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Issues of the Environment: "Trash Talk Tour" returns to Washtenaw County

Trash Talk Tour logo
Trash Talk Tour
Trash Talk Tour logo


  • According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generate about 5 pounds of trash per person per day. Discarded material doesn’t disappear, it just moves to another location or is recycled into something else. 
  • Ever wonder what becomes of local trash? On Sunday, September 18, 2022, the Washtenaw Zero Waste Coalition invites the public to join the second annual “Trash Talk Tour." The mission of Trash Talk Tour (TTT) is to educate community members and showcase ways to affect a zero-waste lifestyle, as well as the obstacles to doing so, and to connect community members with others who are trying to reduce our community’s contribution to landfills.
  • The 2022 stops include: 
    • Michigan Stadium Cleanup Demonstration 8:30am-9:30am - with an aspirational goal of diverting at least 90 percent of waste from the landfill by recycling and composting. See the volunteer led waste sorting that occurs the morning after football games and ask questions about our sustainability efforts.
    • Recycling Plant (MRF) Demonstration: 10am-12pm [Free, Sign-Up Required]
    • Self Guided Tour through Ann Arbor’s zero waste economy including composting facility, Kiwanis Thrift Sale, Eberwhite school, refill stores and more! 12:00 PM – 4:00 PM
    • Morning and Afternoon Bike Tours [Free, Sign-Up Required]
    • Registration and information at trashtalktour.org
  • Participants can sign up for one or several of three tracks: a 30 Minute Tours of the New Recycling Facility; Morning Bike Tour (Recycling Tour Included); or Afternoon Bike Tour to Kiwanis.
  • A bicycle version of the tour is available in the morning, afternoon, or both. Registration is needed. Sign up at : https://www.eventbrite.com/cc/trash-talk-tour-462859
  • Ann Arbor’s Solid Waste Resources Management Plan: 2019-2023 includes many references to the goal of moving toward becoming a zero-waste community. Zero Waste refers to the conservation of resources throughout the lifecycle of a product or material, such that little or nothing is landfilled and all products or by-products of production are recycled or repurposed. 
  • Samuel McMullen, Trash Talk Tour organizer (along with Dan Ezekiel) and Live Zero Waste executive director, believes the greater Washtenaw County community is evolving in regard to living a low-carbon lifestyle. He looks forward a successful second year of the tour with fewer COVID-19 restrictions.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to talk some trash--quite literally. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of WEMU's Issues of the Environment. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans generate about five pounds of trash per person per day. That's a whole lot of waste. Most of us don't think too much about what happens to the trash after we put it out to the curb. And we probably don't spend enough time thinking about how to reduce our personal and family waste footprint. The more we know, the better we do. And that's the idea behind the upcoming Trash Talk Tour. The Washtenaw Zero Waste Coalition will hold its second annual Trash Talk Tour this Sunday, September 18th. Our guest today is Samuel McMullen. He is co-organizer of the tour and serves as executive director of Live Zero Waste. Thanks for the time today. Samuel. It's nice to talk with you again.

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

Samuel McMullen: Of course. Happy to be here.

David Fair: What brought you to the decision to make the commitment and then put in the effort?

Samuel McMullen: You know, I was studying air pollution research with my sister in China, of all places. And it just became clearer and clearer as we did sort of side research into zero waste. How big of a portion of the climate picture actually has to do with stuff and not necessarily energy? So, it's actually about a little bit shy of half of the global carbon emissions come from what we call the materials economy--so, making and transporting and using our stuff.

David Fair: And we as Americans most certainly do like our stuff. How many years have you been putting the principles you've learned into practice now?

Samuel McMullen: I've personally been trying to go zero waste for seven years, and I have about an IKEA bag's worth of waste from that time.

David Fair: So, it has significantly reduced the waste that you produce in your household.

Samuel McMullen: Oh, absolutely. And, listen. It's not attainable for everyone. I do it as a little bit of a demonstration, but there's a lot that you can do to significantly reduce the amount of waste that you put out. And it's actually a really important thing to take pride in as a climate action because it is such an invisible issue. And it's a great way to bring awareness to the huge piece of the climate picture that's not getting the attention. Maybe it should be.

