Tipping the Scale: Data-driven Zero Waste

I just finished the 10-day Climate Generation Zero Waste Challenge.

I wanted to see just how low I could go. My goal was to generate no more waste than what could fit in a 4 oz. glass jar during the ten days of the challenge. I use reusable bags, cups, and water bottles. I shop in bulk using my own containers as I have the advantage of easy access to local co-ops with extensive bulk aisles. And I refuse to buy items that are not in reusable or recyclable packaging whenever possible. Still, it’s amazing what you can pack into a 4 oz. glass jar!

Two years ago, I decided to enroll in the Hennepin County Master Recycler/Composter 6-week class series. I wanted the inside scoop on what was happening with my recycling and organics waste, and I wanted to be armed with data when I talked to friends and neighbors about how they can reduce waste and why recycling and organics composting are important.

I craved data, like which recyclables were the most valuable in Minnesota and why organics recycling is more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than tipping a load of waste at the HERC (Hennepin Energy Recovery Center). After all, I was doing a pretty good job at using reusables and recycling my waste, right? I was using a reusable water bottle and bags, I was bringing my organic waste to a park drop-off site, and my blue recycling cart was overflowing every two weeks.

So, why shouldn’t I help others see the errors of their unknowingly wasteful ways? What I didn’t know is that this experience and the information that I would take away would lead me to examine whether or not I honestly was a “master recycler/composter,” or if I was just a “master consumer.”

In addition to the time spent in a classroom in NE Minneapolis learning about the waste streams of our city, we toured a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) and a commercial compost site. Later, I toured a second MRF on my own, Eureka Recycling. Eureka is the non-profit zero waste MRF that sorts, bales, and sells the recyclables that Minneapolis residents place in their blue carts. I walked away from these tours bewildered. I could not believe the volume of materials and food waste being processed! The trucks just kept coming. And, it was as much my waste as it was anybody else’s. As I mentioned before, my blue cart overflowed every two weeks, and I often would joke, “I’m so good at recycling that I need a second cart!” I left that last tour thinking, “I can’t contribute to this anymore!”

I needed data. I needed to know what I was consuming, how much of it I was consuming, and when.

I started to track and weigh my trash, recycling, and organics waste every week for one year. I weighed each type of waste before I set it out each week and recorded inventory of what it was and opportunities to reduce. Organics composting and recycling are essential parts of this equation, but my overall goal was reduction. I didn’t want to just shift one type of waste into another stream (from one color bin to another), as any waste of any type still had to be transported and processed. This data was crucial to assess my own consumption habits effectively and it was the catalyst to lasting changes in how I consume.

Fast forward one year: my trash was down 76%, my recycling was down 30%, and my organics recycling was down 12%.

Fast forward to now, and although I’m no longer weighing my waste, I know I’m putting about the same amount of each type of waste in my city carts each month. I am producing less than a half-pound of trash each week, which fits in a 4 oz. glass jar.

Still, I can’t help but wonder, what would it take to tip the scale to zero? And is it enough for me to just produce less?

How can I use this experience and the data I’ve collected to inspire friends and neighbors to join me?

My contribution matters, as does the contribution of everyone who lives low-waste, zero-waste, or is simply trying to do better. Now we need millions of us doing waste reduction better, challenging the way we consume, and growing consumer demand for sustainable products that are accessible to everyone. That’s when innovation happens, and that’s what will tip the scale.

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