Humans produce trash — lots of it. All over the world, garbage is piling up in landfills, causing environmental and public health problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But you can be a part of the solution instead of just part of the problem. There are several relatively easy steps you can take to reduce the amount of waste your household sends to landfills.

“It’s partially a matter of knowing what services are available in your area and taking advantage of them. You also can focus on reducing the number of bags of waste that go out to your curb,” says Bill Hoffman, senior scientist and corporate fellow at UL Environment.

In her bestselling book, “Zero Waste Home,” Bea Johnson recommends using these “five Rs” as guidance: refuse anything you don’t need, reduce your consumption of unnecessary items, reuse anything you can and recycle or rot (compost) the rest.

Related: Don’t Bug Out Over Indoor Composting

Refuse and reduce

Look for products with minimal or sustainable packaging, Hoffman advises. Bring reusable shopping bags to the grocery store and buy in bulk by filling your own reusable containers. Skip the plastic produce bags and leave fruits and veggies loose, or invest a small amount in reusable mesh bags. Some supermarkets will even let you bring reusable containers to the meat and deli counters.

Bring a reusable cup or mug to the coffee shop so you don't need a disposable cup. Apply the same strategy to water by using a refillable water bottle rather than a plastic one. Reduce the amount of paper you generate by switching to online bills and bank statements. Stop unwanted catalogs, credit card offers and other junk mail by registering with sites such as, and Say no to ATM receipts and choose e-mail receipts over paper ones whenever possible. Consider switching from print to online subscriptions for publications you read regularly.

Reuse or donate gently used items

Instead of buying new, shop for high-quality used goods or rent those you don’t use regularly, advises the EPA. Keep items you use in good repair and donate anything you no longer need to local charities or other organizations instead of throwing viable items away. Used clothing, sports equipment, books and housewares in good condition are widely accepted, the EPA says. As for any magazines you choose to continue to get, find out if a local doctor’s office, hair salon, assisted living home, school or library might be interested in your recent issues as you finish with them.

Related: Plastics: Can I Recycle That?

Recycle what you can’t reuse

After you’ve reduced and reused whatever you can, recycle as much of what’s left as possible. Precisely what can be recycled will vary depending on where you live. “The consumer is kind of stuck with the municipality that they’re in,” says Hoffman. “They have limited choices for how they dispose of materials, and that impacts how you look at recycling. Be aware of what’s recyclable, and be informed.”

Even if certain items may not be put out for curbside recycling, your community likely has drop-off locations where items may be recycled for free or at a small cost. Electronic items can be recycled at many office supply and electronics retailers. Most municipalities have drop-off locations where hazardous items such as motor oil, paint, batteries, fluorescent lights, propane tanks and household chemicals can be recycled safely. “I set plumbing fixtures aside and take them to a scrapyard,” says Hoffman. “They even pay me for it. You just have to get creative sometimes.”

Related: 9 Things You Probably Didn’t Know You Could Recycle

Compost food and yard waste

Food waste is a huge part of the garbage that gets sent to landfills, so it’s important to compost anything edible that you don’t consume, Hoffman says. When food and yard waste are compressed with other garbage in landfills, it gives off methane, a greenhouse gas. In contrast, composting organic waste allows air to penetrate, and no methane is produced during decomposition. Composting also produces nutrient-rich soil that can be used in gardening or agriculture, according to the EPA.

Many cities now offer food composting as part of garbage collection services. If you live in a community without composting services, consider setting up a compost bin in your backyard.

If composting is not an option, putting food waste down your garbage disposal is often a better alternative to tossing it in the trash. “A lot of municipalities are using anaerobic digestion or composting waste from their sanitary wastewater,” Hoffman explains. “Instead of having it go to a landfill, sending it down the drain is actually fairly efficient in terms of getting food waste to a place where it’s going to be composted. That’s not true everywhere, but if you can’t leave compost on the curb, [the garbage disposal] can be an option.”

Dealing with what's left

After all this, you may still find yourself with items you don’t know how to handle. Check to see if your local waste management department has a website that can help answer the final questions in your quest to send as little waste to landfills as possible. The EPA and Earth 911, an online community devoted to helping consumers produce less waste, also offer useful tips for reducing, reusing and recycling at home and beyond.

Related: 10 Surprising Ways to Help the Planet

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Annika S. Hipple is a travel consultant, tour leader, freelance writer and photographer specializing in travel and sustainability. The former news editor for, she has also contributed to Sierra Magazine, Earth Island Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, the Seattle Times' Trip Magazine and many other print and online publications.