One Year’s Worth of Trash (Except, It Isn’t)

One Year’s Worth of Trash (Except, It Isn’t)

The idea of keeping landfill trash in a jar has become a symbol of the zero waste movement. Bea Johnson from Zero Waste Home started keeping the waste produced by her family of four in a glass jar back in 2010. Now more and more people use this idea to track their progress and show others what is possible with a little bit of determination and effort.

I have to confess, I don’t love the idea. I find it a little gimmicky (I’ll talk about that later). At the beginning of last year, I was interviewed by a journalist and she asked me if I had a jar of waste. I said no, and she suggested I start one. That it might be a good idea because it was a valuable tool to show others.

I hadn’t really thought of it like that.

I also thought, there I was pooh-poohing the idea when I hadn’t actually given it a fair shot. Wouldn’t it be be better to try it out and see, rather than making judgements? I decided to give it a go.

As fate would have it, at the end of January this year, Channel 9 contacted me to film a segment about zero waste for their 6pm news show. When they found out I had a waste jar, they insisted it be part of the story. So my little jar of waste was on the news…

I began our annual jar of waste on 2nd March 2016 – so today it has been exactly a year since I began. So how much landfill waste did our household produce in a year, and what have I learned.

Annual Waste in a Jar – My Rules

The idea is that anything that would end up in the landfill bin is kept in the jar. This means anything that is not recycled, composted, repurposed or repaired.

I didn’t really make any other rules when I started; they formed along the way. The intention was that the jar was for our household waste (my husband’s and mine) but in July we adopted a greyhound, which changed things slightly.

These are the rules we ended up following:

  • Anything purchased or acquired pre- going plastic-free or zero waste in 2012 still counts as waste.
  • Any waste generated by us inside our home goes in the jar.
  • Any waste I produce outside the home goes in the jar (and my husband’s, if he is with me.) My husband’s waste at work and some dog waste (!) does not go in the jar for practical reasons.
  • Any waste that others bring into our home that we do not use does not go in the jar. However, if we use it in some way, then it does.
  • I often find fruit stickers, old clothes elastic and random plastic labels in the compost bin, but 6 households share our composting system and I do not know for sure it is ours – and it is too much effort once it is covered in compost.
  • Anything that is downright gross or dangerous does not go in the jar.

Different people have different rules. These are ours. Our waste shows us where we personally can improve, and let us share what we have learned. It is not a competition.

How Much Landfill Waste Did We Produce?

This is our waste from 1st March 2016 until 1st March 2017.

What Didn’t End Up in the Jar?

Not all of the waste we produced over the last year has ended up in the jar. Here’s what was missed:

  • We broke two glass jars and a glass light bulb in the past few weeks, and I am sure that over the year there were more.
  • We put all weeds in the compost bin except couch grass which is super invasive. We put this in our landfill bin. (It goes through a commercial hot composting machine at the tip, but I’d rather deal with it at home.)
  • I still have an old tub of dental floss I keep for emergencies. Mostly after eating corn-on-the-cob. That tends to get sucked up by the vacuum cleaner.
  • Condoms. For obvious reasons.
  • When I mentioned earlier that our greyhound complicated things, there were a few “issues”.
    • I refuse things, and I refuse things on behalf of my husband ;) but my husband has decided, I cannot refuse things on behalf of our greyhound. If somebody buys him a gift, it is not for me to decide to donate it straightaway simply because it will end up in landfill.
    • Our greyhound has received a few toys as gifts. People tell me they were careful to avoid plastic, as we receive yet another toy made of polyester. (Which is plastic.) They are also cheaply made and do not last. One was torn to shreds and covered in slobber and ended up in the bin. Fortunately Hans is settling down and less prone to destruction these days.
    • Hans is also very particular about his bathroom habits, and categorically refuses to go to the toilet in our yard. Not even for number 1s. His preferred toilet stop is the dog park 10 minutes away. We have a dog poo worm farm at home, but carrying his mess home twice a day with newspaper is a trial. I do it as often as I can, but sometimes it isn’t practical. When it’s raining, the newspaper gets wet before we make it home. When the dog park is full of other dogs we don’t hold onto it – the other dogs are too interested :/ So sometimes dog poo goes in the bin.

