PUBLISHED: 4:58 PM on Wednesday, February 6, 2008
How much trash do you generate?
In an average day, Juneau residents create about 82 tons of trash.

Curious as to how much of that comes from you? While most American consumers and manufacturers favor convenience over reducing waste, some people are starting to stop and think about the cost of convenience, whether in the millions of plastic bags used each day at the supermarket or in mounds of Styrofoam coffee cups piling garbage bins high with a stench of superficial latte residue.

Ari Derfel of Berkeley, CA first wondered how much trash he was contributing to the garbage heap in October of 2006. So he decided to save every scrap of his trash for a year.

"Would it change the way I think or consume? What would it teach me? It would have to do something," Derfel said.

Over the year he began to amass the trash in bins in his living room, soon realizing he was going to have to change the way he consumed, lest the trash take over his entire house.

"Every time I purchase anything now, and I touch my hand to that object, I can see its whole story, the journey that product has gone on from state elements to some factory to some distribution chain, so it made it harder and harder to buy things. Its like anything, if you keep hitting yourself in the leg, after a while you stop, it hurts too much," said Derfel.

Courtesy Photo
  Ari Derfel stands with the trash he has saved all year. Saving everything has opened a window into how consumers can generate less trash.
Over time he was able to diminish the trash he created, but at the same time it allowed him to see how hard the habits and patterns of human nature are to break.

"There were times when I would just be moving so fast from my job to a social gathering to a thing here or there, that it was just convenient for me to go to a store and buy things in packaging and go on with my life, but I definitely made less over time and got to see where my behavior on a day-to-day basis would suddenly result in my consuming more again," said Derfel.

He generated about 96 cubic feet of trash over the last six months, about the volume equivalent of a queen size mattress and box spring.

"Some days I look at it and I think, wow, that's all, and other days I look at it and I might think, God that's disgusting," he laughed.

"My experiences have made me realize the only thing I can ever actually change on the planet is myself. That is the best and most rewarding thing to focus on. And if I change myself and I do it in fun ways, creative ways, and it ever inspires anyone else to do the same then that's cool. That's what community is," said Derfel.

The community of Juneau has more than enough trash to think about. The CBJ landfill receives more than 30,000 tons of trash a year. About 24,000 tons of that is what's called MSW (municipal solid waste) or predictable regular trash from homes, business, and institutions. The rest is debris from construction and demolition activities. Though the population is estimated to remain the same the amounts of trash is increasing.

Incinerators in Juneau were shut down in 2004 after failing to meet air emissions standards, so CBJ managers are looking for alternatives to deal with the growing mountain of trash in the landfill.

"Increased recycling can contribute to prolonging the life of the landfill," says Eric Vance who is the manager of the local facility. The amount of recyclables sent out to Seattle from Juneau went from about 450 tons in 2005 to about 1,400 tons in 2007.

"We're getting more and more participation in this (recycling) and we are now starting to actually gain profit from this process, 50 percent

What has contributed to the increase in recycling in Juneau?

"We went from being open just two days a week, to five days a week, and also gave out recycle punch cards to promote it. We also moved the old center to a more sheltered building where the old incinerators used to be," says Vance of Juneau's recycling center.

"Our goal is to recycle more and keep the landfill open. And its nice to see the Assembly working on a plan to increase recycling and to implement a curbside pickup recycling program, that is really the best way to accomplish that I think," said Vance.

The Solid Waste Working group has worked for the past nine months analyzing a systematic approach to determine what should be done with solid waste in Juneau.

Currently about 85 percent of households in Juneau use scheduled trash pick up, so predictions are that participation in a curbside recycling program would be quite high.

The Assembly in November approved recycling recommendations including design and implement of a Promotion, Education, Outreach (PEO) plan; design and implement of residential recycling collection service; design and implement of commercial/institutional recycling collection services; and adoption of recycling standards for designated construction and demolition projects.

While municipal recycling programs can make a big difference in the long run, individuals can start contributing now, he said.

Not only can recycling help, but many steps can be taken to create less trash in the first place. Derfel did several things as a rule right off the bat that reduce trash.

"I have a To-Go mug so I don't ever, ever get a coffee cup or a tea cup. There's probably three in the whole collection of my trash, and that includes airplanes. I ask them to please pour hot water into my mug, don't give me a Styrofoam cup kind of thing.

"I have reusable shopping bags; I think I probably used four shopping bags over the entire year. I carry a To-Go bowl with me, and there is a company called To-Go wear, that sells really convenient ones so when I go get Chinese food or Thai or anything I take it with me. When I go to the salad bar at the grocery store - I use my own container," said Derfel.

"I bet the average consumer would make somewhere between seven to ten times the amount of trash that I make, and that's the average. I think there are a lot of people who make less and there are people who make enormous piles."

Derfel points out that there are a lot of people who may call him a crazy liberal, but for those who want to take the conversation further, the economic benefit to grocery stores, coffee houses and all those places would be huge if people brought their own mugs and containers.

"It would save money on waste collection and having to buy disposable products. For a person who wants to make money, the person who wants to save the planet, the person who practices yoga or a person practicing their own religion and trying to figure out how can I be good in the world, there is a lesson to be had. Its universal if people simply want to see the good in it," said Derfel.

The trash compiled by Derfel this past year will soon likely be turned into sculpture by artists in California. Part of the process of taking it from the pile and turning it into art will be counting every can, bottle and bag and getting all the exact statistics on what was consumed.

Derfel intends to video and document the sculptures being made.

"My goal is to put this challenge out there and I want to find somewhere between 10-100 people around the world who are interested in trying this experiment themselves. I would like all of us to start on the same day and we can blog about it, post pictures of our favorite trash of the week, and make it fun. Between getting video of that and the art being created I want to turn this thing into a really compelling, interesting and educational documentary like Super size me."

Derfel's blog can be viewed at