Lessons from the trash challenge

An Apple Jacks box is among several items at Los Angeles County's Bradley Landfill that could have been recycled by the consumer who threw them in the trash.

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Tess Vigeland: OK -- as many of you many know, I've been carrying my trash around with me for the last two weeks. The point?
To illustrate the problems and joys of cutting down on consumption in our consumer-driven economy.

Wait -- did I say, "joys?"

Well, I've now officially run out of trash jokes. What started off as a fun gag literally found me gagging earlier this week. There was a chicken carcass in my trash bag, mingled with some Windex-soaked rags . . .

I'd give you more details, but I can't remember and I don't have it with me anymore. I tossed it on Day 10, Tuesday. Call me a gutless wonder. My work colleagues and husband call me savior.

Other folks joined me, and I wondered how they fared.

Beth Terry lives in Oakland. Looks like she's gonna make it -- she wisely limited the stinky stuff. In her bag: tape, a plastic wine cork, an unrecyclable cake container, cheese packaging, eye drop containers.

Beth Terry: It's teaching me to be very aware of not just of what I throw away, but what I purchase in the first place. And to think about the whole lifecycle of anything that I buy.

Vigeland: You do have to really make choices.

Terry: Right.

Vigeland: I have found that getting down to zero is practically impossible.

Terry: I think it probably is. But I don't know that I want to because some things are, you know, you've got to have some luxuries. I love cheese, and you can't buy cheese without plastic wrap on it.

In fact, there's a lot of stuff on the shelves out there that you can't buy without extraneous packaging.

Michelle Martinez of Stamford, Conn., found that the first few days of the challenge were tough. She had to remember to bring to work her own plates and cloth napkins from home. Her heaviest trash bag item? Catalogs. Her local sanitation district doesn't recycle them.

Michelle also caught a cold during the challenge -- hopefully not because of it -- and although she flushed her tissues, she is still carrying the wrappers from cough lozenges. Final lessons?

Michelle Martinez: Number one, appreciating the kind of convenience of the life that we have. But secondly, recognizing that the convenience isn't necessarily worth it. The realization that if I make small adjustments I can significantly reduce my trash. I do hope to keep it up in the long run.

So do I.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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