Never mind “City of the big shoulders.” Chicago is the City of the Big Garbage Cans. Behind my old four-occupant, two-unit apartment building stood four 96-gallon supercart containers: two black ones for garbage, and two blue ones for recycling. Together, these monstrosities could have held 384 gallons of garbage and recycling, and the City of Chicago was prepared to empty all of them every single week!

In spite of our big garbage cans, I’m starting to see a shift in the way the world thinks about garbage. Outside of Chicago, garbage can sizes are shrinking as cities offer larger containers for recycling and yard waste/compost material. Collection calendars are shrinking, too. Skagit County tackles the waste-generating, big-container-frequent-pickup mindset by offering weekly, twice-monthly, or monthly collection. Every two weeks I set out a few ounces of plastic packaging and bottle caps in a 32-gallon can. Monthly pickup—or no pickup at all—is in my future.

Garbage is disappearing. It’s becoming a resource. “There is no garbage, only fuel we haven’t converted yet,” says one energy expert. In Denmark, garbage burned in very clean incinerators is an alternative energy source. In Washington and other states, methane from landfills is captured and converted into electricity.

“Urban mining” is gaining traction. Mining companies in Japan and China (and soon, the U.S.) are extracting rare-earth elements and minerals from cellphones, computers, and other electronics in landfills. Peninsula Plastics & Recycling in Turlock, California is remolding millions of pounds of plastic bottles into packaging for fruit, cookies, and cupcakes. Oft-cited on the internet is this nugget: Americans throw away enough aluminum every three months to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet.  If that’s true (I can’t find the source of that statement), mining landfilled aluminum can’t be far behind.

Then there’s my favorite: the Zero Waste trend. It’s partly an industry push to redesign products to eliminate wasteful packaging like plastic clamshells, and partly an individual quest to keep garbage at bay by buying in bulk, reusing containers, and otherwise avoiding packaging. The Zero Waste mantra? “Refuse, refuse, refuse” and “Don’t buy it!”  These folks are upgrading the old three Rs into five—Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rot (compost) and then Recycle—and launching a great new word: minsumerism.

Here are two Zero Waste slide shows to watch: this one about a California family that produces almost no garbage, and this one about the village of Kamikatsu, Japan, on track to become first place in the world to produce Zero Waste.

This is one race to the bottom—the bottom of my garbage can—that I’m really going to enjoy!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity