California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

Information for Coordinators of Waste Reduction and Recycling Programs

General Waste Prevention Articles

Is your garbage really garbage?

Goal: To help readers think about the waste they generate.

Is there something in your garbage that isn't really garbage?

Chances are, yes. Over half of what you put in the trash can be recycled, reused or transformed into new consumer products.

Waste prevention and recycling programs are expanding to help local governments comply with a state law requiring cities and counties to cut their garbage in half by the year 2000. Many cities have composting programs and curbside collection programs, but they need you to take another look at your trash. Are any other items that can be recycled in there? If so, it's time to sort them out.

Even yard waste--which makes up a huge part of California's waste stream--can be recycled right in your own backyard through the simple practices of grasscycling, mulching and composting. In addition to saving landfill space, you'll save on buying fertilizer for your yard.

If you put vegetable food scraps in the compost bin, you'll be surprised how little real garbage will end up in your garbage can.

For many of us, recycling has become a habit at home and at work. But for others, recycling and waste reduction has yet to catch on. To learn what you can recycle, call [insert local information].

Let's keep in mind why we're reducing waste and recycling. Not only do we need to conserve our natural resources, but our landfills are filling up fast. If we're not careful with what we throw away, California could run out of landfill space in the year 2005.

Here's one way to remind yourself of the task at hand and to help beat the clock.

Try thinking of your recycling bin as your ungarbage can; put everything in it that your area recycles. Better yet, consider yourself a generator of untrash. The best way to relieve the burden of solid waste management is never to create waste in the first place. And instead of thinking of your trash bin as an ordinary garbage can, consider it as your own little landfill. Don't forget that you'll need to cut the amount of garbage you stick in your landfill in half by the year 2000.

For other ways to recycle and reduce the amount of waste you send to your landfill, call [insert local information number].

The meaning and importance of waste prevention

Goal: To help readers understand and appreciate waste prevention.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This familiar saying was typically muttered by Mom after you caught a bad cold usually doing something foolish--like playing out in the rain without a warm jacket.

Later on in life, the same prevention motto held true. How many health problems would have hurt a lot less--both in physical and financial terms -- if we would have paid more attention to warning signs in the first place?

The fundamental virtue of prevention is a valuable lesson that applies to broader notions of public health and the environment, too. Preventing a problem is usually the cheapest way to go when it comes to protecting urban and rural environments. One of the best examples is taking personal responsibility for your own garbage.

Consider this: each Californian, on average, generates eight pounds of waste every day. According to CalRecycle, Californians are responsible for 44 million tons of garbage annually. Nationwide, the total is more like 200 million tons, more than a quarter of which is merely packaging, the No. 1 waste problem in America.

The recycling ethic has helped stem the flow of garbage into expensive landfills. But it is only a part of the solution to the waste management challenges facing California.

Recycling will always be a part of the strategy behind successful waste management efforts, but ultimately, its role should diminish over time. How can that be? Attribute it to the beauty of prevention.

Prevention in the waste management arena is commonly referred to as "source reduction." It's really a rather simple concept. Eliminate waste before it is created. Less waste means less of a waste management problem, less of a need for recycling. While recycling is an effective way to manage waste materials once they have been generated, waste prevention actually reduces the amount of material used in the first place.

At its core, waste prevention is the design, manufacture, purchase or use of materials to reduce the amount, or toxicity, of trash generated. If you don't create waste, nobody has to pay to store, collect or haul it to a landfill.

Waste prevention offers significant side benefits as well. It saves precious natural resources by encouraging more efficient use of raw material. And it reduces pollution associated with extraction of raw materials, manufacturing excess products, and waste disposal.

Waste prevention not only reduces the amount of stuff that needs to be recycled, it saves everyone involved money. It reduces waste disposal and handling costs because it avoids a whole series of expensive procedures, including municipal composting, landfilling or combustion in power plants or incinerators. This reduces need for government taxes. And consumers, such as yourself, save directly by buying only what you need, in bulk, with less packaging!

A law passed in 1989 established a statewide goal of reducing the state's waste stream by 50 percent by the end of this decade. Help do your part and try to reduce the waste generated in your home in half. It will take a supreme effort by all to meet this ambitious timetable.

