Let’s Talk Trash
In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d learn so much or be so interested in trash!
When I was a child, it was my job to take out the daily compost. In the summer it was stinky and there were bugs all around the bin. In the winter, nothing was decomposing because it was frozen. I didn’t get it.
Then in college I saw things differently. I came to see trash as a resource, a realization that would set me on a path I would not have predicted.
I realized everything is connected in one big loop. Therefore, everything must go somewhere – there is no “away.” The consumption of resources (inputs) must produce outputs that are used for something else. When we are finished using something, it doesn’t vanish, it just takes a different form. Think of it this way, when baking a loaf of bread, we use flour and other ingredients (inputs) to get bread (an output). We never see the ingredients again as they were originally, because they’ve taken on a different form.
This was on my mind the day I stood next to a pile of American Family rubbish at our waste hauler’s sorting facility last October. Our vendor had dumped our 40-yard compacter on the floor for our viewing and sorting pleasure (see photo). It was an eye-opening experience for me and the rest of the recycling project team.
We were there to estimate what percentage of our trash was organic and could be recycled and what could go to the landfill. We were astonished to see huge amounts of recyclable materials in the waste pile headed to the landfill.
Since that day, our facilities operations project has taken a new approach to recycling. First, we needed to define what our desired outcome would be. Second, we had to figure out how to get there. After a lot of thought, we decided on an ambitious goal of reducing the amount of waste we send to a landfill from the national headquarters to be no more than 10 percent of our total waste output.
Now, we face the challenge of achieving this lofty goal. Stay tuned. Every employee will be an important part of this program’s success!
Looking back to my childhood, I can now see how much I learned from our family compost pile. It produced nutrient-rich soil that was applied directly to our garden, which produced food that went directly to our dining room table. It also cultivated a culture of recycling in our home that set me up for my life’s work. It created a neat and tidy feedback loop.
We can all do a better job of recycling. How do you, as an individual, think about waste? What do you do to complete the loop and make a positive impact on our global problem of waste?
Editor's note: American Family Insurance is the now the first major private employer in Dane County, Wisconsin to routinely divert food-related waste from the landfill. Read more about our zero-waste initiative here, and learn more about our company's sustainability efforts on our website.