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Waste Warriors Educate Eventgoers About Their Trash

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Waste Warriors Bill and Julie Rogers at Grand Point North - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Waste Warriors Bill and Julie Rogers at Grand Point North

Robin Orr has a least favorite fork. She can pick it out from a bundle of 13 disposable forks, which she keeps in her office at the Chittenden Solid Waste District. On a recent afternoon, Orr lined them up on a table in front of her like a dealer laying out cards. She can sort, from memory, the compostable forks from the plastic.

"You would be astonished at how many forks there are," she said.

Her least favorite fork is a trickster. Compostable forks are usually labeled as such on the handle. They feel a little different from the plastic forks, but only if you're paying attention. This fork is labeled, too: A company called Eco-Products makes it. That brand is printed on the front of the fork handle, and on the back are the words "Non-compostable."

Orr's job as event outreach coordinator at CSWD means she spends a lot of time thinking about how to get people at public events to recycle and compost properly. The biggest part of that, she said, is making sure that people can clearly distinguish between products. With this fork, holding her thumb in the wrong position covers the word "non-," and people could be confused. Plus, she said, Eco-Products also makes a fork that is compostable — and that fork is nearly identical.

Orr collects forks not just to prove a point about design but to educate her volunteers. She leads the Waste Warriors program, which started at CSWD in 2015. You know the folks — you've probably seen them hanging out near the trash receptacles at festivals, concerts and events, making sure attendees know which bin their waste goes in.

For CSWD, the Waste Warriors program checks several boxes. It helps events streamline their waste systems and eases the burden on CSWD facilities that compost and sort recycling. Plus, it provides CSWD with something of a captive audience for spreading the word about which products are recyclable, compostable or just trash.

"Public spaces have always been the final frontier of educating," Orr said. "Just setting two buckets out there isn't enough."

CSWD's strategy is all about making which refuse is which as clear as possible for Vermonters. In some places, this is mostly about labeling. Michele Morris, CSWD's director of outreach and communications, said the state requires public spaces, including events, to provide an equal number of recycling bins as trash cans, though it isn't strictly enforced at this point.

One strategy is what Morris called "choice architecture," which is design that encourages people to make certain decisions. If a waste receptacle is just a big open bin, people can toss their waste in easily without stopping to think about it. But if a receptacle encourages or even demands some kind of interaction from people — with color coordination and signage, for example, or a bin that has to be opened like a mailbox — people are more likely to slow down and consider where their waste goes.

The Waste Warriors program takes this a step further by placing actual human beings by waste receptacles, turning trash tossing into a conversation. Orr has about 50 semi-regular volunteers, all of whom have been trained in how to interact with the public positively. Orr said they want to educate, not be the "trash police."

"When you meet people right at the moment they're making the decision ... it seems to have much more of a lasting impact," Orr said. "We hope that we're interacting with folks that we might not cross paths with in other settings."

But Orr puts in work with event organizers that goes well beyond the event itself. At a concert such as the Ben & Jerry's Concerts on the Green at Shelburne Museum or a festival like Grand Point North at Burlington's Waterfront Park, where there might be a dozen food vendors, Orr typically shows up an hour and a half early. She walks around to all the vendors and collects a sample of every single dish, cup or utensil the vendor uses. Then she marks them all as compostable, recyclable or trash. The process can take a bit of sleuthing, as not all the items are clearly labeled.

Orr also records which vendor each item came from, so she knows whom to work with if improvements can be made. Then she goes over each item with her volunteers before the event starts, so they also know where everything goes.

At this point, Orr knows many of the food vendors by name and probably could spot a plastic plate at 20 yards.

At the last Concert on the Green on a sunny September evening, her job was simplified. The event featured the same vendors she'd been working with all summer, so all she had to do was make a lap and make sure everyone was still using the same utensils as before. Then she walked back to her supplies, set up at the edge of the lawn. Orr had three white gallon buckets full of plastic gloves, sunscreen, bug spray, rain ponchos and a sample of every piece of foodware used at the event, all neatly labeled in Sharpie.

"This is my office," she said, sitting down on one of the buckets for emphasis.

Orr also coordinates with event organizers ahead of time. Sometimes they'll actually require that vendors use compostable products. It's important to Orr to get all the vendors on board. If one food truck invests in compostable ware, that could be offset by another food truck using plastic — because Waste Warriors, if they can't tell the difference, will err on the side of trash.

Orr credits Higher Ground's assistant general manager, Mark Balderston, with doing a lot of the work to make Concerts on the Green so simple. He started at Higher Ground as an intern in 2016, which is when the concert producers began working with CSWD. Since then, Balderston said, he's seen a huge reduction in the trash produced at Higher Ground-presented events.

"The music industry writ large is not a particularly environmentally friendly thing, typically," he noted. "So we wanted to try to do our part to step up."

The system isn't perfect yet. Nearly all of the dishes and utensils at the Concert on the Green were compostable, but the exceptions were the cups used for beer and wine, some of which were printed with the Higher Ground logo.

Balderston has a couple of explanations for this. Higher Ground doesn't have climate-controlled storage for the 60,000 cups he has to order every summer, and compostable materials are susceptible to heat. Balderston said the cups would melt together and become unusable if they were stored in a warm environment.

He was also worried about the impact of putting 60,000 compostable cups into the waste stream. Orr confirmed that compostable tableware is not actually a desirable material for composters, and many don't even accept it. It has little nutritional content, and compost that includes it can't be labeled as organic. Orr said Green Mountain Compost, CSWD's composting operation, accepts it regardless, because it's a service to the community.

Waste Warriors volunteers also benefit from the program, because they get free tickets to sometimes expensive shows and festivals — including ones with serious free-sample perks, such as the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival at Shelburne Farms. But most of the volunteers are simply passionate about waste.

"Last year for Halloween, I dressed as a composting toilet," said Jules Lees, who uses they and them pronouns. Lees is a student teacher and said they often act as an unofficial Waste Warrior at their school.

Another volunteer, Jim Rudolph, works at Seventh Generation doing market research. He said he learns a lot about people's perceptions of waste while volunteering, and that translates back to his job. At a recent festival, he noticed that some vendors were giving attendees a foldable cardboard spoon. It was compostable, but it had a waxy coating that gave it a plastic sheen, and that caused people to think it went in the trash.

"The general cues of the product made it confusing and sent it to the wrong place," Rudolph said. "My time as a Waste Warrior is actually incredibly illuminating."

The Warriors volunteered at 25 events this summer. And though festival season is pretty much over, for Orr and many of her coworkers and volunteers, once they start paying attention to waste, it's hard to switch that off. Orr said she can't help but observe how people handle their trash.

"Whenever I go out to dinner with my partner," Orr said, "he's like, 'Just this once, can we not look into the dumpster?'"

Correction: September 27, 2019: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the dishes and utensils supplied at the Concert on the Green. They were nearly all compostable.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Trash Talk | Waste Warriors work to educate eventgoers about what they throw away"

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