What is “Zero Waste”?
Zero Waste often refers to a lifestyle and a way of operating in the world wherein we work to divert all of our waste away from landfills and incinerators. The goal is to close the loop on waste and create a cyclical economy where our waste is turned into raw materials. This page will focus on how we as individuals can divert our waste.
The 4Rs refer to the Hierarchy of Waste. This is a system which helps us divert our waste in a thoughtful manner. Many of us are familiar with the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, and recycle) but many of us don’t know that there is an order we should be doing these things in. We should first reduce, then reuse, and as a last resort recycle. There is a fourth R that has been included in this hierarchy and that is Re-Earth (aka compost). Re-Earthing is not a step that comes after reduce, reuse, and recycle, but is something that happens alongside the other three.
Reduce – the simple act of choosing not to purchase something can help reduce your overall waste. By not buying it, you won’t have to throw it out.
Reuse – using an item again instead of throwing it out. You can reuse something for its original purpose or repurpose an item into something totally new.
Recycle – turning our recyclable waste into material that can be used by manufacturers to create new items. See below for FAQs about recycling.
Re-Earth – A.K.A composting!
For every pound of stuff that is thrown out, about 70 pounds of waste was created to make that stuff in the first place. This is called “upstream waste”. We should not only be selective about whether or not we buy something, but also be considerate of what we buy so that we can reduce our upstream waste. We can slow down and reconsider any tendencies toward impulse buying and at least begin to think about ‘do I want this?’ vs. ‘do I need this?’, considering the upstream as well as the down stream cost of what we’re about to purchase.
Look for products with minimal packaging or plastic free packaging. When food shopping, opt for the item that isn’t wrapped in plastic. Consider shopping at the bulk food aisles and also bringing your own containers or bags rather than using the store’s plastic bags. If you must buy something in plastic packaging, see if that plastic packaging is recyclable. A few rules of thumb, metal and glass packaging over plastic, and when choosing plastic, opt for plastic #1, #2, and #5 as those plastics are most likely to be turned into new items.
By reusing an item we can lengthen its total lifespan. There are many ways to reuse an item. We can take something and reuse it for its intended purpose, such as refilling a plastic water bottle. Or we can create something totally new, such as taking a plastic water bottle and turning it into a planter. Other ways to reuse items are by repairing it or passing it along to a friend once you’ve outgrown its usefulness.
Look for a local Buy Nothing Group online, or see if your community has a lending library. Many communities have “freecycle” sites you can find on Freecycle.org or “free markets” attached to local recycling centers. Residents of Kent for example can access their free market, where one can drop off your own items or browse what others have contributed.
Recycling is handled by individual municipalities so please check your Town website’s recycling pages, listed below. There are some generalities when it comes to recycling so here are some frequently asked questions.
Q: Should bottles and jars be empty and rinsed? Should lids be separated and also recycled?
A: Bottles and jars should be empty, rinsed, and dry. Ask your recycling company if lids should be removed.
Q: Are Liquor bottles recyclable? Does thin plastic surrounding neck need to be removed and thrown in trash?
A: Liquor bottles are recyclable. Ask your recycling company if the plastic needs to be removed.
Q: Are wine bottles recyclable? Should they be rinsed out? Are corks recyclable? Should screw caps be removed and are they recyclable?
A: Wine bottles are recyclable and should be empty, rinsed and dry. Corks are recyclable but are great for repurposing into cork boards and other DIY projects. Ask your recycling company if screw caps should be removed.
Q: Is broken glass recyclable?
A: Broken glass is recyclable but should be placed in other glass that is still intact. Many recycling facilities have people who sort through materials and we don’t want anyone to get hurt.
Q: Are insulin vials recyclable?
A: Ask your recycling company about how to dispose of insulin vials and all other medical waste.
Metal (e.g. Food & Beverage Cans, aluminum foil)
Q: Should cans be empty and rinsed?
A: Yes, to avoid contamination. Americans currently discard about 2.7 million tons of aluminum each year. Of that about 50% is recycled. Apart from the economic impact, the environmental savings of recycling metal are enormous. Recycling steel and tin cans, for example, saves 74% of the energy to produce them. On average Americans drink one beverage from an aluminum can every day. But we recycle just over 49% of the cans we use. (Source)
Q: Can aluminum foil be recycled?
A: Yes, but foil may have food particles attached, making it harder for recycling facilities to accept. But foil is easy to wipe clear. So reuse it as much as you can and clean it off before putting in recycling bin. Consider buying 100% recycled aluminum foil, which uses a process that uses 5% less energy than the traditional aluminum foil manufacturing process. (Source) Recycling Tip! Save your aluminum foil until you have enough to make a ball larger than a golf ball. Anything smaller can fall through the machinery.
Q: Should caps be left off or on?
A:.Ask your recycling company if caps should be left on. Some companies have equipment that can handle the caps, others do not.
Q: Miscellaneous caps for things like toothpaste – even if the toothpaste tube is not recyclable, is it ok to throw the cap in with recyclables?
