ways to reduce landfill waste

US households generate nearly 300 million tons of municipal solid waste every year, and more than half of this is sent to landfill. In the face of the global waste crisis, it’s important to know the different ways to reduce landfill waste, as we can all take steps to reduce the amount of trash we send to landfill, which goes a long way to protect the environment.

25+ actionable ways to reduce the waste you send to landfill

With horror stories like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed when it comes to managing and reducing our waste. However, there are loads of ways that you can slash the amount of trash you send to landfill, many of which are easy to do, and some will save you money and make your life better at the same time.

1. Embrace curbside recycling

Although recycling is not the all-in-one solution some people pretend it to be – learn about the drawbacks and complexities of recycling – it is an important part of waste management, especially over the short to medium term.

recycling bins
Glass, plastic, and paper are the most common material in curbside recycling

Many towns run curbside recycling programs that make it easy to recycle a range of items, from aluminum cans and plastic bottles to cardboard cartons.

However, you must follow your local municipality’s recycling rules. Be sure to double-check which materials you can recycle curbside and what you need to do to prepare them first.

In most cases, you’ll need to clean or rinse containers and remove tape or stickers from cardboard and other materials. You usually need to separate different types of materials, as each needs to be recycled separately.

Failing to follow the rules and including an item that is either not recyclable or hasn’t been adequately prepared or cleaned can contaminate the entire load, meaning that it’s sent to landfill.

2. Make an effort to recycle other items as well

Just because you can’t recycle certain materials curbside doesn’t mean you can’t recycle them at all.

You can recycle many things, from LED light bulbs and electronics to wine corks and packaging peanuts, with a bit of effort.

Some towns run special collection or drop-off programs to recycle certain items or materials – contact your local sanitation department to find out.

Some big box stores also accept certain materials, sometimes at certain times of the year. For example, The Home Depot, Ace Hardware, and Lowe’s all have Christmas light recycling programs at the start of the year.

You can also find recycling centers that take all kinds of stuff by using an online finder tool like Earth911.

For really tricky materials, you may need to use a mail-in service. For example, TerraCycle takes all kinds of materials, such as cigarette waste, sauce packets, coffee capsules, and laminated paper.

Although many of these programs come at a cost, you can be happy knowing that you’re not passing this cost on to the planet.

3. Look for products made from recycled materials

You can also help to reduce landfill waste by supporting efforts at the other end of the process and buying products made from recycled materials. This means these materials are put to good use rather than being sent to landfill or polluting the environment.

Furthermore, using recycled materials avoids extracting new resources and greatly reduces the energy consumption and greenhouse gasses associated with making the product.

This can range from everything from clothes made from swimwear made from recycled bottles to rugs and building materials made from things like old car tires and reclaimed wood.

4. Get composting

When it comes to disposing of your organic waste, the best method is to compost it. This is a fantastic solution because you can deal with your waste entirely in your home, even living in an apartment.

indoor kitchen compost bin filled with food waste
A small compost bin is all you need to start composting at home

Food scraps and other organic materials naturally break down in the right environment. However, landfill is not designed for this: organics don’t properly biodegrade in landfill because they don’t have enough oxygen.

Instead, they decompose inorganically, giving off methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

You can compost food scraps and also other organic materials like non-synthetic fabrics and paper, meaning they break down naturally and release negligible amounts of methane at most. All they leave behind is rich compost that you can use to nourish your garden.

5. Donate whatever you can

Donating items instead of throwing them away is a win-win. Not only does it keep them out of landfill, but you also have the opportunity to give something valuable to someone in need.

Clothes and accessories are a prime example: US households send 11 million tons of clothing to landfill every year. Many of these pieces are still in wearable condition, so instead of tossing out your unwanted clothes, give them to your local charity store, like a Goodwill.

There are plenty of other things you can donate, such as:

  • Give old books to your local school
  • Donate old furniture and homewares to a homeless shelter of domestic violence organization
  • Take working electronics, toys, and household items to charity stores

In all cases, you should only donate things that are in good, usable, and working condition. If you have anything that fits this description, giving it away should be your first option!

6. Avoid single-use containers

Modern society has become all too reliant on single-use containers, from shopping bags to takeout food containers and cutlery. Think about how many containers you use in a year, then multiply that by the 330 million people in the United States, and nearly eight billion people worldwide.

This represents literal mountains of plastic and styrofoam that gets sent to landfill and sits there for hundreds of years. For example, a plastic bottle takes around 450 years to break down, and a styrofoam food container takes approximately 50 years, though neither of these materials actually biodegrade.

