Welcome to the FAQ for Trash Me. Here I cover all of the questions people have been asking. Before diving into the questions though I’d like to explain the project in a little more depth to help you understand what I did and why.
For 30 days I wore every single piece of trash that I created while living like the average American in terms of consumerism. The average American creates 4.5 pounds of trash per day and I aimed to live the lifestyle that results in this. Normally I aim to live a near zero waste lifestyle so this is not a lifestyle that I am accustomed to. But for the 30 days I went about life in a manner that is very normal in the USA. I ate, shopped, and consumed like so many of us are accustomed to in this country. The only big difference is that I had to wear every piece of trash that I created instead of putting it into a garbage can.
Most people never think twice about their trash. Once it’s in the garbage can, it’s out of sight, out of mind. Many of us have seen photos and videos of overflowing landfills, oceans littered with trash, animals with plastic stuck around their bodies, and dead animals with stomachs full of plastic, but few of us see past these visuals to our personal connection to it. By wearing all of my trash for 30 days the idea is to create a shocking and unforgettable visual of how much trash just one person creates so that people can understand that they are actually a part of these issues. Once the conversation has been started and people are thinking about it I hope to inspire people to make positive changes in their lives to create less trash.
We live in an era when it’s so easy to have no idea of how any of our daily actions impact our community, humankind, other species, or the earth as a whole. I’m always looking for ways to get people to think about how their actions affect the world around them both near and far. I try to keep things very entertaining so that it reaches people whether they care about the environmental or social issue that I’m focusing on. Because we live in such a visually oriented generation I look for visual ways to make a point or grab people’s attention. For bringing attention to how much trash we create I thought what better way to than to wear it on me everywhere I go. No out of sight out of mind mentality is possible that way!
Did you create exactly 4.5 pounds of trash each day?
Originally my plan was to create exactly 4.5 pounds of trash per day but very early on in the project I decided that it would be more impactful to just try to float along in the breeze of American consumerism and see what I accumulated. I didn’t go out of my way to create trash or not to create trash. I just tried to do what everyone else was doing. This resulted in me creating a total of 84 pounds of trash, just under 3 pounds of trash per day on average. Some days I created just 1 pound of trash while other days I created as much as 10 pounds of trash. The average American creates about 135 pounds of trash per month so I created about 1/3rd less trash than the average American.
How did you decide what trash you were going to make?
I did not go out of my way to create trash but rather just tried to do what the majority of Americans are doing. For example when I was asked if I wanted a bag at the checkout of a grocery store I typically asked “What do most people say?” If the clerk said that everyone takes a bag then that’s what I did too.
Did you sleep in the trash? When did you wear it? I wore the trash everywhere that I went outside the house. I put it on before I left the house and took it off when I get home, so no I did not sleep in it. At home the trash suit sat on a mannequin so that even when I was not wearing the trash it was not out of sight out of mind. That was the plan at least until the mannequin broke under the weight just a week in. Of course then I had to wear the whole mannequin as well. Some days I didn’t leave the house at all and on those days I didn’t have to wear the trash. Other days I was outside for as much as 12 hours wearing the trash the whole time.
Did you wear other people’s trash? What about the other people in your house?
I only wore the trash that I personally created for the month. I did not wear other people’s trash because the purpose of this project is to show how much trash the average individual person in the USA creates.
What about the smell? Anything that was at all dirty I cleaned and dried before adding it to the suit. All food waste was weighed and replaced with dry rice so that I had no rotting food on me. I want to create a visual example of how much trash an individual person makes, not a smelly example. I am happy to say that I successfully managed to not smell even the slightest like a smelly garbage can.
What did you do with food waste?
Because the average person in the USA wastes about 20% of all the food they purchased I also wasted about 20% of my food. But because it would get really stinky to wear this food waste I stored it in the freezer and then weighed it every few days and then replaced it with dried rice. The rice represented my food waste and simulated the weight without having to create any foul smell. As a nation including grocery stores, restaurants, farms, etc., we waste about 50% of all the food we produce but my aim is to create a visual of what we do as individuals so I just wasted and wore about 20% of my food.
