The 411 on Conducting a Home Waste Audit

According to the EPA, the average person generates 4.51 pounds of waste per day. Have you ever wondered if you’re on the high or low end of the scale? You can find out by conducting a household waste audit.

I know, it doesn’t sound like fun digging through your garbage, but the best way to reduce your waste is to “know what you throw.” I’ll walk you through the process below in my own waste audit.

Reminder: Every waste audit is unique, so don’t expect your results to be the same as mine. Each household has different purchasing habits, and each community has different rules for garbage, recycling, and compost collection. I live in a two-person house with no children, in a city with a population of fewer than 200,000 people.

Step 1: Determine Your Timeline

First, decide how long you want to track your waste output. Since most communities collect garbage weekly, a seven-day waste audit is appropriate. For the most accurate audit, conduct your audit the day before collection day.

Waste Carts

If your waste audit shows that you recycle more than you send to the landfill, switching to a smaller garbage cart may save you money.

In my example, my household generated two half-full bags of garbage and a half-full bag of recyclables over seven days. My household generates so little waste that we switched to a 48-gallon garbage cart. We could probably go two or three weeks before putting out the bin for pickup if not for the fact that the Arizona summer heat turns food waste into smelly compost very quickly.

Step 2: Prep Your Audit Space

Set down a tarp, newspaper, or other protective covering on the floor before you begin the audit. Ideally, you’ll find an indoor space so no garbage blows away, but opt for tiled floors instead of carpet so that any leaks can be cleaned up more easily.

Step 3: Organize Your Waste

You’re going to create four categories of waste:

  1. Items recyclable at the curb (paper, glass, metal, plastic bottles)
  2. Items recyclable, but not at the curb (plastic bags, electronics, batteries)
  3. Organic waste (yard waste, food, soiled paper)
  4. Everything else (non-recyclable packaging, diapers, straws)
results of a waste audit: includes garbage and recyclable items

The contents of my household waste audit, with recyclable items on the left and waste that’s destined for the landfill on the right.

Step 4: Chart Your Audit Results

Once you have your waste sorted by category, create a chart that shows what you have. Here’s my chart:

Cart UsedMaterial TypeDescriptionQuantity
RecyclingGlassGlass bottles/jars9
RecyclingMetalAluminum foil4
RecyclingMetalMetal lids8
RecyclingPaperMixed paper22
RecyclingPaperNewsprint1
RecyclingPaperPaperboard boxes5
RecyclingPaperPaperboard tubes1
RecyclingPlasticPlastic bottles11
RecyclingPlasticPlastic containers7
RecyclingPlasticPlastic lids9
GarbageFoodFruit/vegetable remains11
GarbageMedicalBandages4
GarbagePaperPaper cups2
GarbagePaperSoiled paper8
GarbagePaperCandy wrappers16
GarbagePlasticFood packing bags27
GarbagePlasticPlastic straws2
OtherHazardousBatteries1
OtherHazardousLightbulbs2

You don’t have to be this detailed, but it certainly helps since not all paper and plastic are the same. In my case, garbage and recycling output is pretty even, with most of the garbage being single-use plastic packaging and food waste.

Now you have a pretty good idea of how much waste your household generates during a week. Of course, this doesn’t include items that you discard away from home. If you remember those items, consider adding them to your list for a more accurate audit.

Read part 2 of this series to learn how to make changes based on your home waste audit.

Editor’s note: Earth911 originally published this article on

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