Even paper and cardboard containers are often lined with non-biodegradable materials, such as plastic-lined take-out coffee cups, or plastic-coated noodle boxes.

Here are some alternatives to single-use containers:

  • Invest in a reusable, stainless steel water bottle instead of buying plastic ones
  • Take a reusable keep cup to your coffee shop
  • Buy calico or fabrics bags for your grocery shopping
  • Use Tupperware instead of disposable food containers
  • Buy reusable silicon cutlery and take it with you on trips or for lunch breaks

If you can’t completely avoid food containers, make sure to recycle them – learn how here.

7. Look for sustainable packaging

Like disposable containers, single-use packaging is highly prevalent these days and significantly contributes to landfill waste.

soap in sustainable packaging
The less packaging – the better

As an eco-conscious consumer, you need to be vigilant about two types of packaging:

  1. Packaging that is inherent to the product itself, such as shampoo bottles or toothpaste tubes.
  2. Packaging that is used to ship the product to your door.

If you buy online, look for sellers who use recycled and recyclable packaging for shipping. It’s also essential to look for zero-waste products that come encased in reusable, recycled, and recyclable containers or are inherently zero-waste.

Check out our guides to zero-waste deodorant, shampoo, and toilet paper.

8. Skip the straw

This one is pretty well publicized, but it’s worth repeating. Plastic straws make up around 4% of all plastic waste sent to landfill.

Although this is not a huge percentage by weight or volume, these little non-biodegradable tubes have a disproportionately high impact on the environment. Plastic straws are small and lightweight, so are more likely to be washed out of landfill into waterways, where they can pollute the local environment or make their way to the ocean.

There, they can be devastating to marine ecosystems: their sharp edges can injure sea turtles and other animals, or they can break down into microplastics that are then ingested.

Instead, invest in your own reusable straw made of silicone, metal or bamboo, or skip the straw entirely. After all, do we really need a straw to drink juice or soda?

9. Opt for whole foods

Another way to reduce the amount of waste you produce is by reviewing your shopping habits. Buying whole foods like fruit, vegetables, and grains is an easy way to avoid packaging, as these items are available loose rather than wrapped in plastic.

Making these changes is not only better for the environment but also for your health, as whole foods are generally a much healthier choice!

10. Cook at home more

Cooking at home is another way to reduce the waste you produce, as well as being generally better for your health, not to mention more budget-friendly. By cooking yourself, you can easily avoid disposable takeout containers, which are usually unrecyclable or at least challenging to recycle.

Like many of the steps on this list, you don’t need to make an absolute change. You can make a difference by just cooking more meals at home, and still get takeaway sometimes!

a person cooking eggs at home
Cooking at home is better for your health, wallet, and the environment

11. Save and store your leftovers

Food makes up a significant proportion of US waste: around 22% of all household waste is food scraps.

Not only does this contribute to landfill, it is also one of the major contributors to climate change, partly due to methane release as it decomposes anaerobically in landfill. Growing food can also have various impacts, from soil pollution to deforestation, which is only heightened by wasted food.

Before you toss your leftovers in the trash, consider how to reuse them. Save them for an easy repeat meal the next day, or make them into a new dish the next day.

You can also freeze all kinds of foods to avoid having to throw them away: cooked meat can be kept in the freezer for up to four months, vegetables for eight months, and bread for three to six months.

Having a few meals in the freezer is always a lifesaver after a long day when you don’t feel like cooking, or if you have an unexpected visitor!

12. Be strict with meal planning

Another way to avoid wasting food is by effectively planning your meals. Before you go to the grocery store, make a meal plan for the week.

Detail what you’ll cook and make for each meal daily, and use this to create a comprehensive shopping list. This will help ensure you buy only what you need and don’t have to throw unused food away because it has expired.

13. Go for loose-leaf tea

You may not realize it, but the humble tea bag is a major waste culprit. Most tea bags are lined with polypropylene, a non-biodegradable plastic. Worse still, the organic materials inside the bag can’t decompose naturally and just add to landfill volume.

By switching to loose-leaf tea, your tea-drinking habit will be much more eco-friendly.

glass teapot with loose-leaf tea
Get yourself a cute teapot and say goodbye to tea bags

You just need to buy a tea ball or a cute vintage-style teapot with a built-in strainer and you can say goodbye to teabags forever!

If you’re not prepared to give up tea bags for whatever reason, be sure to cut open the bag and put the leaves in your compost, before throwing the rest in the trash. Or better still, look for bioplastic teabags.

