardware, books, and more.

There are tons of great ways to upcycle e-waste like old phones, too. Services like Gazelle will buy much of your old tech stuff from you, refurbish it, and pass it along. Reusing items keeps them out of the waste stream and maximizes their value. It’s one of the guiding principles behind the Right to Repair movement, which aims to fight back against tech’s culture of planned obsolescence by providing tools for consumers to repair and reuse their old devices.

Our results

By diverting all our organic waste to our green bin, increasing the number of items we recycled, reducing our production of waste by cooking bulk foods at home, choosing reusable containers and packaging, and upcycling/reusing wherever possible, we successfully reduced our landfill waste to less than 20 gallons per week. We almost certainly reduced our carbon footprint and increased our support of local businesses and farms in the process, too.

Two years later, how are things going? I’d love to say that we’re still producing less than 20 gallons of waste per week even as we’ve grown to a family of five. But we haven’t. The rigors of pandemic life (and the rapid switch to buying nearly everything online) have made it harder to maintain a nearly zero waste lifestyle.

Still, several habits from our zero waste experiment have stuck around. We still recycle nearly all the packaging material we receive, and I still throw food-soiled packaging, takeout containers, and the like into our green bin. We use several of the tech tools from our experiment — especially our Instant Pot—every day. We use our cloth napkins at every meal and have probably avoided throwing away thousands of paper ones. Our chickens (and too often, our dogs) eat most of our food scraps and unused leftovers. We also saved $562.23 in trash costs over the course of our experiment.

Ultimately, these small, lasting changes are the real reason to experiment with going to zero waste. Living a true zero waste lifestyle is a lot of work, and it’s not for everyone. We can’t all reduce our trash footprint to a single Mason jar per year. But everyone can benefit from taking steps toward discarding less—whether that means building an automated composting pile, tracking your trash in a Google spreadsheet, or just trying out an app like Trashly and becoming more mindful of what you throw away.

Reducing waste also facilitates saving money, avoiding unnecessary consumption, engaging more with local businesses, cooking at home, and investing in higher-quality stuff. Even if you’re not concerned about the environment, those are all ideals worth pursuing. So this Earth Day and beyond, consider your own trash output, come up with some strategies to reduce it, and take a step towards zero waste — or at least discarding less and living more consciously and efficiently.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography.

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