Minimize your trash with a trash audit

One of the best ways to get a handle on your trash output is by channeling your inner raccoon.

Yup, I’m talking about digging into your trash can and finding out what’s really going on there with a trash audit.

It can be a pretty gross undertaking, but honestly: what can motivate you to reduce your waste production than the prospect of digging through it a second time?

What is a trash audit?

A trash audit is essentially a study of what kind of trash you make. This is obviously incredibly helpful for someone interested in the zero waste movement, as it sheds light on problem areas. But don’t be too hard on yourself – you’ll always have some trash because we don’t live in a society with a circular economy. If you want to learn more about that, check out my post on why zero waste isn’t zero.

Honestly, I think a lot of people will be shocked at the amount of trash they create absolutely unconsciously every day.

Think fast: what’s in your trash can right now?

You probably can’t answer that question, can you? That’s kind of the point. Once you get a full view of what you’re actually tossing, it’ll be far easier to pinpoint effective lifestyle changes to make in order to reduce waste.

The good news, though, is that once you do a trash audit you’ll be set for quite some time. Don’t think this is something you need to do weekly, or even monthly (I mean, unless you want to and then go for it!). I usually conduct a trash audit when I feel myself slipping – when the trash starts piling up a little faster and my purchases get sloppier.

What's a trash audit and why should I do one? - Green Indy Blog

What’s the procedure?

Now that you can answer the questions ‘what is a trash audit?’ you can get started – just start digging through your trash. Wait… you wanted more direction than that?

Oh, fine – here you go:

  1. Choose a length of time.  A week is an excellent time frame. It’s not so much time that you get bogged down in an insurmountable pile of garbage, but it’s also long enough that you should get a decent slice of what your actual waste output is like.
  2. Choose the way you’re going to analyze your trash. By number of items? By weight? How will you divide it (compost, recycling, landfill, etc)?
  3. Start with just landfill trash. This means – ideally – having recycling and composting options set up in your home. Compost is a no-brainer since you’ll eliminate all the ickiness of trash; I’m able to do a trash audit simply because I don’t have to worry about sticking my fingers into a week-old apple core. (If you absolutely can’t compost, at least create a wet and dry trash.) Recycling should also be separated immediately just because there’s a chance it’ll get thrown away if it’s not sorted properly. I realize not everyone has time to dig around in their trash, especially if you create more than we do.
  4. Take notes on what you find. Measure how much trash you produced (and a spot for comparing your change later) as well as notes on what you see most often and a goal-setting area.
My trash audit, February 2018

I was actually pretty proud of my husband and I when I looked at what we’d produced! This is our landfill-bound trash production for one month. (There are a few things in there that can be recycled or composted, so I put them to the side. My husband isn’t always sure, so I tell him to just toss it in and I’ll figure it out.)

Our trashcan is a small metal one meant for a bathroom, I think. I’d say we fill it about every month, but when I remove the items able to be recycled, composted, or reused, that stretches to about seven or eight weeks. For example, three of those plastic bags I’ll save to be reused as storage or mini greenhouse toppers.

Our biggest trash producer by far is receipts. The places that we typically shop (Fresh Thyme and Big Lots for groceries) do not provide an option for not getting receipts. And because they’re not the plain matte kind I don’t want to risk putting them in the recycling stream and potentially contaminating it (source). So to the trash they go.

Other than that, and the ubiquitous produce stickers, I think our household is doing a great job, especially because my husband is not consciously zero waste. (Read more about going zero waste with someone who doesn’t care here.)

Notes on what’s in my trash can
  • compost: we have a three-gallon bin I bought from IKEA. It’s about 1/2 way filled for about two weeks worth of organic waste. We then take it out to our tumbler in the backyard. To read more about our composting system, check out this
  • recycling: our city has an amazing recycling program where we can throw everything in together and have it recycled with no issue. We have a small blue bin and I’d estimate it was filled about halfway with recycling, mostly paper, a styrofoam cup, and a few plastic containers.
  • This does not include all the trash we produced. For example, we received a package with bubble wrap – we’ll reuse the cardboard box and bubble wrap for sending a package soon. Items that have been repurposed I don’t count until they actually head to the landfill.

