Categorized | Metro, Solid Waste

Maggie Clarke’s Dirt Experiment: Striving for Zero Waste

Posted on 06 December 2009 by Bartram Nason

Maggie Clarke at RING, a community garden in Inwood

A bin for spent printer cartridges in Clarke's apartment

A bin for used printer cartridges in Clarke's apartment

There are three bins for paper recycling in Maggie Clarke’s apartment, a sunny two-bedroom at the northern end of Riverside Drive.  Cardboard boxes and brown packing paper overflow from one, spilling onto the coffee table in the living room.  More empty boxes collect on top of a bookshelf in the hallway, set aside for mailing Christmas presents. Used batteries are scattered on a kitchen table, not yet fully exhausted; dead ones go in a bucket labelled “Batteries Only!” Clarke redeems the five cent deposit on glass bottles, and takes squeeze bottles and yogurt containers to Whole Foods, one of the few places in the city that recycles number five plastics.

For more than twenty years, Clarke has worked to reduce the amount of trash New York City throws away. Her goal is zero waste, the idea that “all discards should be prevented,” she said, drawing a distinction between what is discarded and what is waste. “Things that can be reused, recycled or composted are not trash. They are useful resources. And they are not wasted.”

It is difficult to identify what has and hasn’t been discarded in Clarke’s apartment, so it is difficult to measure exactly how much trash she actually throws away. The things in her office wastebasket—mostly mixed plastics, like a well-worn styrofoam and polyester bicycle seat cover, and packaging for printer cartridges—will likely end up in a landfill. The used cartridges have their own receptacle. The walls of the office are lined with dozens of disheveled filing cabinets, with papers stacked on top of already full, open drawers. A sign on the door says, “Do Not Clean: This Room Is Undergoing A Scientific Dirt Experiment.”

One of Clarke's three paper recycling baskets.

One of Clarke's three paper recycling baskets.

Clarke and her overcrowded apartment can be viewed as a microcosm of a major city, and how it deals with its trash. She struggles to get rid of much of the junk that takes up space in her home, things that no longer serve a purpose for her, but may be useful to someone else, just as New York struggles to dispose of more than 12,000 tons of waste each day, not all of it useless.

There is a system to all that stuff, she said. Clarke, who has two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in environmental sciences, works with a lot of systems. She began her career in solid waste, working for the New York Power Authority and New York Department of Sanitation, to build cleaner, more efficient incinerators, at a time when converting waste to energy seemed like a win-win solution to increasing pressure to close landfills and find renewable sources of electricity.

As the solid waste environmental landscape shifted, and the dangers of incinerators became more apparent, Clarke said she made recommendations at the sanitation department to reduce harmful pollution, like removing batteries and heavy metals from the waste stream before being incinerated. Her suggestions were largely ignored, she said. “The culture at the sanitation department going way, way back has been mainly operational. Pick it up, put it down. That’s what their mentality is.”

In 1999, Clarke conducted an environmental shopping study for her doctoral thesis. She created pilot programs at two supermarkets in Manhattan to educate consumers and give them options to make more eco-friendly purchases. Waste reduction requires a multi-faceted approach, she says, “from education and enforcement, to legislation and policy and incentives, like charging for garbage. And that’s just the short list.”

Clarke doesn’t believe the city is committed to making those kinds of changes. “The idea of things like recycling markets and recycling infrastructure…is anathema to [the department of] sanitation, like, ‘Oh, that’s way too complicated. We’re not going to do that.’ And waste prevention is way more complicated than recycling.”

In addition to curbside recycling pickup, the sanitation department does sponsor some waste reuse programs, such as the Materials Exchange Development Program, and NYWasteMatch, a site that connects companies that generate industrial waste with companies that can reuse it. But when it comes to reducing the volume of household waste that goes to landfills, the city sets the bar fairly low, and still has trouble clearing it, Clarke said. In 2006, the city’s solid waste management plan stated that 25% of all residential waste should be diverted for recycling. Last year, that figure was only 16%.

The results of Clarke’s doctoral study on shopping were mixed. Some of the desired behaviors increased, like purchasing refills and recycling bottles, while others decreased, like choosing products with recyclable packaging. Efforts to sign up shoppers for a cloth diaper service were fruitless. “Habit is a very important word when it comes to this kind of thing,” she said.

It takes effort to create those habits. Even among people who want to be green, there exists a “cognitive behavioral laziness,” says Kirstin Appelt, a post-doctoral scholar at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University. “People don’t have the resources to do everything they want. You have to make the behavior easier.” Appelt says taking steps placing recycling bins in prominent locations, having people commit to it in advance, and helping people understand the cost of not recycling can lead to increased adoption of those behaviors. “Once you form the habit, you are likely to continue, unless something makes you see it differently.”

When the habits don’t work, Clarke says, it may be necessary to legislate. She draws a comparison with efforts to eliminate smoking. “After you’ve been doing 40-50 years of educating, and then taxing, and still people start, now it’s time to say, ‘OK, you can’t do it anymore.’”

Does that work? Legislating around the edges has been spotty. New York residents are required to recycle, but it’s apartment buildings that are fined when tenants throw away glass and paper. And since New York enacted indoor smoking laws in 2003, the percentage of current smokers in the city has dropped only a little more than three percent.

Clarke now bills herself as a zero waste consultant. On her website, she lists an extensive resume of teaching positions, publications, and community activism. She founded RING, a community garden in Inwood, originally built on a patch of asphalt with donated top soil. The garden boasts four solar panels powering a Koi pond filtration system, and three bulging compost bins.

Compost seems to be a sore spot with Clarke. In the garden, a rat has managed to get inside one of the bins, even though it was advertised as “rat proof,” she said. Grocery bags of rotting food scraps are left along the wall of the garden, inches from the containers. The compost must be mixed and sifted, but without enough volunteers, the garbage on top doesn’t mix with the soil at the bottom.

After more than twenty years, Clarke still hasn’t solved all of her personal waste problems. She tries to compost vegetable peels and egg shells in a small bin in her kitchen, but the process draws rats and flies, and stinks. “I’ve been going back and forth on compost,” she said. She recently bought a new type of container that has a matrix of fine holes drilled in the top. In two weeks of use, Clarke said it smells better, and she hasn’t had any pests. As she has worked to eliminate New York’s waste, Clarke continues to try new solutions to eliminate her own.

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