Action 128. Waste not, want not.

Consider the waste basket. Have you thought about your home’s waste baskets recently? Yep, its time to give a few moments of our attention to the humble waste basket that sits beneath or desk or in our bathroom or kitchen, patiently waiting to receive our rubbish. I did today, as I purposefully sought out a non-new wastebasket for my home. What, waste baskets don’t fascinate you?  OK, its probably not the most exciting component of our homes, but I think the waste basket is worthy of our collective consideration for a moment.

There are a lot of waste baskets in this world, and I’m going to go through the exercise of confirming that in a moment. But if we think more conceptually about the waste basket, its a very strange thing– that we as a species have spent a lot of time and effort creating so many, and so many different kinds, of a thing whose purpose is to receive our trash for a limited period of time. For example, go to the Container Store’s website and you’ll find at my last check 64 different waste baskets for sale. I was in our local bed and bath store today and I counted at least 30 different kinds of trash cans filling up a couple of aisles of the store, like so:

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Among our global reservoir of trash can options, there are shiny metal trash cans. Matte black trash cans. Trash cans made to look like a woven basket, or a glass sculpture (which might cause you to pause before throwing trash in it?). Ceramic trash cans. Faux wood trash cans. Round cans, square cans, oblong cans, oval cans. Trash cans with lids. No lids. Swinging lids. Pop-up lids. Foot-pedal operated lids. Trash cans decorated with Disney princesses, or race cars, or made to look like R2D2 with a flip-top head (seriously. google it). I know this is turning into a Dr. Seuss poem, but my point is this- WHY??? Why do we need hundreds of different items to satisfy our need to have somewhere to put our trash for a temporary period of time before it goes into a bigger trash can in our garage or yard? If you think about it, the waste basket, particularly in its current, highly diverse formulation, is a strange phenomenon.

Overwhelmingly, the trash cans sold online or at your local store probably began their lives as a petroleum product. They are some form of plastic, and very often, a form of plastic, which, when it breaks or wears out or gets gross enough over time that you no longer want to use it, ends up in the landfill, because its made of a non-recyclable plastic or is an amalgamation of materials that can’t be easily disassembled for recycling, or because, frankly, who really thinks about recycling their trash can? A quick survey of my house shows that we have 5 little trash cans and 2 larger kitchen trash cans. So 7 trash cans for just our house. OK, time for some quick math. Let’s say we are profligate trash can owners, I have no idea really, but let’s say to be conservative the average US household has 5 trash cans in it for household use. That seems reasonable- a couple bedrooms, a couple bathrooms, one or two in the kitchen, would probably be pretty typical. According to the US Census Bureau, there were approximately 132 million housing units in the US in 2013. So, using these numbers we can estimate there are about 650 million trash cans in use in the US today. WHAT?!?

Yes. 650 million trash cans, the majority of them probably plastic or containing plastic, and largely unrecyclable or of low recycling value. This is one of those moments where the “drops in the ocean” metaphor really comes home to roost. My going out and buying a trash can from the store doesn’t seem like a big deal from a resource or a fossil fuel perspective. Until you multiply that process a few hundred million times.

So what can a person do to fight the towering pile of hundreds of millions of trash cans (I’m having flashbacks to Wall-E)? Well, we can certainly use fewer of them. In fact, there are many businesses that have taken this tactic as a sustainability step and done away with individual employee trash cans, with positive results not only for having less trash cans, but also influencing employee behavior in ways that reduces overall office waste production. The other thing we can do is recognize that there are plenty of excess trash cans floating around- yard sales, consignment shops, Goodwill, and similar outlets very often have resale trash cans in perfectly good condition. Unless your kiddo absolutely has to have a Disney princess trash can, or you totally need that mauve trash can to go with your bathroom decorating scheme, it’s worth thinking about whether you can fill your receptacle needs making use of a plastic material that is already out there and available. Here is the lovely piece I purchased at Goodwill today that is now serving as our guest bathroom’s trash can.

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Not buying new: one less drop in the plastic ocean.

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