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Zero Waste: Beyond ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’
From classrooms to communities, groups around the United States are working to curtail landfill-bound garbage.

Volunteers man the recycling bins at University of Michigan’s first zero-waste tailgate.
The Ann Arbor Chronicle

On its surface, the University of Michigan homecoming football game seemed typical. Alumni decked out in yellow and blue celebrated their alma mater with mountains of food and drink. But this wasn’t your average tailgate. Separate bins for recycling, compost, and trash manned by 35 volunteer educators lined the field house. Former students used biodegradable plates and flatware, and drank from biodegradable cups. The event diverted 1,000 pounds of trash (100 bags) from reaching a landfill.

Grad student Merry Walker, leader of Michigan’s Student Sustainability Initiative, calls the university’s first “zero-waste” event a stepping stone. “Hopefully, we can have an entire zero-waste football game,” she says. “A couple years down the line, we want to have an entire zero-waste football season.”

That may sound a lofty goal considering the daunting notion of zero waste. But Walker and Michigan’s SSI are up for the challenge, and they have tremendous company around the country, in the form of festivals, schools, film companies, even individuals. Zero waste is taking off. But does it literally mean no waste, and is that feasible? “We’re at the stage in the zero-waste world where we’re defining what we mean,” says Gary Liss, principal of the California-based solid waste and recycling consulting firm Gary Liss & Associates. “This is not a pipe dream, but the vision of the future.”

Zero Waste Defined
“When people first hear the term [zero waste], they’re either inspired by it or think it’s a crazy idea,” says Liss, who has been advocating waste reduction for more than 30 years. When encountering the naysayers, Liss points to Toyota and other companies that have taken real steps toward zero waste: If business can do this on a large scale, individuals can do it on a smaller scale. Not convinced? Liss changes tactics. “In nature, there are no landfills or incinerators,” he says. “We’ve got three and a half billion years of experience from nature that we need to learn from.”

At its core, a zero-waste lifestyle ensures that discarded materials become future resources. It doesn’t require eliminating waste completely but reducing and reusing as much as possible, then recycling or composting the rest. “Once people get into it,” Liss says, “they find it saves them more, increases their efficiency, and saves the environment all at once.”

The Concept in Practice
Eagle Crest Elementary School in Longmont, Colorado, has certainly put the concept into practice. In September 2008 teacher Mick Huiet’s third-grade students started divvying their trash into three bins, composting everything from pencil shavings to food scraps, and recycling all that they could. As ambassadors of the Green Star School program (run by nonprofit Eco-cycle), the kids taught their classmates to take the same action in every classroom. In January 2009 Eagle Crest launched a school-wide program, and by year’s end the school produced one-eighth the weekly trash it previously did.

With its total trash down, the school has shifted its focus. “It’s easy to reduce the waste,” Huiet says. “Now it’s time to look at what we are putting into recycling. That’s a challenge.” It requires behavior changes from everyone in the school, not just students. Education is crucial, says Eco-cycle program coordinator Cyndra Dietz. Without it, “contamination levels will be too high and the program will fail.” Luckily, she adds, the students are beyond enthusiastic—and they draw in the adults.

Seventy-one-year-old Arthur Boone would fit right in at Eagle Crest. He’s self-described “obsessive” about separating and recycling trash at home, which he sorts into the usual three bins. But in his utility room, he also keeps individual buckets for aluminum foil, metal, reusables, plastic bags, rigid plastic, and Styrofoam. He hasn’t figured out how to recycle Mylar, but he’s working on it. “You never put anything into the trash can if you know there’s somewhere else it can go,” he says.

Try This at Home
Boone is clearly at the extreme end of zero-waste. But there are baby steps anyone can take. “There’s so much dialogue about this, but now it is really time for action,” says Marguerite Jarrett Marks, director of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Arts Festival. This year the three-day festival, which attracted hundreds of thousands of people for its 50th anniversary, diverted 83 percent of its trash from landfills.

Marks suggests learning about zero waste, your community’s capabilities, and local composting facilities, and then imparting that knowledge to family and friends. That’ll help spread the word and make zero waste a way of life, she says. Also, pay attention to packaging. Buy in bulk. Reuse as much as possible, then recycle and compost the rest. “We’ve got to stop producing products, and we need to reuse the ones we have,” Liss says. “We can’t recycle our way out of this mess.”

To find out more about local recycling initiatives, contact your town or city environmental protection or sanitation department, or visit the Recycling Center or Earth 911. For general information about zero waste, check out the Grassroots Recycling Network or Eco-cycle.

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Related link: “Recyling Day