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Issues of the Environment: Ann Arbor presents this year's 'Zero Waste Challenge'

Live Zero Waste executive director Samuel McMullen
Live Zero Waste
Live Zero Waste executive director Samuel McMullen


  • Live Zero Waste is partnering with the Office of Sustainability & Innovations to host a citywide Zero Waste Challenge. Ann Arbor area residents are invited to join this (no-cost) challenge to create no trash or recycling from June 5th through June 11th. The program offers a practical way for residents to get involved in Ann Arbor’s A2Zero carbon neutrality plan by implementing strategy 5— Change the Way We Use, Reuse, and Dispose of Materials— in their everyday lives. 
  • A nationwide EPA study found that 42% of U.S. GHG emissions are produced by material and food production, use, and disposal. This means that reducing waste and finding ways to support the circular economy are among the most impactful ways a resident can contribute to reducing their carbon footprint and help the city move towards carbon neutrality.
  • Going zero waste, even for a week, involves a bit of forethought and planning about how to handle situations that produce waste. The best strategies involve not purchasing waste when shopping. This can include buying bulk foods and storing in reusable jars, bringing shopping totes to the store, reusing materials in new ways (an old t-shirt as a substitute for paper towels, for example), and composting whatever possible. It’s a good idea to keep any waste that does accumulate over the week as an audit to see might work better in the future. 
  • The Mayor’s Green Fair returns from a Covid hiatus on Friday, June 10th from 6-9pm. Visitors will have a chance to learn more about green groups, non-profits, business, conservation organizations, and ways to get involved in Washtenaw County. 
  • “It’s hard to find really tangible ways to address the climate crisis in our day to day lives. Going zero waste, even for a short time, is a really fun way to make our impact visible, and people are always surprised to learn how much of their environmental footprint comes from what we buy and throw away! That said, we’re not in this to shame people into lowering their waste. It's all about understanding where our trash comes from and collecting it over the course of a week is a really helpful way to get an idea where we can make improvements. It’s also a great opportunity to support local businesses that are making zero waste a priority.” says Samuel McMullen, Live Zero Waste Executive Director.

The Challenge


Try your best to create as little trash and recycling as possible during the challenge and collect any waste you accidentally create.

What counts as waste? Anything new thing you acquire during the week including wrappers, bags, containers, receipts, even food scraps if you don’t have access to a compost.

Why collect the waste? At the end of the week you’ll have a trash audit, and you’ll be able to see very clearly what kinds of waste you personally tend to create. That is half the battle! After this week you’ll be perfectly equipped to reduce the waste you’re still generating.


Toilet paper: Unless you’re able to install a bidet, try to buy TP in paper wrapping rather than plastic. We recommend Who Gives A Crap 100% recycled.

Work associated waste: Any waste you produce as part of your job doesn’t count for the purposes of this challenge.

Medicine: Continue taking any medication you need to feel your best, and don’t worry about the trash.

What if it’s too hard?

Going zero waste is going to be a little hard, because most of our systems are built for disposability! But not to worry, there is no “failing” even if all you do is collect a week’s worth of trash and recycling you’ll have learned so much and be totally ready to make more sustainable choices going forward. (Source: *directly quoted* https://livezerowaste.org/ann-arbor/challenge/)

How to go Zero Waste

First of all our motivation for going zero waste is to stop our personal contribution to the production of unnecessary stuff (and to avoid the unnecessary human and environmental harm that is caused by producing pretty much anything, even “green” things -> storyofstuff.org).

With that in mind going zero waste means not buying anything new. Because every new thing is headed to the landfill eventually, even if it’s recycled a few times before it gets there.

So how to do it?! It’s much easier than you might think.

Food is almost always the first question that comes up. Most likely the first thing you’ll do after deciding to give zero waste a try is to eat! Everyone’s zero waste food routine will be slightly different but here are some general guides.

Grocery Shopping

Find yourself a store or market that has produce without stickers. Find a store with a good bulk section (check out and contribute to Bea Johnson’s app!).