Is the ‘Waste-in-a-Jar’ Thing Gimmicky?

That’s a personal choice. For me, I still feel like it is. I have never taken my waste jar to a talk or workshop I’ve presented. In fact, it has never left the house.

I’m not a limelight-lover, and I feel that the jar invites a “look-at-me!” approach that I am just not comfortable with.

I also feel that extremes can put people off making changes, and waste jars might be seen as extreme. I’d prefer to encourage lots of people to change one thing than encourage one person to change everything. My priority in inspiring others, not seeking perfection myself.

That’s not to say it can’t (and doesn’t) work for others. For every cynic in the room, there is someone else who is inspired. For those who love and relish the limelight, it is an awesome opportunity to share and motivate others.

It just does not work for me.

Gimmicks aside, there are things I love as well as things I don’t.

Things I love about keeping my waste in a jar:

  • I like being able to track my progress and visually see where I could make improvements.
  • I like being able to see which companies are responsible for the non-recyclable waste, so I can contact them and suggest that they make changes.
  • I like that it pushes me to look for solutions with the items I end up with.

Things I don’t love about keeping my waste in a jar:

  • I don’t like that it doesn’t account for human error. I put many things in my recycling bin, believing that they will be recycled. But I don’t know for sure that they are. The decision is based on my knowledge, which may be flawed. I could be wrong, and it could end up in landfill.
  • I’m a person who likes details. My goal is always to be transparent and honest. The jar is a simplified view, and I have this constant nagging feeling I need to justify and explain everything. It makes me a little stressed.
  • I don’t like the way it invites comparisons, even though every person takes a different approach.
  • I think it focuses too much on the personal. At the beginning I think a journey of change is always personal. For me, there comes a point when it is time to move onto the local, national and beyond. Worrying about a piece of dental floss or an accidental foil-wrapped teabag isn’t important. I want to encourage change on a bigger level. For me, my jar distracts from that.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Tell me – do you think the waste jar idea is a great idea, or a gimmick? Do you love it or loathe it? Do you keep a waste jar, and what lessons have you learned? Have you tried in the past but given up? Have you thought about it but not committed yet? Have you just started your own, and what are your thoughts so far? What is your favourite thing about them? What is your least favourite thing? Anything else that you’d like to add? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

23 Responses to One Year’s Worth of Trash (Except, It Isn’t)

  1. Thanks for writing an article about this! It’s good to know more about your reasoning after you mentioned you think it’s a bit gimmicky the other week. I think keeping our stuff in a jar has been helpful since we have been doing it our waste has really decreased (though I don’t know if that’s simply because have now mainly run out of things that were packaged in the kitchen and laundry and haven’t broken anything yet *touch wood* this year, in 2016 we dropped several items of crockery and 3 jars). I too feel a bit of that guilt about the jar not being everything too as we have just come back from Africa where- while we tried hard we probably produced about two grocery bags full of waste. We brought home bottles (unavoidable) and some soft plastic recycling to recycle here because Africa doesn’t have the facilities, but there was still a lot of waste. We also keep a box in the garage of ‘hard to recycle’ items that we deal with at the end of the year and I think some of that will ultimately end up in landfill. I’m so glad you did this and posted about it though- I still think it’s helpful.

    • Hi Sarah, my pleasure! It has definitely made me think really hard about what I can do with things, whereas before maybe I would have resigned the to the bin. I’ve realised that it is probably more about me than the jar itself – I’m not comfortable with the idea of holding up a jar of waste in front of a room and saying – check me out! I think it’s my British don’t-blow-your-own-trumpet upbringing! I know it isn’t really like that, but that’s how I feel. I guess I need to work on it!

