The Connection Between Trash and ‘Stash

I’ve noticed a little pattern recently, and I thought it would fit right in with the things we learn about here in Money Mustache School, so I’d like to share the story with you.

Tuesday is garbage day in my neighborhood, and that means everyone will be rolling the enormous 96-gallon bins provided by the city, down to the curb. Most of these will be quite full, with about a quarter of them so full that the hinged lid pokes up at an angle, as if in a big dumb salute to Ultimate Wastefulness.

If you’ve never seen a 96-gallon plastic container, it is quite a sight to behold. You could easily hide the entire MMM family in one of these things, or several hundred pounds of various kinds of waste. If you filled it with water, it would weigh 800 pounds. When I’m in the middle of a construction project, I find that I can fit an entire bathroom’s worth of renovation debris into the thing easily.

Although the sheer size and weight of this container would take two strong people to lift when it is full, my city is able to empty thousands of them per day, thanks to a fleet of very sturdy tractor-trailer trucks with hydraulic robot arms on their curb-facing side. The truck roars up to your house and brakes aggressively to a stop, and the robot arm effortlessly picks up the 200-pound container as if it were made of styrofoam, hoists it 16 feet in the air and dumps it into the top of the truck, then slams it back to the curb. Then the truck’s 400-horsepower turbo diesel engine goes straight to full throttle and accelerates the 30,000 pound load of truck and trash for a few seconds before burning the energy back into the brakes and stopping at your next-door neighbor’s house to repeat the process*. This cycle repeats all day, every day, since it takes seven days to make the rounds of the city, by which time it is time to begin anew.

Other than my occasional guilty habit of generating construction debris by renovating other people’s houses, I find that the 96-gallon container would hold between three and six months worth of our normal household trash. In fact, as a way of saving the 30,000 pound truck some gas, I only put our container out to the curb when it gets full, which is once per season or once per construction project, whichever comes first.

Expressed as weight rather than volume, I’ve measured our total trash at 2-10 pounds per week. The average individual person in the US generates 22 pounds per week, meaning you’d expect our family of three to be rolling 66 lbs to the curb every Tuesday. So when comparing both weight and volume to our neighbors and the EPA website above, we seem to be throwing out about 90% less stuff than normal. What gives?

First of all, Mr. Money Mustache is not a holy zero-trash saint like the No Impact Man. I often get ribbed from my own readers in the comments about leading a relatively decadent life.

On the other hand, it does annoy me every time I have to heave something I bought into that big black bin, and this definitely affects my spending patterns – I try not to buy things if I can foresee any part of them ending up in the trash. Since I feel unhappy when throwing things out, I become happier when I avoid this activity. And thus, it is yet another way buying less stuff ends up building happiness – which luckily happens to be perfectly aligned with becoming financially independent as well!

With that justification, I now present

Mr. Money Mustache’s Top Four Ways to build Stash while Reducing Trash:

  1. Think carefully before making purchases that will end up in the trash. Very carefully. Disposable diapers for your baby? Forget it. Cloth diapers are just as easy, a thousand dollars cheaper per child, and a thousand times better for the environment. Paper or styrofoam cups and plates for that picnic or dinner party? Give me a break, use your real damned dishes and then smile when you wash them instead of crying when you have to throw them out. Packages from products you buy? Maybe for the first year after you buy your first house, but after that, you really don’t need many products, especially since your products will come mostly from Craigslist, where someone else took care of the package for you. Fast food packaging? Stop making me laugh so hard, because it has become difficult for me to aim my fist properly at your face!
  2. Recycle what can be recycled. This isn’t a perfect solution, so you shouldn’t feel great about having a full recycling bin. But at the same time, it is obvious that you will end up with some bottles, jars, and cans from leading a modern and convenient life, and these things must never end up in a trash can, regardless of where you are.And obviously, none of these will be bottled water containers or other frivolous things that could have been obtained without packaging if you thought about it properly, right? Larger chunks of metal like old patio furniture, lawnmowers, appliances, or water heater tanks can either be brought to a local scrap metal company (which may even pay you for them), or donated to the recycled building materials store.
  3. Food Waste Is Not Garbage. As heavy garbage producers read the introduction to this article, they probably thought, “man, I could never let my garbage can sit for 2 months before emptying it.. it would stink to high heaven!”.  But while my own trash is not a pretty sight, it still doesn’t actually stink very much, and that’s because it’s just the little plastic wrappers and lids and chunks of styrofoam that aren’t accepted by the recycling company.Where do my apple cores and banana peels and coffee grounds go? Into the Compost pile, of course! If you live in a house rather than an apartment, you should be composting all of your food, along with your leaves and garden scraps. Look it up – it is literally as simple as choosing a corner of your yard and throwing everything into a pile.My Mum taught me this when I was just a tiny boy, and I have followed the tradition for my entire life. It turns into rich soil very quickly, which you use in your garden. Mrs. Money Mustache just harvested FIVE wheelbarrow loads of Black Gold from our compost pile last week to make more gardens. If you are fancy or have problems with animals snooping in your compost pile, you can upgrade it to a box or barrel.
  4. Messy families like mine benefit from cloth napkins. A few years ago, I noticed that a big portion of our remaining garbage was white paper napkins, used to wipe faces and tables and countertops after various eating and spilling activities. Then I noticed that the local New Orleans-style restaurant just has a little box of rectangular pieces of scrap fabric on each quaint tabletop, instead of paper napkins.Eventually, we put two and one together and cut up a bunch of attractive fabric scraps to make our own napkin supply**.. and since then, we’ve never bought a paper towel or napkin (although I’m still working my way through a roll or two that were left over from that era, for really oily stuff like bacon grease).