Eating Out

This is where the rubber hits the road. You’ll have to have a conversation with your server, which usually goes a little something like this:

You: Hey! Listen I'm doing this weird thing where I'm trying not to create any trash. Is there any chance I could get (insert desired dish here) without (insert the thing they would need to remove to make the dish zero waste)?

Them: Oh! That's cool, let me see what I can do.

That’s usually the extent of it. Sometimes it takes more explaining but as long as you’re kind, grateful, and humble about it it’s usually fairly painless. It helps a lot to do most of the work for them, like noticing what it’s going to take to make something zero waste (e.g. no wrap on a sandwich, no toothpick, no straw) and asking them for that specifically.

A more advanced technique is to recruit them generally by saying “I’m trying not to make any trash, so can you let me know if anything I order has toothpicks or napkins or anything?”

Start a Compost

Maybe the most impactful thing you can do in your home to get towards zero waste is start composting. The EPA says about 24% of our waste is compostable and food scraps that live in a landfill instead of a compost end up emitting methane– a powerful greenhouse gas.

So here’s how to start composting:

Option 1: “The City Dweller”

If your city doesn’t offer curbside collection you can collect it in your freezer and bring it to a composter, farmer’s market, community garden, or farmer. You can also keep your compost in a container on your counter and as long as you have a good lid it won’t stink up your place. Keeping it at room temp will save you a ton of space because it will start to decompose and shrink down. I use scissors to cut up my compost to make it decompose even faster.

Option 2: “DIY”

Start a compost pile in your yard, or a vermicompost on a balcony. Make sure your compost is getting enough brown material if you’re planning on using it for plants.

Ditch your paper towels, cut up an old t-shirt and make friends with baking soda and vinegar!

Most commercial cleaning agents are just riffs on baking soda and vinegar, or if wood is involved, oil and vinegar (if you have leftovers you can make a nice salad dressing– natural cleaning at it’s best!).

My approach to the zero waste hygiene transition was to wait for things to run out. That gave me a nice staggered way to figure things out. When I ran out of toothpaste, I learned how to make toothpaste. When I ran out of shampoo I went and got a shampoo bar (also consider No Poo for some hair types).

Mayor’s Green Fair 2022

  • Where: Downtown Main Street & Library Lane Lot
  • When: Friday, June 10th, 2022 from 6:00-9:00PM

What is Green Fair?

During Green Fair, downtown Main Street and the Library Lane lot will be open to pedestrians to explore a multitude of exhibits showcasing local green businesses and non-profits, along with A2ZERO collaborators. Stop by to learn what you can do to help us achieve our carbon neutrality goals and forge a cleaner, greener future for you and our planet! Check out some energy saving appliances; learn from interactive solar displays; ask questions of solar installers; learn about green commuting options like electric vehicles, e-bikes, and cargo bikes; engage with local green businesses and non-profits; or just enjoy some live entertainment - whatever you do, there's something for everyone at Green Fair!

Interested in joining us as an exhibitor? Due to space limitations, exhibitors must submit an application and will be approved by the organizing committee. The focus of this event will be action motivated, so tell us what your call to action is! Exhibitors will receive one table and two chairs within a 10' x 10' space; please note that electricity is limited. The application fee is $50 for non-profit organizations and $100 for for-profits. Financial waivers are available; please contact Christine Schopieray at cschopieray@a2gov.org to request a waiver. Applications will open in late March.

Learn more:

For more information about Green Fair, please call the Office of Sustainability and Innovations at 734-794-6000, ext. 43724 or email Christine Schopieray at cschopieray@a2gov.org.

(Source: *directly quoted* https://www.a2gov.org/departments/sustainability/Newsletter-Events/Pages/Green-Fair.aspx)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Issues of the Environment. Here's a question. Do you think you can live without creating trash or recycling? Well, that sounds hard, but finding answers on how to do that is behind the upcoming Zero Waste Challenge in Ann Arbor. I'm David Fair. And today, we'll take a look at the challenge that's being put forth by Live Zero Waste. And they're doing so in partnership with the Ann Arbor Office of Sustainability and Innovations. Our guest today is Samuel McMullen, and Samuel is director of Live Zero Waste. And thank you for the time today. I appreciate it.