A: Unless it has a recycling symbol on it, no.
Q: Are hard plastic containers (for example for blood test strips) too small to include recycle symbols recyclable?
A: Unless it has a recycling symbol on it, no.
Q: Are plastic clothes hangers recyclable (for example broken ones)?
Paper & Cardboard
Q: Are pizza boxes recyclable? Should food be removed? What if inside has grease?
A: As a general rule, pizza boxes are not recyclable if it has grease on it. Some recycling companies have equipment that can process the grease so check with yours. If your recycling company does not take pizza boxes, they can be repurposed in the garden. You can also take the parts of the box that are not greasy and recycle those.
Q: Envelopes with thin plastic windows, should the thin plastic window be removed?
A: The plastic windows should be removed and put with your other plastic film. The same with the plastic that comes on pasta boxes. All plastic film can be recycled at your local grocery store. Every store over 10,000 sq/ft that sells plastic film or items packaged in plastic film is required to have a drop box.
Q: Is heavy paper packaging with inside bubble wrap on recyclable?
A: The paper part is recyclable, the bubble wrap is not.
Q: Should things like cereal boxes be flattened? Should large cardboard boxes be broken down?
A: Yes, but really just to make more room in your recycling bin. Cardboard is put in a bailer and flattened once it gets to the recycling facility.
Q: What about wax paper?
A: There’s a lot of conflicting information. This page provides some guidance.
Q: In general, what can be placed in the recycling bin?
A: All metal, glass, paper, and cardboard can be placed in a recycling bin. Plastic that has the recycling symbol can be placed in the recycling bin.
What should not be placed in the recycling bin?
- Plastic that does NOT have a recycling symbol
- Thin plastic film, such as saran wrap and plastic grocery bags cannot be placed in the bin but can be dropped off at the grocery store
- All hazardous waste
- Anything with an electrical wire attached to it
- Packaging made of mixed materials unless otherwise indicated
In addition to the 4 R’s, composting food waste is a crucial component of getting to zero waste.
Compost is organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow. Food scraps from your kitchen and yard waste together currently make up more than 28 percent of what we throw away, and should be composted instead. Making compost keeps these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release significant amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. And 98 % of the food that we currently waste goes into landfills rather than being composted.
In addition to reducing the production of greenhouse gases, turning food scraps into compost enriches soil, helping retain moisture and suppress plant diseases and pests. Generating compost and using it in your garden reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to create humus, a rich nutrient-filled material.
Good things to compost include vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, unbleached coffee filters, teabags, plant prunings and grass cuttings. These are considered “green material”, are fast to break down and provide important nitrogen as well as moisture. It’s also good to include “brown matter”, things such as cardboard egg boxes, scrunched up paper and fallen leaves that provide important carbon to the compost, and also absorbs excess moisture.
Many items that cannot be recycled can be composted. This includes soiled paper and cardboard, such as pizza boxes and wet paper plates, and waxed cardboard like to-go coffee cups and milk cartons. Note, however, that compostable, meat, animal bones and dairy products will stink up your garden and attract rodents.
If the compost is too wet and smelly, add more brown matter; if its too dry, add some green material or even a bit of water; mix it every couple of days
When it’s ready, some say compost looks and feels like crumbled chocolate cake, though will probably not taste like it.
(include a link to Food Waste in the Land Use section)
Refrigerators, air conditioners, dehumidifiers and other heat pump appliances contain fluorinated gases. Most use hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, one of the most potent green house gases there is. And as old air conditioners and refrigerators are disposed of, HFCs are accelerating the green house effect as they are released into the atmosphere. In fact, HFCs are so ubiquitous, that Project Drawdown rates it as the fourth largest contributor to global warming!
That makes proper disposal of our old refrigerators, dehumidifiers and air conditioners a top priority. Fortunately, it isn’t difficult.
Managing leaks and disposal of these chemicals can avoid emissions in buildings and landfills.
Did you know that not disposing of your refrigerator the proper way is one of the main causes of global warming? Did you know that old refrigerators contain materials that can be harmful to your health? These hazardous materials may include: mercury, polyurethane foam insulation, used oil, refrigerants, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).
- These release greenhouse gasses and ozone depleting materials into the atmosphere.
- They affect the human nervous system, can lead to cancer, developmental problems in children, and impact the functions of the liver, brain and immune system
By disposing of your refrigerator the sustainable way:
- The glass, plastic & steel will be recycled.
- Your refrigerator won’t wind up taking up space in a landfill.
- The dangerous materials will be disposed of in a safe way.
- It’s good for your health and the environment.
- AND IT’S EASY!
Making sure your refrigerator is taken away to be recycled and disposed of safely is easy.
The Environmental Protection Agency has partnered with companies in our area to do just that through their RAD (Responsible Appliance Disposal) program. These companies do more than what is required by law to protect the environment. All you need to do is contact them. Click here to find a RAD partner in your area.