Hannah: I tell people that I really tried to run away from the waste industry and do something more sexy like renewable energy or green building design but waste always had a way of bringing me back in. The biggest thing I've realized in my work around waste systems and education is that EVERYONE has something to say about it! I sort of did a social experiment one month of bringing the topic of recycling up at any social gathering I went to, just to see the response. Almost everyone had some thoughts on the topic and expressed similar frustrations. Saying things like, "it's confusing", "there's no uniformity", "I am not allowed to recycle certain things in some areas", "what do I do with...", and they all wanted to know why it was that way. Which has helped me to frame my work in aiming to help address the "why" question and in that process to attempt changing the system so that reusing, recycling and composting can be more intuitive and accessible.
Marisa: I love that experiment! And I love that you followed where the need was, rather than what felt most alluring. One of the things that I see a lot in my work is that people are drawn to new approaches to horticulture, like growing new varieties of foods that don’t normally grow well here or composting in novel ways, and sometimes I see that overshadowing the lessons we can learn from more basic ways of doing things. Taking it back to your work, I wonder if we wouldn’t need to focus so much on green building design if we had actually been tending to our waste and our energy footprint all along. We wouldn’t need so many new materials if we had been using fewer and more long-lasting materials in the first place. So I really appreciate you going back to basics and focusing on waste.
What surprises you about the day to day work of helping people reduce their waste output? What do you actually spend your time doing?
Hannah: I am surprised most often by the lack of holistic thinking people have around waste. It's very much an out of sight, out of mind mentality for all forms of disposal (recycling and composting included). The thought is always that "someone else will handle it". But the truth is that, most often, those "handling it" are completely inundated and reliant on failing systems that don't support our current rate of consumption. Thus these people and companies are not managing materials in their best and highest use like they should be.
I spend most of my time trying to understand the complex organizational structures of companies. In understanding how a company was built, how it currently operates and who all is involved, I work to identify where there is a lack of holistic thinking which inevitably causes inefficiencies, specifically related to waste. Often times, companies are overpaying for garbage service, getting their dumpsters picked up when they aren't full and mindlessly restocking single use items despite employee's desire to use reusable or more sustainable options. I help companies come up with the plan for waste avoidance and reduction and then through education, awareness and team building I begin to connect people to efficient waste management systems.
Marisa: Cool! I wonder if you could give us some quick questions to ask ourselves that would help us know where we are thinking holistically and not. Are there some indicator questions you use to suss out how people are approaching their decision-making? Do you ever come up against resistance when you approach an organization about “bad habits” like single-use items, or have you had mostly experiences of people being relieved that someone like you is finally addressing the inefficiencies they know exist?
Hannah: Thinking holistically means you are thinking about impact. Impact is understanding how your choices and actions are influence the entire system. An example would be, if you’re at a store and you’re going for a plastic produce bag for your zucchini, you’re not thinking about that plastic bag not being recyclable when you’re done with it. Whereas paper bags can also hold zucchini and be recycled and or composted after they are used. Most grocery stores have paper bags by the mushroom section, so head on over there and grab a paper bag instead of plastic, or, better yet, don’t use any bags at all and just wash your produce when you get home! (which you should do anyways)
When I am approaching companies about behavior, I use an approach of observation and listening before ever making suggestions. I want to understand the language that the company speaks and tailor my plan to meet their goals and objectives. For most companies, the environmental message is important and meets certain business objectives, but a focus on financial and efficiencies seems to speak more clearly to most businesses. The great thing about sustainability is that it achieves goals of a triple bottom line. Meaning it’s good for the planet, for people and for profit.
Hannah: I would like to bring attention to the reality of how recycling and composting actually work. I would like to highlight the fragility in both systems and the importance for consumers and manufacturers to think more deeply about consumption and design. I'd like to see everyone holding up an item and asking themselves, "where is the best place for this to go?", "what is this actually made out of?", "did I really need this, or was there a better alternative that I could have used or bought that could be reused?", "Am I helping or hurting the system by my choice of disposing this item?". Thoughtfulness and connection help to guide the most accurate recycling and composting decisions.
Marisa: Your answer above reminds me that in our newsletter, we spend a lot of time focused on individual action. I think a lot of your work these days is looking at bigger systems of waste production (larger companies) than the household size. Has that changed how you think about waste in general? Has that changed how you look at household waste?
Hannah: I tend to work with organizations of different sizes and also individuals and what I've come to realize is that the individual is the most important part of this narrative. We, as individuals, have value systems which drive a majority of our actions, including actions which prioritize environmental awareness. By adhering to our value systems, we don't pick and choose when we decide we should and shouldn't live by them, they are a part of us. We live in our values in our home life and thus should in our work life. Some companies meet people where their values are and thus create a very cohesive relationship between work and home. Other companies don't do that and might even go against someone's values. However, it really only takes one dedicated and passionate person living fully in their values to make a whole systemic change. Sure-- it helps if that one person is already in a leadership position, but if not, there are ways to bring awareness to the leadership that can be done thoughtfully and economically. There is information sharing and coalition building around the uniformity of like minds that can bring about a norm shift. It starts with the individual but can have the reach of the whole world. We're all connected.
Marisa: What a good reminder. Every organism is built of cells, essentially, and the health of each cell affects the health of those around it. I also appreciate the reminder that our own responses to our environment, such as the tension we feel when our workplace isn’t in alignment with our values, are great starting points to notice what problems need to be solved. We have such intricate sensory and emotional cues.
One place I feel that tension is hearing all of the competing messages about waste these days. Is recycling worthwhile or not, are the biodegradable straws actually biodegradable, etc. How do you recommend people keep it all straight?
