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Know thy garbage: 5 tips to reducing trash at home

This is a guest post by Burlington resident Meredith Bay Tyack. The views and opinions expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the policy or practice of CSWD.

Just because New Year’s Day has passed doesn’t mean it’s time to give up on the rest of the year. If anything, it’s time to get moving!. Any day is a great time to look closely at our habits and commit to making positive changes.

If you’re sick of sending so much to the landfill every week, here are some tips you can put into practice today, to get started dramatically reducing your personal or household waste. Consider it a trash diet, with the aim of trimming down your “waste” line.

Woman holding a clear mason jar that is full of her family's trash.
Photo by Ziptopia

1. Get familiar with your own garbage

Your trash is like a snowflake: It’s totally unique. Even two different garbage bags from the same household will contain different stuff. It’s time to get up close and personal with what you’re throwing away if you want to figure out how to reduce it.

Look inside the can – at work, or at home. Choose a few items or categories of trash that frequently end up in your bin, and tackle them one by one. (You’ll have a better chance of success if you start small.) Find alternatives, or think about how you can avoid it in the future (see Tip #5).

If you see a lot of food waste, for example, set up a compost system. No need to get complicated at first: A bowl in your freezer takes 10 seconds to set up.

Maybe you still have a lot of plastic in your garbage bin from food or product packaging. Start looking for products with less plastic packaging – items made locally usually require less packaging (they aren’t shipped across the country), and fresh food doesn’t need wrapping. Plus, it tastes better anyway.

2. Switch to cloth

A stack of "unpaper" towels on a wooden table.
Photo by Juicy Bits

Disposable paper towels, napkins, even tissues can be replaced with durable, reusable cloth alternatives. In addition to lasting for years, they’ll likely work better than their disposable counterparts. The upkeep is as simple as throwing the cloth in the laundry.

Keep a stash of paper on hand if you feel you need a safety net at first, but commit to giving cloth a good try. Cut up an old sheet or a beyond-hope flannel shirt, or browse “un-paper towels” on Etsy or Pinterest for more ideas.

Even “gross” messes can easily be cleaned up with a reusable towel and thrown in the washing machine.  Cloth napkins are available at any price point in many colors and styles.

3. Pack a Waste Free Kit

Include a water bottle, coffee mug, cloth napkin and reusable utensils. Put them in your bag, car, or purse so you have no excuse to accept single-use items.

If you love drinking out of straws, buy a reusable one and tote that along, too. Bring a glass jar, too. It can be used for any liquids, leftovers, even to bring compost home from an establishment that doesn’t offer composting to customers.

A plastic straw, paper cup, or plastic bag is designed to be used for just a few minutes but it will sit in a landfill (or worse—in our forests, rivers and oceans) for hundreds of years.

4. Just say no—at the source

Refuse disposable items at their source. Request “no straw please” in your drink when you’re out to lunch or at the bar. That free plastic pen from the bank might be tempting, but you likely have enough pens at home and work. Ask for your receipt to be emailed instead of printed.

Take it to the next level and reach out to the businesses and restaurants you frequent and ask them to change to more low-waste practices. For example, a restaurant can dramatically reduce their waste (and yours) by offering disposable straws only by request instead of automatically.

5. Give yourself some tough love

Push yourself a little bit—being strict can seem stressful but it’s really helpful.

Disposable coffee cups in a pile.Perhaps you decide you won’t use any single-use, disposable coffee cups for the week, month or even year. Then, one day, you forget your reusable coffee mug.

Tough love time: You don’t get coffee-to-go that day. Instead, have a seat in-house and enjoy the brew in a reusable “for here” mug—or suffer through a cup of your office’s sub-par brew.

Did you forget your reusable grocery bags in the car? Oops, it happens to everyone. Instead of opting for paper or plastic “just this one time,” load all of your groceries back into your cart and pack up your bags once you get to the car.

Hold yourself accountable—experiencing a mild inconvenience will make you less likely to forget your reusable option the next time around.


Don’t let little lapses get you down. Long-term waste reduction is the goal, so be kind to yourself while still holding yourself accountable. It’s not about feeling guilty that you forgot your coffee mug—it’s about being mindful.

Celebrate victories big and small, and make changes that are sustainable for your lifestyle. Keep yourself motivated: Get your family and friends involved, and read blogs of real people making big differences in their daily life—one change at a time.

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Meredith Bay Tyack
Meredith Bay Tyack
Meredith lives with her husband, two girls, and dog in a smallish, 950-square-foot home in Burlington, VT. In 2016, her family converted to a zero waste lifestyle, which she writes about on her website. You can read more about their adventures in minimalism on MeredithTested.com.