Zero Waste Q&A with Jen Dickman
Thanks to dedicated volunteers like Jen Dickman, cities are making progress on keeping waste out of landfills and incinerators. As chair of the DC Sierra Club’s Zero Waste Committee, Jen works with other volunteers and the DC government to bring DC closer to zero waste, keeping in mind the city’s sustainability goal of an 80% trash diversion rate by 2032.
We asked Jen what her committee is working on and what people can do to help their organizations and cities go zero waste.
How did you get involved in the Sierra Club?
I grew up as an environmentalist and have always been a big recycler. I led volunteer committees on recycling in college and law school, and when I saw that my local chapter of the Sierra Club had a Zero Waste Committee, I got involved.
How do you define “Zero Waste”?
We have this definition on our website:
Zero waste is a waste management approach that benefits people and the environment by reducing toxicity, conserving resources, and facilitating economic development in communities. The goal of zero waste is to conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.
The Zero Waste International Alliance has developed a more in-depth definition that also mentions designing products to avoid waste, but that’s more difficult to address as a local group like ours.
We aim to follow a hierarchy that puts source reduction and reuse at the top, then recycling and composting for what can’t be reduced/reused. The members of my committee live out the concept of zero waste really well – they have so many great ideas and I learn a lot from them. (Check out these blogs from committee members Catherine Plume (DC Recycler) and Jane Crosby (Jane & Simple!)
What projects is the DC Sierra Club's Zero Waste Committee working on now?
We have a few active projects.
One is our business composting campaign. Because DC doesn’t require composting (yet!), we want to encourage more businesses – restaurants, cafes, and offices mostly – to compost. In the first phase, we’ve completed interviews with businesses that currently compost to develop a set of best practices.
Another big project is to get restaurants and bars to only give out straws if people ask for them. Straws aren’t recyclable through our city recycling program, so we’re trying to make businesses aware of that.
And finally, we’re trying to figure out a way to encourage the reuse of residential building materials in the city. A significant portion of DC waste by weight is building materials. The regulations applying to commercial construction already have requirements for reuse or recycling. We’re working to get an amendment to the residential building code that would require reuse of a small percentage of building materials in projects involving new construction, substantial renovation, or demolition.
We’re impressed by the work you did to help the annual Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival in DC (attended by 12,000 people) go zero waste. What did you learn from that experience?
Last year was the first time the DC government got involved in trying to make a big event zero waste by providing composting services. We knew beforehand that it was important to get all the vendors (food trucks) on board – to make sure they gave out only recyclable or compostable food packaging – but sometimes it’s difficult to reach them.
The Sierra Club supported the DC government by organizing volunteers to help monitor waste stations on the festival grounds – made up of recycling, composting and trash bins – so that people knew how to sort their trash. Our presence not only cut down on waste at the festival, it had an educational component too. We opened people’s eyes to what could be recycled or composted.
Since then, we’ve been fortunate to be asked to help with waste-monitoring opportunities like this. Some other events we’ve volunteered at include an urban gardening and food justice forum called Rooting DC, a STEM fair at a local high school, and the Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run. We’re learning best practices as we go, like the importance of identifying ourselves as zero waste volunteers with the help of matching t-shirts or pins!
You also work on environmental issues in your day job. How do you find the energy?
The Zero Waste Committee has been busier since the election because more people have come to us looking to get involved. But our committee has subcommittees, so it’s not just me and the vice chair, Doreen, in charge. Each subcommittee leader takes responsibility for their campaign and delegates tasks to other volunteers, helping to keep more people engaged and do more overall.
If someone wants their organization to go zero waste, where should they start?
Public awareness is a good place to start. What’s recyclable varies by city, so find out what and how your local government recycles and make sure that staff and management know this information.
I also recommend taking a look at the recycling and trash bins at your place of employment to see what items don’t belong and use that as a basis for education, or you can just print signage from your local government website and post it near trash and recycling bins.
Getting your employer to start a composting program is a heavier lift but removing food from the waste stream is a great idea for reducing trash volume and limiting methane emissions from landfill disposal.
The challenge with plastics is that it can be difficult to know whether they’re recyclable and it isn’t always easy to tell what number you're dealing with. Another tip is to check if recyclables at commercial properties are required to be collected in a clear bag (in DC, they’ll probably be put into the trash if they’re in a regular trash bag).
On a personal level, it’s a good idea to pack your own utensils (or straws) for whenever you might need them (check out this EarthShare guide for some ideas). You can also bring your own reusable takeout container to sit-down restaurants! The One Less Straw campaign has also developed an educational program to teach kids to reduce plastic waste.