Hannah: Again, I think it goes back to truly understanding how the systems of recycling and composting actually work. When you understand that a composting facility is really just heat and oxygen which facilitate the natural growth of microbial organisms which break down organic materials into fertilizer, then you will stop and really think about your contribution when at a waste station. For example, if you're holding an aluminum bottle with a plastic lid that says "recycled content", "ECO can" and you're thinking about putting it in the compost bin then you've bought into the green washing tactics that make you think you can throw synthetically made products into a natural decomposition cycle. Synthetically made products such as aluminum, plastic, and most textiles cannot be broken down in natural processes. Instead they have to be remanufactured (melted, mixed with other chemicals, molded and formed) to become something else. They won't just decompose. So understanding the systems and the products you're purchasing will help you make informed decisions.
A great video that really captures these processes and highlights where we as consumers have been sucked in is The Story of Stuff by Anne Leonard
I love hearing you talk so clearly about where you see opportunities for change. What are you most looking forward to this year? What is the most exciting learning curve you're on right now?
Hannah: I am looking forward to the opportunity to compete for managing waste and recycling for the U.S Forest Service Incident Response Camps. I will basically go live in the woods for periods of time with forest fire fighters and manage the waste and recycling efforts with a focus on education. I will hopefully influence purchasing patterns for these camps and the Forest Service at large and work to institute composting processes for leftover food. I think the pace and scale of that environment will be a huge learning curve! Also, I can't say I've had to educate about waste to a group of firefighters who risk their lives every day protecting forests and towns.
Marisa: Wow, cool! I want to see so much more of this in the world! I'm imagining it's tricky for you to scale your business because it relies so much on your expertise and adaptability, but part of me wants to see it be so much larger so more and more organizations can have access to your work! How can I (or any of our readers) support waste reduction specialists, including you?
Hannah: Thanks for asking this! Support is always needed and encouraged! I would say being the waste advocate at your work, in your friend group, in your family, is an area of activism you can engage with. Educate yourself via Resource Recycling magazine, Waste Dive, Food Dive, YouTube videos, and local government sustainability webpages, there are so many resources out there. You could put together a “lunch and learn” style event for your work to share what you've learned with your colleagues. Also, if you ever want to come and volunteer with me for events, I am always looking for folks to help out managing the zero waste efforts!
Marisa: Awesome, thanks for sharing all those resources! Before we finish up, is there anything else you want to share?
Hannah: If you are a human, which if you're reading this then you probably are, you inevitably produce waste. When you chose to throw something "away," there really is no "away". There's always someone or some piece of land that is being affected by your consumption. We all have it in us to seek out more mindful alternatives. Alternatives that are not only less wasteful, but that are less toxic. Alternatives that are made supporting health and well-being, equitable wages, stewardship for community and land. There are alternatives such as these out there, they just need more support and more demand to become more accessible. My biggest complaint about the "zero waste" movement is affluence. I am just as much a part of this, being a middle class white person living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. But it doesn't have to be something that only people with money and time can think about and take action towards. It can be a lifestyle that starts with something like going through your grandmother’s linens and asking if you can use them in your dinner set for your family, replacing the paper towels you would have otherwise used. It can be a trip to Goodwill to buy clothing instead of shopping new at Forever 21. It can be going to garage sales with your family on the weekend and looking for containers to store your lunches in. The whole culture of reuse and repurpose is out there, all you have to do is start to see the world with that mission in mind and you'll be surprised the treasures you find!
Marisa: Ooh, I know we’re supposed to be finishing up, but that last answer reminded me of so many of the things I learn through gardening, that I have to follow up.
The first thing I wanted to highlight is just how much more complex the layers of interaction get in all the examples you gave of using less waste. Interacting with family members, neighbors, or anonymous people who donated clothes. All of those experiences of accessing a resource you need are so much less predictable than what’s “mainstream” in our culture right now, and they all involve other people who are much closer to us than, for example, the sweatshop workers making Forever 21 clothing in Vietnam or Bangladesh.
That principle, of relying on complex interweaving or different lifeforms, is one of the main things I like to promote in gardens I steward. When I know a garden needs more nitrogen, what are my options? Is there a legume that would be appropriate to grow to fix nitrogen from the air, or a local manure source, or a possibility of making more high-nutrient compost with a worm bin? Why is there low nitrogen, and is there nitrogen leaving the garden somehow? Perhaps as lawn clippings?
The other thing I noticed when I heard that answer was how disconnected we often are from the cyclical nature of everything. So even the concept of “waste” is actually pretty new. In my vision of the world, we look for “where’s the next step” for a particular item or material, not “where is away.” Another way of looking at that is asking “Who will eat this?” Or, “Who could benefit from this?” In our current way of doing things, there are a lot of materials and items that the answer is nonexistent. Materials we use are toxic to nearly all life forms, and aren’t very easy to form into a new type of tool or supply. I think as we start seeing things more holistically, we’ll start getting a lot of pleasure from using other people’s “waste” and passing on our “waste” as useful goods for other people. I could imagine more people specializing in certain types of repurposing, like composting, refurbishing and retrofitting tools or instruments or vehicles, processing food scraps into usable food like vinegars or juices, and so on. Who knows! But for now, it makes sense to look at where that cycle is breaking down - the fact that there are so many items that aren’t an option to pass on in a way that promotes someone else’s health and wellbeing.
Thanks for letting me respond there, and sorry I took your last words! For real this time, any final words?
Hannah: No final words from me, just that we're all in this together, we are all connected, and I continue to have hope that our collective consciousness is expanding.