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Watch Your Waste! Plant Chicago challenges you to do a waste audit at home.

What is a waste audit?

A waste audit, sometimes known as a waste assessment or waste characterization study, is the process of digging through your trash to learn information about waste management within your household or business. You can learn a lot about yourself by taking a good look at your trash!

Waste audits can tell you how much and what types of waste you create. They can also help you identify opportunities to reduce waste and divert waste away from landfills.

Waste audit process

Before you begin, think about whether you’ve thrown away any potentially hazardous materials or sharp items recently. If you know you might have these items in your bins, use caution when auditing, or wait until the next round of waste collection when none of these items are present to conduct your audit.

You want to choose a spot where you won’t mind doing a little bit of cleanup afterward just in case there are any spills or debris left behind. We recommend using a tarp for easy cleanup. If you are doing your audit outdoors, make sure it’s not too windy-- you don’t want all of your trash blowing away.

Once you’ve chosen a good spot for your audit, you can set up your waste audit station. First, make sure you’re wearing close-toed shoes and clothing that you don’t mind getting dirty. In terms of supplies, you will need:

  • your waste bins (including recycling and compost bins if you already collect those streams separately from trash)

  • gloves that are somewhat waterproof (latex gloves or rubber dishwashing/lab type gloves work well)

  • soap and water to wash your hands after the audit

  • a tarp or other floor covering to make cleanup easier

  • bins with a standard size (like a 5-gallon bucket) and/or a scale*

  • a sheet of paper and a writing utensil to record your audit results OR Plant Chicago’s waste audit data tracking worksheet

  • optional: phone or camera to take photos (numbers don’t tell the full story of a waste stream, so Plant Chicago takes photos during all of our waste audits to make sure we can match the numbers from our datasheet up with what we saw during the audit.)

*Weight is the typical measurement technique for most waste audits, but if you don’t have a scale you can measure your waste by volume instead (i.e. x # of 5-gallon buckets, or x # of trash bags/cans full).

Now that you have all of your supplies, you can sort and measure the contents of your bin(s)! Plant Chicago’s typical approach is to audit each bin separately. For example, if you have a trash bin and a recycling bin at home, you could start with your trash bin, sorting the waste, taking photos of the sorted waste, and recording the data from that bin on a data tracking sheet, and then cleaning that up and moving onto the same process with the recycling bin.

Analyzing your results

When we do waste audits, we look at four primary numbers that help us understand what’s going on with our waste:

  • Total amount of materials in the waste stream (measured in weight, volume, or number of items if the volume is very low)

  • Actual Diversion Rate: the percentage of materials diverted from the landfill from current total waste

  • Potential Diversion Rate: the percentage of materials that could we be diverted from the landfill with improved waste management &practices

  • Contamination Rate: percentage of materials in our recycling or composting bins that are not actually recyclable or compostable

These numbers are a helpful starting point for setting goals around diverting more materials away from the landfill through practices like recycling or composting, or better yet, around reducing the total amount of materials ending up in our waste stream in the first place.

Now What?

When Plant Chicago does waste audits with our small business network, we always want to keep waste reduction in mind as the first priority. Could anything in the bin be reused? Could anything in the bin have been reduced with the right strategy in place? If you’re doing a waste audit at home, keep an eye out for items that are good candidates for waste reduction. Food waste, packaging, and broken household items that could be repaired are all good things to think about reducing in various ways.

We also look for items that could be diverted from the landfill via recycling or composting, two of the most accessible waste diversion systems available here in Chicago. Primary candidates for diversion include organics like food scraps, leftovers, and yard waste; recyclable items like aluminum cans, plastic containers, paper, and glass; and household items that could be donated instead of being thrown away (clothing, furniture, appliances).

Reducing, reusing, and repairing items should always be the first resort before throwing them away. While there wasn’t much potential for reduction or reuse found during our small business audits, you might find different opportunities at home.

For example, a common item in most waste streams these days is packaging. Think about where this packaging comes from. What items were in the packaging and where did you purchase them? Is there a way to avoid bringing home this packaging in the first place?

Creative reuse is a fun way to divert waste from the landfill. Can you make something new or useful out of something you thought of as waste? Make your own mini-greenhouse with salvaged plastic film from the trash and utilize egg cartons as seed starters instead of recycling or composting them.

Talk Trash with us!

We hope this post inspired you to dig through your own trash so you can identify opportunities to cultivate a local circular economy, starting at home! If you do your own waste audit or creative reuse project, please share it with us on Instagram by tagging @plantchicago in your post or story.

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