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EcoJustice Radio

Talking Trash: The Truth About Zero Waste


EcoJustice RadioWhat really happens to your trash after it leaves the curb? Our usual co-host Jessica Aldridge becomes the interview subject on EcoJustice Radio to delve into the truth about waste processing and the roadblocks on the path to zero waste.  It’s an insightful look at the realities of waste and how we can improve. Guest Host Auri Jackson, Environmental Journalist, interviews Jessica, who is a 16-year Sustainability and Zero Waste Industry Leader.

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Jessica Aldridge and Auri Jackson, zero wasteThe World of Recycling and Resource Management

Well, we all know we have a problem with waste, trash, single-use plastics, wrappers, plastic bags. Plastic has become ubiquitous in our daily lives thanks to its convenience and artificially low prices. But it comes with many costs, upstream and downstream, so to speak. Fossil fuels fracked and pipelined to produce it, petrochemical facilities polluting communities, ecosystems, and the climate. Millions of tons of plastic waste are dumped every year, much of which makes its way into the oceans, harming wildlife and ecosystems in the process. Yet the majority of all plastic that has ever been made, some say around 90 percent, is not recycled. But keep in mind that recycling has some value, and we will get to that.

Our EcoJustice Radio co-host Jessica Aldridge, as most of our regular listeners know, has been working for the last sixteen years in the waste industry to bring a sustainability vision and provide solutions to this insane dilemma. We have invited her into the interviewee seat this week to give us an overview of what can be done to confront this problem. From landfills to recycling facilities, she explains the systems in place and how they fall short. Contamination makes recycling difficult, and many “recyclables” aren’t truly recyclable. Jessica busts myths about recycling’s impact and emphasizes that change is needed from producers and policymakers, not just consumers. The episode also explores composting’s potential and problems with bioplastics.

And joining us as interviewer this week is Auri Jackson, Environmental Journalist and a veteran of viral video news site BuzzFeed.

For the extended discussion, click here:


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Excerpts from the Interview

Auri Jackson: So what is it about helping to address waste that fires you up and what makes you passionate about it?

Jessica Aldridge: Waste recycling, resource management, the whole thing together, packaged. It’s tangible. It becomes a sexy topic. It’s this environmental action that we all understand. We all create waste. We see it every single day. My phone is in front of me, my cup that, both of us are drinking our tea right now. We see it’s product. It’s product every single day. Because product will eventually die, and then it becomes waste, right?

Since childhood, we are taught through marketing that the issue is littering. That if we just didn’t litter, if we put things in the right container, if we can place the items where they need to go, then we are environmentalists. It’s the simple entry point into environmental action. And when you travel, and we’ll talk about. We’ll bust that fallacy later on in the conversation. But also, when I travel, people light up. And it’s not just me. It’s anyone who really knows the waste industry. And you tell people that you work in trash, they light up. And it doesn’t matter if you speak the same language, they will find someone who can translate between the two of you so that you can speak trash. And this is every single time I travel outside of the country, inside the country, too.

Trash Talk

I also love the industry. So if anyone’s thinking, like, I need to make a job change, what do I do? The industry is so loving. I love the people that I work with. I work with businesses and waste haulers and consultants, and all of us are really great friends. We talk to each other every single day. This group of trashy ladies that inspire me every freaking day. We have this beautiful camaraderie. We’re a family. We support each other, and we’re technically competitors, a lot of us, but it’s just beautiful.

Why do I like my job? Well, environmentalism, and what that means holistically, has always been part of my heart. And there’s no separation between environmental activism and social justice. You can’t have one without the other. And in my environmental activity, I gravitate towards zero waste. There’s all many aspects, right? I gravitate towards this concept of zero waste, which we’ll define because it doesn’t just mean zero, no trash. When I started out, there wasn’t a lot of information on zero waste, and this is over 16 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of people doing this. People didn’t understand what it was. There was no social media on it, which is also not incredibly accurate. And zero waste, when in the environmental community, was pushed to the bottom of the priority list, it was, okay, we’re going to talk about ‘keep it in the ground’. We’re going to talk about not drilling. We’re going to talk about solutions like solar panels and using wind power and things of that nature. But then when it’s like, well, where? When we’re looking at the diagram of the information that we need to focus on, let’s put waste in there. And it’s like, oh, okay, waste and m, we’ll put at the bottom. And it was always that case. Even working with, it was always that case. And now those organizations are like, no, this is on the forefront because they realize, they put the connection between, why are we drilling for oil in the first place? Right. It’s for our energy needs. But those energy needs go into the production of the material, the transportation of the material, the housing of that material, and then the disposal of that material. Zero waste is not just about our downstream impact. It’s about this overall impact from the time of extraction to the time of disposal and how those impacts along the way, or how it impacts along the way. The environment, human health, air, water, everything across the board has something to do with zero waste, not just what we’re doing with our waste once it is created.

Auri Jackson: Marvelous.

EcoJustice Radio, zero waste

There are a lot of misconceptions about recycling and waste

So what, are the common misconceptions that people have about waste?