The key to making waste prevention work in order to reach the 50 percent waste reduction goal are not government programs, but individuals. We are all used to doing things a certain way. Preventing waste means we have to make lifestyle changes: purchasing more durable products and rejecting items with individually wrapped or single-serving containers; repairing and reusing items we might have once thrown away.

When the cures involve million dollar investments in waste processing facilities, it seems to make a lot of cents to put stock into more than a few ounces of prevention.

Overview of waste prevention techniques

Goal: To provide readers with ideas on waste prevention practices they can use daily.

California, as well as the rest of the nation, is slowly coming to the realization that solid waste management is no longer an exercise in just finding new places to put trash. Even recycling, which transforms waste into new consumer products, is not enough to avert environmental and economic problems.

The overall amount of garbage produced in the first place has to shrink. It is that simple.

This straightforward realization, however, is not easily translated into the day-to-day operations of homes and businesses. The good news is that more and more individuals, and companies, have seen the light, and have committed to a comprehensive program of waste prevention -- sometimes called source reduction -- to limit the amount of garbage that ends up going to expensive landfills.

Opportunities for preventing waste present themselves on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour (yes, even minute-to-minute) basis. Here are some suggestions to be applied at home, while shopping, in your yard, or at work.

On the Home Front

Think twice before tossing. Can the item be reused for another purpose? Bags, containers, boxes and envelopes can often live many lives. After washing, for example, empty glass and plastic jars, milk jugs, coffee cans or dairy tubs can be used to store leftovers as well as buttons, nails or thumbtacks. If there is something you can no longer use, donate these items to friends and relatives or charitable organizations. If all else fails, hold a garage sale.

Rent, borrow or share things you use infrequently. These items could include everything from party decorations to audiovisual equipment to chain saws, rug cleaners or garden tillers. You should also consider repairing or maintaining items you already have, particularly large appliances and electronic equipment, large items which take up a lot of space if sent to a landfill.

One note of caution is in order. Do not reuse containers that originally held products such as motor oil or pesticides. Harmful residues can persist. And never store anything potentially harmful in containers designed for food or beverages. Always label containers and store them out of the reach of children and pets.

While Shopping

Since packaging is the leading source of waste in landfills, shoppers should always choose products with the least necessary wrapping. Keep in mind that as the amount of product in a container increases, the packaging waste per serving or use usually decreases.

Consider large or economy size containers for household products that are used frequently, items such as laundry soap or pet foods. Using concentrated products also reduces waste, as does bulk merchandise. Be sure to recognize and support store managers when they stock products with no or reduced packaging.

While waste prevention is typically thought of in terms of reducing the amount of materials going into the waste stream, another critical component is reducing waste toxicity. Many nontoxic alternatives have recently been put on store shelves. Reduced mercury batteries are one example.

In Your Backyard

Sometime using nontoxic alternatives yields fringe benefits. You could plant marigolds in your garden to ward off certain pests, an approach that not only limits the use of pesticides, but brightens up the day of anyone admiring your garden.

Here are some other tips for your backyard. Manage your yard so it creates less waste by "grasscycling" (leaving your grass clippings on the lawn), xeriscaping (planting slow-growing trees and shrubs that require less water and trimming), and mulching (the spreading of clippings and leaves around planted areas to keep down weeds and keep in moisture).

You could also compost yard trimmings and kitchen scraps, start a backyard compost pile or a worm bin to convert food waste into a high quality soil amendment.

At Work

Bring a mug to work for your coffee or tea, a simple act that could save pounds and pounds of paper, styrofoam and plastic waste over the course of a job.

Persuade purchasing departments to choose reusable products, such as recharged cartridges, for laser printers. Apply many of the techniques used at home at work. Also, include the following waste prevention techniques: work with suppliers to minimize the amount of packaging used and to return shipping materials such as crates, cartons and pallets for reuse; use high quality, long-lasting supplies and equipment that can be repaired easily; use supplies and materials for efficiency. For example, switching to double-sided photocopying can cut paper costs by 10 to 40 percent. Reduce hazardous waste by finding out which products in your graphics and maintenance departments -- inks, solvents or glue--are available with fewer toxic constituents. Ask suppliers about water-based (rather than oil- or solvent-based) products.

