There’s incredible power in putting your hands on every piece of trash you’ve created in the last year. In some ways it’s a pretty messy endeavor, but in others, it’s an incredible reminder of all the things you’ve experienced, the people you’ve seen, and the things you enjoy most in life. An untraditional diary of life if you will.

When I started transitioning toward the zero waste life it was never any part of my intention to achieve a specific goal when it came to my trash. I knew it would never be zero, I knew that striving to keep it all in a mason jar was likely unattainable, but I knew that I wanted to create less and that I would do everything I could to avoid bringing unnecessary waste into my life and home. So when I emptied my trash in January 2017 I gave myself a simple a challenge: see how long it takes you to fill your trash bin again.

Unfortunately, my experiment was thwarted when I came home one afternoon and found the trash emptied by a presumptuous good samaritan. So I started again, and at the beginning of 2018 I set another goal: see if you can achieve one bag of trash for an entire year (and this time audit it!).

What is a trash audit, you ask?

Put simply, it’s a study of what kind of trash you make. For most of us answering the question, what’s in your trash right now?, is almost unanswerable and for fair reason. Most of us have been conditioned to consume, toss, and move on without any real connection to where our things come from, the resources used in their creation, and the footprint they’ll leave behind when we’re done with them. Quite honestly, I think we’d all be a little shocked by how much waste enters our lives on a daily basis without our even thinking about. The good news is that answering the question, what’s in your trash right now?, isn’t that hard and once you get a full idea of the kinds of trash you’re tossing, identifying problem areas and making meaningful lifestyle change to reduce waste becomes all the easier.

how to conduct a trash audit by simply zero


So how do you do a trash audit?

Essentially all you’re doing is collecting trash and sorting it. But, let me break it down for you in a bit more detail:

    1. Create your timeline — what length of time is going to give you the fullest picture of your waste output? A great place to start is identifying how long you go between taking the trash out. Maybe it’s a few days, maybe a week, maybe two weeks, maybe a month. The idea is to give yourself enough time to collect a decent sample without getting bogged down (and intimidated by) a giant pile of trash. If you’re unsure, I say start with a week.
    2. Set yourself up — rummaging through your trash can be a gross and messy ordeal if you don’t set yourself correctly up beforehand (trust me, no wants to accidentally stick their hand into a half rotten lump of leftovers). Take some time before you start collecting to allocate separate receptacles for the waste you’re measuring. My suggestion is one container for each of the following: landfill trash, recyclables, and food waste. You can even go so far as to label what goes in each. That way, each member of your family is aware and can actively participate.
    3. Choose your metrics — how do you want to measure your waste? By weight? By category? By number of pieces? By family member? By room? All of the above? Decide now so you can stay organized later.
    4. Collect — Dispose of your trash as usual (in the appropriate receptacles of course!).
    5. Analyze what you find — designate a space in your home to sort everything, lay a tarp or old sheet down, put on some gloves (if you want), sort, and measure based on your metrics. This is the fun part!
    6. Set some goals — based on what you find this is the time to now create some goals for yourself. What kinds of trash did you find most often? Can you avoid it with reusables? Will you need to purchase anything or do you have something on hand already? How will you keep on track going forward?

And remember don’t beat yourself up if you finish up and you’ve created more than you expected. Zero waste isn’t zero and we don’t yet live in a society that supports the philosophy behind the circular economy. The whole point of the audit is to gain awareness of the trashy areas in your life and identify ways to minimize them in the future. Be kind to yourself and approach it from a place of excitement to improve, motivate, and inspire!

So What Did I Learn From My One Year Trash Audit?

All in all, my one year of trash weighed 8.5 lbs (the equivalent of an average person’s trash over 2 days) and by going through it all again I was able to divert about another pound that was compostable, recyclable, and terracyclable. So roughly 7.5 lbs total. It did NOT include trash that other people brought into my home or the litter box waste created by my cat. What it DID include, though, taught me the following:

  • I really like wine and beer

  • My cat and I both shed…A LOT

  • I traveled and saw some great music shows

  • I am still using up cleaning products from my pre-zero waste life

  • I can do better when it comes to eating animal products

  • I like to indulge on potato chips and halloween candy

  • I get a lot of unnecessary plastic packaging in the mail

  • I throw money away (literally, I found a nickel!)

  • I invested in reusables

  • I still get a lot of receipts even though I refuse them most of the time

  • I get lazy sometimes and throw recyclables and compostables in the trash

Overall, I think I did a pretty good job. I feel grateful for all that the process has taught me and am excited to use all I’ve learned as a guide as I head into my third year of zero waste life.

What about you?

Have you ever done a trash audit? If yes, what did you learn? If no, would you consider doing on now?

Let me know in the comments below.


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