No, no, no to buy, buy, buy

Pandemic brings new meaning to zero waste

FOR MOST OF OUR almost 50-year history, MASSPIRG has pushed for increased recycling, for stopping polluting landfills and incinerators, and for getting producers to be responsible for their products. Over the past several years, our policy goal has evolved, until in 2019 we asked the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to set a goal of zero waste for our Commonwealth by 2030.

When we say “zero waste,” we do not mean that figuratively, or just as an ideal. We mean, literally, zero. In the past several weeks of #stayathome, I have come to appreciate zero waste in a whole new way.

First of all, whether it’s toilet paper or peanut butter, I have a much more vivid sense of what it’s like to “make do,” as my grandmother used to say, with what we have. There is a new feeling of pride in being able to do that.

Secondly, when I’m making meals, especially in a time when going grocery shopping is a risky enterprise, wasting anything is an affront to common sense. A loaf of bread getting stale? Save it for tomorrow’s French toast. An apple getting a bit brown? Make pie. As master chef and author Anthony Bourdain once said, there’s no such thing as food waste, only wasted food. Amen.

Third, being at home this much, I can’t help but go through the drawers and closets. Who needs a new shirt when I find one with tags still on it that was buried in the back?

Fourth, I admit I am new to the garden, but I am humbled to have learned that soil likes the eggshells and coffee grounds from breakfast.

The list could go on, but the point is, being at home 24/7 has enhanced my general sensibility that wasting anything is a sin, and reducing what we use is a source of fulfillment.

So how does that all translate into MASSPIRG’s policy agenda?  Take a look at what is currently sent to landfills and incinerators– where all waste is disposed of — in this chart from the Environmental Protection Agency about municipal solid waste, or MSW:

You don’t have to be a materials management expert to see that the vast majority of this waste could and should be diverted from burying (landfills) and burning (incinerators). Food waste and yard trimmings, together comprising over 28 percent of waste, should all either be diverted, as in the examples above, or composted.

Paper and cardboard – 25 percent of our waste — should be separated, as it was not that long ago. In a 2013 article in Popular Science, author Katie Peek wrote: “The most annoying aspect of recycling—and one of the biggest hurdles to its widespread adoption—is having to separate paper, glass, and plastic before they hit the curb.” But replacing that system with “single stream recycling” has turned out to be more than problematic. In a 2015 NPR story, one expert put it this way: “As we often say, you can’t unscramble an egg,” says Susan Collins, director of the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. She says what single-stream wins in volume it sacrifices in quality.” And living through a pandemic has likely shifted our definition of “annoying.”

Plastics account for 13 percent of our waste. Single-use plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, are a particular scourge. Although we use them for only a few minutes, you can almost never recycle them. And they are turning our oceans into garbage dumps.

Textiles make up 6 percent of our waste. According to the Massachusetts DEP, “Residents and businesses dispose of approximately 230,000 tons of textiles annually. About 95 percent of this material could be reused or recycled instead of thrown away.” You know those closets and drawers you were going through? What second life might your discards — including items too torn or stained for someone to wear again — have?

Virtually every category of material in that pie chart either could have had a longer useful life and not been brought to the landfill or the incinerator in the first place, or could be on its way to a renewed life of usefulness, instead of a future as air pollution or an eternity underground.

You start to add things up and you see that, while the world tells us to “buy, buy, buy,” and the disposal industry would have us believe that things are “disposable” and can be “thrown away,” the answer to all that (in a thoughtful, no tantrums voice) is “no, no, no.”

Currently, the Department of Environmental Protection has issued a draft goal to reduce our current level of waste — approximately 6 million tons each year — 30 percent by the year 2030. It’s not enough.

Meet the Author

Janet S Domenitz

Executive director, Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group
With eight-plus weeks at home under our belts, I have a renewed sense of urgency and commitment to a zero waste world which I know will, in part, make this a healthier world. As my father used to say, “Waste not, want not.” And what I want now is zero waste.

Janet S. Domenitz is the executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, or MassPIRG.