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Photo: Mason & Greens
Store in Washington, DC, area aims for zero waste.

My friend Jeanne has been investigating more-sustainable living and has experimented with producing zero waste. I’m impressed. My small efforts have been almost completely undermined by the pandemic and all the plastic containers that come with takeout — takeout being both a break from cooking and support for our local restaurants.

Even the folks at Plastic Free Hackney, an inspiring effort in an English town, admit that it’s all harder during a pandemic. Still, idealists soldier on and will eventually triumph.

Jessica Wolfrom writes at the Washington Post, ” ‘It was kind of like a slow-moving coup on my part,’ said Anna [Marino], 32, a former seller on the website Etsy, who started researching the meat industry and the zero-waste movement. Even though they were only a family of four — [Anna and Justin] have two children, ages 6 and 3 — they knew they needed to change their lives.

“Paper towels and single-use napkins were the first to go. Then went the plastic. But as they traded traditional products for more eco-friendly items, they quickly realized that their reliance on online shopping was another problem.

“ ‘It almost defeats the purpose,’ said Justin, 43, who previously worked in cybersecurity. ‘I’m ordering something to save the planet, but in order for it to get here, it’s creating a pretty nasty carbon footprint. … And so, we were like, well, there needs to be a store around here.’

“Enter Mason & Greens, the Washington region’s first zero-waste store. … The airy shop is equal parts organic grocer and minimalist boutique, selling items such as package-free shampoo bars, organic produce and drip-irrigated olive oil. Hanging plants and shelves lined with stainless steel containers and books titled ‘All You Need Is Less’ offer shoppers a glimpse into the world of low-waste living. …

“ ‘You know it’s a movement when you don’t know everything that’s going on,’ said Gary Liss, vice president of Zero Waste USA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing waste, who described the growing interest in low-waste living as a sea change in the relationship between people and things.

“Americans throw away about five pounds of trash per person per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — 12 percent of which is plastics. … Scientists estimate that up to 91 percent of plastic is never recycled, leaving the rest to burn in incinerators, clog landfills or degrade in the oceans. Scientists have even found microplastics in air, water and food. …

“The coronavirus pandemic has only increased reliance on disposable plastics. Billions of masks and gloves made from plastics and used by health-care workers, first responders and essential workers are being discarded every month, studies show. …

“Mason & Greens, which is based in part on the bulk model, makes a point of avoiding plastics at nearly every turn. Beans and grains come in gravity dispensers. Produce is package-free. Pomberry Kombucha and pinot noir stream from a tap. The spices are self-serve.

“Customers aren’t required to bring their own bags or refillable containers, but the couple said many customers do. The shop employs a tare system that logs the weight of an empty container and then calculates the price of products by the ounce. …

“The couple welcomes newcomers into their waste-free world, but Anna routinely castigates vendors for their packaging practices — she is not above shaming suppliers who send items wrapped in plastic. … ‘I have to go through so much to get a product into the store that’s zero-waste or low-waste.’

“But living a waste-free life might soon become easier. As consumers demand more sustainable options, brands large and small are shifting to make sustainability central to their strategy. Major companies such as Unilever have pledged to halve the use of virgin plastics in packaging by 2025. Walmart, Target, CVS and other retailers are working to develop an environmentally friendly alternative to the plastic bag. And other companies are starting circular delivery services — an updated version of the 1950s milkman — where groceries and goods are packaged in reusable containers that are returned empty.”

Signing up for the guy who brings milk in reusable bottles is one way I’ve actually gotten better at controlling waste in the pandemic. Thanks to my daughter-in-law, I got in under the wire with the dairy farm as other people started lining up for deliveries, too.

Read about a variety of zero-waste shops and the blogger who fit all the waste she produced over four years into a 16-ounce Mason jar at the Washington Post, here.

