Urban Trash: Why and How to Minimize Your Garbage- Part 1, by KS

“Political upheaval. Threats of nuclear war. Violent protests. Imminent economic collapse. And you think it’s important to talk about sorting my trash? Let’s get real. I’ve got bigger things to deal with, and I don’t have time to go all eco-friendly here.”

Sound familiar? Sound like… you, maybe? I get it. I really do. Why spend time doing hippy-dippy stuff, like reducing, reusing, and recycling when you could be going to the range, running tactical drills, deep-stocking your pantry, or armoring your BOV? Well, you need money for ammo, armor, food supplies, firearms, and medical gear, right? And unless you’re one of the fortunate few, I’d imagine cash is in short supply. You could always use more, especially when you find some .22 on the shelf or a great Mountain House sale. I’m here to give you an opportunity to learn how to save your money for what really counts by minimizing what you throw away and by maximizing what you find for free.

This mindset– the mindset of scrounging up what you can so that you can save money for stuff that’s harder to find– is best summed up in the questions that often I ask myself as I wash sandwich bags at the sink: “Would I rather spend my money on ziploc bags or on ammo, on aluminum foil or antibiotics, on new clothes or body armor?” It’s a mindset of creativity, of thinking outside the box, of being okay with not having the nicest stuff, all for a bigger payoff down the road.

So, I invite you to learn about how you can dumpster-dive your very own trash as a way to save money for what counts. We’ll go through eight home waste diversion strategies, discovering what you can reclaim instead of buying. Note that any equipment or tools I mention as ways to minimize your garbage are things I’m assuming you can hunt down for free, so if I write something like “get two plastic buckets with lids”, don’t go out and buy them right away! Start building your urban forage skills and see what you can find for free. Of course, some items are tougher to score than others. (I haven’t found any Gamma lids, junk silver, or coconut oil in seven solid years of dumpster diving.) However, with a little time and practice, you’ll be able to rustle up almost anything you need. (I’ve landed a homebrew setup, cold beer, cash, work boots, and much, much more).

Let’s go through eight main home garbage diversion tactics step by step, and you’ll learn what you can salvage for free.

Don’t Buy, Replace With

Okay, actually, it’s nine different tactics, but this one is just “don’t use”. You can minimize your trash – and cash outlay – by stopping buying certain items, and sometimes substituting for items you already have or already need to buy. I’ll list out some suggested “Don’t Buy” items and offer “Replace With” possibilities. Of course, if you happen to score a sweet Tupperware find or new toothpaste while dumpster diving by all means take them home! Just don’t think you always need to spend money on those things. Every home and family is different though. You may have other “Don’t Buy” priorities than I’ve suggested, and that’s fine. Do what actually works for you. I’ve survived all of the following first things I stopped buying and replaced with the latter:

  • Tupperware – plastic food containers from food you already bought (Yogurt containers are great.)
  • Toothpaste, deodorant, toilet/bathtub/sink cleaner – baking soda
  • Plastic wrap – foil that you wash and reuse, or just put leftovers in old plastic containers or glass jars
  • Wrapping paper – have the kids decorate newspapers or paper grocery bags
  • Clothes – except underwear and maybe socks, try just wearing what you find for free. Wash with hot water and maybe a little bleach before wearing
  • Rags – use free clothes that you don’t end up wearing
  • Furniture – ask friends/neighbors, build out of scrap lumber, find for free
  • Plates, cups, silverware – old glass jars hold drinks just fine, and check garage sale sites the day after a sale to see if unsold dinnerware has been left out for free, or eat out of a pie tin. If you’re serious about saving money on plates, just find something flat-ish and not flimsy. Carve a spoon if you can’t score a free one.
  • Trash can – cardboard box with some tape for reinforcement
  • Trash bags – if your trash can is small enough, use plastic bags from the grocery store
  • Home decorations – drape nice old tea towels or fabric over shelves and tables, put flowers from the yard in old glass jars, have the kids draw stuff for picture frames you make or find for free, decoratively arrange rocks and seashells from the beach
  • Craft supplies – junk mail, toilet paper tubes, catalogs, old bits of string/yarn/fabric scraps
  • Water bottles – wash and reuse old sports drink bottles that don’t have bottle deposit value

