Dave Chameides shows some of his collection of six months' worth of trash in the basement of his home in Los Angeles on July 1
David Chameides is not your average American. For one thing, the TV cameraman owns two Emmy awards — how many do you have? But more importantly, while the average American throws out around 1,700 lbs. of trash annually, for the past year Chameides has thrown out absolutely nothing. A deep green by nature — he also runs a website called Sustainable Dave — beginning in December Chameides decides he would keep all the garbage he created, at home and on the road, in his house. "We have the concept of throwing something away, but in reality, we're just tossing it over our shoulder and forgetting about it," says Chameides. "It wouldn't be so funny if it was really just in your backyard." (Hear Chameides talk about his trash habits on this week's Greencast.)
Essentially, that's what Chameides has been doing. All of his non-recyclable trash — including organic waste like food — is stacked neatly in the basement of his Los Angeles house. He uses a tin box to hold bags of waste paper, and cans of garbage to hold the rest. For organic waste, he put in a worm composter that breaks down leftover food. Beyond that, he didn't create a master plan for his year of no trash. "I didn't really think this through — which is probably for the best," says Chameides. His wife and kids are exempted from the challenge, but not from the neighbors' scoffs. "My wife's friends do make fun of me."
Not only does Chameides carefully pack away any waste he creates at home, he also lugs back trash he may have produced outside the home. Sometimes far outside: On a recent vacation to Mexico with his wife, Chameides dutifully tagged and bagged all the things he would have thrown out, and brought them back with him to the U.S. When he encountered security officials at the airport in Mexico, they were understandably confused. "The woman in the security line opened up my bag and saw all the trash," says Chameides. "She said, 'Que esto?' [What is this?] I told her, 'Basura' — garbage. They just laughed and zipped up the bag."
It didn't take long for Chameides to figure out that the best way to reduce the amount of trash he wasn't throwing away was to simply cut back on the amount of stuff he consumed in the first place. Given that his nickname is Sustainable Dave, that wasn't too hard. "I'm a non-consumer to begin with," says Chameides. "After a month or two I became aware of just how little I was consuming." Through about eight months, Chameides reckons he's kept a little more than 30 lbs. of trash — most of which dates back to the first couple months of the year, before he got the hang of not taking out the trash. The average American, by contrast, would have passed 1,000 lbs by now. (You can keep track of the trash that Chameides is not throwing out on his blog.) "It turned out that it's not that hard," he says. "I'm a pretty normal guy — I just keep my garbage in my basement."
It's easy to mock Chameides's earnest habits, but his quest does highlight an environmental threat that rarely gets attention. Most Americans have now come to believe that littering on the street is wrong, but as Chameides says, just because you throw something out in a proper trashcan doesn't mean it simply disappears. Though America's landfills are in no danger of filling up any time soon, taking out the trash is increasingly costly, with major cities like New York now having to truck their garbage hundreds of miles to reach an open dumping space. That means energy and carbon emissions. Chameides decided to begin his year of no trash after he visited his community's landfill. "It's nearly 40 miles away, and they have 13,000 tons of trash coming in every day," he says. "It's going to close in seven years, and then they'll have to ship the trash all the way to Arizona."
Government and industry can play their part in reducing the trash stream by cutting back on unnecessary waste — especially packaging, which makes up a surprising amount of our garbage. That's a symptom of the sort of culture we've become, one that's disposable, that runs on unthinking convenience. Chameides shows that what we really need to do is simply slow down and think about the waste we're creating, and the easy ways to reduce it, before we end up knee deep in our own garbage. "People ask me, 'Why are you doing this?'" he says. "It's because I want to know more about what my waste footprint is. I don't want to be part of the problem, but part of the solution." That's a sentiment that even average Americans should be able to agree with.