Zero Waste Says Reduce, Re-use, Recycle
This weekend we held an Ice Cream Social at the Senior Center. Sadly, the day was rainy and cold but happily, lots of people showed up anyway, some with youngsters in tow. I was sitting near the door with a friend who was facilitating the trash/compost/recycle bins. She had set up clever signs with clothespins to hold specific examples of what could and could not be recycled at this specific event. The display was charming and very clear yet she had to keep jumping up to guide people’s decision making. I wondered if she really needed to be so hands-on, but as I watched the interplay, it was startling to see how many people ignored the large, obvious signs attached to the various bins and just tossed without looking.
It was especially heartening to notice that the kids, from little ones to highschool students, all took a moment to look or ask for help deciding what was recyclable and what was trash. Moms were also careful to comply, and so were most of the older women. Sorry, guys, but men were definitely less apt to pay attention to where they tossed what or even look at the signs. Sigh. My friend belongs to Zero Waste, a movement that began in the mid 1980s , when Bea Johnson, living in Berkeley, where a recycling business called Urban Ore had begun the salvage-and-reuse movement that morphed into Total Recyling, a credo that spread to various other countries without really catching on in the US. In the early 2000s, Bea Johnson, a French Canadian woman living in Berkeley, started her blog, Zero Waste Home, and kicked off a domestic movement largely embraced by moms and kids (clearly still a thing!).
What Does That Even Mean?
Zero Waste may not be truly achievable, but we can all take steps to reduce our impact on this weary world. The five main ideas are: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rot and Recycle. Refuse is about not buying a bunch of stuff we don’t really need, rejecting items that are unsustainably made and/or with excessive packaging, and refusing to buy fast fashion toss-away clothing and single use plastics, among other things.
Reduce asks us to be creative and tireless in creating less waste in our households and lifestyles, from eliminating unnecessary purchases to consolidating errands and making fewer car trips and limiting discretionary travel. It also includes things like replacing old lightbulbs with LEDs and unplugging devices and chargers when not in use, etc.
“Waste is man-made. Nature produces no waste; whatever is consumed is returned to the whole in a reusable form. Man fails to utilize appropriately the bounty of nature.”
George Washington Carver, botanist and inventor
Reuse is one of my favorites, including make-and-mend techniques like sewing on a button instead of tossing out a shirt, sharptening knives, mending broken furniture, and reinventing outdated or outgrown clothing, and upcycling, finding new uses for what would otherwise become trash.
“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”
Annoying New England mantra (I love it)
Rot is all about composting, either making it yourself or using whatever local green waste recycling option is available to you. Every gardener knows the value of compost and many communities are also providing more and better green waste recycling options. If yours doesn’t, try rounding up a bunch of gardeners and putting some pressure on your local officials.
Recycle is at the bottom of the list because at this point, most North American communities have a long way to go to achieve significant recycling efforts. In my region, recycling rules change often, which can be very confusing, but they aren’t arbitrary, they’re based on what materials can actually be reused, which depends on local/regional technology. Be aware that many items, especially food packaging and products in single use plastics, that claim to be recyclable are actually not. That’s because lots of companies practice “greenwashing”, pretending to be much greener than they are and offering vague and unsubstantiated claims for redemptive practices that are intended to offset their continue use of plastics.
Nursery Pots Abound
Every spring, we gardeners go wild, bringing home carloads of lovely plants and finding space for them. Though the planting is pleasant, dealing with empty plant pots can be challenging, especially since most nursery plastics are not recyclable in many communities. Fortunately, there are quite a few good ways to put them back into use and keep them out of the garbage stream. As-is uses abound, from twine holders and button sorters to hanging planters for homegrown green walls. I keep a pair of round quart pots around for spreading baking soda on mossy walkways (stack two pots of similar size so the bottom holes don’t quite line up. Fill with baking soda and shake over the moss to get nice, even coverage).
Since I’m involved with many plant projects, I try to keep a few hundred 4-inchers around. That way, I can pass them along with packets of seeds when inviting both kids and adults to help with keeping local play parks and other public places full of edibles and flowers. Early in the year, I visit each group, explain the project in detail, then ask for their help in growing seedlings and planting them in public places. Such groups might include 4-H, scouts, school classes, garden clubs, the Senior Center, or the local affordable housing community. When planting time rolls around, arrange for a planting session in a park, at the library, the new community housing site, or wherever the need is.
Large scale projects can result in a plethora of pots in many sizes, none of which are recyclable. If clean and sorted according to color, type and size, some nurseries will take back 1- and 2-gallon pots, though more often they’ll accept 3- and 5-gallon pots and tree pots. Nursery flats are also happily received at most nurseries, since they generally pay the growers a fee for them. This can be as much as a dollar per flat, so do your local nursery a kindness and return any plastic or wooden flats you may find in the shed. (Clean them out first, please.) Local specialty nursery plant growers may be interested in reusing 4-inchers, quarts, and 1- and 2-gallon pots, especially in early spring.
I often take a bag filled with clean, sorted pots to the local farmer’s market where some venders are happy to take them. Garden clubs, Master Gardener groups, and grassroots nonprofits such as land trusts and native plant societies often run seasonal plant sales as fund raisers and willingly take clean pots. If you finally run out of options, take your (clean, sorted) pots to the nearest Lowe’s and ask where they keep their empties. In my area, local Lowe’s stores have a big outdoor swap bin where gardeners can leave and take home plastic pots. If yours doesn’t, ask if they might consider starting such a service. I’m told by store staff that the pots come and go quickly and only broken ones end up being tossed. Onward, right?