What your trash reveals about your spending habits

household waste
Public Domain Max Pixel

Remember, you pay for everything that goes in there.

The humble household waste audit is a powerful tool. It's the first thing any zero waste expert will tell you to do if you're wanting to cut down on the amount of trash you produce. But it can serve another, somewhat related purpose, which is to figure out where you're spending money -- and don't we all want to know more about that?

Writing in the Toronto Star today, Gail Vaz-Oxlade pointed out that North Americans are notorious for creating garbage, yet struggle to find money to save. By delving into one's trash can, she argues, it is possible to find the solution to both of those problems. This unglamorous treasure hunt will reveal where some of your money goes. These are wise words that fit in well with the TreeHugger ethos.

What might you find, and what do these things say about your consumption habits? Vaz-Oxlade lists a number of categories worth examining, some of which are below, along with a few of my own ideas; but before delving into those, I would add that you should consider the recycling bin to be a trash can as well. Recycling rates are so poor, and plastic is such a crummy product, that we might as well call it what it is.

Disposable items:

Do you have single-use plastic water bottles, cutlery, coffee cups, straws, Styrofoam plates, paper napkins, disposable cleaning wipes, or ziplock bags in your trash can? All of these cost money that could be saved if you'd only adopt reusable versions.

Step away from the notion that convenience is king. It isn't. It may might life easier for a few short minutes, but all that trash has to be dealt with eventually, first by you hauling it to the curb or driving it to the dump, and then by a deeply flawed system that does not reuse or recycle nearly as much as we'd all like to think. Most of these items will end up lingering on land or in the sea for decades to come.

Takeout food containers:

Did you know that eating out costs roughly ten times more than making food from scratch? That's huge! If your trash is full of containers, then you should seriously rethink your food prep routine if you hope to get ahead financially. Read some of our many articles on menu planning, how to save money at the grocery store, and the importance of cooking in bulk. More: It's time to rethink the way we cook


Clothes are not on Vaz-Oxlade's list, but I think this is an important point to make. The average American will throw away 81 pounds of clothing each year, which is a shocking quantity. The problem is that much of the clothing in our wardrobes these days is a product of the fast fashion industry, designed to be worn a handful of times, as opposed to the hundreds of uses that their much more expensive, often handmade predecessors got. If you're throwing away stretched-out shirts, torn jeans, holey socks, and fuzzy, pilling sweaters, then perhaps you need to rethink what you're buying and how you're caring for those items.

Consider price in terms of number of uses. Opt for pieces that are versatile, well-made, and made of natural materials that will stand up better to the test of time. Learn how to care for clothes to make them last longer. Figure out what to do with old clothes, rather than sending them to landfill.

Conventional cleaning products:

Conventional cleaners are bad not only for the chemicals they contain (that, arguably, make your house far dirtier while giving it the appearance of spotlessness), but also for the quantity of waste they generate. And they're ridiculously expensive, when you consider that you can make your own for a fraction of the price, using bulk liquid castile soap, vinegar, and a few essential oils. More on TreeHugger: How to green your cleaning routine


When you throw away food, you might as well be throwing away money. Ideally, there should never be food in your trash can, unless it's bones that have been boiled clean in a stockpot. Most food scraps can be composted, but even that should be kept to a minimum if possible. The best way to trim costs is to eat all the food you buy.

Keep an eye on what's in the fridge. Store in glass jars or containers so you know what you have. Plan a weekly menu around what's in the fridge. Learn to make soups and stews in order to use up leftovers. Bake with sour milk or old yogurt. Reconstitute limp lettuce in ice water. Cut the moldy bits off cheese. Learn how to interpret expiry dates and make your own judgement calls on a food's edibility. Whatever you do, don't waste it! More: How to revive old food and make it delicious again

What your trash reveals about your spending habits
Remember, you pay for everything that goes in there.

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