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Issues of the Environment: City of Ann Arbor contracts zerowaste.org to educate and engage community in lasting reduction efforts

Samuel McMullen
Samuel McMullen
Samuel McMullen


  • Strategy 5 of the A2ZERO Carbon Neutrality Plan addresses: changing the way we use, reuse, and dispose of materials. At its core, this is about moving our community towards a circular economy. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.a2gov.org/departments/sustainability/Sustainability-Me/Families-Individuals/Pages/Greening-Your-Consumption.aspx)
  • In July 2023, Ann Arbor’s City Council unanimously approved a $150,000 contract with Live Zero Waste (now known as zerowaste.org) to advance the city’s work to promote the reuse of goods in the community.
  • Samuel McMullen, Executive Director, ZeroWaste.Org, met with the city in August, and he says some of the areas of focus will be:
    • Expanding a citywide returnable container program (working with a national nonprofit Perpetual, RAA, Zingerman's, El Harissa, and the city). The reusable takeout container program has been successful during its launch, and it is in a system design to scale the program up. Currently, the plan is in a phase where community ideas/feedback are being solicited. 
    • Working on a system to overcome challenges to Zero Waste living. Samuel points out that some “people agree to try zero waste for a week, and we [have] provided resources and events. We've done this for residents and students. (Over 1400 people in Ann Arbor have done it in the last year.)” The city would like to find workarounds for barriers to participation and see more residents take on a lifestyle that embraces waste reduction. 
    • The city would like to see at least 4200 people actively involved in waste reduction because research into social movements that suggest 3.5% of the population is an important milestone. To that end, the contract will invest in education for individuals and businesses about the value of the circular economy.
    • Scheduling a number of neighborhood swap days, where people can bring their unwanted items and trade with other community members for things that they may need, instead of buying new items or trashing functional items that have lost relevance for the owner. (Source: meeting notes, courtesy of Samuel McMullen)


David Fair: Ann Arbor officials continue to move forward to implement the measures necessary to meet the A2Zero goal of carbon neutrality by the year 2030. And in July, another step forward was taken. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. Ann Arbor City Council last month approved a $150,000 contract with Zero Waste dot org. The contract moves forward part of Strategy Five in the city's carbon neutrality plan, and that is to change the way we use, reuse and dispose of materials. Our guest this morning is going to head up the education and awareness campaign outlined in the contract, and he's here to tell us all about it. Samuel McMullen is executive director of the Ann Arbor-based nonprofit Zero Waste dot org. And thanks for the time today, Samuel. I appreciate it.

Samuel McMullen: Of course. Thanks for having me.

David Fair: The entirety of the effort here, Samuel, is to create a robust and fully functional circular economy. Let's first define how the city and you define a circular economy.

Samuel McMullen: Yeah, the circular economy is really just a way to talk about using resources in a better way: using them more locally, relying less on extraction, relying less on transport and long complex supply chains. It can look like a lot of different things: repair, reuse, thrift shopping, those are all sort of aspects of an economy that keeps material in circulation more than our current linear economy, which extracts material, manufactures it, and then dumps it somewhere in a landfill or burns it, or it ends up in the ocean.

David Fair: The new contract you have with the city has some specific goals and objectives toward the ends you just described. Ann Arbor would like to see at least 4200 people actively involved in waste reduction. So, what is the plan to meet that objective?

Samuel McMullen: Yeah, the plan is multifaceted, but, really, it starts with education. So, it's important that, as a society, we come to a deeper understanding of the current linear economy and what is even possible in a circular economy. Waste reduction, really, is just the outcome of a number of activities that are preferable environmentally, healthwise, morally. So, the education step is a huge one. We're also working on returnable containers, which is a very practical way to reduce our food packaging waste. We're working on zero waste challenges, which will allow us to do large-scale fun events that anyone can participate in. And then, there are some other tangible aspects of the contract, like Swap Days, for instance. So, we'll be organizing one swap day per ward. That's an exciting chance to circulate materials directly with your neighbors.

David Fair: So, I want to touch on all of those components, but I want to talk more broadly for just another moment. I'm very curious. We're a culture of convenience, and meaningful waste reduction is not always convenient. Over 1400 residents and students in Ann Arbor, as I understand it, have taken on the waste reduction efforts over the last year. But how are we going to figure out how many maintain that level of consistency and carry forward and improve into the future?

Samuel McMullen: It's a fantastic question. We mainly approach it through surveys, but I think, because we're working with a cultural change, what we want to look at is how many people stay actively engaged. How many people are continuing to participate in swap days? How many repeat challenge participants do we get? How many people continue to come to events? And I think that what the work that we do, as an organization, is takes full advantage of technology and especially email and digital marketing. And there are very good techniques to understand how people are getting involved and what's working and what's not working. So, we're excited to put those tools to use for the circular economy and for the City of Ann Arbor.