14. Invest in rechargeable batteries

As a society, we’re getting much better at recognizing and avoiding disposable items like plastic bags and single-use water bottles. However, some of the disposable products we regularly use are less obvious.

Batteries are a prime example of this – we’re accustomed to buying batteries for our flashlights or wristwatches, and then throwing them away once they’ve lost their charge.

Not only does this contribute to landfill waste, but batteries contain a range of heavy metals and toxins, including nickel, lead, and cadmium. These can leach into the earth from landfill sites, contaminating the soil and potentially polluting waterways or the underground water table.

An excellent alternative is to buy rechargeable batteries: all you need to do is plug into a wall socket using an adapter, and it will replenish their charge.

While it’s true that these kinds of batteries are significantly more expensive than their disposable counterparts, you’ll soon recoup your investment in what you save on constantly buying replacements. Not to mention, this benefits the environment greatly!

Another eco-friendly option is to go for solar-powered products that run on the power of the sun. You’ll find everything from toys and rope lights to garden umbrellas, with a built-in solar panel or a small, portable panel that can be connected.

15. Use energy-efficient light bulbs

Light bulbs are another example of a common disposable household item that all too often ends up in landfill.

While you can recycle most kinds of light bulbs, this can be tricky, as they’re often classified as hazardous waste. You will need to dispose of them eventually; energy-efficient light bulbs last many times longer than traditional ones, significantly reducing waste over the long term.

Opt for energy-efficient LED light bulbs that deliver up to 50,000 hours of illumination for a fraction of the energy used by incandescent light bulbs.

16. Buy in bulk

Sticking to reusable bags when you go to the grocery store cuts back on single-use plastic bags, but what about all the bags, bottles, and other packaging you pick up at the supermarket?

If you go through your trash, you’ll probably find it full of product containers and their associated packaging. While some of these items can be recycled, for others, you have no option but to send them to landfill.

a person pouring dried peas into a glass container to help reduce packaging
Avoid plastic packaging and buy items in your own reusable containers

You can avoid this issue entirely by visiting your local bulk store. These shops sell everything from rice and pasta to spices in bulk – you need to take your own glass jars or similar reusable containers, and they’ll fill them for you!

17. Make your own cleaning products

Most cleaning products come in plastic containers. While you may be able to buy them in bulk or with refills, an even better solution is to make your own.

By making your own cleaners, you skip the packaging entirely, and can use old bottles or containers to store them. It may sound like a tall order, but it’s actually pretty simple to make a variety of cleaning agents from easy-to-source ingredients.

Furthermore, you can avoid the harsh chemicals found in most conventional cleaning products by using natural alternatives, and so protect not only the planet, but your and your family’s health too.

For example, baking soda will gently scrub away residue without damaging surfaces, while lemon juice is a natural bleach and vinegar is a powerful all-purpose cleaner.

Learn how to make your own, all-natural cleaners here.

18. Craft your own personal care products

In the same way, you can also craft your own personal care products and avoid buying them from the store in their associated containers and packaging. Again, this is easier to do than you may think: it’s relatively simple to make your own soap, shampoo, face cream, and even bubble bath.

You can find loads of tutorials online – here are a few to get you started:

19. Buy second hand

You can help reduce landfill waste by producing less trash of your own and helping to remove waste from the cycle. For example, buying second-hand products gives those items new life and stops other people’s waste from going to landfill.

various items sold at a flea market
You may be surprised how many cool items are sold on flea markets

There are plenty of good-quality pieces of clothing, accessories, furniture, homewares, and more that people want to get rid of even though they’re still perfectly usable and in good condition. They may be moving interstate, their tastes have changed, or it doesn’t serve their needs anymore – either way, their trash could be your treasure.

Hit up your local second-hand and thrift shops, browse flea markets, or jump online and check out what’s available on eBay and Craigslist. You’ll be surprised what you can find!

20. Buy less

Another way you can reduce landfill waste by modifying your consumption habits is to buy less entirely. When we discuss waste management, we usually focus on the end of the waste cycle: reuse and recycle.

However, it’s also important to consider the third R – reduce – which occurs at the beginning of this process. If we can reduce the amount of stuff that enters that cycle in the first place, we’ll have less that we need to reuse, recycle, or otherwise manage at the end of the day.

Furthermore, much of what we buy is fairly unnecessary. After all, do you really need four pairs of jeans and three summer dresses when one of each would do?

