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My One Trashcan Challenge: 19 Months of Low Waste Living

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From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to our overflowing landfills, it’s clear we should be using less plastic whenever possible. One example of an individual doing his part to reduce plastic consumption is Geoff DeRuiter, a young man living in Victoria, BC, Canada. In 19 months, Geoff produced only one small trashcan of garbage, an amount most of us produce in less than a week.

By Geoff DeRuiter Posted Aug 4, 2011

Garbage On September 1, 2009 I moved into a one-bedroom apartment. My apartment is really like the ultimate bubble for my environmental lifestyle, and I would say, it has quite the green sheen to it. I can control everything, including what I consume, and how much garbage I produce. In 19 months of living, I produced just one small trash can of garbage. I don’t mean one of the large cans that sit on the street; I mean one of the small cans that sit under your sink, measuring just 15x10x12 inches (40 cm x 25 cm x 30 cm).

When I moved into my apartment I never started out with the goal of doing something seemingly extra-green. I was living my normal lifestyle, but now I was living on my own and was able to measure the amount of waste I created. Of course, many people have done much better than me and gone waste-free, such as No Impact Man, but I have not. This is just my little story and perhaps you might relate to it in some way or become further inspired to live more sustainably.

From September to December of 2009 I thought I was doing pretty good: I produced only one small trash can of garbage. On New Year’s day 2010 I brought the garbage out to the street. When I was back inside, I put another bag in the garbage can and thought to myself, “let’s see if I can beat 4 months!” Well four months passed and the can was only 1/3 full, so I challenged myself to go an entire year without producing more than one can of trash.

I challenged myself to go an entire year without producing more than one can of trash

I mentioned my progress to some of my friends and they were impressed! But, I didn’t think much of it because it was just what I was doing, and had been doing in my lifestyle. But it did tell me that I was doing something interesting, and it was something I should be paying attention to more. I started cleaning my soft plastics, the ones with oil or fat on them, such as tofu packaging. I don’t eat much meat, so the lack of contaminated wrappers and meat trays made recycling much easier.

I also compost all my organics into my vegetable garden. This prevented my garbage from stinking. It does smell, but only like dust. At least every week I sweep my apartment and put the dust in my garbage. I told this to a friend of mine the other day and he said, “Why don’t you just put the dust in your compost?” I sat there and really had no good reason why I didn’t do that. That was the one new thing I learned that day.

recycling codes From around the 6 month mark, I really started to care about what I bought, brought home, and put in the garbage. When I shopped at the grocery store, I looked at the packaging and saw if what my food came in was easily recycled or not. I chose plastics with the recycling codes 2, 4, and 5. These are ‘healthy’ plastics (just say it, 2, 4, 5!) and if one was to look at the molecular structure of them, there are absolutely no bad chemicals that can leach, or affect you. Another point I should say is that my recycling amounts did go up significantly and this is one caveat to my story. Recycling is a good thing, but consuming less material in packaging and disposable items is king. Trying to buy only non-packaged foods makes the biggest contribution to reducing garbage. I bring a cloth bag for veggies at the grocery store, and then I take them out of the bag for the cashier. Cashiers have never complained, and I get a lot less soft plastics.

Recycling is a good thing, but consuming less material in packaging and disposable items is king

The second caveat of my story is that if I was out and bought something to eat or use, I wouldn’t bring it home. I would recycle it if it could be recycled, or if not throw it out. I made that decision because sometimes friends want to buy ice cream and those cups they come in are paper covered in wax. As a side note I have grown to really dislike mix materials, like cardboard or paper products with glue infused or metal or plastic with paint on it, how do you recycle these things!? Therefore, I just avoided them as best I could. I didn’t abuse this ability to throw things out, I don’t buy that much generally besides the necessities, and it wasn’t like I would go on a garbage making binge every Friday night! But I still felt bad doing it. lead tire weights One thing that I felt helped balance this out was I started to pick things up and properly dispose of those items that I knew weren’t going to be recycled and that were actually harmful to the environment. Examples are the occasional broken electronic, cell phone, or battery on the street, but the worst in my opinion that I started to pick up, are those lead tire balancing weights. Practically every tire has them and they are a large source of lead contamination in our ecosystems. They fall off tires, get ground down on the road and leach lead into our sewers and waterways, which eventually ends up in the seafood we eat. There is a reason we stopped using lead in gasoline and paint, it is toxic!

New Years 2011 marked my one year of reduced-waste living, and my little trashcan was only ¾ full, so of course I continued my challenge! Now at the end of July 2011, after 19 months I have one full can of garbage, and yes, I did press it down every once in a while. I made an announcement on Facebook that I will be throwing out my garbage and I received lots of support! But after such a long time and the factor of my laziness, I don’t really want to bring it out to the street yet. There’s still a bit more room! I am moving up to Prince George this September for a PhD, so I will probably do it then. But let’s lock this in for sure, 1 year and 7 months, just one small trashcan of garbage in my home.

