Household Waste

Americans, on average, redirect 4.4 pounds of trash to landfills every day. We do not refer to this as throwing away, because there is no “away”—there is only relocation.

There are over 2,000 active landfills in the United States, and more that are inactive. Some of the latter have been repurposed as parks or other public spaces. 

Active landfills, however, are sites of rapid bacterial decomposition and are therefore a significant source of greenhouse gases, particularly methane, which absorbs high volumes of the sun’s heat and thus significantly contributes to global warming.

The best way to limit what we send to landfills is to reduce what we produce and to reuse what already exists by repurposing, passing things on to others, and repairing. Sharing potentially useful items in your community can be done through Freecycle or a Buy Nothing group

Reduction in output will require huge, systemic changes to our economy; in the meantime, individuals can improve recycling and composting habits at home and in their communities.


Although recycling programs have been around for decades now, the public has a long way to go in making full use of them. The EPA estimates that 75 percent of the American waste stream is recyclable, yet we only recycle about 30 percent of it. There are many ways we can improve household recycling.

To start, understand your curbside recycling. Any paper or cardboard (without food residue) can be recycled, as can almost all glass and clean plastic containers with the numbers 1 – 7 on them. Aluminum can also be recycled curbside. Plastic bags of all sorts cannot be recycled curbside, since curbside recycling programs cannot sort plastic bags in their processing equipment. Some grocery stores will collect bundles of plastic bags, so check with your local stores.

It’s important to know what you should and shouldn’t put into your curbside bin, because contaminating materials mid-stream damages the recycling system.

This can result in materials that could otherwise have been recycled needing to be sent to a landfill, higher expenses that discourage additional recycling programs or put existing ones out of business, and unsafe working conditions, among other consequences. Responsible recycling is what makes the reuse system work.

Go beyond curbside recycling. For instance, many stores across the country will collect plastic bags and send them to a suitable recycling facility. Major retailers such as Target, Walmart, and Kroger, as well as smaller grocery stores, have plastic bag dropoff bins. Stores like these may also collect batteries and light bulbs for appropriate disposal so they do not contaminate landfills with toxic chemicals. But other materials can also be recycled if you’re willing to put in a little time and effort in getting them to the right place. Use Earth911’s recycling guide to find out where to take automotive items, electronics, household waste, and more for recycling.


If you’re lucky enough to live in a municipality with public compost pickup, composting your food is as simple as contacting public waste management to get a curbside bin. Most of us, however, do not yet have that convenience. Fortunately there are multiple ways to compost at home: backyard piles, bin systems, and even kitchen gadgets.

Backyard compost bin. Photo by daryl_mitchell, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Original version.

If you have a yard, a backyard compost pile is likely your best option. It is low maintenance, as it only requires occasional turning, watering, and the proper balance of brown (carbon-based) and green (nitrogen-based) materials. Brown items include dry leaves, twigs, and hay, while green items include grass clippings and kitchen food scraps.

You can build a bin to contain it or simply choose a remote corner of your yard. Keep the ratio of green to brown around 1:2 and turn the pile once a week. Water when it looks dry. In the winter, simply cover the pile with a tarp at the beginning of the season and resume in the spring.

Don’t put these items in your home compost (the first three can, however, can go in industrial compost):

  • Bones and meat
  • Fats and cooking oils
  • Dairy products
  • Waste from dogs or cats
  • Treated wood
  • Weeds or diseased plants
  • Yard clippings with pesticides or herbicides on them

A worm bin is another composting option for those without yard space; this is referred to as vermicomposting. You can use this setup inside or on a porch. Eartheasy provides a good guide to setting up a worm composting bin. For an even easier option, check out kitchen food recyclers. These devices can turn a week’s worth of food scraps into nutrient-rich fertilizer in just one day using heat, moisture, and a plant-based additive. If you aren’t able to maintain a more traditional home composting system, this option may be the answer.