Zero Waste is the New Recycling

Published by Michael Frank on

On February 18th SUNY New Paltz, in conjunction with the BenCen, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Mid-Hudson League of Women Voters, and many other local and regional bodies such as the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency, will hold a multipart workshop on zero waste. (You can sign up for any part of the event you wish to attend, here.)

But what exactly is meant by zero waste? Didn’t we already ban plastic bags in the county? Don’t most of us recycle? Manna Jo Greene, a member of the Ulster County Legislature representing Marbletown and Rosendale, is also the Environmental Director for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and helped organize the forthcoming event. To frame the reasoning behind the event, which is largely focused on educating community members on how to do more, Greene gave the BenCen some historical context for how far we’ve come — and also how far we have to go.

There’s a myth that we’ve made so much progress, but still, New York City’s recycling record is woeful. What’s the long view?

Well, we have made progress. The Clearwater Festival dates to 1966. Pretty early they had “litter picking” signs, and there’d be 800-1,000 festival workers out there picking up trash. Pete Seeger would be out every day picking up cigarette butts. They’d leave the grounds cleaner than when they’d started. Pete and Toshi Seeger did something that was unthinkable then: recycling didn’t exists in the 1960s. But just by seeing people picking up and sorting the glass bottles, metal, and paper — this was before plastic was so prevalent — had a psychological effect. You’d go home and remember that. It’s exactly how you make something new into a logical daily practice. How you spread ecological thinking.  

This is the whole, “think local” idea of recycling, that it really starts small and spreads?

Sort of. But there’s another side to this, which is diversion. If you don’t have to throw it out in the first place, right? 

Part of what we’ll do on February 18th is tour Peregrine Dining Hall on the SUNY New Paltz campus because they’re both contributing food to local food pantries and composting food waste as well. 

This is a continuation of what we learned at Clearwater, where we won a DEC excellence award for diversion. Then at the Ulster County Fair we implemented something similar, and there, because we had animal manure, we could give the vendors buckets to fill with food waste and then combine the material and pretty quickly you’d be hot composting.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but we still have a trash problem. Especially around plastic, and the fact that even a plastic bag ban won’t stop the trend of so much plastic ending up in the oceans. How will this event address that massive challenge?

This is really a multifaceted issue. One reason we’re doing the tour of New Paltz’s Reuse & Recycling Center with Laura Petit, who’s the coordinator, and talking about Ulster County’s diversion and zero waste policies, and hearing from John Wackman, who is the organizer of Repair Cafes in the Mid-Hudson region, is because you have to look at all the inputs. Diversion starts with doing just that; not throwing it out, but figure out a re-use plan. Can you fix it? Can someone else use it? But we also have a session on moving beyond single-use plastics with Judith Enck, who used to work at the EPA. And coming back to policy, in the county we have a ten-year plan on recycling, and it’s fine, but it’s not very visionary on diversion; if we don’t imagine how to do this differently we won’t.

What are we doing now then, that’s not working?

We decided that single-stream recycling would work. It hasn’t. When the juice from the bottle gets on the paper in the bin, you can’t recycle the paper. We have to go back to sorting, but more than that, we have to think in an entirely circular way. We also have to think locally. We can’t think we’ll ship it to China. This is analogous to composting, but recycling locally. And including the cost-benefit of materials in a local economy gets everyone thinking about the logic of diversion and the economic value — or cost — of materials we use daily.


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