Steps to Becoming a Zero Waste Community

One of the many questions around the Zero Waste topic area is: “How can I help my community do more toward Zero Waste?”

This is great because it reflects the collective and collaborative nature of a real zero waste effort.  Being zero waste at home, by ourselves or with our families, is good, for sure, but the impact is most effective and certainly more cost efficient when we work together in our communities to build the systems and policies that support zero waste practices at the community scale.

And there’s more good news in the fact that many communities across the US have set goals for becoming zero waste.  In Ann Arbor, Michigan, they put such goals very succinctly: 

“On the community level, zero waste requires local policies that protect our natural resources and support sustainable material use, collaborative community programs that facilitate products being put to their highest and best use, and strong local economies.”

A simple search for steps any community can take will yield many great results, but let’s look at a few here by starting with the basic Zero Waste hierarchy (and the image in the header) and see how each measure in the hierarchy applies at a community level.

At the start, we have to think about ways we can encourage our fellow community members and leaders to rethink every part of their household or community operations to avoid using products or processes that use too much material or energy, especially polluting energy like fossil fuel sources.  Redesigning operations for efficiency of raw materials or reduced energy use has the greatest benefit on the overall goals for zero waste, which are not just about avoiding throwing things away, but reducing the impact of human activities.

In communities where housing development or redevelopment is happening, community members can work with architects and developers in rethinking and redesigning living spaces  to reduce energy use, recover and reuse materials, and retain green spaces for shade and natural air filtering and conditioning.  When we can avoid using materials that cannot be reused or recycled later, we are working toward a long term zero waste benefit.

Next, we need to buy and use less by reusing what we already have smartly, as well.  This means repairing items that still have value and life and advocating for laws that require products to be repairable without extraordinary cost or skills.  It also means having policies that require or incentivize the use of recaptured or recycled materials.  A great example of this is in the home deconstruction efforts taking place in older cities and towns all over the US, and a specific example has been taking place in nearby Baltimore.

Many communities have recycling programs, but sadly, they are often poorly communicated, and residents are not taught well how to separate useful recyclables from trash.  When non-recyclables enter the recycling stream, it’s called contamination and it directly reduces the value of recyclables while still putting waste into the local incinerator or landfill, the unacceptable bottom of the hierarchy.

Another way to directly encourage waste reduction is through changes in waste collection that support bi-weekly collection (once for waste and once for recyclables and compostables) with pay-as-you-throw programs that bring attention to how much is being thrown away.

All of these actions take time, and starting small, building collaboration and interest, educating about and demonstrating the benefits needs to happen incrementally.  Introducing community members to the steps and the reasons for moving forward helps to build strength, resilience, and momentum toward the ultimate goal of being a zero waste community.

So with that, here are some simple steps to take to move forward in your community:

  • Recycle…better. Through education about contamination and support for biweekly collection and pay-as-you-throw programs.
  • Compost…collaboratively. Following an awareness campaign focused on preventing food waste and the benefits to food composting, introduce or expand a program to collect yard waste and kitchen scraps locally or with neighboring municipalities to avoid the high energy cost of collection and transportation.
  • Repair, Reuse and Donate…effectively. Bring together the skills of your community to host repair clinics or fix-it clinics, swap meets to share unused items, and then donate still-usable items before they get thrown out.
  • Advocate for policy change…together. Work with your area legislators to support Right to Repair and Extended Producer Responsibility policies that support better and more energy-conscious product design and manufacture across the supply chain. Get your local legislators to support a zero waste resolution that announces to the community that they support rethinking processes across your town.
  • Reduce Waste, Toxicity, Consumption, and Packaging. We can work with our local restaurants and grocers to support better choices for packaging and increased use of food donation and composting.

The list of ideas is endless, but start small, build connections, seek small wins, and grow through education and engagement.  

Becoming a Zero Waste community is possible.

Can you make this guide better? Let us know what ideas YOU have!


Published by ZeroWasteDelco

Supporting zero waste initiatives in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

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