What is “Zero Waste”?
Zero Waste refers to a lifestyle and a way of operating in the world wherein we work to close the loop on waste and create a cyclical use of materials. In nature, there is no “waste”. Every bit of every material is infinitely recycled back into raw materials. The Zero Waste goal seeks to eliminate the sources of waste going to landfills and incinerators. This page will focus on how we as individuals can move toward Zero Waste.
The 4Rs — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Re-Earth — refer to the hierarchy of handling materials to avoid waste. This is a system which helps us return our materials to their original state, 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 a priority order in which we should be doing these. Because some manmade materials are not recyclable, and because all handling and processing of materials requires energy, another resource, we should first seek to reduce the quantity of materials used, which eliminates consumption of materials and the energy needed to process them. That is the top priority. Next, we should seek to reuse those materials that we still need; and as a last resort, we should recycle materials that cannot be reused in some way. There is a fourth R in this hierarchy, and that is to Re-Earth (aka compost). As in recycling, re-Earthing is the last resort. See below for further discussions of each R.
Reducing is the simple act of choosing not to purchase or use something. That is clearly the most efficient way to eliminate waste: avoiding a material (and energy) use altogether. Do we really need to buy that new T shirt, new shoes, new sofa, new vehicle? Aside from a seemingly small purchase of, say, paper towels, consider that for every pound of stuff that is landfilled, an average of 70 pounds of waste is created to make that pound of stuff in the first place. This is called upstream waste, and should be considered along with our downstream waste considerations. . We can slow down and reconsider our tendencies toward impulse buying and by asking ourselves, “Do I actually need this, or do I just want this?”
Look for products with minimal 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 bring 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 or glass packaging over plastic
- If unavoidable, opt for plastic #1, #2, and #5 (most likely to be downcycled* into new items)
Reusing an item simply means finding another use for that item instead of throwing it out. You can reuse something for its original purpose or repurpose an item into something totally new. For example, have some cotton socks with holes in them? You can mend and use them for their original purpose, or reuse them in a new way, as rags (then throw them in the washer and reuse them again!). By reusing an item we can lengthen the total lifespan of a given material. There are many ways to reuse an item. Once you start, it’s fun to get creative with new uses for worn or unwanted items. Or pass it along to someone else!
Look for a local Buy Nothing Project group online, or see if your community has a lending library. Many communities have “freecycle” webpages at Freecycle.org or Take-It-Or-Leave-It (TIOLI) sheds attached to local recycling centers. Residents of Kent, for example, can drop off their items or browse what others have contributed. Have a broken item — a lamp, radio, clock? — bring it to a Repair Café, where volunteers will help you to fix it, and learn a new skill in the process!
Recycling means turning an item back into its original raw material form, to be used again to create a new item. Glass is a great example of an item that is infinitely recyclable. Recycling used to be considered the be-all and end-all of responsible environmental stewardship. The truth is much more complicated! Recycling should be the last resort, because recycling is not only expensive (think transport and energy), it’s often not feasible. But many items we “recycle” are actually *downcycled. They are transformed into a raw material that is of a lower quality than its original form; and it is not an infinitely repeatable process.
Take plastic, for instance. A #1 or #2 plastic isn’t recyclable into #1 or #2 plastic. They’re downcycled into a lower-quality form of plastic, and after that use, the lower-quality plastic can never be recycled again. Forget about recycling #6 and #7. There’s no market for those low-quality resins. Did you ever consider how all of our plastic waste gets sorted? How could a recycling facility possibly sort every #1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 from every other item? (They can’t!) Consequently, much of our “recyclable” plastic is incinerated, causing toxic air pollution, or is landfilled, potentially leaching toxic chemicals into soil and water. To “reduce” is clearly the best option for most of our plastic uses today!
One of the best ways to learn more about recycling is to search on the New York State Recyclopedia: the Recycling Encyclopedia of the State of New York! It’s the go-to tool anytime you ask yourself, “Is this recyclable?”
Putnam County’s Health Department offers this information regarding recycling, disposal of unwanted medications, and hazardous waste as well as this concise recycling guide. Keep in mind, however, that each of our municipalities and carters may set their own recycling rules and processes. It’s best to check your town website’s recycling page or check our Community links here.
In addition to the 4 R’s, composting (or re-earthing) 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. Composting 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, helps retain moisture, and suppresses plant diseases and pests. Using compost in your garden reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to create humus, a rich, nutrient-filled material.
Vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, unbleached coffee filters, teabags, plant prunings and grass cuttings make excellent compost. These “green materials” break down quickly and provide important nitrogen as well as moisture. It’s also important 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.
And many items that can’t be recycled can be composted, such as soiled paper and cardboard, pizza boxes and wet paper plates. If the compost looks very wet and smells bad, 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 it won’t taste like it!
Note that although meat, animal bones, and dairy products are compostable organic materials, they will stink up your garden and attract rodents. These can be composted at commercial composting facilities, a service industry that generally isn’t available in Putnam County. As of May 16, 2022, the Town of Phillipstown has begun a pilot program for Residential Food-Scrap Recycling Drop-off at the Town’s Recycling Center. Go to the Town of Phillipstown website for more information.
eWaste is any unwanted electronic item that can’t be reused as is. Old or broken electronics can often be brought to Best Buy or Staples for free recycling or even resale. You may receive a store gift card for working products you no longer use. Or offer them to others for free at Freecycle.org on a local Facebook group like the Buy Nothing Project. Every Putnam County town also operates some form of electronics or eWaste recycling program. Go to your town’s website or see our town pages here.
Putnam County hosts two Household Hazardous Waste Drop Off Days each year, typically the first weekends of May and October at the Canopus Beach Parking Lot at Fahnestock State Park. Limited reservations are required so sign up early! Watch for local newspaper notices or check Putnam County’s Hazardous Waste webpage for a registration link in the last weeks of April or September.
Refrigerators, air conditioners, dehumidifiers and other heat pump appliances contain fluorinated gases. Most use hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, one of the most potent greenhouse gases there is. And as old air conditioners and refrigerators are disposed of, HFCs are accelerating the greenhouse effect as they are released into the atmosphere. In fact, HFCs are so ubiquitous, that Project Drawdown rates it the fourth largest contributor to global warming!
- These release greenhouse gases 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
- Old refrigerators may contain toxic materials harmful to your health, such as mercury, polyurethane foam insulation, used oil, refrigerants, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).
But managing leaks and properly disposing of our old refrigerators, dehumidifiers and air conditioners is very doable. In fact, your electric utility will remove your refrigerator at no cost to you. Central Hudson and NYSEG will:
- Recycle the refrigerator’s glass, plastic & steel
- Dispose of the dangerous materials in a safe manner
- Protect your health and the environment
- And pay you to do it!
The Environmental Protection Agency has partnered with companies in our area to accomplish this through their RAD (Responsible Appliance Disposal) program. These companies do more than what is required by law to protect the environment. As of this writing, NYSEG and Central Hudson are paying their customers to recycle a working refrigerator, freezer, and/or window air conditioner through their RAD programs. Click the links below to apply!