      I guarantee you will break something the week before the end of the year ;)

      That’s the thing about the “waste jar” that frustrates me – the exceptions to the rules! I feel like there should be a full disclosure statement every time I talk about it! ;) Regarding holidays, we tend to take short local holidays so we bring food from home, eat out or check out bulk stores before we go. Our last flight was to New Zealand in January 2016. I wasn’t doing the jar thing then, and my memory isn’t that good, but we did a combination of staying with friends, family and in paid accommodation. Mostly when we weren’t with friends and family we ate out, but that isn’t always an option for people. I like that you brought your recycling home with you – I used to do that too!

      • Thanks Lindsay! I think it’s good- your humility makes you relatable and I feel people are more easily inspired then! We had to have bottled water because the water wasn’t safe to drink where we were-I hated it! I kept thinking about all the locals and tourists that drank water in bottles out of necessity (because the water makes you sick) and then burnt those bottles (on the side of the road!) creating pollution that also makes people sick! Feeling grateful for our society’s recycling and water treatment programs even if they aren’t perfect. I did look into stainless steel lifestraws but I was a bit nervous about that in the end. The plane flights were the worst- especially when we got food poisoning! Ah, all the plastic lined paper sick bags that were disposed of! Going was really important to me which helped me not get too worked about the waste- but in future it will just be small local trips like yours for us!

  2. I think it can certainly be a tool to help with personal awareness and responsibility. I am too early in my journey to feel comfortable with this – I think I would fill a jar very quickly still (or my teenagers would at least) but we are certainly making strides in the right direction. Looking at your pictures I also realise how many plastic pill things would end up in ours as my husband has epilepsy and is on 6 tablets per day! I also rely far too much on panadol when I get one of my frequent headaches (I should probably have a glass of water, stretch my neck and shoulders, and have a lie down instead). I have changed my bins around so we have one larger recycling, one compost, and one small rubbish bin only. It certainly helps me to see a lot clearer what we are buying and throwing away.

    • Hi Noni, thanks for your comment! Medical emergencies are definitely justified waste! One thing you could do, if your family were comfortable with it, is have a jar each. That way there’s a bit of friendly competition, and it’s a good way to get family members on board.

      But if you think it would give you unnecessary pressure, definitely leave it until you are comfortable. Zero waste living is meant to be enjoyable and there is no need to burden yourself!

      Good luck with the journey :)

  3. Great post and focuses on something that has been slightly bothering me since starting my own zero waste journey. I really struggle with the waste jar as a zero waste hero, and I think you have articulated really well my reasons as well as some I hadn’t thought of.
    I think if we are ultimately trying to tip the balance so lots of people make small changes which have a big impact then the jar could be just too off-putting and extreme, and puts barriers in place for people who might otherwise quite easily change a few key behaviours like straws, plastic bags, etc. It also doesn’t capture one of the big plastic waste areas which is washing clothes (microfibres). That said, I totally agree it’s a personal thing and anyone that’s does do it gets wholehearted respect from me!! :)

    • Thanks for your comment Liz and for sharing your thoughts. You echo some of mine. I would rather see 100,000 people make those changes you mention than see 100 people fit their waste in a jar. Not everyone has the time or passion to make this a way of life, and encouraging small changes that people can adopt easily is the best solution, I feel.

      You’re right about things like microfibres. There should be a disclaimer on the jar for all the “missed” things! Also, eating food in restaurants and cafes (no doubt came in packaging), things we intend to reuse but that will ultimately become waste (and may never actually get re-used, espite our best intentions). Things we put in the wrong bin by mistake – stuff that isn’t recyclable that we put in the recycling bin, for example.

