Take a good look at your trash can. How long did each item stay in your home before it ended up in the can?
How many bags do you throw out or take to the transfer station each week or month?
What if that bin were taken away, without the promise of returning? Would it be a tragedy? For a new generation of environmentalists, this is the goal -- a zero waste lifestyle.
With single-stream recycling available in South County, chances are you are on the spectrum of zero waste already, even if you don’t realize it. The movement starts with rethinking how you think about your stuff. You’re probably familiar with “reduce, reuse and recycle,” and with the zero waste movement, two new words are added, “refuse” and “rot.”
This means learning to turn down – refuse – disposable or non-recyclable items. A free sample of a powdered supplement at the health food store; a styrofoam cup over the plastic one that’s holding your iced coffee; extra napkins at a restaurant – thanks, but no thanks. This artful refusal can include over-packaged grocery items. Belmont Market and South County Food Co-op, both in Wakefield, offer bulk food sections. Liz Hill, assistant manager of South County Food Co-op, says she’s lived with minimal waste long before it became a movement, and has reused jars for bulk items for years. So the store caters to this lifestyle – funnels are provided on each shelf in the bulk section so customers can use their own containers or bags. Customers even donate their used jars, which are sterilized and available to those who forget their own.
West Greenwich resident Maggie Maroney makes the trip to the Co-op about once a week. In February, she began transitioning her household into zero waste, though her self-sustaining homestead lifestyle began when she and her husband, Kevin, opted to homeschool their sons, Caden, 9, and Dylan, 7. “We’ve always been conscious of our [trash production], but never realized there was a lifestyle that went along with it,” Maroney says. She now shops with her own bags and jars, assessing what each bulk store has in stock and for what price. Since the Co-op does not offer a butcher or deli counter, she relies on Belmont for unpackaged meats and cheeses.
Hill says it can be a challenge attracting young families to the Co-op because it’s nearly impossible to compete with prices at larger grocery stores. “They’re the ones with tighter shopping budgets.” But buying just what you need is a frugal strategy and gives you the ability to experiment with unfamiliar grains, beans and nuts and specialty items, like gluten-free goods. Hill says the co-op offers a popular pre-order program, which is at or below mass market grocery store prices. Flour is one of the more popular items and “it helps people have that connection to the Co-op,” Hill says.
“Does this spark joy?” According to Marie Kondo, author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” if it sparks no joy, get rid of it. Kondo’s point is to take pride in the things we surround ourselves with. Zero wasters have a similar idea: less input, less output.
When Medelise Reifsteck, a South Kingstown-based Realtor, divorced five years ago, she moved from an 1,800-square-foot house to a 1,200-square-foot house. When she moved in, she loved how empty her basement was. That didn’t last. “I lived there for almost four full years and, half the time, I was in the house all by myself,” Reifsteck says. With her daughter in college and her son moving between her and her ex’s houses, she began to feel that the house was far too big. Reifsteck now lives in a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom cottage near Snug Harbor. Seeing its potential, she started renovations in April 2015 and moved into what seemed like a new home in November. “I wanted a spot for everything and I wanted my costs down,” Reifsteck says. The layout of the cottage is now reminiscent of a loft apartment, with an open floor plan. After knocking down most of the original walls and ceiling and adding a fresh coat of white paint to what remained, Reifsteck feels at home in her cozy space, she says.
The toughest part was getting rid of stuff – especially items that held special meaning. “There’s stuff that you pay good money for, that you hate to give away, simply because you paid good money for it,” she says. “I’m struggling with sentimental stuff, because I think to myself, ‘Am I going to regret giving it away?’” Reifsteck doesn’t consider herself a zero waster, but says she has a drive to produce less waste. “If you don’t have the space to collect things, you’ll own less,” she says. “I wanted less to take care of.”
“Disposable” has taken on new definitions in recent years and now implies “simpler” or “easier,” rather than “to be used once, then thrown in the trash.” Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation’s 2015 Waste Categorization Study showed about 66 percent of items sent to the Johnston landfill that year could have been reused, recycled or composted. At this rate, officials at the quasi-public corporation that oversees the landfill have concluded the landfill will close in 2038. (That’s progress, though. In 2007, just before recycling became mandatory in most communities, it was estimated to close in 2010.) To encourage reuse, many grocery stores now offer reusable bags at checkout lines and either charge a fee to use their plastic bags, or offer a discount to those who bring their own reusable bags. But zero waste goes beyond non-disposable items, like napkins, plates and cups, and encourages people to buy used and shop at thrift stores – there are a wealth of consignment and thrift shops in South County – and to consume intelligently and responsibly.
Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale offers two opportunities to do that at its thrift store and the newer Furniture That Feeds, which opened last year. This store carries both furniture and clothing and showcases items that are upcycled. While many items are like-new, anything that needed a lift – to be repaired, refinished or repainted – was fixed up before it went on the sales floor. “Part of the beauty of the clothing [at Furniture That Feeds] is that we get a lot of designer pieces and the pricing team does a fabulous job of keeping the prices down,” says Kate Brewster, executive director. “We also recycle clothes that aren’t sold to Kiducation, so we try not to throw out anything. We really try to stretch things.” Proceeds support the center’s food pantry, which helps about 600 people a month. Food pantry customers also receive clothing cards to use at the thrift store or Furniture That Feeds. The store has about 20 customers per day, and purchases are plentiful, says Carol Brock, manager. They welcome donated items.
RI Resource Recovery Corp. educates people on these common questions: What can be recycled? and What can we recycle here? To understand the difference, it takes forgetting almost everything you may know about recycling. “Do the basics,” says Egidia Vergano, recycling coordinator for the town of Narragansett and Resource Recovery educator. “Try and do your best. At the very least, only put things in the [recycling] bin that you know go in the bin.” If every resident took this advice, the impact would be great. When she moved to Rhode Island from California in 2001, the concept of reusable bags was foreign to most residents here. In 2007, she learned her daughter’s school, Wawaloam Elementary School in Exeter, didn’t recycle, so she formed Green Moms, a group of parents (mostly moms) to educate students about recycling. She did the same when her daughter moved to Metcalf School in Exeter. “I try to take recycling in baby steps and I make it a point to be educational about it,” Vergano says. “If everyone does their part, I’m perfectly happy with the 80/20 rule.”
Most towns in South County have pay-as-you-throw programs, where residents either hire a private trash hauler (who also collects recycling at no additional charge), or pay by the bag to dispose of waste at a transfer station, like Rose Hill Regional Transfer Station in Peace Dale. Recycling is free at the transfer station. From there, waste and recycling are brought in separate loads to the Johnston landfill. Recycling goes to the Materials Recycling Facility (or MRF, pronounced “murph”) and waste is tipped into the landfill. Many are surprised to discover MRF employees sort most of the recyclables. If a load has been contaminated or is dangerous to the workers in the sorting facility, Resource Recovery reserves the right to separate it and fine the town.
Resource Recovery uses its website, rirrc.org, and social media to help residents learn the new methods. For example, you can give up the habit of looking at the numbers inside the recycling triangles on the bottom of plastics. “The numbers don’t matter – we’ve been telling people to ditch the numbers since 2012. They only mean something to the company who made it,” says Krystal Noiseux, education and outreach manager. “Recycling is the easiest way to do your part. We don’t expect people to scrub their peanut butter jars with a toothbrush every time they’re done with them. We can deal with mistakes. It’s just that things have changed and we want people to know what the new way of recycling is.”
Zero wasters get to know their food – both before and after it’s made. In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported nearly 26 percent of the municipal solid waste stream in the United States is composed of food scraps and leaf and yard trimmings. Resource Recovery’s Waste Characterization Study found 31 percent of items dumped into the Johnston landfill in 2015 were compostable, including food and yard waste. It’s an exciting time for the state’s compost scene. In January, a new law required certain commercial and educational entities “ensure that the organic waste materials that are generated by the covered entity or at the covered educational facility are recycled at an authorized composting facility, or anaerobic digestion facility or by another authorized recycling method.” And the state Department of Environmental Management proposed significant changes to the regulations for composting, which will make it easier to open small-scale compost operations. Finally, an anaerobic digester is being built near the Johnston landfill – it will break down large amounts of food scraps and turn them into energy.
To compost at home, you have a few choices, says Sejal Lanterman, community engagement and outreach coordinator at the University of Rhode Island Extension Outreach Center in Kingston. Vermacomposting uses specific species of earthworms to break down collected food. It’s best to keep these outside, since there is a chance of an infestation of fruit flies, but “it all depends on how much produce you accumulate,” Lanterman says. “Worms kept at the right temperature would reproduce quite quickly, so it’s an option for somebody that’s seriously considering it.” For those without yard space for a compost pile, there are indoor, low-energy composters that break down food scraps. Lanterman says the state should do more to create incentives for residential composting, and to communicate that health begins at the plant level: “They need to make that connection – from healthy plant, to healthy soil, to healthy communities.”
As with any change, you may face some resistance and negativity if you announce your new zero waste goals. Maroney says she’s heard no shortage of snarky comments, including “Good luck with that game!” But this way of thinking is seeping into our philosophies, Noiseux says. She prefers one message about waste reduction and awareness – whether you’re an environmentalist, economist or simply care about the next generation. “If everyone does something little, the change can be great,” she says.