Image by the author.

When you take out the trash, do you ever stop to think about how much of it there is or where it will end up? Do you shudder at the sight of overflowing dumpsters and debris, only a few days removed from the last trash pickup? Thoughtfully managing waste at a household level is an important component of keeping our city clean, and it's easier than you think.

Bea Johnson, pioneer of the zero waste movement, founder of Zero Waste Home, and author of a best-selling book by the same title spoke at a zero waste initiative hosted by the DC Sierra Club and UDC in April. I learned about local zero waste initiatives and how to take action to ensure a cleaner, more sustainable city.

Though the solution may seem far beyond your reach, with some small lifestyle changes individuals can help our region become more liveable for everyone. Here's what I learned:

The five R’s of zero waste

At a high level, zero waste is exactly what it sounds like: striving to reduce household waste to as close to zero as possible. The core philosophy of zero waste lies in what’s called the five R’s. These rules are the pillars that guide anyone making an effort to reduce their waste. In hierarchical order (and summarized below), they are:

  • Refuse
  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle
  • Rot

“We found that for zero waste to be sustainable for the long run in our household, all we had to do was follow five rules in order…so that at the end of the year, we are left with very little trash,” Johnson said at the event.

1. Refuse

“The first rule of a zero waste lifestyle is to refuse. We’ve simply learned to say ‘no’. We’ve learned to say ‘no’ to single use plastics, like plastic straws for example,” Johnson said. “We found that every time you accept these things, it’s a way for you to create a demand to make more…and when you accept these things, they also come into your home and become your trash problem.”​​​​​

From an individual waste standpoint, adopting a practice of refusal helps to significantly reduce your footprint.

2. Reduce

“The second rule of a zero waste lifestyle is to reduce. To reduce what we do actually need. When we let go of the things that we do not truly use or need, we put them back on the market,” Johnson said. “We make them available to the community. And it boosts the secondhand market, which is extremely important for the future of zero waste.”

When it comes to reducing, the key is finding a new home for the possessions you are shedding. Leaving old furniture in the alley, for example, ensures they will go to a landfill when they could be donated or sold for use elsewhere.

3. Reuse

“The third rule of a zero waste lifestyle is to reuse. For us, reusing means swapping anything that is disposable for a reusable alternative,” Johnson said. “We’ve replaced paper towels and sponges with rags and wooden scrubbers…we have eliminated all food storage items like aluminum foil, plastic wrap, wax paper, sandwich bags, and freezer bags. We use glass jars to store and transport our food and store leftovers.”

Be aware of how many things you use wastefully, such as paper towels, napkins, and plastic bags. Try to replace these with items that are reusable.

4. Recycle

“The fourth rule of a zero waste lifestyle is to recycle. But it’s to recycle only what we cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse,” Johnson said. “So the zero waste lifestyle does not encourage you to recycle more, it encourages you to recycle less, by preventing waste from coming into your home in the first place. And that’s done with the first three R’s.”

As Johnson points out, the goal is to minimize recycling by bringing less things into our lives to begin with. For good reason: recycling is far from being a harmless waste disposal method.

5. Rot

“Rot, or composting, is the last rule of the zero waste lifestyle. Today we participate in our city’s curbside pickup. It allows us to also digest meat and fish bones, not just fruit and veggie scraps,” Johnson said. “We only compost fruit and veggie peels that need to be peeled. We don’t peel potatoes, eggplants, turnips, zucchinis, apples, pears, or carrots. This has not only allowed us to reduce our compost output, but also to take advantage of the vitamins that are enclosed in those peels.”

Composting is becoming much more convenient, thanks to some local initiatives. It is easy to do and can put a significant dent in your landfill-bound waste output.

The composting drop-off tent at the Dupont Farmers Market. Image by the author.

What’s being done in our region to encourage zero waste initiatives?

The DC Department of Public Works (DC DPW) defines zero waste as the diversion of 80% (or more) of waste generated by the city away from incinerators or landfills. The agency has a zero waste initiative to educate residents and businesses, and its website provides educational resources and tools, including a waste sorting game, signs, and printouts.

DC DPW is also mindful of the District’s diverse demographics, and manages communications accordingly.

“As we push forward as a city in a more sustainable way on this path to zero waste, there are segments of our city that we need to make sure we carry along and are not left out. If you are a family that is struggling with housing, or with making sure that you have the appropriate amount of food in the sense that you live in a food desert…there are real circumstances that differentiate some families from others,” says DC DPW President Chris Shorter, who also spoke at the event.

“Given some of the literacy issues with some DC residents, we are sensitive to making sure that our materials are understood and easily digestible by residents,” Shorter added.

DC’s chapter of the Sierra Club is also actively engaged in moving the zero waste agenda forward through the zero waste committee. The committee has advocated for a variety of local causes including:

  • Composting within the commercial sector
  • Elimination of plastic straws
  • Diverting construction and demolition waste
  • Advocating for Save As You Throw
  • Supporting DC’s food service regulations
  • Fighting incineration and landfilling DC’s waste

The zero waste committee has also partnered with the annual Kingman Island Bluegrass festival, where volunteers assist festivalgoers with sorting their waste. In 2016, a 50% diversion rate was achieved among festival goers. In 2017, a 78.8% diversion rate was achieved.

River cleanup by fromcaliw/love used with permission.

How can you make a difference?

There are many ways to make a direct impact towards helping DC achieve its zero waste goals.

1. Educate yourself

“Being aware of what’s out there and what you can do to reduce the amount of waste that you generate personally in your home, and what the city is doing to reduce the amount of waste that we are generating as a city, is probably the biggest leap forward that we can take as individuals,” says Chris Shorter. “On the website, you can put in any item you have that needs to be disposed of, and find out where and how. There is a lot of great information about ways to refuse, and certainly ways to reduce, and dispose, recycle, and compost.”

The Zero Waste DC website provides valuable tools and resources to help residents and businesses learn how to incorporate zero waste. You can also educate yourself by taking opportunities to see the impacts of waste first-hand. One way to do this is by taking a free public boat tour.

“We give free public boat tours, funded by the DC bag fee, to introduce everyone here to their river so they can begin to build a relationship to the Anacostia and so they can see with their own eyes what an asset it can be, but also where the litter they see on the ground ends up after the next rainfall,” says Trey Sherard of Anacostia Riverkeeper.

2. Dispose mindfully and lead by example

Using the tactics outlined in this article, you can strive to make better decisions about what you bring into your life and how you dispose of it. It may seem radical to adopt a full zero waste lifestyle, but even a few small changes to your habits can make a big difference.

For example, by composting, you can significantly reduce the amount of waste you send to the landfill. My wife and I have found that more than half of our waste is compostable.

Leading by example, you can inspire friends and/or colleagues to participate in zero or reduced waste practices. When you host parties or events, consider avoiding single-use items, opting instead for reusable plates and glassware. You can also take the opportunity to print signs and educate guests on proper waste sorting.

3. Volunteer

Look into joining the zero waste committee, or getting involved in some of its events. You can also volunteer for cleanup activities that help ensure waste is diverted from our region's rivers, such as Anacostia Riverkeeper.

“We run the Clean Waterways series of volunteer cleanups along the river, some of which have had just over 200 people at a time, who picked up and sorted literally tons of trash in just a matter of hours,” Sherard says.

What are your favorite strategies for reducing your waste?