How much of what you throw out every week do you think can be composted or recycled?
San Franciscans tend to be more conscious of what they throw in the garbage bin than most U.S. cities, with compost bins in (practically) every establishment and charging for bags in every store.
San Francisco's trash habits aside, according to the Clean Air Council, Americans collectively throw out enough paper and plastic cups and utensils to surround the equator 300 times. The equator is over 24,900 miles long. Yikes.
Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, who visited 24 countries in 2005 to document how much food 30 families ate in a week for their book Hungry Planet: What The World Eats, just finished their latest project, Waste in Focus. Sponsored by GLAD, the project followed eight families in Atlanta, New York City, Pheonix, and San Francisco, documenting the collective weekly waste each family produced.
Lisa Burnham learned about the project through the recycling program at her daughter Eloise's school, Rooftop Alternative Elementary. In previous years, the program had students save their Capri Sun containers to send to TerraCycle, which turned the containers into colorful wallets and sent the school money in return, which they saved up to use to protect a turtle nest in El Salvador.
The program sent out an email inviting families to call Menzel and D'Aluisio if interested in having their family be part of the project. Being a particularly environmentally conscientious family, the Burnhams called right away.
As shown in the picture above, each family involved in the project hung their waste up on racks with netting provided by Menzel and D'Aluisio. The couple also gave each family plastic storage bins, a big one for recycling and a smaller one for food. Each bin was labeled with a letter, and each family was to record what they threw out on a corresponding sheet of paper.
"It was very methodical," said Burnham. "Even the compost had to get split into a bunch of different categories, and prepared food couldn't be with unprepared food. The banana peels didn't go where the leftover spaghetti went, for example."
The Burnhams learned that 89 percent of the waste they generate as a household is compostable or recyclable, with only 11 percent being sent to a landfill. Although she said this is typical for their family, Burnham said that what they learned from the project took what the already-conscientious family does to reuse to "another level."
In addition to learning about how much of each type of waste they produce, the Burnhams also learned a lot about the process of recycling and composting itself.
"When the week is over they come back and take the bins away and take it to Recology and go over everything with a fine toothed comb to determine whether or not it could be recycled," said Burnham. "It's interesting to learn what happens at the recycling plant, they go over everything that much."
For example, they learned that food containers with a wax coating can't be recycled, nothing made of Styrofoam can be recycled, and that even though the tops of plastic water bottles are supposed to be recyclable, there is a grate at the recycling plant that the tops fall through.
"Now we've started recycling the bottles with the tops on them," said Burnham. "Now that I know the procedure, it's affected what we throw out."
About the experience as a whole, Burnham said that she and her family "really liked [the project] because it was a good way to confirm and validate the work that the city is doing and the way that we run our house."
Especially with Earth Day around the corner, now is as good a time as any to be extra mindful about what you're throwing out. Don't be trashy.