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Aim is for a zero-waste Village

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Is it possible to not produce any garbage — or purchase any stuff — for one year?

A Vancouver couple did just that in 2009, and now it’s inspiring Yellow Springers to cut their waste too.

The film “Clean Bin Project,” that screened in February at the Little Art Theatre, followed one couple’s mission to reduce their landfill waste to zero by composting food scraps, eschewing plastic bags and food containers and repairing and reusing items instead of buying new, among other strategies.

The more than 60 villagers who turned out for the screening learned that locals can do better too. For starters, Yellow Springers could recycle more — the town’s  recycling rate is less than the county average. Presenters also proposed village-wide solutions like banning plastic bags, starting curbside residential composting, passing a zero waste ordinance and creating a municipal recycling center here.

Vickie Hennessy of the Green Environmental Coalition organized the screening to urge people to think more about their waste. She hopes Yellow Springs might someday become a model zero waste community, but the town is a long way off, she said.

“I was very surprised about our recycling rates — I would have thought we would be one of the better communities,” Hennessy said.

Yellow Springs may be recycling less than other Greene County communities, according to Village data shared at the screening by local recycling expert Tom Clevenger. About two-thirds of all trash generated by local households ends up in a landfill, meaning only 33 percent is recycled, according to data provided by the Village. That’s on par with the national average and less than the county average of 39 percent. Meanwhile, environmentally-conscious cities like San Francisco and Seattle boast landfill diversion rates in the range of 55–75 percent, while some Scandinavian countries claim they recycle 95 to 99 percent of their trash.

Antioch College, meanwhile, recycles 65 percent of its waste, according to the school’s Physical Plant Director Reggie Stratton. Antioch’s system, which is separate from the Village’s, includes community composting of food waste and multi-stream recycling of various products.

“People were surprised we weren’t doing better on recycling,” Clevenger said of the village in a recent interview. But, the former recycling coordinator at University of Washington added, “we can’t recycle our way out of it,” and to become a zero waste town, Yellow Springers must also reduce what they buy in the first place.

“It’s good to have choices for the waste we want to get rid of, but ideally we wouldn’t buy things in packages, we would buy more locally and we could work with local businesses to reduce packaging,” Clevenger said.

One idea gaining traction is banning plastic bags within the village. According to the film, the average American uses 500 plastic bags per year, while less than one percent of plastic bags are recycled. Plastic bag bans are now in place in major cities like Seattle, Austin and Chicago, while Columbus is eyeing one. According to Hennessy, similar bans on single-use containers like plastic take-out tubs and non-recyclable coffee cups could also be considered, while villagers could work with stores like Tom’s Market to reduce plastic and styrofoam packaging.

In addition to passing laws, the Village could step up in its role to help the community approach zero waste, according to Council member Marianne MacQueen. Currently, the Village contracts with Rumpke to pick up the trash and recycling of local residences and businesses, but the Village used to have its own municipal trash service (like it has municipal water and electricity). With a contract with Rumpke up for review later this year, MacQueen believes the time is ripe to create a vision for the kind of waste system the village wants. In an ideal case, the Village could once again collect its own garbage, which would give the town the ability to put in a rate structure that would encourage people to produce less garbage and could allow for more infrequent pickups.

“While we might not have a critical mass to collect our own garbage, if we were to do so, that would really help us in moving toward zero waste,” MacQueen said.

The waste picture in YS

In 2014, about 1,600 local residences and businesses produced 1,651.51 tons of trash and recycled 548.47 tons, or 33 percent of it. That was up from a 27 percent recycling rate in 2010 but still below the county residential and commercial rate of 39 percent. Locally, total trash generated was consistent between 2010 and 2014.

Last year the average villager produced 2.57 pounds of trash per day, and recycled 0.85 pounds of it. Nationally, in 2012, the average American generated 4.38 pounds per day and recycled and composted 1.51 pounds, equivalent to a recycling rate of 34.5 percent. Clevenger put the figures in perspective: In 2009 Americans produced enough waste to circle the earth 24 times, while filling U.S. landfills that year with trash equivalent to weight of 88 million cars, he said.

Rumpke, which has been the village’s trash hauler for more than 20 years, takes local garbage to its massive 440-acre landfill in Colerain Township near Cincinnati known as Mount Rumpke — a landfill that is not only the largest in the state, but one of the largest in the country.

Rumpke is currently suing Colerain Township after the township denied Rumpke’s 2006 request to expand its landfill by 300 acres. Earlier, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in the township’s favor in denying the expansion. Neighbors of the landfill have complained of odors and water pollution from toxic chemicals that leach from the landfill, according to Ohio Citizen Action, an environmental organization.

Rumpke takes local recyclables, which are collected in a single container curbside (known as single-stream recycling), to its recycling facility on Monument Drive in Dayton. There, the recyclables are sorted by machine and hand and either sent on to facilities for reuse, or sent to a landfill.