What about recyclables?
I wore both my recyclables and my non recyclables. The statistic that the average American creates 4.5 pounds of trash per day includes recycling. I included recyclables for a few reasons. First, The EPA estimates that 75% of the American waste stream is recyclable, but we only recycle about 30% of it. So the reality is that most recyclables are not actually recycled. Recycling is absolutely part of the solution to our problems and far better than the landfill, as it reduces the harvesting of virgin resources, but it definitely is not going to save us. A lot of the time what we put in our recycle bins isn’t even recycled because of contamination, inefficiencies, or just plain bad business practices. And even when done correctly, recycling is a highly resource and energy intensive process. The trucks picking it up get just a few miles to the gallon, the facilities use huge quantities of electricity, and pollutants are released in the recycling process. Plus many cities in the USA don’t even recycle. To achieve true environmental sustainability we need to not only reduce our trash but our recycling too. See this video for a better understanding of this.
What about compostables?
A vast majority of Americans do not compost their food waste or yard waste. So what could have been composted and turned into soil typically ends up at the landfill instead. I included compostables in my trash suit in the project.
Check out my guide to composting to learn how to compost.
How did you attach all the trash to your body? Nancy Judd of Recycle Runway created a special Trash Me suit that was designed to stand up to the weight of 135 pounds of trash as well as contain all of the bulk. It has12 expandable pockets so that it could slowly expand and grow as I added trash each day. The suit is made out of almost all repurposed materials and it took Nancy about 125 hours to design and create. See this Facebook live video of me putting on the suit for the first time and Nancy explaining how it works. Here’s a video of our collaboration together and some information on the suit:
What about poop, pee and toilet paper?
This project focuses just on the trash that we place in our garbage cans, not on what we flush down the toilet so I did not wear that waste. Poop, pee, and toilet paper went down the toilet as usual. Human waste is not included in the statistic that the average American creates 4.5 pounds of trash per day and is a totally separate form of waste. Although ultimately a lot of this waste does end up at landfills after it is skimmed off and trucked out of our wastewater treatment plants.
“I don’t create 4.5 pounds per day. There’s no way that the average American creates that much.”
This is a statement that I’ve heard quite a few times. First of all, I’d like to say if this is you, congratulations for creating less trash than the average person in the United States. That’s great! I don’t know anyone who’s actually weighed their trash though so I think most of us probably don’t have an accurate idea of how much trash we create. We put it in the garbage can and it’s taken away each week so we don’t ever really get a good idea of how much we create. Plus there’s those times when we throw away something really heavy such as a couch or our projects that create huge amounts of trash such as a kitchen remodel. We often look at our ideal moments and put everything else into the back of the mind. Sometimes our trash can is lighter than others but 4.5 pounds is the national average on an individual level, not including business and industrial trash which is a far larger number.
What did you do each day? What was your daily routine? This varied from day to day but most days I just did all of the standard things that people do such as going grocery shopping, eating, riding public transportation, walking to the places I need to go, etc. I also went to some gatherings such as art exhibitions, met with friends, and spent a lot of time in busy areas like Union Square Park and shopping centers to be a walking billboard of how much trash we create. A large portion of my time was spent doing interviews with media as well as a lot of the time on my computer and working with my team on videos, research, and social media.
Did you eat fast food/ meat/ junk food?
In order to make trash like the average American I aimed to eat like the average American because that’s where a lot of our trash is made. The primary way that this trash was made was eating a lot of packaged, processed foods at home. I also ate fast food on occasion as the average American does and ate out multiple times per week. Because a vast majority of Americans eat meat, I ate meat as well. Outside of this project I eat a primarily whole food, plant-based diet, but just for the month I sacrificed that to fully immerse in a consumeristic way of life.
Did I gain weight?
