Dumpster diving for zero waste

Andrea Reany, Rural Action’s Zero Waste program manager, left, and Rural Action AmeriCorps member Caitlin Garrity dig through the garbage Friday at United Campus Ministry in Athens to see what recyclables and compostables might be lurking in the trash. Photo by Dennis E. Powell.

What have I gotten myself into? Only a few days before going dumpster diving, and I was starting to worry.

I must confess that this wasn’t a total novelty for me, having picked through dumpsters before.

Needing empty boxes to pack for a move or something, I have selectively scavenged over the years. But my upcoming date with Zero Waste looked to be different.

These folks were going to actually get into a dumpster and go through the contents. Luckily, I remained an observer rather than an active participant.

Zero Waste is an arm of Rural Action, which has its home office in The Plains. The program is trying to eliminate as much as possible from the waste stream and minimize what must be hauled away to a landfill.

One way Zero Waste accomplishes this is by offering advice to businesses and commercial trash customers. The advice is based on a waste audit. 

And that audit is what my impending dumpster dive was all about.

Diver Caitlin Garrity, with me tagging along, would make note of what was being put into the container. In addition, Garrity, a Rural Action AmeriCorps member, would do a walk-though of the business and then write a report for the customer that detailed waste-management strengths and opportunities for improvement. She also would help them implement changes. 

It’s a win-win deal. By changing their trash habits, the customer saves on disposal costs, and Zero Waste promotes the development of a zero-waste economy.

The waste audits by Zero Waste were first offered in 2013 through a pilot program. Businesses were asked to take a Zero Waste Pledge.

“This is when much of the concept development happened,” Garrity explained. “We worked through kinks in our process, got business owner feedback, and learned a lot about best practices.”

In 2015, the pledge launched as a fee-for-service program, and since then 36 participants have signed on. Most – 29 – are from Athens County.

The cost is $100 for a small business, with “small” defined as one that employs fewer than 30 employees and/or has only one type of waste stream.

“For businesses with multiple waste streams, like hotels or hospitals or manufacturers, we offer our contract service for $50 an hour,” Garrity said.  “With the help of some of our dedicated zero waste businesses – Jaclyn Collins’ American Family Insurance Agency and Christ Lutheran Church – we have been able to offer scholarships to some small businesses.”

Every business is different. Some have waste reduction, recycling and composting already happening in their operation, while others do not.

“Therefore our impact differs greatly from business to business,” said Garrity. “Our greatest impact is on businesses who have no recycling or composting system in place. Also, the larger the business, the larger the impact.”

American Family Insurance reduced its waste by 53 percent after taking the Zero Waste Pledge, according to a news release. 

Those who have multiple dumpsters that are picked up once or twice a week have the largest potential cost savings.

“If our audit tells us that 50 percent of your trash dumpster is recyclable and 20 percent is compostable, you will see a large cost savings if you can capture that 70 percent of recyclable and compostable waste,” Garrity said. “This is because recycling and composting service is cheaper than trash service.”

Our dumpster dive turned out to be a quick dip. The container at United Campus Ministry on College Street was a smaller trash bin from which Garrity selected a garbage bag.

Wearing gloves and working on a tarp, Garrity and Zero Waste Program Manager Andrea Reany picked through the smelly contents. Some items were pulled out for recycling and others for composting. 

As they worked, Garrity and Reany provided suggestions to United Campus Ministries Executive Director Melissa Wales. Wales said she signed up for the waste audit to discover ways to reduce waste and increase sustainability.

She pointed out that UCM is committed to environmental justice as well as social justice.

One of the tips of the day was to go ahead and place cardboard pizza boxes in the recycling bin but rip off and tear up the greasy sections for composting.

Rural Action envisions a world where “product development conserves natural resources, product design leads to reuse, repair, recycling or composting, and all discards become assets that benefit the people, the planet and the local economy.”

The organization will do one of its biggest waste assessments beginning this week. The city of Athens has signed up to have four of its buildings inspected, starting with ARTS/West.

Zero Waste also conducts general education about recycling, dumpsite clean-ups, Zero Waste events, and implementation of the Athens Hocking Zero Waste Action Plan.

Additionally, Rural Action coordinates the Appalachia Ohio Zero Waste Initiative in partnership with the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University. The AOZWI is funded by the Sugar Bush Foundation.

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