On the surface, these may just sound like Trash saving techniques, but I find it’s more powerful than that and there is a positive ‘Stash component as well.

A Mustachian’s wealth comes in equal parts from being an optimistic producer who earns a great income, and from being a stubbornly efficient user of this income who refuses to see it go to waste in such an obvious way as the Big Black Bin.

* I’m actually working on a letter to the head of the sanitation department of my city, since my calculations show if they asked the driver to slow down the peak speed by 4MPH, the fuel savings would be much greater than the extra salary and benefits to pay the worker for more hours. So we’d be saving the city money AND creating more local jobs. The trucks would probably last longer as well, needing fewer brake jobs.

** I think this box of cloth napkins was Mrs. Money Mustache’s birthday present to me for something like my 35th birthday. Best gift ever!

  • FullyBearded JuniorMustachian October 28, 2019, 1:00 pm

    I am very aware of every time I lift the lid on my garbage can and actively seek ways to reduce how often I take a bag to the curb. My problem is that I have a cat and after even just a week, regardless of how much other forms of trash I have or haven’t generated, I gotta take that trash out or my whole 600 sqft apartment is going stink horribly! Anyone have any ideas on how to help solve that? It currently is resulting in a lot of half-full bags of trash being taken out.

  • TunafishTuesdays March 16, 2020, 12:37 am

    We live on a very small lot (0.17 acre) in Massachusetts, where every square foot of land is precious! Lol but our pallet-made compost bin really took up a lot of space. Then we got chickens and they now take care of all of our compost plus fall leaves – just toss everything in there and by the time the next fall rolls around, it’s ready to spread on our garden and throughout the yard. The extra nitrogen from the chicken poop ages over the fall/winter and is great for the garden come spring. Even our neighbor brings over her food scraps too! We love seeing her stroll over to say hi to her friends…:)

  • Suzanne June 11, 2020, 7:01 am

    On the subject of napkins –
    If you don’t like the way random scraps of cloth look on your table you can get them on Etsy or Williams Sonoma or other such places. Even if you pay full retail, you’ll still make back the cost of paper napkins. I got mine on Pottery Barn, although if my hands get something on them I generally just get up and wash my hands in the kitchen sink.

    Composting in a tiny apartment in your freezer –
    If you live in New York city there are places you can drop off your compost around the city, according to Lauren Springer, who writes about the Zero Waste lifestyle (producing no garbage at all). She keeps a small container in her freezer and drops it off when it gets full. Her blog is Trash is for Tossers. Other cities probably offer composting drop offs to make composting convenient for people living in small urban spaces.

    There’s a company called Terracycle that will pretty much recycle anything, you do pay for it but it may save money for people who pay for private trash collection.

    I’ve started googling “Zero Waste” products for things like dental floss (I can’t STAND those unnecessary stupid plastic containers they come in, and you can actually get compostable dental floss) and recently, coffee filters made of cloth.

    Next for me – making sandwich bread in the bread machine so I can stop buying it in the plastic package. Also cheaper to pay for the raw ingredients anyway.


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