And how many of the appliances and gadgets cluttering up your kitchen do you really use?

By shifting how we view not only waste but also consumption and our lifestyles overall, we could greatly reduce the amount of stuff we buy, in turn decreasing the demand on manufacturers to produce it in the first place and slashing the amount of waste in the world, as well as reducing the drain on the earth’s precious resources.

21. Rediscover

Another approach that can help you greatly reduce the amount of stuff you buy is to take stock of what you already have. If you rediscover some of the things you have lying around at home, you may be surprised about how few things you need to buy.

If you dig through your closet, you’ll probably find all kinds of items of clothing that you’ve barely worn and forgotten about, and could start to wear again rather than buying something new. Equally, look at the back of your pantry to find long-life food, spices, and sauces that you should eat before the expiry, rather than heading to the grocery store.

22. Repair damaged or broken items rather than throwing them away

Another unfortunate part of modern society is that we tend to see everything as disposable. If something breaks, gets damaged, or is just a bit worse for wear, our impulse is usually to throw it away and buy a new one.

This is one area we should copy what our grandparents used to do as a matter of course, and try to repair the old item, only throwing it away as a last resort.

a man repairing a shoe
Think twice before throwing away a pair of shoes; they may only need a small repairment

Here are some ways to save pieces that have seen better days:

  • Darn holes in socks or patch a tear in your jeans or a jacket
  • Take your old shoes to a cobbler to have them resoled or the heels replaced
  • See if there’s a repair shop in your area that can fix your broken electronics
  • Repair broken ceramics like plates and bowls at home

23. Invest in high-quality items

Although it is possible to patch up and repair lots of things, the adage “they don’t make things like they used to” is all too often accurate these days. Indeed, many modern products aren’t built to last, either impossible to repair or not worth the effort.

That’s why buying high-quality items that will last you much longer before splitting, tearing, or breaking down is essential.

Instead of fast fashion, opt for a well-made piece of clothing from a local brand. Rather than cheap electronics made by a manufacturer you’ve never heard of, invest in a quality product from a reputable company.

Going for quality comes with a higher initial investment, but you’ll save money over the long term, as you won’t need to keep buying replacements. Most importantly, you’ll rarely, if ever, need to dispose of these kinds of items, as they’ll last you a lifetime.

24. Reuse and upcycle

Reusing things can be a powerful way to divert your waste and avoid it going to landfill. Reusing could be simple, such as reusing old shopping bags or using plastic bottles for storage.

However, you can also get creative, transforming your trash into something beautiful rather than sending it to landfill. Everything from pens and fabric scraps to old shoes and wood pieces can be used as raw material for crafting.

If you have kids, this is not only a fun activity, but it also helps them learn about the importance of waste management, and protecting the environment more generally.

Here are a few fabulous upcycling ideas:

25. Spread the word

As with any environmental issue, you can only do so much alone. If you want to help reduce landfill waste on a large scale, you must educate others.

By spreading the word about the problems associated with sending trash to landfill and what people can do instead, you can encourage others to be more eco-friendly in how they manage their trash.

no plastic and go green signs on white paper
Spread the word about your experience with waste management to encourage others to be more eco-friendly

Talk to your neighbors and friends, post something in your family Whatsapp group, or share an article (like this one!) or video on social media.

The power of this comes from the ripple effect: say you convince just three people to take action and reduce the waste they send to landfill. Then each of these people educates three others, passing the word on to three more, and so on.

Before long, this could reach hundreds or even thousands of people.

26. Join campaigns

If you really want to have an impact on a large scale and do something about the world’s waste crisis, you can join forces with others by joining a campaign. There are plenty of organizations, from local groups to multi-national non-profits, working on various facets of this issue.

Just a few examples include:

There are plenty of ways to get involved, from lobbying your local representatives and signing petitions to participating in beach or highway clean-ups and volunteering to support the organization.

Final thoughts

The amount of waste we collectively, both as a country and globally, send to landfill is outrageous. We can no longer continue to dump mountains of organics, plastic, and other non-biodegradables and forget about them.

Not only do landfills have a range of negative impacts on the environment – from soil contamination to contributing to climate change – but we’re simply running out of room.

Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to reduce landfill waste, from recycling, reusing, and upcycling our trash, to not producing it in the first place, whether buying zero-waste and refillable products or simply buying less.

You can make a difference by changing your habits or have an even bigger impact by educating others or joining campaigns.

For more tips on Green Living, take a look at our posts on sustainable gifts, vertical gardens, and this reading list for eco-conscious readers.

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