By Randy Mendez
As a ResourceSmart Schools facilitator, I am constantly asked by schools to recommend sustainability projects they can undertake. There are so many great sustainability initiatives around but one that caught my attention a few years ago was the Trash On Your Back Challenge. This challenge is about recording all waste you produce in 5 days, and carrying the trash bag with you for the entire challenge.
With Waste being one of the ResourceSmart Schools modules, and also one of the biggest challenges for schools, I have often suggested that schools try the Trash On Your Back Challenge. It is a fun, visual and stinky way for students to think about what types of waste they are producing and recording this data. It also brings educational awareness and behaviour change with identifying whether the waste we produce is discarded correctly – landfill, recycling or composting.
A northern metro Melbourne school completed this challenge recently, and it was great to read their experience and how the students felt about the challenge. While I have suggested this challenge many times, I have never committed to the challenge myself. I was so inspired reading about the students’ experiences that I wanted to do the challenge myself and see exactly how much waste I was producing and if I was throwing out my waste into the correct bins.
I kept a reflection log on a daily basis and took pictures of everything I personally threw away – I didn’t edit anything; if I was throwing it away I was counting it in. I will admit that I did cheat by not carrying the bag of all collected rubbish in it; I don’t know how practical it would’ve been to carry dirty nappies with me to meetings. Yes, this is an element of the challenge and I could’ve done this to bring greater awareness of what I was doing, but I decided to carry one waste bag per day, instead of only one bag for the duration of the 5-day challenge.
I also want to give another disclaimer. I did not officially sign up for the Trash On Your Back Challenge. I went rogue and did an informal trash challenge, based on Trash On Your Back. As a recommendation, do whatever suits your situation best, as long as you take the challenge honestly.
And the challenge begins…
Day 1: Monday
At the start of my challenge, I was nervous about finding out how much rubbish I would produce in the 5 days. Mondays are usually big days with lots of planning for the week. Naturally, I thought I would produce loads of waste.
Aside from my daily morning nose-blowing tissue and cotton for my face cleansing routine, which will be an every day waste occurrence, I was pleasantly surprised to discover I actually had very little waste at the end of the day.
I was in the office all day and didn’t throw anything away, aside from a piece of paper. Due to being in the office, I didn’t handle any nappies – even though most of our son’s nappies are now cloth nappies. And for dinner, my wife did most of the food prep, while I cooked the fish and discarded of the packaging. Day 1 and I didn’t feel too bad with my waste.
Day 2: Tuesday
Before even leaving the house for the day, I had already produced more waste than I did on Monday! I finished the milk and the eggs. I was also on nappy duty in the morning so had to discard that.
In the morning, I had a meeting and was offered a tea. Normally, I don’t drink tea but it was cold and raining so it sounded like a great idea. I made myself a tea, but completely forgot to keep the tea bag. I wanted to log that I threw away a tea bag but didn’t put it in my bag, even though I had the bag with me. Day 2 of the challenge and I was already making mistakes.
During the day, I didn’t really throw anything away. I had leftover dinner for lunch and threw away a napkin.
When I came home, my wife had prepared most of dinner in a slow cooker so I just needed to cook the pasta. Did another nappy change before bedtime and cleaned out the lint from the clothes dryer.
Day 3: Wednesday
It was my birthday and I was really nervous about how much waste I would be throwing away, more so than the excitement of my birthday. It’s interesting how you become much more conscious of waste when you have to carry it around. I actually didn’t want to do the challenge during my birthday but I committed to it and that was that!
For breakfast, my wife made an amazing waffle cake – waffles stacked on top of each other to form a cake with a candle on top. I want that to be an everyday occurrence! The candle we’ll reuse so I didn’t throw it away. I was given a gift and did discard the wrapping paper.
For lunch we drove to Geelong and ate at The Geelong Boat House. I had fish ‘n’ chips and a beer. I did keep the discarded red onion from my salad, which I normally eat but it was really strong that day. There was also a leftover lemon wedge and a napkin, which I put into my bag. I did have a bottled beer but was unable to keep the bottle due to safety regulations, which is understandable. Again, I wanted to log a bottle into my bag.
For dinner, we had so much leftover from the previous day, which we would normally have for lunch. But since we ate out, we had it for dinner. I boiled the pasta to go with the leftovers.
Along with a few nappies, it wasn’t too bad considering I thought the day would be worse.
Day 4: Thursday
I had leftover waffles for breakfast and a banana, so threw away the peel. Aside from that, I started off the day with very little rubbish, besides my daily tissue and cotton waste.
Surprisingly, no waste during the day. I don’t make a lot of copies for work, as we’re mainly electronic. Had leftovers for lunch.