Eight Home Waste Diversion Strategies

1. Reuse

You probably already do this to some extent (ever written your grocery list on the back of an envelope?), and now you can think about expanding the scope of the items you reuse. There’s some overlap with the “Don’t Buy” category, too. Start reconsidering how you could reuse items that you’ve just thrown out up until now. Socks have holes in them? Patch with part of another sock, sew into a stuffed animal for a young kid, or put in the rag bin. Knees busted out on your jeans? Similarly, patch with parts from a worse pair of jeans, sew into a grocery bag, or send to the rag pile. Newspaper can be used as wrapping paper, scratch paper, kindling, garden mulch/weed suppressant, and craft material. Wash out glass food containers and lids. (A good soaking can help remove the label.) Then use them as food gift containers, dry food storage, vases, or drinking glasses. In fact, refer to “Don’t Buy” for more similar ideas. You can take it to the next level with some of the following reuse suggestions of items and what they can be used for:

  • Metal cans – cut off both ends, flatten, use as shingles (if not scrapping – see #4)
  • Coffee bags – open to flat rectangle, use as shingles (did this for a broody buster we had to build really quickly)
  • Junk mail envelopes – can cut to uniform size and store neatly as scratch paper
  • Peanut butter jars– wash and use for sourdough starters
  • Toilet paper tubes – cut in half and fold into seed starting containers
  • Plastic grocery store bags – store homemade bread, line trash cans, carry lunch to work

  2. Re-eat

Okay, this might take the biggest mindset shift, but you’ll see some quick results. Imagine your kitchen after getting dinner ready. You’ve got the cutting board out with some onion ends, and you’re sauteeing the onion up for soup. You trimmed the fat off the chicken, and it’s just sitting with the onion peels, waiting for you to throw it away. Fruit salad was on the menu, so you’ve got leftover apple cores and pear tops. And the heel of the bread you’re serving went stale, so that’s gotta go. It’s a typical kitchen scene, huh? Many folks would sweep all this “trash” into the garbage because that’s where it belongs, right? Maybe a few people would compost the fruit bits. I think you can use it all again for your food.

If the leftover bread has gone moldy, though, I’d probably compost it. I guess you could try feeding it to chickens, but that might make them sick. If the bread is just dry and old, crumble or process it into bread crumbs, store in a labeled container in the freezer, and use for meatloaf, breading meat, or turning into a quiche crumb crust. You can use other bread-type bits that way, too. Save potato chip, tortilla chip, and cracker crumbs for really good quiche crusts. I think we had matzoh crumb meatloaf once, too.

One of the best ways to cut your food waste and save money is to start making your own soup stock. Get some sort of big plastic bag or container (old yogurt containers or bread bags work pretty well), label it “soup stock stuff– pork” or “chicken” or whatever, and start filling it with veggie and meat trimmings, bones, onion peels, et cetera. If you really don’t want jalapeno in there, go to waste stream #3 (compost). Store your bag in the freezer, and add scraps to it as you generate them. Basically build the stock to your taste, get a half gallon of trimmings or so, dump the bag in a big stock pot, cover with water, and cook all day. Toss in a bay leaf, too. Do other stuff around the house while your stock simmers. When the stock is done and strained, you could probably pressure can it, or if you don’t have a pressure canner, let the stock cool, pour it into containers. (I like plastic yogurt containers because they won’t break in the freezer if you overfill them). Then, label the container with the date and contents, and store in the freezer. Plan ahead a day or two to thaw a container for making beans. The cost for a few quarts of stock? Nothing. Compare that to the grocery store. What to do with the now-cooked stock scraps? My vote is compost.

Start with these few examples for thinking creatively (and extremely!) about food re-use, and you can start cutting your daily-consumption food budget even more. Maybe eating banana bread made out of stale muffin crumbs and dumpster-dive brown bananas doesn’t sound great, but with practice (and the right spices), you’ll get the hang of turning “trash” into taste. And remember, the money you save on food is money you can divert to items that are more difficult to find or make for free, like ammo armor, or antibiotics.