      As a personal tool, it’s great. As a tool to change society as a whole, it definitely has limitations! ;)

  4. Interesting and reflective post – thank you! I feel that we each have our challenges, and they relate to many things about our lives and the services (like recycling) that we have or don’t have. My jar would be quite big, but it would be smaller than last year’s notional jar, and to me this is positive. If my local recycling was more accommodating, my jar would be smaller. If my life was structured differently, my jar might be smaller. But if each year it is smaller – no matter how big it is compared to other people’s jar – then I should feel ecstatic!

    • Thank you Chris! You’re right, living in a city with plenty of recycling options makes it easy to have a small jar. The pinnacle of zero waste is not to produce any recycling either of course – but that is tough! I collected my waste for a month to share last May and I intend to do the same this year, because my recycling is bigger than my landfill waste. Now I would LOVE to get this down to zero…!

      As you say, we all have different circumstances, life commitments etc that makes our waste different. If we can compare with ourselves, and look back on previous years and know that we are doing better, that is exactly the point! That is what I find satisfying :)

  5. We’re on the same page. I think the waste jar is a great tool to both show what’s possible and to challenge limits. However, it’s not an entirely honest story of the waste produced. Even if a jar doesn’t tell the whole story, I’m impressed with those who use one (and only one)!

    • Thanks Julie! It’s nice to know I’m not alone in feeling like this. A good tool, but not perfect. That’s what I don’t like – without a huge disclaimer and a couple of blog posts detailing all the ins and outs, it isn’t a completely honest reflection. That’s why I feel uncomfortable with it. Oh, and technically my passport and the polystyrene container didn’t fit in the jar. I’m not sure they’d fit in any jar though!

  6. This is exactly what I think as well, when I started the journey I’d think “I gotta have a jar to keep my waste” and of course all the waste I was still producing was not fitting in the jar. I felt like I was failing and I was an impostor. Soon I realised the jar was more of a show-off than a sacred rite (who’d put condoms and dog poo in the jar??). Thanks for sharing this, you’re surely one of my favs in our world <3

    • Thanks for your lovely comment Natalia! :) What a lovely thing to say! Regarding the jar, when I started my journey I hadn’t heard of the jar thing. I began by going plastic-free in 2012, and Beth Terry was the only real blogger I’d heard of who was reducing plastic. She kept every single pieces of plastic she used, even if it was recyclable, but that wasn’t practical for me as we lived in a tiny flat. I heard of Bea Johnson maybe a couple of years later, but at first I thought she was a minimalist so didn’t read her blog or book. It was only when all this press appeared in 2014-2015 with various people clutching jars of waste that I realised it was even a thing!

      I’m glad about that though, as it reduced a lot of internal pressure. I always tell people it took me about 18 months to go plastic-free. I needed that space to find my own solutions and alternatives. Having a jar would have killed my momentum!

      What is more telling I reckon, is how much recycling we all produce. I would LOVE to get that down to zero. Now that is a challenge! ;)

      Good luck with your journey and know that if you are doing your best and working towards making positive changes you are in no way an imposter!

  7. I agree..I think when most folks see the waste jar it scares them off of making any changes as it comes across as really extreme. But maybe for teaching purposes at schools it would be a good example to use. We don’t produce a lot of garbage…but we do purchase packaged meats at the grocery store, which accounts for a lot of it, though I’m trying to cook more meat free meals. The local deli is very high priced compared to our local store and I simply can’t afford to shop there on my limited budget. I also have celiac and delis do not seem to carry gluten free cold cuts, they only come packaged in plastic at the store. Again though I’ve tried to cut down on processed meats. My husband came home the other day with an English cucumber wrapped in plastic. It seems if you want an English cucumber instead of the other kind (not sure the difference but they are shorter and never wrapped in plastic) you have to buy that one in plastic. I’m going to ask him to start buying the package free ones. And I’m also guilty of buying spinach in plastic bags! I have a lot of guilt over that.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences Holly! Deli counters can be more expensive. We ended up buying less of those things. Before we went plastic-free we used to buy a lot of cheese, but once we started using the deli counter we started buying less, and over time realised we no longer needed it, as we had found new recipes that were dairy-free. But it is all a journey.