For dinner, we ordered Japanese takeaway. Unfortunately, it came with lots of packaging. While extremely delicious, it was not a great choice in terms of waste. We were given containers, which can be recycled so that’s not too bad. However, we were also given lots of soy sauce containers, as well as ginger and wasabi packages.
A nappy change before bedtime and off to bed.
Day 5: Friday
I’m very happy to almost being finished with this challenge. I had to remove my previous day’s waste into the laundry as the fish packaging was wreaking havoc in the house, along with the dirty nappies. It made me appreciate our waste disposal system in Australia, having bins that are collected and removed. But it also made me wonder – would we be more conscious of what we buy if we didn’t have bins for our waste?
I was surprised at how very little waste I had for my final day. I did have leftovers for both breakfast and lunch. And for dinner, we were very lazy and tired and bought takeaway Thai, even though we did have food ready for cooking (we cooked it on Saturday instead). From our takeaway dinner, we did get a lot of plastic containers, but we usually keep the plastic containers and reuse them at a later time.
I didn’t have any dirty nappies even though I did change several nappies; we alternate between cloth and disposable. As we didn’t go anywhere on Friday, we used cloth nappies for the entire day.
At the end of my 5-Day challenge, I emptied all the waste from the previous days into one pile so I could see how much rubbish I produced for the 5 days.
I then separated my waste into 3 piles – landfill, recycling and compost.
For recycling, it’s not too bad; a couple of items there that could have been avoided. We did reuse some of the takeaway containers so that also lead to less waste being recycled.
For composting, our council is trialling organics into the garden bin. Normally, we put our organic waste into our compost bin. However, since the organic waste trial, we’ve been putting all of our organic waste into the garden bin. I am hoping the trial proves successful and that it continues permanently, as well as extending into all of Melbourne.
Looking at what I’m discarding into landfill, there are lots of nappies, as well as the packaging from our Japanese dinner. I know that we have made a huge improvement by purchasing cloth nappies instead of only using disposable nappies. Before our son was born, we used to put out our landfill bin once a fortnight, even though collection was weekly. However, since he was born, we were struggling with the weekly landfill pick-ups and have been known to ask our neighbours for some bin space. Since switching to mostly cloth nappies – we still use disposable nappies if we’re going out for an extended amount of time and at night time – we have noticed a significant decrease in landfill waste. I don’t know if it’s predominately the nappies or if we’re getting better sleep than we have in the past 7 months since he was born, and as a result, we’re doing better at separating our waste.
After sorting my waste out and examining what I’m sending to landfill, recycling and composting, it was interesting to see my results. I honestly thought it would be much higher. I know that my wife prepped dinner a few times (which would be her waste) and we also ate out a lot this week (which would be the restaurant’s waste). I feel that this impacted how little food waste I had. I would say that, generally speaking, my food waste is probably much higher than my landfill and recycling waste. We’re lucky that our council allows us to put our organic waste into the garden bin. However, we were putting our organic waste into our compost bin before, but I do like that it gets collected.
I did learn a lot from this challenge. I learnt that nappies are a huge problem in our lives at the moment. If we factor in how many babies there are in Australia, that’s a lot of nappies going to landfill! I’m happy that we’re using cloth nappies too, but it’s still a lot of nappies.
I also took away from this challenge that as a family, we’re proactive when it comes to organic waste. By having a compost bin, or a council who collects organic waste, this really does curb how much of this type of waste ends up in landfill, which has a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions. It would be great if all councils collected organic waste, or if more households did composting. I know the majority of schools are now actively composting at school, and I would hope this translates into the home life too.
I also realised how frustrating it can be sorting your waste out properly. Different councils have different rules for what they will accept into the council bins, and this can lead to so much cross contamination, if done incorrectly. If the bins are not sorted correctly, they will basically end up in landfill, even if the attempt was made to put the assumed correct item into the correct bin. Because we have moved and are now in a different council area, I did need to check what could be recycled and what could not, as my previous council did allow plastic bags to go into the recycle bin.
I am so glad I did this challenge. It made me deal with my waste, instead of the out-of-sight out-of-mind mentality. Because I had to carry my waste around, I found I was more conscious not to buy certain products or reuse items which I would normally throw away. I was also a bit cheeky and thought I would be able to get away from nappy duty so that my wife was throwing them away, but I couldn’t escape it.
I only did my waste but it would be interesting to do this challenge as a household and see how much waste we produce. During this challenge, I did audit our bins and our landfill bin was half full (collected weekly), our recycling bin was half full (collected fortnightly) and our garden bin was ¼ full (collected fortnightly).
I would strongly recommend you to take on this challenge, even if only for a day. We all know waste is a huge issue but until we audit our own waste, we won’t fully understand how to make the necessary changes to reduce our waste production.