12 Ways to Cut Down on Garbage and Save Money Too!


When I was a child, my family saved hundreds of dollars a year by cancelling our residential trash service and hauling our own junk to the dump instead. Once a month my sister and I would load the household garbage into the pickup truck and escort our father to the town dump. We liked going to the dump. The spectacle of sanitation workers racing around the garbage pit on their bulldozers had an entertaining "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" quality. Also, as a reward for our services, our dad would take us for breakfast at Denny's on the way home. We saved the Sanitation Department work, my parents got a break on a monthly bill, and my sister and I got Pigs in a Blanket. (See also: Turning Trash Into Cash)

Opt Out of High Trash Bills?

Flash forward to adulthood in Los Angeles and an outrageously high trash bill. Since it took me more than a month as a single lady to fill the gigantic black trash can provided by the city, I decided to call the Department of Sanitation and cancel my trash collection. Why pay so much money for something I was barely using? I could easily dump my minimal trash output at work. The office dumpster was never full and got picked up weekly. And, even if my bosses forbade my trashy freeloading, was it really so inconvenient to bring my trash to the dump on my own every few weeks?

As it turns out, one cannot cancel residential trash collection in LA. I get charged a sanitation fee regardless of whether my can is full or empty.

This is infuriating and unsportsmanlike, but unfortunately not uncommon.

The Financial and Environmental Costs of Trash Hauling

While there are some civilized communities where good garbage behavior is rewarded financially, most people pay dearly for the privilege of throwing things away. Even the most thrifty do-gooders can get gouged by their garbage bills, as there are still many municipalities that don't offer recycling services or provide a way to dispose of yard waste that doesn't involve a landfill.

However, this doesn't mean that everyone should just start throwing things away with abandon. Americans generate, on average, 4.4 pounds of garbage per person per day. This level of waste is obviously a terrible burden on the environment, and a not-so-obvious burden on everyone's bank account.

Most people, myself included, don't immediately connect their garbage as the product of their lives. And, that product has a cost — everything that I throw in the trash is something I've paid for, with cash, with time, or with labor. Although I can't cut what I pay the city for garbage pick-up, I can cut down on the time, money, and labor I spend on my garbage product.

Here are 11 ways I cut down on both trash and expenses.

1. Do a Trash Audit

Periodically, I will audit the contents of my garbage can. For one week I will throw all of my household waste into one garbage can. At the end of the week I dump the can out onto a tarp and take a count of what's there.

Although this sounds crazy, doing a trash audit is really instructive in terms of figuring out where I am over-consuming (also known as "wasting money").

  • Is there a lot of food waste? I need to alter my shopping schedule or make more time for food preservation tasks.

  • Are there a lot of plastic toy parts? I need to buy better/fewer toys and teach the kids in my life to take better care of them.

  • Is there a lot of food packaging? I need to source products with less packaging and be more diligent about recycling.

Just like people bust their budgets by frittering away a lot of money with tiny impulse purchases, many people generate literally a ton of trash with tiny actions.

For example, until I really looked at my trash, I didn't realize that I was putting 5200 foil tea bag wrappers into the landfill every year. (I have since switched to loose tea in a metal tea ball). While switching tea-steeping methods doesn't save me money at the store, if more people were nit picky about their waste stream, we'd all save more money on garbage collection fees in the long run. Every year the price of trash "storage" goes up because dumps are filling up and the costs of opening a new landfill is high. The longer we can make due with our current dumping grounds, the better.

2. Use Less

This is where the Trash Audit really helps. What are you throwing away the most? Is it your hard earned cash? Because that's what you're dumping when you waste your purchases through lack of attention.

  • Buying food in bulk doesn't save any money if it goes bad before you can eat it.

  • If you are using more than two tablespoons of laundry or dish-washing detergent, you are probably using too much.

  • How many times can you wash and reuse zip-lock bags before they go kaput?

  • Do you really need a trashcan liner or can you just hose out the bin periodically?

