My Zero Waste Family (NOT the Tiny Jar Family)

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My Zero Waste Family (NOT the Tiny Jar Family)

If you are looking for an itty bitty jar of trash from our family, click back, you have come to the wrong website.  As a zero waster, I find that very inspiring and noble, but as busy working parent, I also find it intimidating and unrealistic.  Who keeps trash in a jar anyway?  We don't.  Just like most of you, we use an actual trash can with a trash bag (bonus points if the bag is compostable, but if it's not, that's ok too).  We are a regular, busy, family of four, that values convenience and lives on a budget.   But, we also value the planet and our natural resources.  So, we are doing our very best with the knowledge and time that we have.  And we continue to learn and improve as we go.  But, we are not the tiny jar family.   

We are the Buskirk family and we currently live in Austin, TX.  We accumulate less than a standard kitchen size trash bag, per week (usually about 1/2 a bag).  I am confident that we are diverting well over 90% of our waste from the landfill (which is the widely accepted, gold standard of zero waste).   So, if a 1/2 bag (or even a full bag) of trash per week sounds like a realistic goal for your family, then read-on my friends!  My hope is to make zero waste realistic for the masses!  Because it is much more valuable for all of us to get down to less than 1 bag of trash per week, per family, then it is for an elite few to get down to a tiny jar.  So, in order for us to make the impact on the planet that we need to, to curb climate change, I am going to do my best to show you that zero waste can be attainable for a typical, busy's how:  


Don't get overwhelmed.  Start wherever you are.  Gather info.  Get a recycle bin and go online and learn what your city allows in the recycle bin (If you live someplace rural without curbside collection, it's a bit more work, yes, but I've been there - it's still doable).  Then, find out what other programs are in place in your city.  Austin has a "Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center," that accepts almost everything else not allowed in the curbside recycle bin.  What about your grocery store - do they take back plastic bags?  If so, that means they also take back plastic over-wrap, something that once you start collecting it, you will see comes on almost everything. 


Here's where most of the work is done, but also where we save a ton of money and reduce our carbon footprint (The biggest part of our carbon footprint is associated with the "stuff" we purchase, rather than the car we drive or how we heat & cool our home. Source: US EPA 2009). 


We try to say "no thank you" to freebies and giveaways and single-use stuff (But some still sneaks its way in.  Keep reading, I promise to keep it real). 


We stop and think before we make purchases and ask, "Do we really need this"?  

When we do buy stuff, we are mindful and SLOW down and stick to these simple rules:

1) Second hand whenever possible

2) Least amount of packaging 

3) Opt for reusables, over disposables

4) Wrapped individually, no thank you! 

Again, we try our best, but we are not perfect.  But these simple rules reduce our waste (and our spending) a ton!


Once something enters our home, we make every attempt to repair or reuse it for a new purpose.   Finally, just like most families have dish towels, we have slowly accumulated reusable cloth napkins, sponges and other reusables that make it easier to buy less disposable stuff.   


Here is our system:

Kitchen:  Landfill bin, Recycle bin, Compost bin & Plastic bag collection (*Note: We do keep a plastic bag inside the recycle bin to keep it from dripping, because, well, we drink beer, but we dump it into the curbside bin WITHOUT the plastic bag.  We then reuse the plastic bag for the next week's trash bag.  Plastic bags do not belong in single stream/curbside bins.  They are super dangerous because they get caught in recycle machinery and it puts the works limbs' at risk to remove the bags). 

I love these stickers (and I everyone that comes to my house  loves them too!).  They clearly mark our kitchen bins, and I think they are super cute.  Matching bins and a collection receptacle for plastic bags are nice addition to the kitchen too, if they are within your budget.   Waste doesn't have to be ugly. 

Once waste has entered our home, most of it ends up in the kitchen.   We sort all of this waste as we create it.   We compost food scraps and take that out about every 2 days to the backyard.  We take out large cardboard to the outside bin as we get it and we store plastic wrap under the sink (and take it to the grocery store whenever we go).  Whatever ends up in the kitchen trash is landfill waste, but there isn't much there (stickers from fruit, halloween candy wrappers, large chip bags, that sort of stuff). 

Garage (or a Closet):

A simple 2 bin system for 1) Donation to take to a charity & 2) Household Hazardous Waste (electronics, lightbulbs, batteries, etc) to take to the Recycle & Reuse Drop Off Center (they even take styrofoam!) 

Bedrooms/Bathrooms/Laundry Room: 

Like most families, we keep one bin in each bedroom and bathroom (that means the trash/compost/recycle is all mixed together, which is what we have to sort at the end of the week).  But if you want you can purchase cool bins like these for each room, so the waste stays sorted as you go.  We skip the bags in these bins and just wash them as need be. 


Once we get to Recycle/Trash Day, as a family, we bring together all the waste bins in the house, get the gloves on and get sorting (it takes about 10 min max).  We sort the bedroom and bathroom waste like this:  Recycle (shampoo bottles, toilet paper rolls, paper, cardboard packaging, etc.), Compost (mostly just kleenex), and Landfill (whatever is left) and add it to the larger kitchen bins.  Assuming you didn't have to take out landfill trash at all througout the week, you should have a grand total for the week right here.  

Trash Day
Get the gloves on, it's time to sort waste!
Waste Sort

Now here's were I'm keeping it real....Do you notice all the toys that snuck into the trash?  This is why involving the kids and sorting waste is so important.  In every waste stream, stuff ends up in the trash that doesn't belong.  (This especially happens when kids have to clean their own rooms and need to find a place for their "stuff" they no longer want).   This is prime opportunity to ask my children, "where and why did you get this tiny frisbee that you will never use"?  If my kids think that when they throw something away, it goes "away", then they won't learn the value of reducing their consumption in the first place.  I  involve them in the process from start, to finish.  The bonus is, by dealing with the waste on the back end, they see the value in creating less waste, and eventually they stop begging for useless toys and freebie giveaways.

Remember, the goal is to reduce your waste as much as you can.  So start with the biggest areas of waste that you notice in your trash first.  If you have a lot of juice boxes in the trash, then start buying juice in bulk containers (that are recyclable).  Do you best, make improvements as you go and celebrate your accomplishments!  Saving money and having less stuff can bring you a lot of joy, so enjoy it!


Kelly Buskirk, Kelly Green Consultant, Sustainability & Zero Waste Consultant

About Kelly Green Consultant:  Hi!  I'm Kelly Buskirk.  I currently live in Austin, TX, but I first got involved in sustainability when I was living on the island of Kauai, and a landfill was proposed by neighborhood.   I made the conscious shift to live a zero waste lifestyle and transform the business I was managing from great, to green!  My intention is to tread lightly on the planet, by reducing toxins and waste in my life and help others do the same in their life and business.   Join me on my Zero Waste + Green Living quest!