The most sustainable person I’ve ever known had to be my grandmother, and I write this in honor of her birthday which was today, May 2nd. She reused every plastic bag at least three times, never had a leftover go to waste, meticulously cleaned every square inch of her home with non-toxic cleaning agents such as vinegar and water (she was allergic to anything that wasn’t made with the purest ingredients), detested unnecessary clutter, and lived to the ripe old age of 92 and ornery as ever right up to the end. Her mantra was “Waste not, want not”, which of course drove me nuts when I was tasked with rinsing out a plastic bag for reuse while trying to think of any other 8 year old that had to perform such menial labor to save a d-i-s-p-o-s-a-b-l-e bag!
My grandmother has been gone over a decade now, but I hear her mantra in my head every time I think about the volume of products we consume and waste every day without giving it a second thought. We the people are the walking waste streams of the world. We consume, we waste, we consume more and we waste more. When does it ever end?
According to the United States Green Building Council’s recent statistics, employees on average generate 1.6 pounds of waste per day, and multiply that by the average work year of 260 days, we are now talking about 416 lbs of waste per year, per employee. In an office with 20 people, that translates to over 5 and one half tons of waste per year. And that’s just one small office! What about in general? According to the Solid Waste District in La Porte Indiana, people in the United States on average generate 4.4 lbs of waste per day and in total, we produced some 229 million tons of waste in 2001 which continues to increase each year in direct proportion with population increases. So what can we do?
The natural world has provided us the perfect model for living a sustainable life and running a sustainable business… there is no waste. None! In nature, even what we humans consider to be waste has a purpose. One great way to start down the road toward sustainability, either personal or in business, is to do a waste stream audit. If you are wondering where to find opportunities to save, look no further than your garbage can. You’ll be amazed at the opportunities that can be identified by finding out what your sources of waste are. So slide into your favorite pair of reusable gloves and dive in!
Once you’ve identified and quantified your sources of waste then you’ve got to think outside the can! Brainstorm about ways to divert the disposed products by asking questions like: Is there something else this can be used for; by me, or by someone else? Can this be recycled? Do I need to have this in my waste stream at all, or can I avoid purchasing this material altogether? If I choose to purchase a certain type of product, is there another that is biodegradable or comes with less packaging, or even better, biodegradable packaging? If I buy in bulk will that cut down on my waste to the landfill?
You’d be amazed what you can learn about yourself, your family, and your company by knowing what you waste. Take the time to understand your own trends of consumption and disposal and make adjustments accordingly, you may just save a few dollars in the process of saving the planet. I encourage you to take your time doing the waste audit and sort through the messy bits too, as another one of my Grandmother’s old adages comes to mind…”Haste makes waste”!