New Paltz aims to be “zero waste” leader

Coordinator of the New Paltz Recycling Center Laura Petit poses for a photo on the site of the new composting pile where SUNY New Paltz will drop off dining hall food waste starting in May. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

New Paltz will have a lot to prove on its road toward becoming a “zero waste” community, but doing so successfully will make the college town a leader both locally and nationally, said Judith A. Enck, the Region 2 administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Enck’s comments came as she addressed a crowd during SUNY New Paltz’s “Zeroing in on New Paltz: How our community can be a national model for sustainable resource management” symposium on March 29.

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“We’re here because New Paltz has long been on the cutting edge of environmental protection — going back many decades. And I know that communities around the state look to New Paltz for leadership,” she said. “Thirteen communities around the country have been chosen to be part of EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management program. And New Paltz is the only one that’s been selected in this region.”

So-called zero waste communities take recycling beyond what most people think of or engage in today. It’s a system that recaptures or reuses virtually everything that gets chucked.

According to David Vitale, with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, a surprising amount of solid waste that ends up in landfills statewide is organic — either food or yard clippings — and is totally compostable. Most municipal trash is composed of at least 30 percent organic waste.

“So it’s huge. It’s a tremendous component,” Vitale said. “It was a giant blinking light.”

Another part of the problem in New York has been the lack of an updated plan. Prior to the brand new Beyond Waste plan, the last DEC waste management plan dated back to 1987. “From 2003 on, we never updated,” he said.

Beyond Waste took about three years to develop, but in doing so the state found that it had not met its goal from the ’80s of reducing waste materials going to the dump by 50 percent. It’s closer to 65 percent or even as high as 80 percent of potentially recyclable material going into the rubbish pile.

EPA’s Judith A. Enck brought the conversation to a lighter note by playing a clip from IFC’s “Portlandia” — which she used to illustrate how recycling can be done wrong.

The “Sanitation Twins” skit presents a nightmare scenario where everything from toenails, to old lotion, to coffee cups, lids, sleeves and stir sticks all require their own forgettably colored bin. There are more than 30 in all. Didn’t you know, “broken umbrellas and broken hearts” go in the canary-colored bin?

Starring Fred Armisen, of “Saturday Night Live” fame, and Carrie Brownstein from the rock band Sleater-Kinney, “Portlandia” pokes fun at left-wing progressives out west in Oregon.

Enck pointed out that in real life — while it does rely on colored bins — Portland, Oregon’s recycling program actually works well and isn’t too complicated. It involves just three bins: one for yard clippings, one for plastic, metal and paper, and one for glass.

“As taxpayers and consumers, we’re already paying a lot for waste, but it’s hidden. It’s hidden in municipal budgets,” she said. “It’s also, I think, more importantly hidden in environmental damage.”

According to the EPA, roughly 42 percent of the greenhouse gases produced in the United States comes from how we manage materials. That includes the entire process of producing an item, transporting it to the store, using it and how we deal with it once it’s thrown away.

Banning or reducing non-biodegradable plastic bags is also a step being taken or contemplated by cities and towns throughout the U.S. Enck said that if New Paltz thinks about passing a law banning the grocery bags, to be prepared.

“You can’t make progress on this just with good ideas. There has to be a very sustained effort,” she said. “You will encounter opposition — political opposition.”

Following the speakers, concerned New Paltzians met to brainstorm ideas for how the college town could change its garbage approach and become a zero-waste community.

“Zeroing in on New Paltz” was sponsored by a slew of organizations, including the town and village governments, the local chamber of commerce, the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach, the DEC’s regional office, the EPA and others.

One charming aspect of the evening was the fact that the event itself was zero-waste. Laptops were used as a sign-in sheet, and most of the materials were recyclable or recycled.

“It’s a zero-waste event, so we wanted to walk the walk,” explain KT Tobin, who helped organize the event. “We wanted to make sure that everything we use — in terms of paper and food and getting this thing to work — that we had either things that were rescued or recycled or could be reused again.”

She added: “The coffee cups, the flatware — it’s all compostable.”

For more information about the federal zero-waste program, head here. To watch that “Portlandia” skit, head to IFC’s website. ++

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