How to Live Without a Trash Can (or at Least a Much Smaller One)

Waste stream specialist and Ditmas Park resident Elizabeth Balkan believes even small, incremental design changes can have a significant impact on what and how much we toss.

how to live without a trashcan

The above illustrates a home waste management system where bin size corresponds to refuse size and quantity. The glass/metal/plastic and paper containers are the largest. Compost and trash bins are smaller, with the latter only being about a tenth the size of the paper recycling container.

Illustration credit: Chamisa Kellogg

Editor’s note: We’re chronicling how tech is changing the way we eat and drink as we lead up to this fall’s Food Loves Tech. Our annual deep dive into appropriate food and ag technologies returns to Industry City on November 2–3, 2018, and you can get $20 off the regular admission price while our early bird special lasts.

Whether or not you’ve noticed, composting has gotten easier. Since April of last year, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) has rolled out hundreds of thousands of brown organics bins as part of a free, voluntary effort to curb the more than 1 million tons of organic waste we New Yorkers toss annually (i.e., more than a third of all refuse collected curbside by DSNY). The landmark program’s already the nation’s largest municipal organics waste pickup system and will eventually (date TBD) be entirely citywide.

While at DSNY, former director of policy Elizabeth Balkan led the city’s zero waste initiative that has played a significant role in developing and introducing the city’s organics collection program. At the same time as helping get us 8.5 million New Yorkers on an ambitious no-waste trajectory, she also tossed the trash can from her family’s Ditmas Park apartment.

“Oftentimes we think that the recycling bin should be small and our trash bin should be large, and in most cases the opposite is true,” says Balkan, who recently joined the Natural Resources Defense Council as director of food waste initiatives.

organics bin

Since April of last year, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) has rolled out hundreds of thousands of brown organics bins as part of a free, voluntary effort to curb the more than 1 million tons of organic waste we New Yorkers toss annually. Photo credit: Liz Clayman

She keeps her bins (she’s a fan of Ikea’s products, see below) in a central, accessible location—aka under the kitchen sink—and in sizes that encourage putting refuse where it belongs. “We keep a large bin for paper and a large bin for metal, glass and plastic under the sink. In the paper bin, I keep a small insert that’s about one-tenth the size of the container for any nonrecyclables,” says Balkan. “It can easily take a week to fill up.” She also keeps a metal canister on the counter for organic waste, which along with food can essentially include anything that was once living.

“[In going zero waste], I always recommend that people not try to take on too much at once. If you do, it will feel like too big of a lifestyle change, which is unsustainable.”

While her family might be in the 0.01 percent of local households who generate next-to-no trash, Balkan’s adamant that getting to zero waste is a process and every little step counts. “I always recommend that people not try to take on too much at once. If you do, you’ll get overwhelmed and it will feel like too big of a lifestyle change, which is unsustainable,” she assures. “Just take one thing at a time. For example replacing paper towels with rags or old T-shirts is a great place to start.”

See the illustration above to get a sense of how we should sort our household waste (we encourage you to tack it on your fridge!). Don’t have a brown bin yet? Go here for composting troubleshooting tips, and continue reading to learn more about Balkan’s home system so that you, too, might also toss your own trash can. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Balkan’s family keeps their organics on top of the counter in a metal canister lined with a produce bag. Photo credit: Valery Rizzo.

Edible Brooklyn: How do you manage waste in your home? What’s your setup?
Elizabeth Balkan: Our setup is one that puts the materials streams that can be diverted really front and center, both in terms of accessibility and size. Oftentimes we think that the recycling bin should be small and our trash bin should be large, and in most cases the opposite is true. If a recycling bin is full because it’s too small, it is very tempting to put something that can be recycled in the bin that has space. If you have a larger bin for refuse, it is easy to be tempted by what practically fits where.

So in our house we have a large bin for paper and a large bin for metal, glass and plastic under the sink. I have to make a plug for Ikea because I’m a pretty big fan of their system (her picks listed below). It not only allows for multiple bins in an under-sink system but is also designed so that you can have nesting bins. So, for example, in our kitchen, we’ve got a big paper bin and a big metal, glass, and plastic bin (see illustration above). The latter fills up the quickest because recyclables that go in this bin tend to be large and air-filled, so like a clam shell or an orange juice carton. The paper bin fills up more slowly, so we keep a one gallon bin for nonrecyclables within it.

