How to Find out How Much Waste You Generate

Starting on a zero waste journey isn’t always easy and implementing zero waste habits is not something that just happens over night. It’s a way of living that develops over a longer period of time, and requires a little bit of consistent effort from each individual. Reducing waste generation on our planet requires many people making small changes a little at a time. But with all the zero waste information out there, how do you know where to start? Or, if you are done with plastic bags, cups, and straws, where do you go from there?

This is a great question, and the answer is a simple one. How can you ever know what waste reduction should look like for you unless you see your waste with your own eyes? The very first step to cutting down on the waste you create, is figuring out where that waste is coming from and how much is being generated. You can simply determine this by doing something called a waste audit. 

A waste audit is an assessment of the products and packaging used and discarded within a certain period of time. Waste for everyone may look a little different, so determining how you can make the biggest impact in reducing waste is important. The timeframe of the waste assessment is up to you, but the goal always remains the same. The goal is to gain a better understanding of the waste you generate while finding the biggest way you can reduce waste. 

Waste audits can be incredibly helpful and eye-opening to figuring out your environmental impact and how you can reduce it. The words “zero waste” can also be slightly misleading, as the main idea is actually not to make zero trash, but to change the way we all think about what we are consuming. Assessing the waste we make helps us with this change.


Conducting a Waste Audit at Home
Step 1 Collection
Step 2 Sorting
Step 3 Assessment
My Experience with Waste Audits

Conducting a Waste Audit at Home

The Objectives:

  1. Increase awareness of how much waste is generated from your home on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis
  2. To identify areas that waste reduction can be improved and determine the types of waste being generated (eg. food waste)
  3. To find more sustainable alternatives to the largest areas of waste in your home

Step #1 – Collect

The first step is to collect your waste (the easy part). This means when you throw something into the garbage, the garbage is not being taken outside to be disposed of. The waste collected needs to be kept for sorting in step two. If you are unsure of what this might look like, try starting your waste audit on a day you have already taken trash out, leaving your inside garbage bins empty and ready for collecting. You may also want to write down the date you started your audit. 

Unless you have completed a waste audit before, try conducting your audit over the course of one consecutive week. Collect your garbage, recycling, and food waste for this entire week using garbage and recycling bins you already use. If your garbage ends up full part way through the audit, simply tie and label the waste you have already collected and keep these bags until the end of the audit. Once the week is complete, gather all the waste collected and prepare for sorting.

Step #2 – Sorting

Tools required: surface to sort on (drop cloth or tarp), something to pick up waste with (tongs or gloves will do), and an optional weigh scale if you intend to compare your current audit to future ones.

This step is just how it sounds. You will be sorting your waste into categories, and assessing what areas of your generated waste are the highest. This is not the cleanest part of the job, or the best smelling, especially if you do not currently compost, so unless it is extremely windy or freezing temperatures I would highly recommend sorting your waste outside or perhaps in a space with good ventilation. 

Before sorting, if you own a scale you can also weigh the total amounts of garbage and recycling to begin with a tangible number. This is especially great if you plan to compare your first waste audit with one a few months down the road.

To sort your waste, start with garbage. Dump your entire waste amount onto your sorting surface and start to sort like material into waste categories. Some of the categories you might choose to use could include plastic wrap, snack wrappers, food waste, styrofoam, drink containers, metal, paper etc. Everyone’s own waste will look a little different, so use your own discretion here to decide what categories to create. Collecting and sorting your garbage alone will open many opportunities for waste reduction within your home. 

Step #3 – Assess

After sorting the garbage, take a close look at what you threw away during the week and also look for things that could have been recycled or composted and weren’t. If you are living with others who also use the same garbage cans, this could lead to a discussion around better ways to sort waste and learning how to dispose of certain materials, paper or stretchy plastics for example, both of which can be recycled. 

While assessing your waste, take the two largest categories of your sorted piles and write down what they consist of. For example, if ‘snack wrappers’ is your largest pile, write down all the brands of wrappers and think about when you use this type of packaging. Then, carefully think about ways in which you can reduce those two piles by 50% in the next two weeks. Maybe you could bake muffins to use as one snack replacement, or try switching to a bulk food snack instead for a week.  

When you notice that you have reduced those two items, try reassessing and choose another item to reduce. Recording your findings in your first waste assessment becomes very important going forward. It is something you can continue to refer back to when you don’t know what steps to take next or you aren’t sure how much you are reducing. Like any goal, reducing waste takes time, and being able to see where you started can be reassuring and motivating. 

Lastly, you can repeat all three of these steps using your collected recycling. Even though recycling is something that is potentially turned into new products, sometimes we recycle items that can’t be recycled or we don’t realize how much of one product we use (eg. plastic bottles). Knowing what we recycle informs our future purchasing decisions. 

Completing a waste audit provides a clearer understanding of how our purchases affect the world around us and how our informed decisions impact our relationship with the consumption of wasteful products. In the last year I have completed several waste audits to help myself figure out what I can change. The very first one I did was during the Plastic Free Challenge in July 2019. During this audit I was weighing and recording the amounts of waste my partner and I went through every time we changed the garbage and recycling. Eventually the time in between these audits increased, and I was completing them less frequently, meaning our waste was also decreasing. The last waste audit I performed was a longer one, taking place over the months of January and February 2020. This one was just for myself, and the goal was to reduce as much as possible within the two months, placing all of my waste items in a 2L container. 

During my first audit I found most of our waste came from packaged vegan foods, cereal packaging, and ice cream/take out garbage. Some of these things I ended up cutting out completely or chosing more sustainable alternatives, while others items I chose to use as a treat rather than an every week purchase. 

In my last garbage waste audit, I sorted the waste in a few different categories: fruit stickers, jar labels, food seals, cheese packaging, candy/tin like wrappers, and a few others. Then I also had a few categories with one item each: one subway wrapper, one cereal bag, one chocolate bar wrapper, one tea box packaging. I’ve noticed that as my waste gets smaller, my sorting categories get to be more specific, cheese packaging for example no longer just fits with plastic packaging. And fruit stickers get their own category. After looking at my own waste, it is amazing to see how these small items, some harder to avoid than others, still add up and take up space. But regardless, this audit was significantly smaller (and longer) than the last. For example, having one cereal bag over a period of two months instead of 2/week. What an improvement! All due to conscious shopping decisions, bulk shopping alternatives, and not carelessly shopping while hungry!  

I highly recommend completing an at home waste audit for your own knowledge, curiosity, and understanding of our individual impact. So give it a go, learn something new, and it might even become a fun little experiment that changes how you think about consumption!

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