If management questions the value of waste prevention, explain to them it makes economic sense. For example, tell them about how about how Fetzer Vineyards of Redwood Valley reduced its waste by 86 percent between 1991 and 1994, saving more than $50,000 in disposal fees. Or tell management about the Hyatt at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, whose waste reduction efforts include donations of used linens and uniforms to the homeless. Total disposal fee savings from their waste reduction recycling programs: $26,000. Or try IBM's Storage Systems Division in San Jose, where innovative environmental packaging has saved more than $4.7 million! And, last, but certainly not least, the AMI South Bay Hospital in Redondo Beach, which has cut its waste disposal tonnage by 50 percent, with cost savings already topping $100,000 since program inception.

Schools: laboratories of waste prevention

Goal: To provide readers with general information on school waste prevention.

One of the most effective ways to reduce the mounds of trash generated in California every single day is to educate kids about the value of waste prevention. Children soon discover that saving our environment can be fun and rewarding and can generate more than a few nickels and dimes.

Not only do such efforts help local governments meet waste diversion goals, but our schools represent the best opportunity to make lasting changes in individual habits and our "throw away" culture. Educating the next generation of parents and adults about simple waste prevention can make the job of reducing garbage in the waste stream far easier in the future.

One of the most preventable sources of waste at schools occurs in the classroom. The large volume of paper used by the more than 5.2 million public school children in California can significantly contribute to the waste stream. Simple practices of waste prevention, however, can bring these volumes down considerably. For example, students should be encouraged to submit homework on the back side of used paper. Handouts should be printed on both sides, and teachers can maximize the use of overhead projectors and the blackboards to minimize the use of xeroxed information. Through simple practices of waste prevention, students are learning about resource conservation, AND are practicing what they learn by participating in a simple, but effective, waster reduction program.

What are other, less noticeable sources of waste generated at school-sites? What can schools do to reduce the generation of these materials?

In 1994, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) launched an investigation to find out what was going on in California schools in order to develop model programs for the entire state. The CalRecycle survey of K-12 schools revealed that quite a bit of prevention and recycling activity was occurring, but such efforts were scattered here and there. There was little coordination and most efforts were not comprehensive, but rather stimulated by a few thoughtful and forward-looking individuals. If children were going to make a big impact in the fight against unnecessary waste, however, entire school districts would have to be involved.

The CalRecycle then selected a variety of school districts throughout the state to serve as pilot programs to quantify benefits in terms of reducing waste flows to local landfills and saving schools money. To give you an idea of waste prevention techniques schools are implementing, here are a few waste prevention success stories:

  • The Richmond School District, which educates 31,000 kids in Contra Costa County near Oakland, saved $30,000 in waste hauler fees because of reduced garbage volumes in cafeterias. Student "Green Teams" monitoring the collection of recyclables at lunch has reduced lunch waste by 75 percent!
  • Oak Hills Elementary School in Ventura County has set a goal of zero waste generation, also focusing on lunch and snack activities, and modeled after a program being carried out at all six schools located within the Sacramento area's Oak Park Unified School District. Here are the fundamental rules of the program: student lunches and snacks only use reusable containers; no paper napkins or nonreusable packaging are allowed; all drinks must be in reusable or recyclable containers (no glass); nothing is thrown away. The five hundred students now only fill one 55-gallon can of trash during lunch. Previously, the same students filled eight of these cans.
  • The rural Palo Verde Unified School District, located in the Mojave Desert, has joined up with the City of Blythe, a prison and a waste hauler to divert well over three tons of milk and juice boxes and more than forty cubic yards of cardboard from local landfills. All the proceeds from sales of recycled cardboard goes to fund the prison, where laborers sort and bale the material for reuse.
  • The Laytonville Unified School District in Mendocino County has discovered that worms can be enlisted in the fight to curb waste. In 1993, the school district diverted 14,000 pounds of waste through its composting and recycling efforts. Lunch waste, including nonprotein food waste and paper bags, is taken to worm bins located in the school garden. The worms, and other waste reduction activities, have reduced the school's garbage by 60 to 80 percent.

