Friday, January 30, 2015

Approaching Zero Waste: I

Imagine it – zero waste.  No, or nearly-no, waste leaving your site for a landfill. It’s happening in more places than you think: college footballfields, a Subaru manufacturing plant, and a museum near you. To be fair, zero waste really means only 10% waste with everything else recycled, composted or remanded to the hazard waste facility to do so: still daunting; still achievable.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science has a bead on zero waste: in 2014 they hit a diversion rate of 80%. We started our first year (2007) at 46%. From then till now, our yearly average is 65%. Don Azuma, Site Manager, started the program in 2007 and measure 47% diversion. Since then the yearly average has been 65% diversion. Here are the numbers for 2014: 
  • The total waste stream came to 5,544.5 lbs. (2.8 tons)
  • Of that, 80% (4,411 lbs) was diverted to recycling, reuse, or proper disposal (e-waste, hazmat)
  • This significantly topped the 2013 mark of 68%.
  • 432.3 lbs. of compost and worm food
  • An estimated 483 lbs. of last year’s recyclables (aluminum cans/plastic/glass) came from the neighborhood’s – blown, thrown, and left behind

 Azuma attributes the constant improvement to continually looking for ways to reuse materials or convert them, instead of sending them to the landfill. I attribute it to commitment and creativity.  He said he didn’t start with hard numbers, just chose to start tackling the problem, “and then it picked up”. This is how good green works. Someone chooses to resolve a conundrum; in the process s/he learns, has some successes, and recognizes that some creative research and thinking can yield good results. Then one day s/he notices how far the work the institution has come, and how there’s a momentum that carries energy and engagement with it.

No one goes all green (yet); no on goes green all at once. But interest, commitment and creativity can surely speed the process. Azuma points out that the institution’s mission includes education, and this work fits. “By doing it and keeping the numbers, we can talk about it. This is education”.

At special events Azuma and his staff do the trash separation afterwards, but in regular operations he says the staff is very good at separating; “they’ve all bought in”, he says. His next initiatives are taking on the challenge of paper towel waste in the bathrooms, possibly through composting; and solving the plastic conundrum. “My mission is to keep plastic out of the waste stream”, he says.

Azuma says his list of material types that have been recycled, repurposed or properly-disposed materials is now 26, with the newest category being “bike frame”. Someone took the wheels and dumped it over the fence onto the museum’s property. Azuma donated it to the Neighborhood Bike Works in West Philadelphia to be reworked and reused by someone in need. When he found himself with dozens of extra bookends from the library, “perfectly serviceable”, he said, he called around to – libraries!  He found homes for them all. He could have interpreted book ends and bicycles “either as trash or a problem”, but he saw it as an interesting challenge and an opportunity.

Mike Nevala is in charge of “assets”, the goods that come and go, at the Detroit Zoological Society. After a storm event last winter created a flood and triggered a re-design and re-installation of the staff lunchroom, he had nearly 100 old staff lockers to re-home. He called around the zoo and found homes for nearly all in other departments, and then he recycled the rest. That goes right into his waste-diversion report for the year.

Sure it takes time. And sometimes it feels like that effort goes into a black hole. But Nevala’s colleagues have new resources, and Azuma has a new connection with Neighborhood Bike Works and a whole bunch of libraries. It will come around – not the trash, but the goodwill and partnerships.

Azuma says the plastic bags and the coffee cup lids drive him nuts, but the one without a solution so far is cigarette butts. At Dumbarton House in Washington, DC, within the waste conundrum, what bugs them is throwing out nitrile gloves all the time. In the UK and Germany public places use chewing gum collection points, with trade names of Gumdrops and Gummy Bins, to capture the mess and recycle it into toys, possibly tires, and, wait for it, Gumdrop containers. 

There are solutions to waste accumulation. They begin with McDonough and Braungart’s cradle-to-cradle and upcycle thinking in packaging and design. And as we get better at that, we also must get better at diversion. 

During 2015 the Sustainable Museums team is studying and testing Zero Waste strategies. These are the stories that encourage and inspire us.   

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