Photo Caption: Erin Sykes and Kyle O’Keefe of Ohio Zero Waste Initiative.
Imagine Athens County with zero waste. That's right, zero, none, zilch, notta. OK, that goal is a little pie-in-the-sky, but it's exactly what the Appalachia Ohio Zero Waste Initiative is shooting for.
The AOZWI is coordinated by Rural Action in partnership with Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs. It receives funding from the Sugar Bush Foundation, a supporting organization of the Ohio University Foundation.
The AOZWI works with communities, organizations, businesses and governments in Ohio and throughout Appalachia to "build local wealth and environmental health by increasing waste diversion and supporting the development of a zero-waste economy," according to literature from initiative members.
In a zero-waste economy, product development is intended to conserve natural resources, so the very design of products is intended to lead to reuse, repair, recycling or composting. The goal, said Kyle O'Keefe, Rural Action zero-waste initiative coordinator, is that all discards become assets that benefit the people, the planet and the local economy.
"Basically, you can look at waste as being either a liability or an asset," O'Keefe explained. "Right now, it's a liability to our community. So, part of what the project looks at is how to properly manage that into a way that it can service communities, reduce the cost of disposal, increase opportunities and access to recycling, and also create some jobs for managing those materials locally."
Erin Sykes, administrative assistant for the initiative, said that collaborating with the Voinovich School allows the project to locate and reach out to businesses in the community looking to use recycled products, while promoting development of reusing materials.
She said that the project looks to both accelerate and strengthen regional businesses using waste-stream materials by helping with technical assistance, training, equipment and obtaining capital.
The project is still in its infancy, O'Keefe acknowledged, and is now looking to roll out the plan to the public at large.
"A large part of the problem – why (the Athens Hocking Solid Waste District has) the third lowest recycling rate in the state of Ohio, and why you hear about the district being in so much turmoil – is that there's no transparency, no community involvement, no looking at this from a holistic view," he said. "So that's what we're trying to create with this initiative."
Currently surveys are being sent out throughout the community to gauge local residents' feelings about and participation in recycling efforts, he said.
The Solid Waste District recently has been attempting to get a new five-year plan passed that would meet requirements set up by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Last week, Logan City Council voted against the plan, which would serve as a plan veto if that decision is not reversed by the Feb. 22 deadline. The district has failed to win sufficient approval of a plan twice before. If this third attempt indeed fails, the state EPA has said it will step in to write a plan for the district. Some Athens County elected officials have said they will explore breaking up the two-county district if this plan fails.
O'Keefe said that by the time the initiative got on its feet, the currently proposed plan had already been written, but AOZWI has still been very involved in the process.
"I think we were the only real entity that submitted a public comment to the plan, and that was to do a feasibility study," he said. "What's created all this confusion with the plan is that there's no facts-driven information for any of the decisions they're making in this plan."
A feasibility study would provide exactly that, he said, by surveying residents and businesses and providing case study examples, financial models and stakeholder input, he said.
O'Keefe said that a feasibility study was not included in the current iteration of the plan, but such a study is supported by all of the stakeholders and has been a sticking point for members of Logan City Council.
"A big piece in passing this plan has been this feasibility study," he said, and at this point that study is planned if the current district plan passes.
Meanwhile, the zero-waste initiative is working with AmeriCorps members who are mapping dumpsites in the Monday and Sunday Creek Watersheds, as well as spearheading dumpsite clean-ups. AmeriCorps members are also looking to find solutions for problems such as recycling access, illegal dumping and illegal burning.
Furthermore, AOZWI is planning a summit that will bring together stakeholders from across state lines and all of Appalachia for a two-day session about how to build and sustain rural wealth by increasing waste diversion and supporting development of a zero-waste economy. The summit is tentatively scheduled for late summer or early fall and will be hosted by Ohio University in Athens.
So, but really, zero waste? Zero?
"It is zero waste," O'Keefe said, noting that it's a concept that takes some time to adjust to. "We're talking about zero landfill. These materials will always be here. It's a matter of how you manage them. So when we're talking about zero waste, we're talking about zero landfill and how we can divert these materials into useful resources."