3. Pay Yourself Every Time You Use a Reusable Shopping Bag

Last year Los Angeles became the largest city in America to ban single-use plastic grocery bags. People love to whine about the unfair 10 cent bag fee, as if getting charged for shopping bags is new at all. Grocery stores have been charging customers all along for their bags. How do I know this? In exchange for shopping with reusable bags, I've been getting a five-cent rebate per bag, at the grocery store, since moving to LA in 1988. Big grocery stores have always penalized customers for using plastic bags, they've just been less transparent about it.

But the cost of plastic bags doesn't end when you leave the store. Californians spend 25 million dollars a year to collect and landfill plastic bags. Some cities pay up to 17 cents per bag for disposal. And by cities, that means you, the taxpayer.

4. Choose Reusable Over Disposable

Just like plastic bags, consumers can save their tax dollars and mind their pennies by purchasing durable goods to replace disposable ones. For example, the average American uses six paper napkins a day. If everyone used just one less paper napkin per day, we'd keep a billion pounds of napkins out of the landfill every year.

Convenience comes with a heavy price. Disposables actually cost more per use.

I bought 20 Italian linen napkins from Pottery Barn in 2002. Each cloth napkin was a pricey $4.00. Compared to what I would have paid for 20 napkins at a thrift store, $80.00 seems like a crazy amount to spend on table linens. However, 12 years later, I still have 10 of those napkins in daily rotation. In addition to keeping 26,400 paper napkins out of the landfill, I've also saved, according to analysis by the Ocean Conservancy, somewhere between $645.00 and $5271.00 that I would have spent on paper napkins in that same period. And that's a conservative estimate!

5. Compost Compost Compost!

I am a ninja composter.

In addition to yard and kitchen waste, I also compost newsprint, dirty cardboard food containers, and fabrics made from natural fibers. When clothes moths decided to use my angora sweater as their headquarters for wardrobe destruction, I dumped the sweater into the compost bin, not the garbage. It was so satisfying to smother those evil bugs under coffee grounds and melon rinds.

Compost is a cheap and easy soil amendment that anyone can make. It simultaneously fertilizes your garden for free and keeps waste out of the landfill.

If Americans composted their food waste instead of putting it into the landfills, the yearly reduction of greenhouse gases produced would be equal to taking two million cars off the road. What's a bigger time waster: composting or global warming?

6. Bring Your Own Container Instead of Taking a Doggie Bag

Styrofoam is toxic to produce and doesn't break down in the landfill. Instead of bringing home all that dirty packaging, I bring my own Tupperware containers to restaurants to use, not just for leftovers, but for take out as well.

While this habit is mortifying to my friends, in the 10 years I've been doing this, I've never had a restaurant refuse me. In fact, I've only gotten positive feedback from restaurant owners, some of whom have rewarded me with extra food. Every Friday my husband and I get take out from our local Indian restaurant. We got a terrible shock the one time that we forgot to bring our own plasticware and used the restaurant's take out containers instead: We came home with 30% less food! Although our Tupperware containers clearly state the volume on the bottom of each piece, the restaurant just fills everything to the brim.

If you pack a lunch, invest in a lunch box instead of using a paper sack. Teach your kids to bring home their reusable lunch supplies. In addition to honing their organizational skills, something that will help them their entire lives, this good habit will save $246.60 per school year per kid. Imagine how much money you'd save as an adult by switching to sustainable lunch packing!

7. Avoid Over-Packaged Goods

Even if packaging can be recycled, recycling costs both money and resources. It's far better for the planet and your wallet to avoid excess packaging to begin with. For example, buy one big container, instead a bunch of smaller containers. Most stores charge less for bulk purchases, and the reduction of packaging weight will save you on online shipping costs.

Buy dry goods like grains and pasta in bulk. The closest bulk bin section to me is at the notoriously expensive Whole Foods. That said, organic bulk oatmeal at Whole Foods is still cheaper than the non-organic, generic brand at my regular grocery store. It pays to comparison shop!

Only purchase products that can be recycled locally. Check with your municipal recycling center about what they accept.

