How to be a Zero Waste Family – Chris Burger

How to be a Zero Waste Family
By Chris W. Burger, Whitney Point, New York


We’re told that the average American generates 1,500 pounds per person per year or over 4 pounds per day. It has taken our family of four 15 years to fill a paper grocery bag with trash. We have calculated that this works out to be 3/4s of a pound per person per year. Not zero waste, but pretty darn close.


My wife and I started recycling on a personal level in 1970, inspired by the first Earth Day. Back then we relied on the local metal scrap dealer to recycle our metals, a glass manufacturer in a town 60 miles away where we had a friend who we visited from time to time, a local Boy Scout Troop that ran paper drives, and a backyard compost pile. Plastics had started to enter the waste stream, but had not reached over-whelming proportions and were easier to avoid. Several years later, I (along with others) started a volunteer recycling center through our local food co-op. Being a purely volunteer effort, the center was difficult to keep going.


It became evident that it would be important to develop a government run recycling infrastructure. With some community organizing, we were able to persuade our County to establish a recycling program. Our County operates the landfill. It is very expensive and a new landfill is difficult to site so the County has a vested interest to minimize landfill use. We started with a program that took sorted paper, glass, metal, and Plastic 1-3. Since then, we have continued to grow the recycling program to include all glass and metal, all plastic except Styrofoam, and most paper and cardboard products (even including such things as soiled pizza boxes and waxed and plastic coated cardboard containers). All are collected as a single stream, making it very convenient for residents. Film plastic (plastic bags, wrappers, etc.) is collected through all our major grocery stores (we found it easier to handle this material as a separate collection). Electronics also have special collections (the County offers a drop-off, but local electronic stores are beginning to offer the drop-off service as well). Hazardous waste (including batteries) is also collected separately. Some of the major home improvement stores are beginning to offer battery and compact fluorescent Light (CFL) drop-off. As we developed markets for each material, they were banned from the landfill.


The County does not collect waste, but is in the position to set the rules. Waste haulers must offer collection of recyclables and monitor the various material bans. They are fined if they attempt to bring recyclables to the landfill (enforced with spot checks). They are allowed to refuse to pick up a trash can that contains recyclables. A pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) trash system is in place, with residents buying special bags for waste. The recycling system is paid for by waste disposal fee revenues. Since the recycling program is constantly growing and there is fixed costs at the landfill that are now spread over a shrinking volume of waste, the price of disposal is constantly rising (also providing a strong motivation to recycle). The overall cost to the resident, however, is not rising since their waste portion is going down.


As for the organics (other then the recyclable paper and cardboard products), yard waste, too, has a special collection within the urban areas. The County is now ready to embark on building a municipal composting facility. Many of us in the rural areas are already doing backyard composting and have been for years. While I have been a part of the effort to promote municipal composting, I doubt if I will be personally using it.


What we do as a family is not rocket science, but does require paying attention to details. All the little tricks such as using cloth bags, napkins, handkerchiefs, etc. come into play. There is no one magic single strategy. We are, of course, making full use of the County’s recycling program which is why I felt it was important to tell that part of the story. It has made our lives much easier then when we first started out (anyone committed to reducing their waste is very motivated to help create such a support system). Our backyard composting includes all food-scraps and un-recyclable paper products (shredded). Our two daughters were born in 1978 and 1982 and grew up with reduce, reuse, and recycling in their vocabulary. It really does become second nature once you make it easy (even a child can do it!).


Obviously, we are avoiding all products that cannot be either recycled or composted (OK, I guess that qualifies as an overall strategy, but you didn’t need me to tell you that). At one point, we had a recycling outlet for Styrofoam up the road from us, but that has since closed down so we are back to avoiding this material (what does come into our home winds up in our attic as temporary insulation). We are disassembling things, but that too was made easier when used electronic collection came on board.


I characterize the avoided materials as being made up of “composites;” items that have two materials glued or fused together in such a fashion that it is next to impossible to separate. Anyone who has tried to separate the plastic from the foil in some forms of packaging, for instance, knows exactly what I am talking about. One becomes very motivated to avoid such “inconvenient” packaging in the future. I should point out that you very quickly learn to spot such material so avoiding it is not such an onerous task as it sounds. It is this type of material that we can expect to disappear when Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies are put in place. (EPR will also pay for the recycling infrastructure as disposal revenues disappear.)


Overall, we are guided by two basic questions. When we purchase anything, we ask “Do we really need it?” If we really do need it or even if we just want it we ask “Are we willing to take responsibility for it?” Disposal is not an option since, as we all know, there is really no such thing as an “away” where we can toss it. This means it will be either recycled or composted. If we aren’t willing to take responsibility for it, we don’t buy it.


Chris Burger was a member of the Sierra Club National Zero Waste Committee and lives in Whitney Point, New York.

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