Jessica Aldridge: That is a very good question. There are a lot of misconceptions about waste. Again, it’s this environmental action that we are all been taught and gotten information on, but it’s not always accurate. There’s Harvard Business Review study found that consumers feel comfortable using a large amount of resources when they think recycling is an option. And we’re made to believe that recycling is our universal environmental feel good. And when that is taken away or that curtain is pulled back, we have this visceral reaction and we get angry, like, oh, you’re telling me it’s not recyclable anymore and you feel like you’ve been let down, you’ve been lied to. We’re led to believe that everything is recyclable when, really it boils down mostly to a lot of food packaging because so many things are just like these mixed materials.

I mean, we look around ourselves right now, every single thing around us is going to meet its end of life at one point. And most everything around us is not going to be able to be recycled. This concept that we throw trash away to this magical world of away, where’s away? Where is it going? Is it going to frontline communities to their backyards, to developing countries? And then another misconception is we believe that solutions like reuse are always universal and affordable and accessible, and they’re not. And I know we’ll talk about that. The definition of recyclable doesn’t mean that it’s always going to get recycled. And if something is compostable doesn’t mean that it’s actually compostable, that it’s going to be composted in most markets or most environments. So the wording that we’re offered doesn’t actually match up to what the processes might be on the back end. Same thing. And I think a lot of people know this by now, that the recycling sign that is on a product doesn’t actually mean that that product is recyclable. And I don’t want to create apathy. I wouldn’t be doing the work for as long as I’m doing it in the way that I’m doing it if I didn’t think that there was hope and solutions. But I think the misconceptions that come about is the language that we’ve been fed that we lean into because we know better.

Auri Jackson: Totally.

Jessica Aldridge: Yeah.

Auri Jackson: It’s hard to combat those. How do you think we can combat those misconceptions?

Jessica Aldridge: I, think we have to stay informed. We have to share the information. We need to demand that our cities are being transparent and waste haulers are being transparent and what can and cannot be recycled so that we can make better choices ourselves as consumers. We need to create waste policies so that us as consumers are not getting material that can’t be managed on the downstream because it’s not us managing it unless it’s food waste. And maybe we’re composting that, but we’re not the ones that are able to recycle the material. We have to give it to someone so that they can recycle it. And so we need waste policies that huh? Provide us the opportunities to have material that can actually move through the system. But we also have to be careful, like, okay, we create policy and we set something up that says 0% of landfill by 2028. That means nothing to me. When a city says, we’re going to be 0% of landfill by x amount of day, great, what are you doing with it? Are you just going to move in an incineration facility? Are you just going to ship it off? What are you actually doing with it?

EcoJustice Radio

Because in my opinion, even though if a product has to be landfilled, then the product needs to be redesigned, but we are going to end up with products in the landfill. So when we tell ourselves that we’re just going to hit zero, it just doesn’t compute to me all that well. We need to vote. We need to back legislation. We need to keep up on information that is being put out there by groups like five gyres, which is going to release, a report on compostables. We need to compostable plastics. We need to buy smarter. I know it’s not fully the consumer’s fault, but we need to look at labels. We need to focus on packaging that is truly recyclable and truly compostable. And hopefully in state of California, we’ve passed legislation to help make that happen for food packaging. If you have the privilege, buy less packaging. Use reusables. Stay informed. Contact your local waste hauler in your city. Look up what you can actually put into the system that will be managed appropriately, and give yourself a break.

Auri Jackson: I love that. Yeah. So important to not beat yourself up and just try your best.

Jessica Aldridge: There’s no form of perfection in this.

Auri JacksonAuri Jackson [] is a director and storyteller that specializes in making sustainability and social impact relatable to inspire action and offer hope. She pioneered environmental content at BuzzFeed and created a myriad of viral videos about everything from plastic pollution to climate change. She knows what makes millions of eyes pay attention and she’s passionate about working with non-profits and brands who put people and planet first. She also makes compelling narrative work which has won audience awards at the Austin Film Festival and Outfest. Jackson has been quoted in Vox, profiled in Jr Hi the Magazine, has written an article for Shondaland about zero waste, and has spoken at community events, as well as at corporate events for Nike and BuzzFeed, about how to be an everyday environmentalist.

Jessica Aldridge,  Co-Host and Producer of EcoJustice Radio, is an environmental educator, community organizer, and 16-year recycling industry and Zero Waste leader. She is a co-founder of SoCal 350, organizer for ReusableLA, and founded Adventures in Waste. She is a former professor of Recycling and Resource Management at Santa Monica College, and an award recipient of the international 2021 Women in Sustainability Leadership and the 2016 inaugural Waste360, 40 Under 40. In her day job she is the Sustainability and Zero Waste Programs Director for Athens Services.

Jessica Aldridge, EcoJustice Radio

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Executive Producer: Jack Eidt
Host and Producer: Jessica Aldridge
Engineer and Original Music: Blake Quake Beats
Ep. 198

Published 27 November 2023, Updated 11 December 2023

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