      I always buy those shorter lebanese cucumbers! They taste exactly the same but don’t have shrink-wrapped plastic. (Which can’t be good for us as it has been heated to melt it round the produce.)

      Don’t feel guilty! We can only do what we can do. Definitely switching to more meat-free meals will help reduce the waste, but learning new recipes and testing things takes time. If you reduce your meat you might find that you can afford to splash out at the deli counter now and then. Don’t put any extra pressure on yourself though. Focus on all the great changes you’ve already made :)

  8. Im facinated by the zero waste movement. I tend to think its a bit of a gimmick in some aspects too, there is always waste made down the production line, even if you are buying simple staples. (hair nets/shoe covers/packaging/transportation) Things get processed *somewhere*, just because people aren’t taking their rubbish home with them, it still exists to a degree.

    Im in the country and there are very few bulk food places which is a little restrictive. But I love the concept, and it has inspired me to think of more sustainable packaging etc.

    Here supermarkets make you pay for your plastic bags, as an encouragment for you to bring your own cloth bags, which is great. If only they would ditch the single wrapped veggies etc to match to intention. There is of course the option to buy loose veggies, which we do. But the fact it is even an option puzzles me.

    xx

    • Agreed Emma – unless we are living off the grid with a home-made wind turbine, growing all our own food and weaving our own clothes, it’s pretty likely we are generating waste somewhere along the way!

      I truly believe that zero waste is gaining momentum and bulk stores will be the way of the future, and more will pop up in the coming years. (I’d like to say “months” but I’m trying to stay realistic!)

      Ah, the reason they sell packaged fruit and veg is because they make more profit. Simple as that. Look at the price per kg of anything pre-packaged and it will be more almost every single time. I used to be a manager in the Fruit and Veg section of a supermarket in my past life, so believe me, I know! Fruit and veg has a low profit margin. Package it up and the profit margin increases. It’s also easier to rotate stock as all those packages have a date stamped on them. Whereas with loose stuff, people can pick and feel the ripest/freshest, and leave the dodgy stuff.

  9. I never got to the jar level – and also didn’t want to! But I caught up with a friend after a number of years (she’s now a Doctor!) and she remembered my zero waste ways. And when I thought about it – I figured, wow, I’ve made an impact. She’s thinking about her waste and how to reduce it. And that is AWESOME.

    I gave away some good traits when I moved in with R, like buying supermakret meat, not using my own container there or at the butcher. Some items, I wasn’t willing to cut out (cheeses!). And I also settled for the Red Cycle bin, which is imperfect, as in, it’s still recycling which isnt as good as eliminating. But I 97% of the time BYO my coffee cup and seldom buy bottled water. And that’s something. Not everything, but something

    • I always love hearing your perspective Sarah so thank you so much for sharing! I like that you’ve adjusted your ways as life has got in the way or changed, and you are happy to share this with us. I’m totally with you – something is better than nothing and if we all did what we could and were comfortable with, the impact would be phenomenal!

      We definitely make an impact on others far more than we imagine. I think as the zero waste movement is gaining popularity, and getting more exposure, people are getting to join the dots. So people maybe see something or notice something out there in thr world, and remember you (or me, or whoever) and our crazy ways, and then they think – oh, it’s more normal than I realized. Does that make sense?! You are sowing the seeds of change :)

  10. I think the jar wakes up people. However it’s also very necessary to also avoid things that can be recycled. They don’t go in the jar. For example the plastics can be recycled here in the Netherlands, but that;s just the point of going zero waste in my opinion: avoiding them!

    • Thanks for your comment and I agree completely! For me, recycling feels like the last resort and it is effectively a fail in terms of zero waste – because processing something into new products is a huge waste of energy etc compared to avoiding it or reusing it. To have zero recycling, now that is the holy grail of zero waste! ;)

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