Trash Challenge: Into the Dustbin of History

Get out the tissues. (And don't forget to compost them.)

Today is the final day of our trash challenge. My bag and I parted ways on Tuesday. On Thursday it joined its neighborhood compatriots in John Wilucz's garbage truck. And I've gone three days without generating trash.

I'd love to show you another photo of my empty (new) bag... but it was used without my knowledge for other household purposes. Oops.

And so we reach the end. What have we learned?

Well first, let me share with you some thoughts from a couple of trash challenge participants. First up -- Beth Terry. I've mentioned and linked to her before. We spoke on Wednesday. Here's the interview:

And here's an interview with another trash challenge participant, Michelle Martinez:

And finally, some highlights from my own experience:

1.) This is an incredibly important issue to a lot of you. The response to the challenge went far beyond my expectations, both in the number of people who joined it, and in the number of you who were interested enough to respond to this online diary or through letters to Marketplace.

True, it's not exactly a scientific survey, but there's passion out there... along with a slew of creative ideas about how to fix the landfill problem. Politicians -- local and national -- should be paying attention.

2.) While it may be possible to get down to zero waste, it's not probable and it's certainly not easy, especially for any length of time. Some of the blame for that difficulty lies with those of us who keep buying all kinds of stuff that we don't need, so there's no incentive for retailers and manufacturers to cut back.

Some of the blame lies with those same manufacturers who wrap all our crap (pardon my French) in way too much packaging. Even if that packaging is recyclable, they're assuming people will recycle and are able to. We shouldn't have to do that work for them. There's just no reason why a one-inch square digital media card has to come in a plastic container fifteen times its size.

Of course there's plenty more blame to go around, but I'd say those are two big reasons why it's not easier to get to zero.

3.) When it comes to recycling, there should be national standards for what's available to citizens. It's mind-boggling that I can recycle something in Southern California that someone up north can't... and vice versa.

I know these things are decided by local governments and sanitation districts. And recycling is expensive. But there's got to be a solution to what really is an issue of inequality. People who don't have access to good (easy!) recycling programs are stuck sending everything to landfills.

4.) That creativity I mentioned above? Wow... amazing ideas. Take used cardboard and cereal boxes to the local school for art projects. Use a bokashi bucket. Or a Doggie Dooley. Some of these ways to cut down do cost money. A lot of them don't.

None of this is breathtakingly new. But hauling my trash around made me hyper-aware of my own consumption patterns. And it forced me to think outside the... bin. Maybe it did the same for you.

Be sure to tune into all the programs of American Public Media in November for a special project called "Consumed." We'll be airing an entire week's worth of stories and interviews about America's consumer culture and whether it's sustainable.

On Marketplace Money we'll be devoting our entire show the weekend of November 17th to the question "What's wrong with trash?" We'll have stories about our throwaway habits, how tough it is to "unplug" from the marketing machine, and I'll profile a group of folks in New York City who forage Prospect Park for plants and go dumpster-diving for perfectly-edible food along 3rd Avenue. We'll also talk about the decline of the fix-it-don't-buy-it culture, and we'll visit a plant in China that imports recyclable material from the U.S. and sends it back as packaging for our consumer goods. Tune in!

I hope you've enjoyed watching and playing along. Keep working at it... I know I will. And thanks to all for your comments, hints, and cheerleading! This has actually -- amazingly -- been fun.

Trash Vigeland... out.

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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