Sustainable Missoula: Our community can achieve Zero Waste by 2050

A student builds reuse skills at a Home ReSource birdhouse-making workshop. (Brody Klemer/instagram.com/bklemer)

 

Nobody likes to waste: Certainly no one sets out to do it.

But here in the Treasure State, with our long-standing ethic of self-sufficiency and resourcefulness, statistics show that Montanans waste 60 to 90 percent more than the average American.

My experience with my fellow Montanans is that we are a hardworking bunch, often with strong connection to the land and a willingness to take actions to keep our natural and human communities thriving.  But we aren’t doing that with our waste stream: So where’s the disconnect?

Let me go out on limb – a relatively safe one, like the lower branches of an old-growth ponderosa pine, perhaps – and suggest a couple factors that may be in play.

First, I think many Missoulians may not realize the connection between valuing materials and conserving land and resources, and reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.  We don’t talk about it (Trash talk?  No thanks!?), we usually don’t learn about it in school (Is “waste” a noun or a verb, anyway, and who got that in your grammar lesson?), and we don’t see what happens when we do waste resources. In short, many folks haven’t considered that items they are throwing away have value, that they can be used again or recycled, or considered that maybe we didn’t need them all in the first place.

But, you say, some people have!  And those who have thought about it know we in Missoula lack the infrastructure, the systems, the bins or the knowledge and skills to make a choice other than to throw things away. (Where is “away” anyway? It’s in Missoula’s north hills at the landfill!) We don’t have two or three easily distinguishable recycling bins and a compost bin standing next to every garbage can.  We don’t have the expectation or the capacity to divert items from the landfill that are reusable, repairable, recyclable or compostable.

The good news is that these are relatively easy problems to solve, and in doing so, we can improve the overall sustainability and health or our community. The Missoula City Council passed the Missoula Zero Waste Resolution two years ago, committing our community to reduce its waste 90 percent by 2050.  You want to know the best thing about that resolution?  Turns out there are at least four.

Best thing No. 1: Zero Waste (or darn near) is totally doable!  Communities all across the nation, large and small, rural and urban, are setting their sights on Zero Waste goals and making them happen. As solutions arise, new challenges also present themselves, like China’s National Sword policy that has brought the global recycling economy to a halt.  These create opportunities to reduce and reuse more and to develop our own domestic recycling markets that are local and just.

Best thing No. 2: Zero Waste economies build community. Honoring the inherent value and longevity of materials pushes us to work together toward Zero Waste.  Reducing, reusing, recycling and composting keeps things in our local economy, which creates local jobs, business opportunities, and keeps us interacting with the people in our community.

Best thing No. 3: Moving toward Zero Waste is moving toward sustainability. Here are some sustainability stats that illustrate this point: For every pound of waste we generate from the stuff we buy and use, 71 pounds of waste and 42 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are generated in resource extraction, manufacturing, and distribution.  Just landfilling solid waste alone in Missoula accounts for 9 percent of our community’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Best thing No. 4:  Being a materials resourcerer is fun! Resourcerers recognize that materials that we might have landfilled actually have value in our lives and our economy. This frame of mind helps us think about keeping materials in play and realizing that this is a problem we can solve, individually and collectively, every day of the year. It is very satisfying. It is very resourceful!  But it isn’t magic. It is as simple as changing our perspective to see that things aren’t waste until we choose to waste them.

And we are already on our way.  Missoula businesses and institutions like Home ReSource, Providence St. Patrick Hospital, Logjam Presents, and Missoula Compost Collection LLC, as well as the Big Sky Doc Fest and MCT, to name a few, are jumping on ZERO by FIFTY: Missoula’s Pathway to Zero Waste.

They are making it easier for folks to move toward Zero Waste by increasing awareness and helping create the systems that make it possible. They are also showing that we can transform our relationship with stuff through small, tangible, easy-to-do actions that create a thriving and sustainable economy and a world in which we need less and have more.

Katie Deuel is the executive director of Home ReSource. This column is part of a 2018 weekly Missoula Current series, Sustainable Missoula, which highlights community sustainability efforts.

Upcoming sustainability events:

March 1: Climate Smart Missoula’s Monthly Meetup on the topic of Zero Waste, Imagine Nation Brewing Co., 5 p.m.