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Urban Trash: Why and How to Minimize Your Garbage- Part 2, by K.S.

3. Compost/Animal Food

Technically you could differentiate between these two, as some items that you can compost you shouldn’t feed to certain animals. So scrounge two plastic buckets [1] of a size you’ll actually use, carry, and empty, and make sure they have well-sealing lids since you’ll probably keep these in the kitchen. Then, label one Compost and the other Chicken Food (or whatever). Keep them under the sink or somewhere where you’ll actually use them. I’ve heard that compost “rules” have changed and you might be able to compost meat and dairy products now. I probably wouldn’t feed old meat or cheese to the chickens, but maybe you do, so just do what works for you and your animals.

You can probably re-eat a lot of the stuff you’d normally put right in the compost, so consider doing that first. Save old fruit peels for making fruit vinegars, but then compost them later. Apple cores and cuttings can be juiced into a rough sort of apple cider and then composted. Make some soup stock out of the onion skins and carrot ends before composting them. You get the idea.

4. Scrap Metal

You can still do this even if you’re in the city, though you may need to get creative about storing your stash. I don’t know of any metal that can’t be taken to your local scrap yard (readers may be able to chime in, though). Just make sure you sort by type beforehand. If you just put everything in one bin, you’ll lose out on high-dollar metals, like copper and brass, because as far as I’ve experienced you’ll get the dollar value of the lowest-value metal in your container. So, sort out the brass and copper! Also, don’t recycle your food cans, if you do decide to have a scrap pile, but do recycle bottle-deposit cans (see #7).

Post-garage sale free piles can be great sources for scrap. Look for bed frames, old flatware, kitchen items you don’t need (trays/bowls), broken appliances (for the copper coils in the motor), and especially house hardware. (I’ve scored pounds of brass doorknobs and fixtures this way.)

Make sure your scrap containers are solid, not slatted. Then you can toss in small metal bits like bent nails, soda can tabs, and bottle caps. Seem extreme? Yup, but every piece can count.

Wait until you have probably a hundred pounds or more of sorted scrap, and then take your first run to the scrap yard. You’ll get a feel for how much you need to bring in to make a certain amount of money. They should give you an itemized receipt with the weights of your sorted metals and the dollar value per unit (in pounds or tons, probably). Then you’ll be able to gauge how often you want to do a scrap run and how much stuff you should bring to make it worth your while. I think we used to go every six months or so. Follow the rules, be polite, don’t horse around, and don’t try to pull a fast one by hiding low-value metals in your high-value bins!

5. Burn

If you have any sort of backyard or back driveway, rustle up some concrete blocks, a big old stock pot, or a circle of rocks, and start a burn area. Also, start a paper “Burn Bag” in your kitchen. You’ll see major reductions in your landfill trash this way. Plus, you can get rid of personally identifying documents without needing to buy a shredder. I’d suggest diverting items like old bank paperwork to the burn bag, plus stuff you can’t necessarily recycle or compost, like greasy paper towels, dryer lint, old toothpicks and popsicle sticks, tin can labels, used matches, short bits of string, butter wrappers, paper food containers, and pizza boxes. Want to take it to the extreme? You can dispose of some bathroom trash this way (used kleenex, cotton swabs, and cardboard toilet paper rolls, for example). It’d probably be more sustainable, though, to sew some handkerchiefs out of found fabric.

If you want to maintain a little more OPSEC in the summer, just use your burn bag as kindling before a nice hot dog roast or barbecue. That way, if neighbors are curious about the smoke, you have a real reason to tell them, instead of letting on that you’re burning sensitive documents.

6. Free Pile/Donate

Can’t reuse, re-eat, compost, scrap, or burn it? Try donating it to a thrift store. There are none close by? If you’re in a moderate to high traffic area, and this fits with your neighborhood ethos (stay Grey Man), try a free box. The town we live in has a thriving “freeboxing” community, if you know where to look and what guidelines to follow. I’ll have more about how to maximize free stuff in my next article, but for now if you’re looking to give stuff away for free (so that you don’t have to pay to throw it away) here’s what to remember. First of all, your goal is to get rid of something, right? You need to make it easy and appealing for someone to take. Put your clearly labeled “free box” (cardboard is just fine) out on your curb or median grass strip. Don’t keep it on your porch or lawn or you might end up with folks taking your lawn furniture or items on your porch. Keep your free box clean and neat! It’s a big turn-off to find a free box that looks like it’s full of kitchen trash. If you want to get rid of items that thrift stores won’t take, like old plastic and glass food containers, wash them first! Stack them neatly and include lids. You’ll likely have more takers than if you treat your free box as a dumping ground. If you’re giving away clothes or fabric material, wash and fold them, then put them in the box. Keep an eye on your free box; if stuff gets tossed outside of it, take a minute to tidy it up. Put the box away in your garage or otherwise out of sight after a few days, so folks don’t start tossing their trash in it. You may or may not need to advertise (on Craigslist, etc) that you have a free box at your curb. If you feel ambitious, you can use scrap lumber to build a nice “free box” stand with a roof and clothes hanger bar, as some in our city have done.

7. Recycle

If you maximize “trash” flow to strategy streams 0 through 6, you may not need to pay for recycling service. See if you can swing that. Otherwise, if you end up with a lot of nonburnable, non-scrappable, inedible items (like glossy paper ads and some styrofoam materials), recycling may be for you. Though, before you shell out your cash on service, check out three other options. First, see if you can trade with a neighbor to utilize their recycling bin. Maybe if you take it to the curb and back in every week, they’ll let you toss in your stuff, especially if it’s not much. Second, ask your coworkers or your boss if you can bring your recycling to work. (Clearly, this option depends on your personal work circumstances.) Third, see if your town has any kids’ clubs, churches, or craft centers that need donations of art materials. Styrofoam meat trays, plastic yogurt cups, glossy ads, and foil wrappers (all clean!) could be a great help to that group.

Also, don’t scrap or send through recycling services anything that has a deposit! Look at the label or top on drink bottles and cans, and see if it lists your state abbreviation (i.e. “CA”) and then says something like “DEPOSIT” or “5 cents”. Save those items and take them to a bottle-deposit facility, grocery store, or mini-mart. If you take them to a person (as opposed to an automated machine), pre-count your items, politely let the clerk know how many you have (stay under daily limits), and then graciously recount them out in front of the clerk when requested. Don’t ever try to sneak in non-deposit items; or, if you’re new to this and accidentally put in a non-deposit can, be honest and apologize. Over time, the clerk will start to trust you and your count. Build that trust and don’t abuse it, and it’ll pay off in the long term. They often deal with a tough crowd, and your politeness and honesty will put you on their good side.

8. Trash

This should ideally be a last resort, but there are some things that you can’t do much else with. Feel free to offer your reuse ideas for empty ketchup packets, used dental floss [2], and broken light bulbs [3]! By now, though, your landfill-bound trash bag should be pretty small, as you’ve successfully learned how to divert the majority of the waste you generate to other streams.

Your trash at this point contains one last thing of value though. You now have an opportunity to analyze what you’re still tossing in order to determine how you can find, make, reuse, or trade for that item, instead of buying it and then throwing it away.

For example, maybe you’re still throwing away tea bags. Could you eliminate those from your trash? I think so. First, you’d have to decide whether or not you wanted to keep buying tea (#0). Maybe that’s a “Yes” for you, which is fine. Next, consider if you could reuse/re-eat this item (#1 and #2). Can you make one more cup of tea out of it before tossing the teabag? Then, if it’s really at the end of its lifespan, look at composting the organic matter (#3). Maybe your tea bags have that little staple, string, and tag. Feeling extreme? How about scrapping the staple (#4) and burning the string and tag (#5)? No more tea bags in the garbage!

And what if you’re throwing away juice boxes [4]? Maybe you’re ready to stop buying those (#0). Have you saved and juiced some apple cuttings (#2)? Great! Now you can put your homemade juice in reused plastic [5] or glass containers (#1) and feed the juiced-out apple bits to the chickens (#3).

So, you get the picture. While cutting down your trash might seem like a big endeavor, it will ultimately help you save money for the things that are much harder to get, while building a creative, out-of-the-box mindset in you that positions you for resourceful survival. To be honest, though, while we’ve done every single item on this list, it’s not always easy. You can cut yourself a break on that one late night when hand-washing a sandwich bag might send you over the edge. We’re all human, but don’t give up! Find another creative way to cut down your trash. I think you can do it. I know we did.