What is Trash?

03/15/2012 09:22 am ET | Updated May 15, 2012

What do you consider "trash"? Maybe you picture that cartoon-like image of a browning apple core, a slippery banana peel, a raggedy tin can, and a fish bone as trash. Well, most of that is not trash by my definition of the word. That tin can can be recycled, those two beautiful pieces of food waste can be composted, and that fish bone, well, that can stay there... But the point is, we need to rethink what kinds of things we consider to be useless, non-repurposable trash, because a lot of this material is taking up space in landfills when it doesn't need to be.

In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 13.2 percent of the total municipal waste was yard trimmings and about 12.7 percent was food scraps. That means that 25.9 percent of the total municipal waste (before recycling) had the potential to be composted. Just by the numbers you can see that something big needs to change. But where do you start?

The first step is recognizing how you are directly contributing to the problem. I have always considered myself an avid recycler, but until earlier this year I never thought twice about how unreasonably big my definition of "trash" still was.

Next, you have to decide how large of a scale you can effectively apply yourself to. Because we all eat food and throw some stuff away, this idea can be seen as global, but it's easier to start a little smaller. So two other seniors at my school and I thought about it and realized that a concentrated group of kids and teenagers, all eating at least one full meal per day within the same general area, provided the ideal setting to retrain peoples' habits of dumping all their trash in the nearest trashcan and leaving it at that.

Once you've gotten past the point of figuring out where your effort would be most effective, you have to do something. Buckminster Fuller said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something you have to build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." Taking this example, we started a composting system at our high school.

Looking back, almost exactly a month from when we put the new bins and the composter on campus, I see something really amazing. I see the potential that being inspired by something can have. What I've really learned is that there will be people who inspire you and push you, but what you really have to do is take responsibility and let that inspiration evolve into action and change. Our small group of three 17-year-old high schoolers with some motivation and knowledge has exponentially grown to become an entire community of educated people who can continue to spread this information beyond what we alone could have possibly reached on our own.