When is the last time you looked through your garbage? Never? Yeah, us too, until we started reducing our waste. That took the task of sifting through old pieces of floss and other detritus from gross and useless to gross and useful: turns out, you can learn a lot from your trash about ways to shift your habits for the better.
We are often asked what's a good first step toward going zero waste, and our answer is generally to understand what it is you're throwing away in the first place. We all make different amounts and types of waste based on our habits. For example, if you grab a coffee to-go in a paper (/plastic!) cup, the contents of your trash will look a lot different than someone who doesn't drink coffee. If that describes you, then a good first step toward reducing your trash output might be to invest in a reusable thermos to bring to the coffee shop in lieu of using paper cups.
For a person who doesn't drink coffee or tea, however, a good first step might look totally different: maybe it's focusing on meal planning to decrease their food waste, educating themselves or family members further on what can be recycled, or simply committing to bring a reusable water bottle with them to an exercise class instead of reaching for a plastic, single-use bottle each time.
We get it: doing a waste audit sounds messy, time-consuming, and yes, a bit gross. But it doesn't have to be. A waste audit can be as simple as taking a second to pause and make a mental note each time you throw something in the trash. Or, if you are curious about what you'd find if actually you sifted through your garbage can, we'd recommend diverting your food scraps into the composter first to reduce the ick factor. (To find out more about composting in Chicago, visit our guide here).
Knowing what you throw away is integral to reducing your waste and can help you assess which next step will have the biggest impact. A waste audit isn't just useful as you start to reduce your waste either; it's useful at any point in your journey to zero waste, since it can help you fine-tune your current routines and re-evaluate long-term habits. Whichever way you approach it, making some time in January to better understand your waste can help guide you through the year as you build small change upon small change on the road to lower-waste.