Waste Warriors: Taking the mystery out of trash in a crowd

Courtesy photo
Event waste disposal at a Shelburne Museum concert involves three bins for attendees to toss trash, recycling, and compostable items.

LIAM CREASER
Community News Service

Robin Orr promises she’s not training people to be the “trash police” to spoil anyone’s fun this summer. Instead, she’s banking on teams of friendly “Waste Warriors” at large often outdoor events to help educate the public about recycling and composting in a way that puts trash in its correct place.

Orr is the Event Outreach Coordinator for the Chittenden Solid Waste District and she organizes the Waste Warrior volunteer program that aims to minimize contamination of recycling and maximize diversion of waste – which means keeping as much non-trash out of the trash as possible.

Launched in 2015, the program has grown from teaching people how to improve their personal recycling habits to a full-scale volunteer operation deployed to work with the public. Orr said 289 people have been trained to date with about half participating as event volunteers.

This summer, the Waste Warriors will appear at events such as the Ben and Jerry’s Concerts on the Green at Shelburne Museum, Leddy Park’s Beach Bite events, Lake Monsters baseball games, the upcoming Lake Champlain Maritime Festival and more.

Waste Warriors complement the work of event staff does in keeping a venue clean. The volunteers stand by the three-part waste bins – one each for trash, recycling, and compostable items – to make sure that everything goes into the proper container. The goal is to reduce mistakes that also can be costly, Orr said.

For example, plastic forks or straws cannot be recycled, but many people toss them in the recycling container instead of the trash. Paper plates and napkins are often put in recycling, but they really should go in the compost, Orr said.

The warrior teams work in pairs with up to a dozen assigned to a particular event. Outfitted with gloves and long-handled gripper tools to snag items out of one bin to put into another, the warriors stand alongside waste bins where they offer guidance and information.

The goal is not for volunteers to be experts on waste laws and environmental policy, Orr said. It’s more educational. Getting people to change their behavior at these events may, in turn, lead to them telling their friends and family about easily avoidable mistakes, she said.

Education and compliance

The Waste Warriors’ mission does aim to help event organizers comply with trash and recycling laws, Orr said. When the event is over and large bags of recyclables are taken to the Materials Recovery Facility in Williston, there can be additional fees if the recyclable material is contaminated by food. Careful separation during an event helps minimize contamination.

Waste Warriors have earned appreciation from  Burlington’s Parks and Recreation Department which has invited volunteers to staff the Leddy Park Beach Bites events for the past few years. Event planner Emma Allen said the Waste Warriors “help [the city] keep in compliance with compost regulations and are always cheerful faces at our events. They educate people when asked, and assist people who don’t.”

Higher Ground also works with the Waste Warriors. Co-founder and president Alex Crothers said that the prolific concert venue began to implement the Warriors at every outdoor event in response to Act 148, the state’s solid-waste law. The law requires that food scraps will no longer be allowed in landfills mid-2020 but in 2017, requirements went into effect for businesses such as separating out food waste from trash and recycling.

Higher Ground’s Assistant General Manager Mark Balderston said the program has helped the company improve its sustainability program.

“We received a grant to upgrade our bins to Clearstream steel frames, which are better for visibility and verification that every single piece of waste is going into the correct bin,” he said. “Since starting to work closely with CSWD and the Waste Warriors a few years ago, we have massively shrunk our overall eco-footprint and drastically reduced the amount of waste we send to the landfill.”

Before events, the Chittenden Solid Waste District also works with food vendors – mostly food trucks – to encourage them to use easily compostable plates, bowls, and utensils.

“They’re very organized,” said Jill Spell of Villa Bistro’s Gusto Gelato ice cream cart. “Before the event starts, they go around and sample all the cups. Ideally, they want to have everything compostable or recyclable, and their job makes it easier for consumers to figure out.”

Warrior training

On a recent Tuesday night, Orr held a training for new Waste Warrior volunteers at the district’s headquarters in Williston. The group of about 10 was a mix of college students – most of whom are studying environmental issues at the University of Vermont – along with older folks in their parents’ demographic.

Orr asked those in the group why they were there. A common theme in the answers was a shared desire to preserve the environment. At least one person in the group mentioned an ad for the training that asked: “Do you carry your banana peel home when you can’t find a compost bin?” that inspired them to attend.

Orr told the group that sorting recyclables and materials to compost with a large crowd takes preparation.

“Events like the ones we do pose a challenge – many people come from all over the place, areas that don’t know about recycling or composting, or their towns might have different guidelines about what can go in,” she said.

And seemingly minor details can really matter.

“A lot of things you can’t tell where they belong even by looking at it,” she said. “And at these big events, people like to play follow the leader – if one person throws in something to one bin, everyone else might think it belongs there when in reality it doesn’t.”

She explained how marketing can be misleading.

“Some materials can look like plastic but actually be compostable,” Orr said. “And just because a product says it’s biodegradable does not mean it’s compostable. It’s sort of like the difference between ‘natural’ food and organic food.”

Orr acknowledged that there are no data to measure the impact of the Waste Warrior program, but feedback tells her it’s making a difference.

“We want to be viewed as helpful and friendly rather than the ‘trash police,’” Orr said. “We don’t want to scold anyone. We can’t force people to learn, but most people are grateful and appreciative. I believe that interactions like these will really stick instead of some 15-second ad on TV.”

Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

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