‘Zero Waste,’ but plenty of gumption!

Karina Quintans tipped the trash can toward her and looked inside: paper coffee cups, tin foil, fast food sacks and, curiously, the pruned leaves of somebody’s indoor plant. At least 80 percent of the trash in this can – clearly labeled “landfill” – was suitable for a second can a few inches to its left, the one labeled “recycling.”

We may not get our waste in the right hole, but at least now, thanks to Quintans and her friends, if you stroll the downtown area of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, you have a 50-50 chance. Until Sept. 27, you had only one option: landfill.

In a civic climate where most of us wait for the government to act, or deride it for failing to, Quintans and her grassroots group “Zero Waste Portsmouth” planned, financed, created and installed five sturdy recycling bins here in downtown Portsmouth, home of the CleanSpeak blog. Each bin has a recycling hole and a landfill hole, the latter label chosen because it describes the ugly reality of waste disposal.

Before the forklifts set those bins in place, when you visited the Port City you either stuffed your recyclables in your pockets until you got home, pirated one of the cafes’ recycling buckets, or most likely, dropped them in the trash can, sending them on a one-way trip to the landfill.

The remarkable thing is that Zero Waste Portsmouth didn’t wait for the city. Although we have curbside residential recycling, downtown street-level recycling wasn’t going into the municipal budget anytime soon. So ZWP drove the project themselves, rounding up volunteers, corporate patrons, some grant money, and some student artistic talent to make these bins a reality. The city will take over from here. Hopefully, collection costs will be offset by avoided landfill costs together with the hard-to-quantify environmental benefit.

Before the bins came, 44 percent of the city’s waste was still going to the landfill, according to Quintans, director of Zero Waste Portsmouth. Twenty-two percent was being recycled. (The rest was yard waste, concrete, bulky, etc.). The downtown area alone was sending 20 tons of trash to the landfill every year.

Zero Waste Portsmouth has an ambitious goal: living up to its name and making the landfill obsolete. As communications professionals, we love this name because what it lacks in immediate viability it makes up for in inspiration.

Admittedly, zero waste is ZWP’s long-term goal. Cutting the landfill-bound portion in half is a shorter-term one. A great first step? Just getting stuff in the right hole.

Meet Quintans and learn more about the project: