Aiming for Zero


By Veronica Chavez

Photo courtesy of Bill McChesney.

Go to the environmental section of any major news publication nowadays and you will be bombarded with a slew of harsh realities: we’re running out of water, running out of food, and running out of time before the effects of climate change catch up with us.

One thing we’re not running out of any time soon though? Trash.

In 2012, Americans generated approximately 250 million tons of garbage, close to half of which ended up in one of the US’s roughly 3,000 landfills.

Although much of today’s generation has grown up hearing the EPA’s “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” slogan, only 34.5 percent of America’s solid waste was recycled in 2012.

US citizens can’t be completely blamed for the amount of trash that ends up in landfills though. The EPA has to an extent failed to provide financial and technical assistance with recycling initiatives despite a bill passed by Congress in 1976 mandating just that.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 required the EPA to create a recycling program and appropriate waste disposal guidelines for each state in the US. These state provisions have remained incomplete since 1981 when funding for the cause was halted leaving many states with weakly-structured programs.

Even with such loose regulations in place, some states have tried to make the EPA even less involved in state-level waste issues. In 1996, Congress passed the Land Disposal Program Flexibility Act, which increased the level of toxicity allowed in waste disposals, essentially making it easier for companies and corporations to dispose of trash without penalty. Such flexible regulations have environmentalists concerned about the amount of mercury and other toxic materials possibly leeching into groundwater.

In 2014, the House passed the Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act, a bill that would assign priority to the states when it came to hazardous waste clean up, eliminating the EPA’s ability to issue regulations for these matters in states where similar laws already exist. The bill was met with much opposition from environmental groups, 129 of which sent a letter to Congress claiming the bill would “substantially increase the potential for harm” in US communities.

The bill never made it through the Senate.

Lynn Landes, founder of environmental research group Zero Waste America, spoke with BTR about the current state of recycling and waste management in the US.

“The recycling program in many ways is bogus,” proclaims Landes. “It has just given a green light to produce more and more plastic and disposable products by hiding behind recycling slogans.”

With such loosely-enforced EPA regulations, Landes believes that consumers have to educate themselves if they want to become more sustainable disposers of waste. Over the course of 10 years, Landes has compiled a wealth of information on waste management.

Her site outlines the history of the EPA’s involvement in waste management, important legislation, and of course a long list of ways to minimize one’s own waste production. During the time Landes began compiling information for ZWA, she would also attend radio shows, environmental conferences, and speak before committees on various issues concerning recycling.

Landes eventually grew tired of “fighting a semblance battle with money” against Congress and has since taken a break from fighting for the cause on a government level. She has left ZWA’s website up as a reference for people to use but now focuses mainly on increasing sustainable practices within communities.

In 2010, Landes started the Wild Foodies of Philly, a meet-up group that teaches members how to identify wild and edible plants within their neighborhood. As Landes explains, encouraging people to use their natural surroundings as a source of food makes them less dependent on packaged imports.

“Local self reliance and the zero-waste movement should go hand in hand,” Landes says.

Ideally, Landes would like to see local foraging programs like the ones taught in her meet-up group implemented in schools, an arena she feels “does more conditioning than teaching.”

More than anything else however, Landes hopes that more and more people will see how large of an impact they can have just by changing certain aspects of their lifestyles.

“You’re a leader whether you want to be or not,” Landes claims, “Everyone sets an example by the life they lead.”

Bea Johnson, for instance, has created a whole career for herself simply by becoming a leading example of the zero-waste lifestyle.

Author of the bestselling book, Zero Waste Home, Johnson began adopting the zero-waste lifestyle in 2008 after she and her family moved apartments. As Johnson tells BTR, they had only brought the bare essentials with them to their new apartment and began to see that a minimalistic lifestyle allowed them to devote more time to do the things they most enjoyed doing, such as hiking and going on picnics.

After becoming well-versed on environmental issues through documentaries and literature, Johnson and her husband decided to start implementing changes that would ensure a better future for their children.

While Johnson’s husband decided to approach the problem on a larger scale by starting a sustainability-consulting firm, Bea decided to begin creating a zero-waste home.

At first, Johnson was ambitious and started to make her own bread, cheese, and soy milk from scratch to avoid buying from the store. Eventually she realized that this was too time-consuming and began bringing her own packaging to the supermarket.

Photo courtesy of Ross Catrow.

For bulk items such as nuts, grains, and cheese, Johnson uses glass jars. For bread, she brings pillowcases.

Johnson refrains from using any toxic cleaners for her house, and instead uses white vinegar and water for all of her cleaning needs. She also makes her own makeup using organic products such as cocoa powder.

The lifestyle expert now spends the bulk of her time consulting with businesses about sustainability, opening up her home for the media and local environmental organizations, and even has a television show in the works.

“I know some people see my lifestyle as extreme,” Johnson admits, “but, really, if I didn’t talk about it, [my family] wouldn’t even think about it.”

Hopefully, through Landes’ and Johnson’s efforts, sustainable recycling practices will one day be equally as ingrained in Americans’ routines.