“I’ve definitely found though that when I’ve lived in apartments where I put the recycling in a location that’s any less central than the kitchen, less stuff gets recycled.”

We keep our organics on top of the counter in a metal canister lined with a produce bag. Whenever we’re cooking or doing food prep or making coffee, [it’s accessible]. At night we put it in the fridge and when the bag is full, we wrap it up and take it to our brown bin. This way we don’t ever worry about odors from the organics or any kind of pest management because the only time we’re tossing food scraps is when we’re doing food prep—otherwise it’s all in the refrigerator.

That’s it, and obviously there’s a lot that goes in to getting to the point where the size of the bin that we need for the refuse is so small. I’ve definitely found that when I’ve lived in apartments where I put the recycling in a location that’s any less central than the kitchen, less stuff gets recycled. Like if it’s in a closet, you’re just now making it that much harder. Making your system central is a good place to start.

compost

“[Going zero waste] starts as a process of looking for other solutions and researching the products,” says Balkan. “You don’t need to be an eco-warrior to just Google ‘Saran Wrap alternatives.'” Photo credit: Valery Rizzo.

EB: What do you do with Q-tips? What do you do with paper towels? I’m trying to think of things in my own home that can’t go into the recycling.
EB: Much to my husband’s discontent, I treat the practice of pursuing zero waste as an incremental process, but one in which you should kind of continually strive to do better, like incrementally better. So I think if you were to ask him, he’d go we’re already the 0.01 percent in terms of doing a good enough job, but I like to look for opportunities and ways that you can keep going further.

Aluminum foil is a great example. We were using a lot of aluminum foil to roast like sweet potatoes and carrots when our children were really small. There’s nothing criminal about using aluminum foil because it can be recycled, but it just felt to me like it was a noticeable footprint. It started to feel unnecessary to me when, to go to a thrift store and buy an extra Pyrex for roasting wasn’t going to be a big lift. 

“I think once you dip your toe into this zero waste pool you’ll realize that these products that we’ve been conditioned to think are necessary for everyday life really aren’t.”

And then we started thinking about plastic wrap. There are clearly alternatives. Again it starts as a process of looking for other solutions and researching the products out there. You don’t need to be an eco-warrior to just Google “Saran Wrap alternatives.” You also probably don’t want to spend a lot of money trying out different things, but there are tons of user reviews and you can pretty much, knowing your own style, know what’s going to work in your own home. Now we occasionally use plastic wrap, but eventually we found what works better for us was to just use sort of a combination of different jars and glass storage containers. We’re also more thoughtful in our purchasing, trying not to have many leftovers and freezing when we do. 

[In going zero waste], I would always recommend that people not try to take on too much at once. If you do it will feel like too big of a lifestyle change, which is unsustainable. So just take one thing at a time—paper towels is a great place to start. Using rags or other paper towel alternatives is pretty easy to do. You can lots of times take old T-shirts and use them as rags. We will buy a roll of paper towels one time of year when my parents are with us, but I think once you dip your toe into this zero waste pool, you’ll realize that these products that we’ve been conditioned to think are necessary for everyday life really aren’t. You can really maintain a pretty well functioning household and a great kitchen without a lot of these consumer products that we spend a lot of money on and result in a lot of packaging waste.

Additional resources for cutting your waste

compost

“You can really maintain a pretty well functioning household and a great kitchen without a lot of these sort of consumer products that we spend a lot of money on and result in a lot of packaging waste.” Photo credit: Valery Rizzo.

  • You can recycle more than you might think in New York City. Use the Department of Sanitation’s website to learn responsible ways for discarding almost anything.
  • Blogs: “There are great bloggers out there, too,” according to Balkan. “Plenty of people who have done comprehensive guides [for going zero waste].”
  • Balkan’s preferred Ikea bins: Balkan uses a 1-gallon refuse bin that goes inside this 10-gallon paper bin. She has another one of these large bins for metal, glass and plastic and the two fit inside this track system.
  • Donatesell, swap (highly recommend this options for your friends with good taste 😉) or, in classic New York style, simply give away unwanted items on your stoop.
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Ariel Lauren Wilson

Lauren is the editor-in-chief of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.