Samuel McMullen: Of course. Thank you, David.

David Fair: How significant is trash generation and disposal in creating greenhouse gases?

Samuel McMullen: Yeah, in the U.S., it's about 42% of all our greenhouse gas emissions come from extraction, transporting goods that are made, disposing of the waste, which is a much bigger piece of the pie than I think many people assume. I think a lot of people think it's mostly energy or transportation, but, in fact, the goods that we buy are responsible for a huge portion of the emissions in the US.

David Fair: With that in mind, I would imagine then that this initiative is part of City of Ann Arbor's A2Zero plan to achieve community wide carbon neutrality.

Samuel McMullen: That's exactly right. It's Strategy Five, which is to change the way we use, reuse, and dispose of materials.

David Fair: The Zero Waste Challenge runs from June 5th through June 11th. Of course, it's a voluntary and cost-free event. What is the grand mission?

Samuel McMullen: Yeah. The mission of the challenge of the Zero Waste more broadly is to sort of help organize people, businesses, and the city to get aligned and moving towards zero waste in a joyful way as possible. And so, the challenge is going to help an individual learn how to live a zero-waste lifestyle or a reduced waste lifestyle in Ann Arbor. And we've partnered with a bunch of businesses who have been really excited to get offering zero waste options. And the city has been super helpful in trying to expand the resources that we're able to provide. Hopefully, it's the challenge that will get us all involved in moving towards a circular economy.

David Fair: Sometimes, we have to take a good, hard look at ourselves, and we are a society and a community that's built on convenience, and those conveniences are reliant on disposable consumerism. Is there a bit of psychology involved here in trying to change thinking and actions through behavior modification?

Samuel McMullen: Oh, absolutely. I think the thing that people want to do or the popular thing to do is make a couple of small tweaks, which is important. But, if you can take a week to go all in on one issue, like zero waste, you learn a lot. We call it trash goggles, where once you decide I'm not going to create trash and recycling or if I do, I'll collect it, you start to see trash everywhere. You see all the places in our society that trash or disposability is just built in. So, it's a really great way to get strong visibility into the issue and start to change habits in a more robust way.

David Fair: Issues of the Environment and our conversation with Live Zero Waste Executive Director Samuel McMullen continues on 89 one WEMU. What should we consider, say, when it comes to our shopping habits?

Samuel McMullen: Yeah, the main place that people are going to notice the difference when they're trying to go zero waste is in food shopping. So, finding a grocery store that has loose vegetables, that has bulk options, if at all possible, is a really important first step. The challenge is designed to walk you through in the order of urgency, what you need to take care of. So, it starts with exactly this food shopping, and then it goes to figuring out a composting solution and then moves into more social life and home life. There is no preparation necessarily needed because there are no consequences for not being zero waste during the challenge. It's just a personal challenge that's connecting you to a broader global movement towards zero waste.

David Fair: You mentioned the strong partnerships of many businesses in the area that want to participate and are looking for ways to reduce what they create. What about eating out? Is that something we should be taking into account as customers?

Samuel McMullen: Absolutely. The problem of plastic waste in takeout food has just blossomed during COVID. It's a really destructive process to make plastic containers, especially when compostable containers are by no means neutral either. It takes a lot of resources to grow those stock and for those containers as well. So, whatever we can do to either bring our own container or you can participate in the zero waste returnable program at various local restaurants where you can actually go to the restaurant and check out the returnable container for free and return it to any of the participating restaurants at Zingerman's next door, Café Ginger Deli, and El Harrisa up on the Northwest Side. So, that's something that you can absolutely do.

David Fair: I think that most are familiar with the adage of "reduce, reuse, recycle." But there's another three R's and mantra of "reuse, refill and repair." How does that help us move us closer to zero waste?

Samuel McMullen: Yeah, I think that recycling has gotten a overly prominent role in those three R's. In fact, recycling is a tough solution, and it's not a full solution, especially for plastics. Only about 6%--a little bit less than 6%--of plastic actually gets recycled. But that basically means that when you buy plastic, it's destined for a landfill. Even when it does get recycled, it often only gets recycled one or two times. So, moving to strategies that reduce or eliminate the need to purchase something in the first place are great. Refilling things, finding a bulk store, or using a store like BYOC for shampoo or toothpaste or soaps, finding ways that you don't actually need to purchase the packaging. You only purchase the product. It's a really important strategy in eliminating the need to create a new container each time we buy an item.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Samuel McMullen from Live Zero Waste on Issues of the Environment. At the end of this challenge for all who participate, you mentioned there is no such thing as failure. But how do we assess our personal progress or success?

Samuel McMullen: At the end of the challenge, you'll have a little container of waste that you've created, trash and recycling, and it's a really great chance to look at your personal participation in the system. So, if you happen to accidentally buy a couple of water bottles, maybe you have a habit of buying a water bottle each time you go to work, for instance, your personal trash for the Zero Waste Challenge will be filled with water bottles. So that's a great cue to look at. "Okay, what is it in my life that I'm doing that I can make a switch out of?" So, for instance, reusing a reusable water bottle. That's a fairly simple example. But every person, because they're living in a different way or have different habits, is going to have a different outcome at the end of this challenge. And it's a great way to personalize your tactics.

David Fair: In many aspects and avenues in our lives, the adage of "it's about progress, not perfection" applies. Is zero waste a legitimate goal? Is it actually achievable in any aspect of our lives?

Samuel McMullen: Short answer is no. And that's partially because of the systems that are in place. But you can drastically reduce the waste. My sister and I have been living a zero-waste lifestyle since 2015, and my trash for 2021 is mostly junk mail and fits in a very small bag. There's definitely a way to approach zero waste, and while progress is the most important bit, there's a saying by zero waste chef that we don't need ten people doing zero waste perfectly. We need a million people doing it imperfectly. So, I think that's what we go for. You give the Zero Waste Challenge your best shot and then you keep what works for you and carry that into the future. And if we all do that kind of exercise, and we all pay attention to it, we can make a significant difference. And I think the main thing to get across is that it's not really about individuals. If we're living zero waste perfectly, it doesn't change much because so much of the problem is upstream, so much of the problem we don't actually see. The Zero Waste Challenge is a way to pique your interest and get excited and see the systems that are in place, so that we can start acting on systemic changes that need to happen.

David Fair: Well, once again, the Zero Waste Challenge in Ann Arbor runs from June 5th through the 11th. And right towards the end of that challenge, the Ann Arbor Mayor's annual Green Fair takes place in downtown Ann Arbor, which, as I understand it, aims to be a zero-waste event. I assume Live Zero Waste will be on hand as part of this educational effort. So, how can those of us attending the Green Fair further advance our understanding of the impacts of waste on our environment in solution-oriented ways?

Samuel McMullen: Yeah, the Green Fair is a great place to see all of the things that are happening in Ann Arbor on the environmental front. You know, zero waste is one tactic among many, and the Green Fair will showcase electrification efforts, all kinds of exciting organizations that are participating in sustainability and the A2Zero carbon neutrality goal in Ann Arbor. So, you can come to the Green Fair, get a sense of what the zero waste is up to, what next actions you can do, but also get acquainted with all kinds of other environmental organizations and get a sense for the true scope of this issue. Because there is no one solution that will hit all problems. The problem of climate change is so broad that we need everyone and doing everything they can in all areas all the time.

David Fair: Samuel, I'd like to thank you for making time for us today. I appreciate it.

Samuel McMullen: Of course. Thank you.

David Fair: That is Samuel McMullen, executive director of Live Zero Waste, discussing the upcoming Zero Waste Challenge in Ann Arbor, is our guest on Issues of the Environment. For more information on the challenge and the upcoming Mayor's Green Fair, visit our website 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 89 one WEMU F.M. and HD one Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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