Zero Waste is Within Our Reach, But….

By Sarah Levinson

I would have guessed that my fellow EPA employees would be leaders when it comes to recycling and reducing wastes. Turns out we are leaders, but not quite as far out front as I had hoped. In 2015, a presidential Executive Order on Sustainability directed federal agencies to do their best to divert at least half our non-hazardous wastes into recycling and composting, and to work our darnedest to reach zero waste. While we auditwaitiwaitposterat EPA’s New England office have indeed succeeded in diverting more than half our waste to recycling and compost,  our regional office has yet to achieve net-zero waste (defined as sending at least 90 percent of our waste to recycling or composting) despite our best efforts.  We, like many other organizations, face many of the same challenges when it comes to modifying our own behavior.

My job has been to help my colleagues make the “green choice” when managing wastes they generate in the office. By working with a small team of dedicated volunteers, the Green Team as we are known, instituted a composting program and we have done extensive education and outreach to promote both recycling and composting. We have put out recycling guides and compost guides, posted clear signage showing usual items for composting as well as recycling, held informational sessions, provided tips for preventing waste in the first place, and demonstrated the impact that compost amended soil can have on moisture retention and plant growth. We have also reduced paper communications and urged employees to carry reusable shopping bags, even providing the bags in our lobby. We tried to tap into the competitive spirt, running a contest between offices to see which office could divert the most from the trash stream.

Even with all of these activities and ever since we instituted composting which greatly boosted to our diversion rate, our diversion rate seems to have become stagnant. After some thought about this challenge, the Green Team decided that in order to keep improving, we needed to know what was being thrown into our trash. Specifically, we sought to identify “contaminants” that shouldn’t be in the trash.

Consequently, and timed to coincide with America Recycles Day Nov. 15, The Green Team undertook a messy, but

Most of the waste in our trash containers bound for the landfill should have been recycled or composted.

Most of the waste in our trash containers bound for the landfill should have been recycled or composted.

detailed one-day waste audit. Eight dedicated sorters separated 44 pounds of trash in about two hours. To our surprise, although staff had composted and recycled 75 percent of their unwanted materials, we found that two thirds of the material thrown in the trash could still have been recycled or composted. There were apple cores, banana and orange peels, paper bags, plastic containers and glass bottles all in the trash, when these things could have and should have been placed in recycling or the compost collection. It turned out that only a third of the material in the trash was truly trash and furthermore, we found that had staff properly sorted these items, we could have met the goal of zero waste for that day!

So while we didn’t attain our zero waste goal on Nov. 15, we now know that zero waste is well within our reach. Additionally, because we took many pictures of the “contamination” found in our trash, we now are using the photos to conduct targeted education and outreach. We hope that for many, “seeing” the poor choices that they made will turn them into “believing” the errors of their ways and modify their behavior accordingly. Additionally, by looking closely at was in our trash, we are able to strategize and discuss new ideas to implement to further reduce our waste.

I know that the Green Team will persevere with new ideas, and new efforts to guide and motivate behavioral change. I know that the Green Team won’t give up our quest and am confident that it is just a matter of time until we attain our zero waste goal, becoming true leaders in living a more sustainable lifestyle, especially because we have shown it to be possible.

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Sarah Levinson leads the Green Team at EPA’s New England office in Boston.