David Fair: Yeah. From an individual perspective, as you just touched upon, this is really about behavior modification. As much as we all clamor for change, we seem to be equally resistant to actually changing. When it comes to waste reduction, what have you found to be some of the most effective methods for making those lasting personal changes?

Samuel McMullen: Yeah. I think when we talk about personal change, it's really important to see it as a first step towards systemic change. You know, we often look for systemic changes that will be a cure-all. And it really does start in the home. Often, where people start is with food waste or food packaging waste. That's a very common initial frustration, and it's a really important one because it's a huge, huge portion of what we're sending to landfill right now and what we're wasting. So, folks figuring out ways to get your food either in bulk or unpackaged or loose, it's getting harder and harder. So, understanding what alternatives there are and then advocating for alternatives where there are none is a really important step. And also, we really focus on joy and making sure that there's no guilt or shame in having to use the alternatives that are available to you. So, as an individual, you know, do what you can. But one of the most powerful things you have is your voice. And the City of Ann Arbor is so, so supportive of waste reduction efforts and businesses who are trying to do this that you really can find a way to make your voice heard if you want to.

David Fair: Our Issues of the Environment conversation with Zero Waste dot org Executive Director Samuel McMullen continues on 89 one WEMU. And one of the things that you mentioned is the returnable container program to deal with some of that food packaging waste. Where is the returnable container program being used locally now? And is it working?

Samuel McMullen: Yeah, it's currently being used at El Harissa on the northwest side, at Zingerman's Next Door Cafe and a little bit in the deli--very exciting--and then, at Cinnaholic and Ginger Deli as well. So, I will say it's a pilot program. The City of Ann Arbor started this a few years ago, and we've been working out the kinks, figuring out what are the logistics that need to be in place to make this work at a larger scale. So, I'll say it's very small-scale right now, but we've learned so much. And it has put us in a position to really take on the project of making this a citywide initiative. Now, what that means is figuring out a central washing place, figuring out how to do collections of lots of containers, much like we collect recycling and trash, so setting up a parallel stream of collection. So, it's a really exciting challenge and something that we're looking to get rolled out. We have a bunch of partners on this: Recycle Ann Arbor, Perpetual, which is a national nonprofit, and the restaurants themselves have been helping the city try to stand this program up. And we're working on a draft plan. This is something that really has to work for a very broad swath of the community. So, I encourage people who are interested and have opinions about this to get in touch early and often. My email is Samuel at zero waste dot org. I'm happy to field any questions and please do get involved as we shape this program because we need as much public input as we can get.

David Fair: One of the things where my ears perked up that you mentioned touched on my childhood. I used to live in a small town in Ohio. And, on weekends, there was always a swap meet. Now, obviously, you're envisioning something like that as part of this effort and touching each of the five wards in the city. What is that going to look like, and when does it start?

Samuel McMullen: You know, it's actually already started. The city worked on a project with the Sister Lakes Neighborhood Association. And they've put together a replication guide on the city's website, so you can already go and learn the best practices that they've come up with. What our task is is to work with the city, to expand that ,and make that accessible to as many people as possible. So, these formal swap days will be a chance for neighbors to come out, see what's available, and see what resources aren't being used by their immediate neighborhood and maybe take use of them themselves. It's really the best option. There are some ways that you can do this kind of swapping right now without a formal swap day. You know, Facebook has some great--

David Fair: Marketplace. Right.

Samuel McMullen: Yup. Find those things on Facebook Marketplace, the thrift stores, Kiwanis, and all the other great nonprofits that are doing this work already. It's a good resource. We're just trying to further stimulate that. And it's important to note that City Council just passed a resolution to allow for sort of yard swapping, leaving good, useful items out for others to take. So, this is a chance to sort of model what that might look like going forward.

David Fair: So, ultimately, Sam, you have the small contract with the City of Ann Arbor, and you're going to spend time and effort educating and creating awareness out in the community and making gains in participation along the way. What is the next step beyond that?

Samuel McMullen: You know, it's a great question. Really, what we're getting at is trying to reduce the amount of consumption and extraction that we, as a city, ask of the world. So, it looks like a lot of repairs, it looks like sharing with others, it looks like using things more, using things more gently and finding ways to really pool our resources in a way that we don't have to extract as much from the environment and, ultimately, we don't send as much to landfills.

David Fair: Well, Samuel, I could talk about this for much longer. Unfortunately, our time together has come to conclusion, but I will invite you back in the not-so-distant future. And we'll get updates, and we'll see where we're headed and where we are.

Samuel McMullen: Sounds great. Thank you, David.

David Fair: That is Samuel McMullen. He is the executive director of the Ann Arbor-based Zero Waste dot org. And you can find out more about the work they're doing right at that very website, or you can check ours at your convenience at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu