Waste Whack-a-Mole

trash cansToday is garbage day in my neighborhood, and like most people in California and probably most of the U.S. if not the world, our trash is neatly segregated into green, blue, and gray containers for pickup – yard waste, recyclables, and general non-recyclable trash. Actually a fourth if you count the food scrap container that we all received a year or so ago, with the scraps simply dumped into the green bin on garbage day.

We’re a pretty waste-conscious county.  Way back in 1982 we became one of the first to ban drive-through restaurants to save gas and reduce air pollution from idling cars, then in 1990 we became the first to ban smoking in all indoor public areas, and in 2012 we became the first to ban plastic bags – which was followed by all of California voting to ban them last November.  Over-regulated overreach?  Perhaps.  But you know what?  It was surprising how fast – literally a couple weeks – the roads became noticeably cleaner with fewer bags, and all the stuff that’s often in bags, blowing around.  You easily get used to bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store or simply holding takeout containers, and the only pain is if you’re behind unknowing tourists in the checkout line.

Back to the trash cans.  In our case we already try to recycle quite a bit, so we’ve opted for the medium size gray can with a large blue can.  Earlier this year my wife and I, with no kids and frequently eating out, noticed that our neighbors even with kids had the small size gray can, and a medium blue can.  How did they do that?  How could they have both less general trash and less recycling than us?  We started to pay closer attention to what was put in both trash cans.

Amazon Prime became an immediate culprit.  We’ve become very used to ordering pretty much everything on Amazon, with near daily deliveries… each in an often oversized cardboard box.  I dutifully break them down for recycling, but they still fill the blue bin pretty fast – leaving just enough room for all the other used food containers, newspapers, and such.  What waste.  So instead we’ve started to look at buying local again, especially floor models that are already unboxed (I guess there’s still a box somewhere though?).

Speaking of newspapers… and magazines and junk mail.  I’ve recently cancelled my remaining hard copy newspapers and magazines, and now read everything on my iPad.  I’ve done this for years with the morning Wall Street Journal, so that change wasn’t difficult.  Bills are all electronic as well.  Junk mail?  That is harder.  I have had good luck with the PaperKarma app, where you take a photo of the address label on junk mail and it tries to remove you from whatever mailing list it was part of.  This has worked very well for catalogs and such, but general flyers and coupons are still a problem.  An improvement though.

Our analysis showed another source of both recyclable and non-recyclable trash was food containers.  So in restaurants we started splitting meals so we wouldn’t have extra to bring home.  We also buy more food from our local farmers markets where we can put the produce directly into our reusable bag instead of buying it in containers that have to be thrown away.  We’ve also worked hard at just buying the food we need for a couple days, thereby fresh and often without containers, instead of stocking up and filling the pantry with cans and containers that will eventually be thrown out.

There’s a lot more, but you get the picture.  We’ve been able to significantly reduce our overall waste each week, and we’re getting close to no longer being embarrassed by our neighbors.

The frustrating thing is that reducing waste often means you discover another layer of waste you didn’t know about, or it creates unexpected waste in another area.  Just like playing whack-a-mole.  Perhaps it’s analogous to the lean metaphor where the water level (inventory) is lowered thereby exposing more rocks (problems to be solved).

Perhaps it’s also analogous to the lean journey itself.  If you’re seriously on the journey you soon learn to recognize waste, value, and opportunities for improvement wherever you are – at work or even at home.  It can easily become an obsession.  The same with trash.  Reducing it became a challenge that tickled my OCD tendencies.  A quick search will identify many online forums (support groups?) for people with a similar focus that sometimes may go a bit over the edge.

Once you observe and analyze, you become aware and can understand.  Once you understand you can start to solve the problem.  Once you solve the first problem, another, deeper problem or opportunity often presents itself.  That’s the process of improvement – with trash or otherwise.