According to Clevenger, there are several problems with the Village’s current waste and recycling contract. The smallest trash size, at 32 gallons, is still large for many households, and there is no change in rate if trash is only picked up on a bi-weekly or monthly basis, he said. There are no hazardous waste pick-ups or services, pick-up for batteries or electronic waste like computers and cell phones, and there is no municipal compost program. To truly approach zero waste, the Village needs to think of its trash as resources, not waste, he said.

“We need to switch our view of waste as something we ship off to a landfill to resources that we have the potential to sell, or create businesses around,” Clevenger said. “There are businesses that we can build up around waste streams.”

Environmental problems that stem from waste disposal include greenhouse gas emissions from methane escaping landfills and the use of incinerators, toxic water leaching from landfills into the groundwater, a Pacific Ocean garbage patch larger than the state of Texas and consumer debt from buying too much disposable stuff, Clevenger said.

Antioch’s commitment pays off

When Nargees Jumahan came to Antioch as part of the revived college’s first class in 2011, she was unimpressed with its recycling program. Coming from the Bay Area, where recycling is not seen as an environmental issue but a multi-million dollar market, Jumahan proposed a multi-stream recycling model, and it has paid off both financially and environmentally.

When Jumahan arrived in 2011, Antioch was contracting with Rumpke to provide single-stream recycling and trash services. But after touring Rumpke’s Mounument Drive facility, she was convinced the system was not ideal. From her research, recycling centers like Rumpke’s ultimately send about 20 percent of what comes in to the landfill. Single-stream recycling may not cut as much waste as people think, she said.

“People think they are helpful when they recycle no matter what they’re doing, but when you break down what’s happening, in my opinion it’s not as beneficial as people think that is,” Jumahan said.

Together with Stratton, the physical plant director, and thanks to a supportive administration, Jumahan helped Antioch institute a multi-stream recycling system, where items are collected separately and recycled separately. While the college had a recycling rate of 50 percent when it did single-stream, today its rate is 65 percent. The college also shares the profit of selling its recycled materials with its contractor, RDA. That results in a reduction of the college’s recycling bill by about one-quarter, according to Stratton.

With its multi-stream system, Antioch has separate recycling stations in each building for plastics, aluminum, white paper, other paper waste, cardboard and glass, which are all bagged separately before being picked up and sold on the market. There are also bins for batteries, and the college has a machine that crushes its mercury-containing fluorescent light bulbs before sending them for disposal. Finally, each dining hall and dorm floor has a compost bucket, which is then emptied by farm interns at the Antioch College Farm, where the compost is used to grow food for the dining halls.

Still, Jumahan, who is known around campus for confronting students who toss a recyclable item in the trash, sees much room for improvement at the college. In addition to helping students have better recycling habits, Jumahan said there is potential for the college to partner with the Village to build a joint recycling center. Antioch could also better promote its recycling efforts.

“A lot of people think of the bigger projects like solar panels and geothermal when they think environmentally-friendly, but you start from the small things and recycling is one of those things for me,” Jumahan said.

Beyond recycling

In addition to the commonly-used three “Rs” of reduce, reuse, recycle, Clevenger proposed a list of several more, including repair and rethink. While some initiatives are needed at the national and state levels to mandate “cradle to cradle” design where products, and their packaging, are designed to be reused, there is much that can be done locally along those lines, he said. Besides villagers not buying heavily-packaged, non-disposable products, they can band together to “make their own” when possible, and when not possible, share products, such as tools and power equipment. One idea gaining traction in some communities is a “tool library” where tools are rented much like books at a conventional library.

Hennessy added that villagers could buy food and other products in bulk to avoid unnecessary packing. She also hopes community composting could become an option, as some villagers, such as those who live in apartments, don’t have access to composting bins. Hennessy also believes more education of villagers on how, and where, to recycle items like electronics is necessary.

In addition to a subcommittee of the local climate action planning group that is focused on waste (and headed by Clevenger), the Village’s Environmental Coalition and Energy Board will likely soon take up the issue, according to MacQueen. After a visit to Oberlin, which does its own waste disposal and recycling and now has a fleet of flex-fuel garbage trucks, she sees promise in the municipal model. Village government could also install a “dashboard” educational tool that allows villagers to track, in real time, local waste generation, in addition to local energy and water consumption.

Before moving forward, Clevenger hopes the Village invests in a “waste audit” where a portion of the Village’s trash is sorted and weighed to understand more clearly the local trash picture.

According to several villagers, local control of trash would best help Yellow Springs move forward to zero waste.

“The more in control of our own resources and processes we are, the better decisions we can make for ourselves,” Clevenger said.

To participate in the waste subcommittee of the climate action planning group, email Clevenger at tomclevenger@gmail.com.

Visit Rumpke’s website to see the full list of recyclable products: rumpke.com.

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