I gained about 4 pounds in the month I think. I would say about half was fat and half was muscle. I planned to weigh myself each day and document this but I did not.
What about your health? Isn’t this risky?
Going into this project I knew that this was going to be detrimental to my health. I normally eat very healthy and mostly zero waste so eating like the average American is way less healthy than I’m used to. I eat a mostly whole food, plant-based, unpackaged diet and the average American eats a lot of processed and packaged foods, far more animal products than is healthy, and far fewer fruits and vegetables for optimal health. But I figured that my body would be able to recover fairly quickly from eating a pretty crappy diet for just a month and that it wouldn’t set me back for too long.
Secondly, I worried that carrying around all that weight, especially in an unbalanced manner, could cause damage to my back and my joints. 4.5 pounds per day adds up pretty quickly and by the end of it the 84 pounds was extremely difficult. I did not end up doing any longterm damage to my body but I did strain my left shoulder and 4 months later my left shoulder is still in some pain.
During the experience I felt pretty crappy many days from eating junk food and not getting enough quality nutrition. But I actually adjusted to it pretty well because I knew long before what I was getting myself into. I came out fatter than I went in and in the worst shape I’d been in since I was a beer drinking college student 8 years ago. I planned to exercise immediately afterwards and eat super healthy but I found myself to be lazy afterwards. It took me a few months to get back into exercising and eating really healthy. I’m happy to say that 4 months later I’m back to where I was at physically and I feel real good. If any damage was done internally such as raising my cholesterol I don’t know. I got a checkup at the beginning and planned to go back at the end to compare but we didn’t raise enough funds for that to fit into the budget.
Besides the factors of eating unhealthy food and bearing all that weight I was also a prisoner to the weight and to the suit. I wasn’t able to connect to nature and do the simple things I take for granted such as laying in the grass or let the fresh air touch my skin. I was in the trash suit everywhere I went and that was mentally taxing. I also went a few days without leaving the house when I didn’t want to wear the suit and this was not good for my mental or physical health either.
What were peoples reactions?
The reaction has been incredible. On the streets every day 100s of people took photos of me and with me. There were all sorts of looks from total confusion, to intrigue, to laughter, to people chasing me down the streets to ask me about what I was doing. I rarely got a moment to myself without someone talking with me and of course most of the time we were talking about trash. Everywhere I went people told me they’d seen the project in the news or on social media and they were excited to see it in real life. So many people expressed that they had never realized how much trash they were creating until they saw this and that is was very eye opening. Countless people told me that they were inspired and began making changes in their lives so that they don’t create so much trash. Online the reactions were similar but also there was a fair share of people who just didn’t get it and thought it was absolutely stupid. There’s always a fair amount of negativity online but in this case the positivity generally far outweighed the negativity. Our videos got 10s of millions of views and I read so many inspiring comments of people who said they were seeing trash from a new light and were implementing positive changes after watching the video.
What did you do with all the trash afterwards? The trash suit is being used for speaking at schools and events and is used as a display at exhibitions and events as a tool to show people how much trash that we create as individuals and educate how we can all be a part of the solution. For 2020 the suit is on display at the Atlanta International Airport as part of Nancy Judd’s exhibition of trash art (see a blog on that here). The original trash remained part of the suit at first, but eventually the trash was thrown away and the recyclable items were recycled. It didn’t make sense to ship the original trash, when it could simply be replaced at different locations with other trash. The food waste that was saved in the freezer for the month was composted.
What can I do to reduce the amount of waste I create? We’ve created a resource guide for you with easy things that you can start doing today to make less trash and live a more environmentally friendly life. Check out our Take Action page! And here is a video from day 19 of the project with my top 5 tips to reduce your trash:
What are some resources to learn more and be a part of the solution? The Story of Stuff has been one of my greatest inspirations since I first woke up in 2011 to the trash I was making. Their short film is an absolute must watch for anyone who wishes to understand the problem and be a part of the solution. Their Facebook page is an awesome resource of information and inspiration.