8. Recycle Recycle Recycle!

Even though every recycling program I know of accepts glass, Americans still throw away 9 million tons of glass every year.

Over one ton of natural resources are conserved for every ton of glass recycled. Recycled glass melts at a lower temperature than raw materials, so manufacturing recycled glass bottles emits less greenhouse gases.

Recycling glass is clearly the right choice for the planet, but why do so many people refuse to do it for personal finance reasons? In 2012 I made $120.00 just by recycling the glass bottles of my wino neighbors.

Even if you don't have recycling in your area, consider reusing glass jars. Use jars instead of plastic drinking cups at your next party. If you eat a lot of tomato sauce, team up with someone in your community who is a canner and who will reuse your pint jars over and over.

9. Cancel the Junk Mail

Sale circulars and solicitation letters are mailed out to entice customers to spend money. For me, junk mail is annoying. It's an extra chore that some stranger has added to my day. Even if separating out the junk mail from actual mail takes five minutes a week, that still adds up to over four hours of wasted time per year that I could have spent doing something that I enjoy.

Junk mail is also taxing on the environment because it takes resources to print and mail all those unwanted letters and catalogs.

To stop junk mail, register your name and address with the Direct Marketing Association. If you register online, they will wave the $1.00 processing fee they charge check writers. DMA Choice divides junk mail into four categories: Credit Offers, Catalogs, Magazines (this includes newsletters and subscription offers), and Other Mail Offers (including donation requests, bank offers, and retail promotions). You can request to stop mail from individual companies or from an entire category.

10. Share the Surplus With Your Neighbors

Why throw away leftovers when you can use them as bait to lure your neighbors into your frugal network? If you have extra anything, offer it to those who live close by. Sharing is one of the easiest ways to build community and save money. (See also: Why You Should Build a Frugal Community — And How)

In exchange for homemade jam and honey, my neighbors give me free eggs, orchids, backyard fruit, house sitting, manual labor, rides to the airport, and friendship.

11. Sell, Donate, or Curb Away Unwanted Items

I am always surprised by what people buy first at my garage sales. It's always the stuff I think is junk. Search on Craigslist and eBay to see if your trash is actually treasure.

Generally, I only donate items that are in extremely good condition, because I only buy items from charity shops that are in extremely good condition, and most stores can only sell items that are in extremely good condition. Even with my picky donation standards, I still get a nice tax write-off every year.

Anything I think is useful but not sellable, I put out on the curb the day before trash day. This includes worn clothes, partially used office supplies, random storage containers, and furniture I'm too lazy to repair. Most items I curb are gone within an hour.

12. Buy Used

Buying used is a direct form of recycling. It keeps things out of the landfill, and it uses far fewer virgin resources.

Making every effort to only buy used goods has saved me thousands of dollars over the last seven years. Unless something is highly collectible, most used goods cost considerably less than their new counterparts. And even when they don't, a lot of used goods are considerably better made than newer models. Thrift stores of full of old things that were built to last. The new J. Crew T-shirt I bought last August developed holes after just 10 wearings, but the J. Crew T-shirt I bought in 1988 has lasted through at least 1000 washings.

What do you do to generate less garbage? If you have incentives in your area that help you save money on your trash bill, please help your fellow Wise Think readers conserve cash and resources by sharing in the comments section.

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Guest's picture

I've never been able to find an answer to this online, but I use daily contacts since my eyes are prone to infections if I use any longer-term contacts, and I play sports year round, so I can't wear glasses. My question is, how can I re-use the foil and contact cases? I open two every single day, which is a ton of trash over the course of the year, but I can't find a feasible way to reuse them.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Guest!

As I am a glasses wearer myself, I'm not familiar with your contact wrappers, so I'm assuming the foil is that plastic stuff and not aluminum, which is obviously recyclable. If the packaging isn't recyclable, then I would write the company a friendly complaint letter expressing your concerns about their packaging. If enough people complain about the packaging, the company with switch it out for something greener.