July is plastic reduction month. This seemed like an apt time to launch my first green living post, starting with a how to guide on conducting a home trash audit. I hope you enjoy it!
There’s garbage everywhere.
As a foul smell drifts into my nostrils and makes my eyes water, I’m starting to rethink this trash audit.
“Maybe we should go back to counting stuff as we bin it,” I shout up to my husband who remains at a safe distance from trash ground zero.
I take his silence as meaning I should plod on and gingerly return to the disembowelled contents of a large plastic bag.
Confronting our trash can be hard—and not only on our noses. But it’s a great first step to cutting down on household waste.
In this post, we’ll walk through an easy to follow process to get your family started on a trash audit.
Ready to start counting?
Why do a trash audit?
Waste is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem.
Once our trash gets to the curb, we typically forget about it. That is, assuming the garbage truck arrives before the crows do.
And without further awareness and a commitment to taking action, we continue to make more waste at the same or accelerated rate.
But we can break this cycle.
A key step in this process is becoming more mindful of what and how much we’re tossing on a regular basis—something we can accomplish by recording our waste.
Doing a trash audit isn’t intended as a guilt trip. Because the truth is, we’re all part of the worldwide waste problem.
Rather, it’s about increasing our grasp on the situation, thereby empowering us to do our part in fixing a problem that impacts everyone.
Let’s start with terms
For the purpose of this write-up, I’ll refer to “waste” and “trash” as the stuff we throw away when it’s no longer useful to us.
This includes “garbage”—the tossed stuff destined for landfills or incinerators—as well as reusable materials such as “recyclables” (e.g., paper, plastic, metal and glass) and “organic matter ” (e.g., food scraps).
Depending on local waste management practices you may have separate collection systems for all three types of waste or for just one of two of them.
Either way, this post is a great way to get you started on a lower waste lifestyle.
Hold a family meeting before getting started
Family meetings are a great way to discuss household matters. This includes getting everyone on the same page when it comes to cutting down on home waste.
Environmental problems can be pretty overwhelming, to children and adults alike. But doing a trash audit is a wonderful opportunity to help empower family members to make small but meaningful steps towards bettering their world.
Getting kids involved in a household waste audit also fosters the following skills:
- Data management
- Research skills
- Problem solving
During the family meeting, you’ll want to discuss the time frame for your trash audit and the method you’ll use—two important details we’ll dive into next.
Trash audit essentials
Let’s start with waste audit basics including duration and method.
How long should you track for?
When deciding on the tracking period, you’ll need a long enough collection interval to capture an accurate sample of your household waste.
But you’ll also want to choose a time period that’s manageable given other family commitments.
We run busy households, after all.
A day of tracking is likely not enough, but a week should suffice. Some people find a longer tracking period helpful, such as a month.
But I suggest figuring out what works best for your household—taking into account your family’s waste habits and other time constraints.
The best way to successfully complete a trash audit is to set ourselves up for success. And that includes setting a reasonable goal—one your family can easily see through to the end.
Once you’ve decided on a time frame, you’ll ready to choose your trash audit method.
Methods to track your household waste
There are two main methods to track your trash.
You can either keep a record as you go, tallying each item as they get binned. Or you can wait until the end of the collection period and make note of your results in a single sorting event.
For simplicity sake, I’ll call the first method, “tally as you go” and the second, the “record in one sitting” method.
We’ll take a look at how these two methods differ, below.
Our approach to the trash audit
We initially started with a daily tally but switched to the “record in one sitting” method.
The “tally as you go” approach proved too onerous given multiple different collection points and five involved family members.
Like is true for all things in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to both methods.
The “record in one sitting” process was smelly, which is especially true if food scraps are recorded at the end of a weeklong period.
The “record in one sitting” method also misses out on food waste that doesn’t make it into your organic or garbage bin—like left over milk that’s likely disposed of in the sink.
So, keeping a record as you go is more likely to capture these daily loses and in doing so, make you more mindful of how your daily actions contribute to waste.
I’ve summarized some key pros of each method—gleaned from my family’s experience—in the table below.
Choose a trash audit system that works best for you
Before starting your waste audit, you’ll also want to consider how many waste streams to tackle.
If you have access to separate systems for garbage, recyclables, and organics, you may find it easier to focus on just one of these waste sources—such as garbage—first. You can always circle back to the others—recyclables and organics—at a later date.
Ultimately, you’ve got to decide what system works best for your unique family—a process that may very well take some experimentation.
And regardless of what method you choose, try not to change your habits before or during the audit.
We want to capture an honest picture of our current waste habits. We’ll get to analyzing and changing these habits later in the process.
Once you’ve chosen your method—either “tally as you go” or “record in one sitting”—and which waste streams(s) you’ll address first, you’re ready for the next step: setting a trash audit date and gathering your supplies.
