CO2 Smackdown, Step Nine: Reduce Waste

Waste may seem like a problem of landfill space or resource consumption, but the more we waste the more carbon emissions we produce and those amounts aren’t trivial. Most garbage is organic material, whether cardboard, paper, food or lawn waste, and when organic materials breaks down in landfills they release methane, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping pollutant. In fact, landfills release enough methane that many cities are trapping it to burn as a fuel source — methane is, after all, just natural gas. 

What is the CO2 Smackdown? Read the overview.



Increasing your recycling by half over your current rate will save you .38 tons of emissions of heat trapping pollutants every year.


1. Put together a no-trash kit of reusable items
Consider what you throw out regularly, things such as plastic bottles, napkins, paper and plastic bags, packaging, etc. Much of this can and should be recycled, but better still you can find reusable products including stainless steel water bottles, cloth napkins, reusable bags and utensils, and the like to replace those you toss daily at home and at work. For help with paper products, see "Reducing Paper Use" at the NRDC Greening Advisor.

2. Store your reusable items where you’ll use them
If you eat lunch in the office, make sure you have tableware, a plate and cup on hand (as well as some handwashing soap and a towel if none are available at work). You can also keep reusable silverware and a cup or water bottle with you in a briefcase or bag. Keep a set of reusable shopping bags in yourcar, hall closet, or backpack that you can grab as needed when you pop out to the grocery store or to run other errands.

3. Make it easier to recycle than to toss out 
Replace garbage cans in rooms at home with bins for collecting recyclable paper, recyclable containers, and/or compost, and make the garbage can a destination that requires an ounce of energy and some thought before you get there—put it in the garage. Post notices above the recycling bins in your kitchen (or wherever you keep them) to make sure each of your family members knows what goes where.

4. Pick up a composting jar 
A sealable composting container is a sanitary way to hold scraps you’ll bring to your own compost bin or local composter. For longer-term storage, keep it in the fridge to avoid rot and ensure that it won’t attract flies. If you need help getting started composting, see "Compost Care and Maintenance."

5. Take your name off junk mail lists
Unsolicited catalogs and junk mail wind up the recycling bin even before making inside many homes. Several services will help remove your name from lists of unwanted mail, including (affiliated with NRDC),, and charges $41 for five years of service; welcomes donations; and, which can also help you control the flow of commercial email, is free.

6. Reduce food waste
On average, Americans consume about 4,000 calories per person a day, but we’re not really eating all of that—wasted food accounts for about 1,600 calories in our daily diets. These include vegetables and other items that go off before they’re even cooked, leftovers that sit too long in the freezer and the excess on our plates from pilling on more than we can really eat. 
One way to reduce food waste is cook your own meals and cook those that you know well, which makes it easier to judge how much you need. For personal look into reducing food waste,  see "How To Wage War on Food Waste" at OnEarth.

7. Order less takeout food
This will not only help reduce food waste—since many restaurant meals are oversized—it will also help eliminate packaging waste from all the plastic dishes and tableware, bags and napkins, condiment packages and styrofoam cups that come with takeout. If you are ordering takeout, ask the restaurant to omit napkins and silverware you don’t need.

8. Avoid excess packaging—buy in bulk.
Buy cereal, nuts and other items in bulk when you can and reuse your containers to trim the amount of packaging you toss out. Check the packaging you buy to ensure that it’s recyclable (and ideally includes recycled content)—for a list of recyclable packaging types, see "How Can I Recycle Plastic Packaging?". Avoid buying individually-wrapped servings – repackage at home in smaller, reusable containers.

9. Buy longer-lasting or reusable products
Buy compact fluorescent light bulbs, which last longer than incandescent, and save energy as well. Purchase rechargeable batteries (and a battery charger) to reduce battery waste. Consider replacing disposable items such as razors, lighters, and paper towels with reusable alternatives.

10. Reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, and donate.
After you’ve reduced as much waste as possible, you’ll still probably have materials you want to get rid of. Before throwing something in the trash can, consider whether or not it can be repaired or upgraded for continued use, reused for another purpose, donated to a charity or resold, or recycled. Buy products with recycled content as well to keep usable materials out of incinerators and landfills. To see which types of plastics can be recycled, check out "Plastics by the Numbers."


Pick up garbage you find on the street and recycle it. Think of it as a garbage offset if you’re not always able to recycle at work or on the road.

Reducing Costs

We typically pay little for garbage pickup and don’t see much savings from recycling, however, there are incentive programs—such as Recyclebank’s—that offer gift certificates with local retailers to increase recycling rates.


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