• Melissa Wade

A PLAN for Zero Waste

What is the opposite of waste?




In her keynote address to the Students of Zero Waste Conference in 2018, Melissa Miles says the opposite of waste is hope and creativity. With these, you can cultivate growth, potential, innovation. It is a sense of defeat or disdain that might push us to waste, to just get rid of something because we just don’t want to deal with it, but it is ingenuity that helps us envision it as a continual resource, and not as waste.

Faye Christoforo, co-executive director of the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN), introduced me to Melissa Miles as someone who was able to put words to a feeling Christoforo had for a long time, even before joining the PLAN revolution. “As a society,” Christoforo shared in our interview for episode three, “we label things as trash when we want to distance ourselves from them. Sometimes that's people. Sometimes that’s stuff. Sometimes that's places. Sometimes that's ideas, and it's really this idea of things being disposable that we have to shift as a society. People are not disposable, stuff is not disposable. Even though we throw it away, having it be out of our sight doesn't mean it’s gone.”

Just look at the park that inspired our investigation into waste. Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach, VA, as Christoforo points out, is still “trash all the way down.”

Melissa Miles is a grassroots activist and executive director of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance. She is from the East Ward, also known as the Ironbound neighborhood, which makes up about four-square miles surrounded by railroads, ports, and a “heavy chunk of the region’s energy infrastructure and waste infrastructure.” Long considered the region’s dumping ground, and called a “sacrifice zone” by advocates, the Ironbound neighborhood has proven a fertile soil for seeding activism. Melissa is one of many there awakened to a mission against dumping on those less fortunate, on dumping on the planet overall.

As Melissa spoke to PLAN’s Students for Zero Waste, the conference that brings together students, staff, industry innovators, activists, and community members from across the country to share solutions in pushing the movement forward, she spoke of allies. She encourages individuals–those sitting in front of her and those watching from beyond–to come together in order to help those most impacted by the waste crisis and its systems of injustice. She shared the goal of a living economy, “one where people really feel one with themselves, with each other, and with nature.”

This is akin to the goals of the Post-Landfill Action Network. The organization hopes to disrupt the linear system of waste that is built within models of oppression and waste. PLAN, Christoforo tells me, works “with campuses and students across the country on student-led zero waste projects. Our work is centered on supporting student leadership and projects that tangibly change campuses through education and infrastructure to create zero waste systems and ultimately, long-term change makers to contribute to the students for zero waste movement.” It is the young people who can make great change, who are making great change, by using their individual passions to address the various needs on their campuses, in order to fix the broken systems of waste.

In our talk, Christoforo and her colleague, partnerships director Iyanu Corneil, shared stories of students who’ve done just that–from addressing their school’s composting needs to transitioning Black History Month programming to zero-waste, to making reusable menstrual products available for free on campus. And these campaigns aren’t meant to sit as icons only, but serve as models for replication and adaptation. Want to make reusable products available on your campus, check out this manual. Want to start a free store with last semester’s move-out items? Here you go. PLAN has manuals about composting, food recovery, and going zero waste. Check out their library to find more.

In her TED talk about the Mongolian nomads of her home country, Khulan Batkhuyag describes how this group builds their all-natural-material yurts and how they welcome any stranger into them, offering food and supplies to face the harsh cold of the region. “Historically,” she says, “the nomads believed that we are only passing through this life, that people come and leave naked, so they believe that there's no point in building anything that destroys nature or in being greedy for materialistic things when your life expectancy is only less than 100 years. Instead, they invest in tradition, heritage, history, and pass it from generation to generation. This ancient nomadic philosophy made me realize that I should think bigger and further than my own convenience and comfort.” In response, Batkhuyag downsized and reduced, choosing to live in a way that rejected that all things were just disposable. Even as a marketer, she moved to working with companies like PLAN that uphold the values sustainability and zero-waste.

“We have to ask ourselves,” she says “why do we keep on following the same blueprint when we know it causes harm to the world? We've all experienced the consequences of our choices over the past eight months. So doing right by Mother Nature and focusing on earth-friendly, zero-waste habits is not an option anymore. And who knows the key ingredients better than our ancestors, the ones who survived without the media or technology but with wisdom alone?”

The Post-Landfill Action Network, while not ancient, questions the current blueprint similarly. It is clear to them that climate change, waste, and the social inequities that result are not issues in isolation from one another. The current blueprint exploits people and the planet, generating profit for the powerful and leaving the rest of us behind. Not one person can rewrite that whole system, erase and redraft the entire blueprint, but if we all bend in our own ways towards a more circular model, then less will end up in landfills, less toxins will poison our land, air, and water, less people will be buried under the old system, and more people will live natural and hospitable, like the nomads of Mongolia.

No one can do everything but everyone must do something.

We can create a living economy, one where people really feel one with themselves, with each other, and with nature.

Find out more in Episode Three of We’re Here: “We Found Away on a Mountain of Trash.”

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