Based upon these, and other success stories, the CalRecycle has developed two guides to help schools reduce waste and save money. Seeing Green Through Waste Prevention provides valuable insights in how to perform waste composition surveys, waste prevention activities and cost analysis procedures to help set up a comprehensive waste reduction program. A Districtwide Approach to Recycling includes case studies that document the economic benefits of districtwide programs and provides detailed information on how to promote district-wide recycling.

Both guides are available by calling the CalRecycle's schools section at (916) 341-6761.

The facts of waste prevention versus recycling

Goal: To encourage readers to think beyond recycling and practice waste prevention.

Practices such as recycling have helped reduce the amount of waste going to landfills.

But a more effective and pervasive strategy to lessen the burden of piles of garbage on local governments is waste prevention. Since 1973, twice as much waste has been diverted from landfills through waste prevention techniques, such as packaging changes and product design, as from recycling, according to the Global Futures Foundation, a nonprofit research group. California businesses have saved millions from waste prevention in 1995 alone. Business benefits from waste prevention efforts as they typically have higher returns on investment than recycling activities--sometimes as high as 3,300 percent!

Waste prevention is a terrific way to create jobs, reduce costs of doing business and provide great local economic development opportunities.

Local governments up and down the State need to comply with state laws that require 50 percent of the waste generated in their communities to be diverted away from landfills by the year 2000. While recycling will play a large role, waste prevention is the cornerstone of the state's strategy to reduce amounts of waste flowing to dozens of landfills that could reach capacity by the end of this decade.

Everyone has heard the saying "Reduce. Reuse. Recycle." Waste prevention deals with reducing and reusing, and these are preferred because they require fewer resources--they are at the top of the waste management "hierarchy."

Reducing is the most basic solution to today's garbage glut: less waste means less of a waste problem.

Reuse means obtaining several uses from a product. Extending the life of a product, whether its an old sweat shirt or a piece of furniture, reduces the overall rate of waste generation.

Recycling is at the bottom of the hierarchy since it addresses material that has already entered the waste stream. Recycling is actually just the beginning of the recovery process; it takes energy, resources and money to convert materials into a new product. After recycling, we must "close the loop." Manufacturers need to make products from these recovered materials and consumers then need to buy them (i.e. buy recycled). If there are no end uses for the recyclable materials Californians collect, those materials could still end up in a landfill.

Both waste prevention and recycling are critical strategies that need to be embraced by all of us (citizens and businesses) in order for California to meet its waste management goals.

To make progress on the waste prevention front, we should consider the following goals:

  • Make an ongoing commitment to no net reduction in landfill capacity
  • Conduct waste audits at 80 percent of community businesses by 2005
  • Reduce commercial and industrial waste 2 percent annually

When all production, shipping and disposal costs are factored in, waste prevention will save more money than recycling. Think about what you can do to prevent the amount of waste you recycle or throw away.

The A,B,C's of waste prevention activism

Goal: To encourage readers to take actions to prevent waste.

Activism can take many forms.

Most people think of environmental activism as something someone does in their spare time. It entails tasks such as going to a few meetings (maybe even a protest), writing some letters or perhaps making a few phone calls.

Being a waste prevention activist, however, can really be a full-time job and a state of mind. Whether you spend most of your time at home or at work, the best waste prevention activist knows how to be effective without annoying other people.

For instance, many of our old habits are the result of advice from family and friends. You'd be surprised how many of these decisions would be different if you had all of the facts about how much waste you produce everyday.

While each decision may seem to have a small impact on the amount of material that you throw away, there are accumulative effects. Each Californian, on average, leaves a legacy of over 90,000 pounds of garbage! With this disturbing fact in mind, let's see how each and every state citizen can become a waste prevention activist.

If one were to hand out report cards to waste prevention activists, here's the type of activities one would expect from the top, average and bottom waste prevention activist students.

An "A" activist would live a near waste-free life at home and at work.

All forms of waste at home would be tightly managed.

For example, you would have written the Direct Marketing Association (P.O. Box 9008, Farmington, NY 11735-9008) and reduced your junk mail to almost a trickle. All paper -- mixed mail scraps, magazine, newspaper and cardboard -- would regularly be sorted and recycled.