Have you ever done a trash audit? Would you consider doing one now you’ve seen how it works?


  • Maybe for alcohol you could switch to refillable growlers (or howlers, half growlers?). We’ve been stuck on this one too because often we can’t finish a whole growler ourselves… but a howler over dinner for two seems doable. We’ve also contemplated forgoing beer at home and just going out to a bar with taps when we want a drink. (Maybe even filling a water bottle there for home, if that’s legal?). Anyway, no pressure at all to make a switch there, just a few of the options I’ve been mulling over myself in that arena 🙂

    • I have a couple growlers that we use on occasion but my husband and I really don’t do beer. Ash & Elm has great cider but again, I only want cider so often. We’re liquor people so it’s been a struggle to find options! I feel like a solution must exist, but IN is still incredibly backwards re: liquor laws, so maybe not?

  • I use cat litter that is compostable and I mix it with small animals pine shavings. We also have compostable bags that the cat box cleanings go into…doesnt smell great but it has been working and breaking down. I did an experiment, bought a bag of animal bag compostables, and compostable bag liners – they both worked well though bag liner broke down much faster! Like if it was fresh litterbox, while I was filling the bag 🙁

    • I was looking into that but right now my compost is going toward an edible garden. Once we purchase a house (within the next few months), I may want to pick your brain about all this because I’m super interested!

  • So, my understanding has been that the boxes like Coke comes in, or the Poptart box you have listed are actually paperboard, and not cardboard. I drop my recycling off at the Broad Ripple park location, and they don’t accept paperboard items there, to my knowledge. I’ve just been throwing them over for over a year now, unfortunately. Do you take yours to a place in Indy that accepts paperboard?

  • […] No, you don’t have to tear your trash can apart – unless you really want to. What I suggest is keeping a running list of what you toss in the trash for the day (or several days). You’ll probably be surprised at the sheer amount of times you head for the trash can! For an in-depth post about how to conduct a trash audit, head over to this post. […]

  • I’ve been auditing my trash every once in a while for years. Usually I just look in the trash before it leaves the house and figure out what i have most of, and then try to find a way of avoiding that trash. Food packaging makes up most of the last of our family’s trash today, and plastic food bags are not recyclable here, so that is my focus this month.

    Here we have a great curbside recycling program, but unfortunately we are an hour away from any grocery that sells bulk! Even the natural food store in our town divvies up their bulk foods into pre-measured plastic bags for their convenience! We’ve tried talking to the owner about that, but she’s nuts.

    So for anyone else who does not have a bulk store near, there are still a few things we can do to reduce waste. I love snacking on dried fruit instead of sweets, but i was buying them in prepackaged bags, as they usually come. I invested in a food dehydrator and find it very easy to use! Now i can buy fruit (and vegetables) package free, local, and in season, and dehydrate my snacks and store fridge free for the year. I’m also exploring my area for larger units of rice, oats, and flour. After all, when we buy package free at a store, the store still got the item in a package. Fewer packages means less waste and sometimes larger bags means biodegradable paper or cloth sacks.

    Thank you for your challenge! I’m learning lots from you and others.

    • So many good ideas in this comment, thanks so much for sharing Holly! I love the idea of buying in bulk (ie. larger packaging) because it’s a great alternative to not having any true bulk options.

      A huge congrats on working toward zero waste in a difficult situation and I look forward to any more information/tips you come up with along your journey!

  • Really confronting to take a trash audit the first time! Like a food diary – it really was confronting to see just exactly what I had been putting on my family’s mouth – and then later into the trash! Listening to your webinar as I write this! Very detailed and helpful – will be sharing with my Waste Less Wednesday class.
    Thank You,

Polly Barks Green Indy

Welcome to Green Indy! I’m Polly, and I’m here to show you that zero waste can be more accessible than you think. Ready to get started? Head this way.