We are what we toss. Here’s how to create less trash and do the right thing with what’s left.
At the end of 2018, the Royal Statistical Society announced its International Statistic of the Year. (We didn’t know that was a thing, either.) The stat was 90.5%, which is the portion of all plastic waste that’s never been recycled—it works out to roughly 6.3 million metric tons.
In the US, we recycle just 9% of our plastic trash. (Nine percent!) And nearly all of the plastic that’s ever been created still exists in some form. Which isn’t too surprising when you consider that it takes a plastic bottle a cool 450 years to biodegrade.
We think now’s a good time for a trash crash course. What exactly are we throwing out? Where does it go? And what happens when it gets there?
• Trash 101
The trash you bag up and take out to the curb gets picked up by garbage trucks and dropped off at either a trash dump (which is open to the elements, the air, the ground beneath it and any local critters) or a landfill.
Landfills are complex: they have sealed foundations that keep contents from leeching into the ground, pumps that pull the toxic liquid trash runoff (leachate) into treatment pools, and pipes that funnel out the flammable methane gas that’s generated by the trash heap. When they eventually fill up, landfills are capped and sealed, covered with soil and grass, and become part of your scenery.
• Recycling 101
Curbside recycling consists of some combination of paper, steel, glass, aluminum and plastic. When your recycling gets picked up, it’s driven to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF), also known as a recycling plant. There, the recyclables are sorted either by machines or by hand, packaged up and sent back out to be repurposed.
This video does a good job of explaining what goes on inside MRFs:
How Recycling Works >
If you’d like a little more guidance on what exactly is or isn’t recyclable where you live—or you want to hear about our Recycle On Us program—you can get more details here.
Now that we know what happens to the trash we generate (as in, it never really goes away and is piling up like crazy) let’s think about the most painless ways we can make a little (or a lot) less of it.
The Atlantic rounded up all sorts of big ideas to manage trash on a global level, everything from charging people per trashed item to literally blasting spaceships full of garbage into the sun. We hope these tips are a little more accessible.
• Compost (The Easy Way)
You don’t have to start your own backyard compost pile to get in on this. There are programs popping up all over the country that offer compost pickup or drop-off, and they’ll do all of the dirty work for you. A search for “local compost service” should turn up nearby options. Some will even give you finished compost to use in your garden—win-win!
• BYO Anything
Grocery bags. Utensils. Cloth kitchen towels. Coffee mugs. Straws. Water bottles. There are countless opportunities for you to scale back on waste throughout your day just by having a reusable something at the ready. Use your favorite totes to pack up your grocery haul. Use a mug or a tumbler instead of paper or plastic cups for coffee and water. Stuck for a gift idea? Something reusable always works.
• Buy It Pre-Loved
You know where you can find those totes and mugs we mentioned a second ago? A thrift store. Buying used isn’t just economical, it keeps things out of landfills and cuts down on the packaging waste that tends to come with new purchases. (Plus, what’s cooler than a one-of-a-kind find?)
• Pack Your Lunch
You probably already know that you’re likely to shave off a few calories by packing a lunch instead of buying one, but you also cut back on wrappers, plastic clamshells, receipts and to-go bags when you bring your own. Even the cooking-averse can go trash-free with programs like Green To-Go and Go Box, which partner with local restaurants to offer reusable take-out containers to their members.
• Reimagine Reuse
Once you’ve reduced your trash, get creative about how to reuse what’s left—particularly the plastics, since we know that even if those leave your house, they’re not really going anywhere. Sort craft or office supplies in plastic yogurt cups, freeze leftovers in cleaned takeout containers, poke a hole in the lid of a water bottle and use it to slowly soak your plants while you’re on vacation. Think outside the bin.
How Burt’s Bees Handles Trash
There are nearly 300 people working in the Burt’s Bees home office, but not one of them has a desk trash can. Everyone totes their personal garbage to a trash station (there is at least one per floor) and sorted into one of five bins: compost; paper; plastic film; plastic, glass & aluminum; or waste-to-energy. (That last one is our “bin of last resort,” where any non-recyclable trash is burned to create steam energy. Only 18.5% of our total trash ends up there.)
Our employees volunteer to be on the Trash Team, and make sure trash gets sorted correctly. Company-wide emails praise the smart sorters and shame lazy lunch dumpers. We haven’t sent a single piece of trash to a landfill since 2010.
But that’s all for naught if we don’t close the loop and make sure that the products we create are as sustainable as possible. All of our products are recyclable curbside or through TerraCycle®, and there’s an average of 52% of post-consumer recycled content in our plastics (75% in our makeup compacts!) We also release annual Sustainability Reports to keep ourselves aware and accountable—you can find the latest here.
We’re certainly not perfect, but we’re trying. All we’re asking is that you try with us. How are you being a force for nature? Let us know how you’re working to cut down on waste at home, at work, and out in the world. We’re @BurtsBees on Instagram, and we’re following #ForceForNature all month long.