What to Do with Our Waste
Most people are familiar with the simpler three R's - reduce, reuse, recycle - but often we skip straight to recycling. Although recycling items instead of throwing them away allows the material to be turned into something else, recycling everything isn’t the end goal for our waste. Reducing the amount of waste you produce overall – whether trash, recycling, or compost – will make the most impact for the planet.
The Waste Hierarchy Prioritizes How to Manage Waste
The waste hierarchy prioritizes how we should handle our waste – preventing and reducing waste is the best choice, and throwing things away is the worst environmental choice.
Why It's Important for Us to Reduce Our Waste
Simply aiming to recycle the majority of our waste is not enough. Making new products has an environmental (and sometimes social) impact that isn't erased by recycling the product. Recycling and composting waste is cheaper than throwing it away in the landfill, but is not without cost. Recycling also isn't a perfect environmental solution.
- Recycling requires energy and resources like water to turn used materials into new ones.
- Many materials have a physical limitation on how many times they are able to be remanufactured into useful goods.
- Some materials get "downcycled," meaning they are used to make something less useful (not more of the same thing that was recycled) or that is not able to be recycled.
- Some items aren't able to be recycled because the used material is too expensive or difficult to work with.
- Most products that use recycled material also use new raw materials, not 100% recycled material.
Composting food waste produces a useful soil amendment, but it's much better to eat food because composting cannot reclaim all the water and energy that went into growing and transporting the food.
How to Waste Less
What you choose to buy directly influences the waste you produce. Many products designed for our convenience are disposed after a single use, but you can avoid much of that waste with a bit of preparation. To reduce the amount of waste you produce, you can prevent creating it in the first place, choose long-lasting products or skip a purchase altogether, buy secondhand, and extend the life of your possessions through repair and reuse. By reducing what we buy and use, and choosing reusable items over disposable, we can prevent waste from happening in the first place.
Reducing the amount of items we buy is the #1 way to prevent waste.
What you choose to buy directly influences the waste you produce. Many products designed for our convenience are disposed after a single use, but you can avoid much of that waste with a bit of preparation.
Even recyclable and compostable single-use items (like coffee cups and straws) are wasteful in comparison to reusable versions because washing and reusing things takes a lot less energy than re-manufacturing or composting and growing new materials.
- Use rechargeable AA and AAA batteries (many can be reused 1000 times, and have a significantly lower environmental impact than single-use batteries)
- Ask for your drink without a straw, or bring your own
- Refill a reusable water bottle instead of drinking single-use bottled water
- Bring your reusable bag whenever you shop, not just at the grocery store
- Refill ink cartridges instead of buying new
- Buy food in bulk or larger quantities and repack into single servings using reusable containers (e.g. yogurt, crackers)
- Replace paper towels with cloth for some or all of your home uses
It's easy to accumulate things you don't even want, because they are given or mailed to you.
- Opt out of phone book delivery to reduce wasted paper. (Each year the phone book industry uses up an estimated 4.68 million trees worth of wood fiber, or 14 football fields’ worth of forest per day.)
- Visit yellowpagesoptout.com
- Enter your zip code and create an account
- After completing registration, click "opt out of or order directories"
- Choose "opt out of all" option, then "save changes" and hit CONFIRM
- Opt out of junk mail
- Say no to SWAG: before you take free goodies at events, think about whether you'll use the item and whether it's a quality that you'll like
When we are thoughtful about our choices at the holidays and special events, we can celebrate without producing a lot of waste.
- Plan weddings and other big celebrations to minimize waste
- Make Halloween green with secondhand costumes and reusable treats
- Make the right amount of food for Thanksgiving and other big meals using the "Guest-imator" tool
- Hosting a Superbowl party? See our tips to go green on game day
- Choose alternative gifts that aren't "stuff"
- Use an alternative gift registry for weddings and baby showers to request experience gifts
- Create a zero waste Easter basket for your kids
- Give presents in reusable gift bags or furoshiki wrappings instead of wrapping paper and plastic ribbons
Waste Less Food
The average American family throws out about a quarter of the food they buy – worth about $1000 a year! Food waste contributes to climate change when it's thrown away. Composting uneaten food is better, but still wastes the water and energy that went into growing and shipping it, so preventing food waste is one of the best things you can do to reduce your environmental impact.
Buy What You'll Eat
- Shop your fridge first so the food you've already bought doesn't go to waste
- Planning your meals can help you waste less food by buying only food you plan to eat.
- Make sure you eat the food you buy by doing food prep after grocery shopping
- Figure out where you're wasting food by tracking your edible food waste for a week
- Realize you're not going to eat something in time? Freeze it
- Do you toss food because you’re not sure if it's safe? Most date labels are relatively meaningless. 20% of food waste is linked to date labeling confusion. Look up how long food lasts on Still Tasty.
Reuse Before You Recycle or Throw Away
When you buy used items, or others reuse items that you’re finished with, you avoid the need for a new item to be made. That saves the raw materials, energy and water that would have been used to manufacture it. Reusing an item saves about 20 times as much energy as recycling it, according to Waste Management. While it can take a little bit more effort to see an item reused than simply recycling it when you are finished with it, the environmental benefits of keeping items in use for as long as possible are huge!
Give unwanted goods
If you're getting rid of items that are still usable, we recommend donating, selling, or gifting them to neighbors. Here are some ideas:
- Many donation centers in Kirkland accept clothing, usable furniture, household goods and more
- Hopelink in Totem Lake accepts donations of extra hygiene items, diapers, paper items, and cleaning items (all unused)
- Northwest Center trucks will come to your home to accept donations of clothing and housewares, as will Habitat for Humanity for large loads that won't fit in your car
- Kirkland has multiple Buy Nothing Kirkland facebook groups, which connect you with others in your neighborhood to gift and receive items from your neighbors
- Resell clothing at one of the many consignment stores in Kirkland
- Host a clothing swap with your friends and family, or even your neighborhood
- Donate costumes to a swap event
Reuse before recycling
- Reuse shipping materials
- Save gift wrappings and reuse
- Consider selling or giving away your usable electronics before recycling them
- King County offers free Repair Cafe events throughout the year where King County residents can bring broken items to be repaired or mended
Support a Circular Economy When You Buy
The concept of a circular economy offers a different approach to how we use materials. Instead of our current system, which extracts materials, uses them, and then disposes them, the circular economy finds ways to keep materials in use, designs waste out of the system as much as possible, and regenerates natural systems.
Although a true circular economy would require a full systemic shift, you can help keep materials in use for as long as possible. Donating your used goods is one piece of that; purchasing used items instead of new when you can is the other half of the equation.
- Buy used and vintage/antique furniture and household items
- Shop for clothing at thrift stores, consignment stores, and online secondhand marketplaces
- Try renting clothing for special occasions where you'll only wear the item once
- Look for "upcycled" products, which are made from directly reclaimed materials, like repurposing old vinyl billboards to make bags and sewing bike tubes together to make wallets
- Check out "used gear" programs when you need new outdoor equipment and athletic clothing
- Use salvaged materials for home improvement projects and remodels
- Purchase refurbished electronics
- Buy products that reuse packaging
Buy recycled content
- When you buy new items, look for those that contain recycled material (especially post-consumer content)
- Always buy recycled paper, and look for high percentages of post-consumer content
- Buy recycled paint, available at architectural salvage stores
- Consider whether an item is repairable if it breaks before you buy it — are replacement parts available?
- Choose electronics based on how repairable they are — see iFixit’s repairability ratings for smartphones, laptops, and tablets