Materials needed for a trash audit
I’ve provided a list of suggested supplies for the two waste audit methods, below. But before gathering materials together, I suggest you determine how you’ll document your waste.
How will you keep track of your waste?
Regardless of the chosen method, you’ll need some way of recording your waste. I’ve created a trash audit PDF that you’re welcome to use. There are several options that differ based on the level of detail you’ll record. Choose whichever one works best for your family.
If you’re using the “tally as you go” method, I suggest printing off multiple “Trash Audit Chart” sheets and placing them near your various home waste collection points.
To save paper, you can also record binned items electronically by snapping a photo or by using a notes app. However, the paper method may be easier if multiple people are contributing to the process on a daily basis.
When it comes to recording items, add some pertinent details. This will help you recognize trends and decide on the most impactful next action steps. For example, rather than writing “food packaging,” record “mini yoghurt container” and instead of “paper,” write “flyer.”
The trash audit PDF also includes a “Final Trash Audit Tally” sheet that you’ll use at the end of both methods.
We’ll learn more about the uses of the final tally sheet, later. But for now, let’s review the supply lists for each method.
Materials needed for a trash audit
Supply list for the “record in one sitting” approach:
- Trash Audit Chart sheet
- Pencil or pen
- Final Trash Audit Tally sheet
- Rubber gloves (a pair for everyone who will sift through the garbage)
- Hand sanitizer
- A large easily washable surface like a tarp or old sheet on which to lay the trash items
- Place with good ventilation—if weather permits, the great outdoors is a perfect option
Supply list for the “tally as you go” method:
- Trash Audit Chart sheet (print copies for each home waste collection site)
- Pencil or pen (consider temporarily affixing a writing utensil near each trash collection site)
- Final Trash Audit Tally sheet
Steps for each trash audit method
Now that you know what supplies to have on hand, it’s time to walk through the specifics of the two waste audit methods.
There’s another downloadable PDF that details the supplies and steps for each method, available here.
Instructions for the “record in one sitting” method
Go through your waste at the end of the collection period. In this case, you’d block of a time, say on the weekend, to dump the contents of your trash onto a large surface. Then record what you find on your Trash Audit Chart sheet. Not the most pleasant of tasks, especially in the summer, but it may feel more time efficient to do it all in one go.
- Gather trash bins and/or bags together into a single place.
- Dump your waste onto an easy to clean surface.
- Wearing rubber gloves, separate your trash into piles. Consider grouping similar items together to make recording easier.
- Once all items are sorted, use the Trash Audit Chart sheet to document your findings.
- Consider taking a photo of your sorted items. This snapshot can serve as a visual reminder of your waste tally as well as a future reminder of how far you’ve come.
Instructions for the “tally as you go” method
Record binned items as you go on paper or an electronic app then tall this up at the end of the week.
- Tape trash audit chart near all household collecting bins.
- When something is thrown away, write it down on the Trash Audit Chart sheet.
Look for common themes from your trash audit
Once you’ve completed your waste audit, it’s time to look for places to act. And here’s where a detailed final trash waste audit tally comes in handy.
If your children are old enough, have them create an updated list of waste items, ranked from most to least. They can even put this data into a spreadsheet if they’re so inclined. If you’d like to use a paper version, feel free to use one of my “Final Trash Audit Tally” sheets, available here.
Then, as a family, review the results of your waste audit. The following questions can help guide this process:
- What are the most common waste items?
- Does anything surprise you? Not surprise you?
- What do you feel good about? Feel badly about?
- If you have separate collection streams, did anything end up in the wrong bin (e.g., garbage in the recycling or vice versa)? Or were you uncertain whether certain items belonged in the garbage versus the recycling bin?
Have a family member record key ideas and questions as well as related trash reduction goals. Keep this paper for future reference. As you see progress in one area, you can return to this list and choose another action step.
For a downloadable “Trash Audit Next Steps” worksheet, click here, and scroll to the end.
What we discovered on our trash audit
During our initial audit, food packaging easily topped our list. We were also discarding a lot of paper towel, and food scraps. Given these items were the top waste offenders, they were obvious places to start when it came to reducing our household waste.
Our waste tally and subsequent family discussion also raised some questions that required further information gathering.
For example, during our trash audit we observed that frozen blueberry bags sometimes ended up in the trash and sometimes in the recycling bin. We weren’t sure how to properly dispose of this packaging, so made a plan to investigate this further. That way, we’d be better informed for future purchasing as well as disposal decisions.
This sleuthing work ended up being a great task for the kids. With our help—and the help of our local city waste services—my children were able to clarify how to correctly dispose of the frozen food packaging.
I considered this to be a win-win situation. The investigative work helped my children develop their research skills but also fuelled their interest—and investment—in better home waste management practices.
Decide on your first step to reduce waste
So, you’ve completed your home trash audit audit and reviewed the results.
But now what?
Take a look at your list of generated next action steps and choose one or two to work on now.
Below you’ll find some of the waste audit goals our trash audit generated, organized by the 6Rs of waste management.
We realized we were binning items we hardly used and could live without. For us, this included paper flyers. While staying abreast of specials helps save money, we had easy access to online substitutes. This finding prompted us to sign up to our local no-flyers list.
Some items within the trash could have been reused for other purposes, such as old yoghurt containers and partially scribbled on construction paper. Post-audit we started carefully considering whether objects had an alternative use rather than automatically tossing them.
For example, spare containers are useful when purchasing food items at our local bulk barn and we now get as much mileage as possible out of craft—and would-be craft—materials.
Returning to the example of frozen blueberry bags, our research revealed that this item wasn’t eligible for recycling. Fortunately, we found another option—frozen blueberries sold in cardboard boxes through our local grocery store.
In the summer, we’re planning on visiting some U-pick farms and bringing our own containers. And, ultimately, we’d love to grow our own fruit and vegetables.
One step at a time, though!
We realized we were using a lot of paper towel. After our initial audit, we replaced this item with an alternative that can be used over and over again then disposed of in the organic bin—Swedish dish cloths.
Proper waste sorting is important—something we learned during our food packaging research. It turns out that including non-recyclables alongside recyclables risks contaminating the municipal recycling stream.
The result? Whole lots of potentially recyclable materials are at risk of being rejected and sent to landfills.
So, it pays to figure out what is truly recyclable and then dispose of these items properly. Given municipalities differ in their recycling practices, it’s important to reach out to your city waste management services to clarify.
Participating in a trash audit increased our awareness of waste sources in everyday life. This included a lot of cereal leftovers in the morning.
We’ve been able to reduce this wastage by providing some coaching around meals. This includes teaching my kids to properly open cereal bags and to take smaller helpings. Seconds are an option, but only if really needed.
Using a weekly meal plan has also helped us cut down on food waste. The planning process starts with pursuing through our current food supplies (especially perishables) to make sure food items are used up in a timely manner. Proper food storage practices also helps cut down on food wastage.
Next steps in your lower waste journey
Once you have a waste reduction plan in place, consider writing it down and placing it somewhere prominent, such as on the kitchen fridge.
Meet as a family every week to review your progress. Celebrate any victories—even the small ones—and work together to find solutions when problems arise.
You may find you need to revisit your initial goal and modify it. Or maybe even consider tackling a different item on your list.
But, gradually over the months ahead, you’ll see progress when it comes to reducing your household waste.
And consider repeating your audit on a regular basis, such as once or twice yearly.
Life changes, as do our consumption and disposal habits. Regular check-ins allow us to capture new household waste patterns and address these without lengthy delays.
And once you’re making progress at home, consider expanding your trash audit to include waste generated in work places and on the go.
You’ve got this!
Doing a home trash audit is a great way to get started on a lower waste life.
It offers an opportunity to start discussions about waste and what we can do about it – empowering our families to take steps towards healthier communities and a flourishing world.
Just remember to start slow and build from there.
I’m a big advocate for small, specific, and actionable changes. Taking life slowly and intentionally has made a huge difference in my own life—including allowing me to make sustainable steps towards more eco-friendly living.
Little changes add up over time and before you know it—you, too, will be well on your way to reducing household waste.
I’d love to hear from you!
Have you tried a waste audit. If you have, how did it go? And if you haven’t, would you consider doing a waste audit in the future?
JulieJuly 8, 2022 at 3:23 pm
This is the #nextlevel organization! lol, I have literally never considered keeping track of our household waste. Except that we try to recycle, burn, or compost what we can and I am aware of how full we are keeping our trash cans. We have really strived to bring in fewer groceries at least with less packaging, which is typically healthier eating! These are great ideas, thank you!
Jenny BorstJuly 8, 2022 at 8:39 pm
Julie, sounds like you’re already doing a lot to be mindful of household waste. And I love your point about
less packaged food often equating to a healthier diet. We’ve certainly found this to be true in our journey to lower waste living over the past 5 years.
AnjaJuly 7, 2022 at 7:22 pm
Oh, how I love this post and wish that every family would read it! Thank you so much!
Jenny BorstJuly 8, 2022 at 6:01 am
Hi Anja, so glad you enjoyed the post. A trash audit gave my family some really helpful personal insights. I hope it helps others, too!
Barbra-SueJuly 7, 2022 at 5:36 pm
Great post! So important to evaluate our trash output. Baby steps get there.
Jenny BorstJuly 8, 2022 at 5:59 am
Hi Barbra-Sue, yes, totally agree. It’s the little steps that get us to where we want to go!