Lauren Singer has been living zero waste for 4 years and all of her trash fits into a mason jar. Her YouTube channel, Facebook page, and website are packed with tips and info on how to go zero waste.
Bea Johnson is one of the founders of the modern day zero waste movement. She has two kids as well so she’s especially helpful for people with children. Her website, Zero Waste Home, is a plethora of helpful information. You can also find Bea on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube!
We Hate to Waste is an excellent website and community that teaches and inspires a no-waste mindset. This is a great resource for anyone who wants to live in a less wasteful world Follow them on Facebook and Twitter!
Life Without Plastic is “The one-stop shop for safe, high quality, ethically-sourced, Earth-friendly alternatives to plastic products for everyday life”. You can get everything you need for a lifestyle that creates less trash!
Also check out my guide How to Live a Near Zero Waste Life.
You are an environmental activist. Is it really worth it to create all this trash that causes environmental harm? Isn’t there a more environmentally friendly way to prove this point?
I normally live a near zero waste life and in this month I created more trash than I would typically make in a few years. I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t think the project was beneficial to the environment in the long run though. This project has created a visual that is paying off in the awareness and education it has created for millions of people. More people than I can count have told me that this project made them deeply think about their own trash in a way they never have before. An equal number of people have told me they are already taking steps to reduce the amount of trash that they create. I believe that this project is effecting enough positive change to far outweigh the trash I created. Because of the entertaining and eye catching nature of this campaign it has expanded far beyond environmentalists and people who care about the earth and is reaching people who’ve never thought about reducing their waste or why it matters.
Here is a video on how I normally live:
How did you come up with the concept for Trash Me? We live in an era when it’s so easy to have no idea of how any of our daily actions impact our community, humankind, other species, or the earth as a whole. I’m always looking for ways to get people to think about how their actions affect the world around them both near and far. I try to keep things very entertaining so that it reaches people whether they care about the environmental or social issue that I’m focusing on. Because we live in such a visually oriented generation I look for visual ways to make a point or grab people’s attention. For bringing attention to how much trash we create I thought what better way than to wear it on me everywhere I go. No out of sight out of mind mentality is possible that way!
Was I paid to do this?
No. This was my idea. We raised funds to be able to film it but that all went into the project. We did the whole project on about $11,000. The funds came from my YouTube partner BBTV, speaking at a few universities, crowdfunding, and funds I had previously raised through my nonprofit. Costs included filmmakers, a production assistant, the trash suit, the apartment, and all the consumption of stuff and food to make trash.
Was there any product placement?
No, there was no product placement. As you can see from the photos and videos there were a lot of logos that were highly visible. All of this came through my daily consumption. To make the trash as relatable as possible I tried to shop at the most common places and buy the brands that people are familiar with. In my normal life, outside of Trash Me, I always aim to support ethical companies, and I completely boycott most of the companies that you’d find in the trash suit. I believe that by buying their products you are supporting the company and even giving them your approval. That was a dilemma of this project but I felt that it was worth it to support them just for the 30 days to reach people in as authentic of a way as I could.
What was your biggest takeaway from this project?
Day after day the trash just kept piling on and my burden became a little heavier and bulkier. I was truly shocked at how much every little bit added up. I can’t help but imagine what one year, one decade, or even one lifetime of this lifestyle would amount to. This project woke me up even further to the behind the scenes impact of our nation’s, and much of the worlds, pervasive throw away mindset.
This could be a time of great depression and despair for me but any inkling of those emotions are completely overshadowed by the most powerful realization I have had in years. Through this project I have realized and solidified in my mind more than ever before that one person can truly make a massively positive impact in the world by making small changes in their life. It starts with one small change, and then another, and then another. By building upon those small changes and continuing forward, each of us have the power to transform our lives, our communities, and the Earth as a whole into a source of great pride and joy. Together we can take daily steps to live more in alignment with our beliefs and to create a world that is sustainable and just for all humans and creatures.