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Photos: Sonia Narang for WHYY
Kamikatsu has become a hub for workshops on recycling. Employees from the Osaka branch of the Patagonia clothing store traveled here to learn waste-reduction techniques. Recyclables are sorted into 45 bins.

The other day I was reminiscing with my husband about the first time we took our recyclables to a voluntary recycling station outside Philadelphia. It stands out in my mind because John was a brand new baby in the car seat and the young man who assisted us said, “Oh, what a tiny baby,” and I was indignant because I thought John had gotten really big in his first three weeks!

Today most municipalities offer or demand curbside recycling, but if you think we are advanced in this department, consider Kamikatsu, Japan.

Sonia Narang reports at Philadelphia’s WHYY, “It’s not yet 8 a.m., and the recycling center in the town of Kamikatsu is already bustling. Locals arrive in a steady stream, unloading bags full of bottles, cans, and paper into dozens of clearly-labeled bins — all neatly lined up in rows.

“Kamikatsu is a rural town of about 2,000 people in the forested mountains of Japan’s Shikoku island.

“The town’s waste collection center runs a tight ship. Each resident gets a thick booklet of recycling guidelines.

“At the collection center, everything is carefully sorted and arranged with the help of staff. There are a whopping 45 different categories of recyclables, and the town recycles 80 percent of its trash.

“Akira Sakano heads up the town’s Zero Waste Academy, a non-profit organization that manages the recycling program. …

“ ‘We have newspapers, cardboard, scrap papers, shredded papers, paper containers, paper containers with aluminum packaging on back, paper cups, hard paper tubes, other papers,’ she says. …

“The town of Kamikatsu adopted a ‘zero waste’ policy in 2003. Before that, the town used to burn all its trash in incinerators. …

“When waste decomposes in landfills, it releases methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. A large amount of that methane leaks into the atmosphere, heating up the planet. …

“Zero waste has become a buzzword, and cities around the world are pledging to drastically reduce waste. But, in Japan — where land is scarce and there’s limited space for landfills — aggressive recycling has been a way of life for years.

“In addition to helping the environment, Sakano says recycling also has an economic benefit for the town. Incinerating trash can be expensive. …

“There’s no garbage truck service here. Almost everyone has to bring their trash into the waste collection center, and only about 20 percent ends up in the dumpster.

“For older residents who can’t drive themselves to the recycling center, the town does send a pick-up truck. Kazuyuki Kiyohara, who works for the town, also drives the truck around. He’s really concerned about using the earth’s resources wisely, and super enthusiastic in his personal life about recycling. He’s got 14 separate bins at home. …

“Everyone has to wash and dry all their food packaging. Many locals say that’s the most annoying part of the town’s trash policy.

“Back at the recycling center, I catch Daichi Hyakuno as he unloads bags of juice cans, plastics, and … dirty diapers. He moved here from Osaka a few years ago.

“ ‘At first, I was quite confused because the categorization was so detailed,’ he says. ‘It was easier in Osaka, since all I had to do was separate trash into burnables and non-burnables.’ … He’s not a big fan, but understands his social responsibilities. …

“Personally, I got better at recycling when it was practically mandatory. Fifteen years ago, when I lived in rural Japan, all the residents in my town had to write our names in big black letters on clear trash bags.

“It made me feel conscious about what I threw away: If I left even one bottle in there, the town wouldn’t pick up the trash, and everyone would see my bag left out there on the curb. …

“The town is small, but Kamikatsu is gaining international attention. Now outsiders are traveling here to take workshops at the academy.

“On the day I visit, folks from a Japanese branch of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia are here to learn.” More at WHYY, here.

Now who’s going to teach this town about composting so it can burn even less?

Hat tip: @morinotsuma, One More Voice, on twitter.

Once every two months, the town of Kamikatsu in Japan sends a truck to pick up bags of recyclables from elderly residents who are unable to drive to the recycling center.

Photo-8_Recycling-Truck-Pickup-2-e1539891328644

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