When shopping, you would bring your own bags (or boxes), choose only products with recycled content packaging (or no packaging at all) and purchased in bulk, but only in amounts that you would realistically use. As a gardener, you would only plant drought tolerant native plants that require little pruning, would grasscycle your lawn and mulch or compost your green waste. To persuade your neighbors, you would set an example. And you would bring up the reasons for some of your yard and home projects in simple conversations.

You would also set an example at work and try to convince fellow employees to develop companywide programs. Developing a proposal for top management, based on long-term economic savings for the firm, would be a priority. You would also write to manufacturers of products you like, but which feature excessive packaging, to ask them to reduce waste in their product packaging.

A "B" activist would focus on durable, repairable products when shopping, but still might stop at a fast food restaurant and help fill the nearby waste container with packaging waste. Nevertheless, you often purchase products in refillable or reusable containers.

You like junk mail. But you spend hours every week carefully sorting the paper heaps into appropriate white, mixed and magazine stock holders that are then donated to a local charity for recycling.

You love that old-fashioned lawn, but are careful to limit the use of fertilizers and pesticides to limit growth spurts and corresponding increases in green waste. And you've started a compost pile, (but still dump lawn clippings on the street.)

Though you are careful to limit waste production at work, you haven't quite figured out how to tell your coworkers about ways they could improve their less-than-stellar performance in reducing waste.

As a "C" activist you would, at least, be thinking about the amount of waste generated in your household. On the plus side, you can say you repair and maintain the equipment you have and rent, borrow or share things that you use infrequently. On top of that, you often buy safe substitutes for harsh chemical products that are difficult to dispose.

You still like to stick all of your produce in disposable bags and--worse yet--you still buy individually wrapped cheese slices for your kids (because that's the only kind they say they like). On the other hand, you once asked the local store manager if he could carry more products that create less waste.

A "D" waste prevention activist recycles beer cans and just started sorting the bottles too. But glass containers that cannot be redeemed are tossed in the trash. Every once in a while, you think about all the junk that flows into the waste cans, but its never really changes your purchasing habits or motivates you to reform the habits of family members or dudes at school.

An "F" activist is rally not an activist at all because this person makes no effort to reduce, reuse or recycle.

Putting the practice of waste prevention into practice will require some lifestyle changes, particularly for those whose current efforts might merit a D or F grade. But changing habits doesn't mean life will be more difficult. Quite the contrary. A few simple changes can start you on your way. Besides, if we don't reduce waste, the economic and social costs of waste disposal will continue to skyrocket and all communities--large and small, urban and rural--will face increasingly harder decisions about managing their trash.

As a waste prevention activist, you should also know that the federal government develops and provides information about this important issue and is working to create incentives to reduce waste. Likewise, state government does much the same. For example, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) has a Waste Prevention Information Exchange that provides information online such as factsheets, clip art and other articles that you can modify for your particular situation to help you start a waste reduction program at work. CalRecycle also sponsors the Waste Reduction Awards Program (WRAP) every year to recognize California businesses for outstanding efforts to reduce nonhazardous waste generation. Successful firms receive an award and are allowed to use the WRAP logo on products, advertising and promotional materials.

As an employee or businessperson, remember that the workplace is a critical site for waste prevention activities. Whether initiating a paper reduction campaign or convincing upper management to participate in the California Materials Exchange, a program administered by CalRecycle, sharpen up on your presentation skills. Don't be afraid to let those creative juices flow. Highlight some startling facts to grab people's attention: Californians generate enough waste per year to cover the entire city of San Francisco with over two feet of compacted garbage. Talk to people one-on-one. Be careful not to make neighbors uncomfortable about activities that generate too much waste. Just gently let them know there is a better way.

The bottom line on being a waste prevention activist is teaching by example. And bragging about the results. Let everyone know how much money you've saved, and waste prevention just could become contagious!

Sustainability = consuming and purchasing less

Goal: To encourage readers to rethink their purchasing practices.

Why do we throw away plastic containers and not our socks?

Both only need to be washed to be reused.

If you want to know the truth, a plastic food container is even more durable and long-lasting than the typical pair of socks, and can easily be used to store leftovers. But for some reason, we think of socks as reusable. Plastic containers are something to throw away.

Marketing experts have sold America on the concept of "convenience" which emphasizes consumption. (That's why socks win over the plastic container.) The more we have to buy something, the more products companies sell. We've been conditioned to believe that more, bigger and newer is always better and more convenient.