Now at the end of July 2011, after 19 months I have one full can of garbage

I have no doubt that you can do this too, and even surpass my efforts. You can easily avoid a mountain of garbage by buying little or un-packaged items and choosing those products that are in recyclable packaging over those that are not. By being conscious of our actions, not just the quantity of garbage we produce, we have the ability to live better, feel less stress, save more money, and feel more empowered. We have the potential for an amazing future, starting now, and all we have to do is step up and make the effort.
Geoff DeRuiter
is currently pursuing a PhD in Bioenergy and Biocarbon Sequestration, Geoff is passionate about the outdoors and our environment. An expert on alternative energy and sustainability, he is always looking for new and innovative ways to reduce waste and increase every day efficiency.



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  • Truly an inspiring story to help the environmental issues that the whole world is facing now a days. Thanks a lot of taking the initiative to make a simple move to help solve the problem.

  • Heather

    This is very commendable, I like the idea of a cloth bag for veggies at the store! Oh, but hatters went "mad" from mercury poisening, not lead.

  • martjen

    Way to go Geoff. You are the kind of leader-by-example we need!

  • Geoff, you are a great inspiration to us all. I also love the movement of repurposing objects too that give things new life.

  • Lee Libro

    What an amazing feat! While we all attempt to reduce our waste, you’ve done this with aplomb! Your article pointed out so many other details to consider…like glue residue and wax in mix materials. I’ll agree that reducing consumption of these items is king, but recycling and reuse will always remain at the basis of resource efficiency. But in order to “Be The Change” we must indeed practice all three! Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

  • I've seen a reduction in my own curbside garbage due to recycling and composting but your feat is remarkable and astounding. We ALL have room for improvement. Many would be hard pressed to do in a month what you've done in a year, let alone 19 months! Thanks for the wake-up call!

  • Anna

    That is amazing!! Something to aspire too! I do have a question, what can you recycle? We can only recycle plastics #1 & #2.

    • Geoff de Ruiter

       Hi Anna! I didn’t realize there was a question in the comments to answer. I am really sorry. In Victoria we could recycle the majority of items, but not Expanded Styrofoam. I believe now there is one place that does, but that is a year later now. It is tough because some places only have limited facilities. I do sincerely believe that when you do buy limiting the un-recyclables will go a long way. Also you never really know what you can recycle unless you look around. Most large grocery stores will take back soft plastics, such as bags. Also the city may have special drop off recycling at the dump. If you live out of a large urban centre perhaps also save up and when you might be going to a city take it with you! 🙂 Best of luck and sorry again for not seeing your question.

  • gwen

    i did not know straws came under number 5 we use a lot in our house with a Asperger’s child. We have chickens and they get most of our left overs, we compost and use our recycle bin but after reading your story i know i do not do all that i can
    i will be challenging our house more.
    Thank you also for the list of numbers

  • Good for you! The simple fact that you are aware and trying to make a difference is what matters most. Thank you for your comment.

  • I have read that chicken feed, which is made of corn, is a really good substitute for litter, though I haven’t had the chance to try it yet. Also a lot cheaper than litter.

  • Jenni

    How can you tell which number a plastic is if it’s not marked? I have been trying to cut down drastically on my waste, which is about one bag per month – not counting my pet’s waste, which is another story. Once I have more space, I’ll be composting his waste and that won’t be an issue any longer.

    The main items I have in question are packaged inserts like saltine sleeves, and also plastic packs like hot dogs and items like that come in. Any idea what number those would be, or would I have to contact the manufacturer?

    Thanks for the article, it helped me to be more inspired to do what everyone else seems to think I’m crazy for doing!

    • There is usually a contact number on the package, in very fine print, where you can call for recycling information.
      Thanks for your comment.

  • Marianne Cowan

    Farm and Ranch stores should carry a compressed pine pellet for horse bedding that is exactly the same as Feline Pine cat litter – about $6 for 40 lbs. and can be used as mulch around flowers and trees when you change the box. You can also make your own ‘Yesterday’s New’s’ type litter using shredded newspaper that can be used around flowers and trees.

  • Marianne Cowan

    Love this! Our rural area recycling center won’t take some plastics, so I try to avoid those. By making shampoo bars and other items, there is less to recycle, too.
    You are a true inspiration!

  • Marianne Cowan

    Thankfully wheel weights are not made from lead anymore – now they’re zinc or a plastic coated steel. There was a recycling program for the lead weights, but many automotive shops did not participate. Sad.

  • Chelsea

    I just ordered my first worm composting bin, the kind with layers that you rotate from the bottom to the top. I have two indoor-only cats and use a corn-based litter. Can I put that in with my kitchen scraps to compost? If so, any tips I should know? If the only issue is that the resulting compost isn’t safe for edible plants, can I still put it on non-edible plants?

    • The urine in cat litter deters the worms, so your litter would need to be pre-treated in a bin using carbon based materials, then the whole works goes into the worm bin.
      Your idea to use the compost on inedible crops makes good sense.

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