“Reducing” Our Way to Zero Waste

October, 2012

Zero Waste Humboldt is a new organization advocating for a reprioritization of public policies and business practices with regard to waste: Reduce- first, Reuse-second, and Recycle/Compost- third.  The current primary focus of local waste management systems is on landfill diversion to comply with state regulations. With success measured by the amount of material diverted from landfills, there is no incentive to conserve natural resources and prevent waste at the source.  For example, it takes 4.3 grams of wood, 4.1 grams of petroleum, and 1.8 grams of chemicals to produce one paper coffee cup.  Our current recycling and composting efforts concentrate on keeping that cup out of the landfill, not on preventing its production in the first place.

“Zero Waste” is not a new catch-phrase for recycling.  It is a comprehensive approach including many strategies to reduce waste, with a primary emphasis on waste prevention. Only after all upfront design strategies and planning for waste prevention have been exhausted—in products, packaging, building construction, events, and processes—should reuse, repair, recycling, and composting then be employed.

Zero Waste is a never-ending quest to improve waste reduction systems.   Joanne McGarry, a new community member, challenged Arcatans to improve the current waste reduction methods at the fairs and festivals held on the Arcata Plaza.  It was in this spirit that several community groups came together in August to discuss how to reduce the waste generated at the North Country Fair in September.  A leap of faith commitment was made to implement a pilot program to recover the North Country Fair's food waste and compostables at the Fair's six stations on the Plaza.

The project team was fortunate to have the cooperation of Fair Manager Matthew Cook and the support of the Same Old People Fair Board; and the expertise of recycling business development specialist Maureen Hart, and Steve Salzman of Greenway Partners for collection logistics.  Dan Tangney of Arcata Main Street, loaned Oyster Festival containers and flagpoles. Arcata High School Green Club and Arcata Art Institute students sewed the station flags.  Humboldt Waste Management Authority also provided containers. Zero Waste Humboldt recruited and trained volunteers, provided publicity for the effort and supervised the crews.

While flags and clear signage are important, the most effective method for materials recovery is to have trained people stationed at the point where the materials are discarded.  Thirty-five community members, ages 14 to 73, including Arcata High School Green Club and Humboldt State University WRRAP Program students, greeted the public, answered questions, and monitored quality at the six stations where fairgoers tossed their food waste, shishkabob sticks, paper plates, boats, cups, napkins and compostable plastic cups. 

The contaminants most difficult to keep out were the clear plastic cups that looked like the compostable cups, and plastic straws, cup lids, and utensils.  Even though seven of the nine food vendors served compostable utensils, the regular plastic utensils of the two vendors would cause enough contamination that every effort was made to keep all utensils out.
The public response was overwhelmingly positive and appreciative of this effort to separate these materials from disposal for composting.

This pilot program recovered 780 pounds of compostables, filling a five cubic yard dumpster. The recovered materials were added to the food waste from HSU and transported to a large composting facility in Sonoma County.  More importantly, this pilot program served as a learning model and assessment for planning future events on the Arcata Plaza.  The hands-on experience of all aspects that affect waste generation and disposal before, during, and after the Fair will help Zero Waste Humboldt to work effectively with event planners and vendors in the coming months.  To join us, email contact@zerowastehumboldt.org.


Margaret Gainer is Public Education Coordinator for Zero Waste Humboldt.