Yet making more informed choices about everyday activities such as food shopping or lawn care, (or the decision to reuse a plastic container) can make modern lifestyles more sustainable.

If one looks up the word "sustain" in the dictionary, the most common meanings are "to keep in existence, keep up, maintain or prolong" or "to provide for the support of, as in sustenance or nourishment." These definitions obviously have wide applications.

The fundamental concept of "sustainability" often becomes blurred when used in the context of being environmentally responsible. When it comes to the topic of waste management, however, "sustainability" can be measured in terms of consuming and purchasing habits.

Stop and think about it for a minute. Everything we buy is made from some material resource. Plastic is made from oil, aluminum comes from bauxite ore, paper is made primarily from trees. All materials are important and valuable, whether we think of them as containers or products, disposable or reusable.

Our consumption patterns form the basis of our perceived purchasing needs. Consuming the largest amount of water, electric, gas, or any type of resource, however, is an unsustainable practice. So are shopping habits linked to excessive or unnecessary purchases. Less consumption--not more--should be the overriding rule behind shopping.

Your purchasing decisions, after all, are the culmination of a series of events. Choosing products offered by firms using less packaging, reduced hazardous waste volumes, or those which use more environmentally benign constituents, rewards sustainable practices. Not buying products from firms that use excessive packaging or that contain ingredients with large air, water or soil impacts provides an incentive for companies to reform their businesses.

Perhaps the ultimate trick to conserving natural resources is perceptual. Let's compare time actually saved, and lost resources, to the true cost of those spare moments of convenience.

Americans, for example, throw away six billion disposable pens every year. All those pens take a big toll on our landfills, use precious oil in manufacturing the plastic, and consume energy for production. Don't forget to add the dollar out of pocket for the new pen. Now, how much time have we saved by getting a new pen out of a box rather than screwing a refill into a reusable one? Is the expenditure of resources worth the promoted convenience? And is it really less convenient to put our reusable plastic food containers in the dishwasher than to put our socks in the washing machine?

To conserve our natural resources, and live a more sustainable lifestyle, we need to a high value on all resource materials. We also need to keep a sharp eye open at the store so we aren't fooled by so-called convenience products.

The notion of sustainability takes into account a series of resource decisions. Your consumption, and corresponding purchases, carry environmental price tags. The closer to zero you can get the final tally, the more sustainable your shopping and lifestyle.

It's landfull for California landfills

Goal: To provide readers with a general understanding of landfill problems and why it's necessary to practice waste reduction.

Even with the good job Californians are doing of recycling, this state's landfills are filling up fast. Why should you be concerned? Because the age-old laws of supply and demand apply to garbage disposal, too. The less landfill space available, the higher the disposal cost.

On top of that, new landfills are much more costly than the older ones they replace.

As of 1990, about half of the counties in California had less than 15 years of landfill space remaining. These counties, unfortunately, represent 70 percent of the state's population. And California's population--now close to 33 million--keeps growing.

Would you like to live next door to a landfill? Few people would, and that's why finding new space for solid waste is a challenging task. Siting a new landfill can take as many as 14 years; expanding an existing one can take as many as eight years.

Fortunately, there is something positive that every Californian can do. If you, and your neighbors, help reduce the amount of garbage you generate, we can help keep our disposal bills, and our number of landfills, low at the same time.

State law requires that all cities and counties cut their amount of garbage going to landfills in half by the year 2000. And that law is why we encourage you to reduce and reuse, then recycle and buy recycled. The fact is, over 75 percent of what we throw away can be reduced, reused or recycled. And it's easier than you think.

You can significantly reduce your garbage by selecting products with the least amount of packaging, buying items in bulk, and buying products that can be used over and over again. Disposable products, while convenient, waste resources.

Another way to reduce waste is to address green waste. Keep in mind that leaves and grass clippings account for one-fifth of our garbage and take up a lot of space in our landfills. By mulching or composting your yard waste, you can make a big dent in your garbage and get a batch of home-made soil amendment at the same time.

For tips on reducing the amount of garbage you send to the landfill, call [insert local number] or CalRecycle at 1-800-CA-WASTE.

Last updated: August 20, 2012
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