David Fair: I think the more educated we become about these issues, the more invested we become in trying to take some necessary steps forward. And that, of course, is the idea behind the upcoming Trash Talk Tour on Sunday. WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation with Samuel McMullen continues. He's co-organizer of the event and serves as executive director of Live Zero Waste. Now, Michigan Stadium is a rather popular destination--football Saturdays every fall. The amount of trash generated by the more than 100,000 that attend is astounding. How they deal with it is rather impressive as well. One of the tour stops will include the stadium. What are we going to see if we go along for that ride?

Samuel McMullen: Oh, you're going to have a great time. You get to go inside the Big House and just see the whole flow of a post-game clean-up. And you'll understand how Michigan Stadium is targeting zero waste and what they do to divert waste from the landfill and get it into recycling or composting facilities that we're so lucky to have here in Ann Arbor. It's gonna be a really exciting day. It starts at 8:30, so get there bright and early. And you'll hop into the stadium and get a chance to see their whole operation at work.

David Fair: And I have actually witnessed this, and I believe you have as well. It is really an impressive endeavor.

Samuel McMullen: It sure is. It's a huge logistical undertaking, and it's really exciting to have that access to this for the public because we don't usually get to see this part of waste management. And it's part of why it's so hard to conceptualize the impact of reducing your waste.

David Fair: What other parts of the trash disposal and recycling process will be included and addressed in the Trash Talk Tour?

Samuel McMullen: Absolutely. So, Live Zero Waste is just one of a coalition of partners. We have Recycle Ann Arbor on board. They're giving us a chance to tour the MERF, the new material recovery facility--in layman's terms, just the recycling center. You do have to sign up for that. It's limited capacity, but do go to trash talk tour dot org, and sign up for a spot to see the new recycling facility. We are so lucky to have such a mission-based and committed recycler in Ann Arbor. We also are working with Kiwanis Thrift Sale. They're going to show us what it means to or what happens to materials that you donate, goods that you donate, how that gets processed and taken to the sales floor. We're really lucky to see sort of peek behind the curtain at Kiwanis as well. And then Huron Valley Sierra Club and Common Cycle are putting on a bike tour of the various stops along the Trash Talk Tour. That will feature businesses that are helping people go zero waste. That will feature some of the headlining stops that I've spoken about. It's a really exciting opportunity to learn a little bit how you can approach zero waste and actually what happens to stuff after you throw it away. The tour is self-paced, so there are a couple of events that happen at a specific time. The Big House tour, of course, happens at 8:30 to 9:30. The Material Recovery Facility or the recycling center tour happens from 10 to 12. And, again, you should schedule a slot because it's ticketed there. It's free, but it's ticketed. And then the rest of the tour will be self-paced. So, you visit whatever stops you'd like between noon and 4 p.m.. That includes Kiwanis. That includes BYOC, By the Pound, all kinds of exciting places that are working towards zero waste in Washtenaw County. We have such a wonderful community here to highlight, and we're really excited to be working with all this stuff.

David Fair: Well, this is 89 one WEMU, and again, we're talking with Samuel McMullen about the push toward a zero waste lifestyle and community and the upcoming educational Trash Talk Tour that he has co-organized. Again, we've been using the phrase "zero waste," but there have been a good number of zero waste events around the county over the years. None of them are truly zero waste. So, how are we defining zero waste when we use that phrase?

Samuel McMullen: I love this question. A lot of big industrial spots will take 90% diversion from landfill, which is an important metric. It's an important first step to to say, "Okay, we don't want to send this to landfill where the material is truly just put in a hole and produces methane and all kinds of harmful outputs." So, that's the diversion bits. But really, zero waste, we want to think about it as an upstream question and as a way to avoid extraction, because much of the environmental impact of producing stuff happens before we even touch it and isn't even really about what happens after we throw it away. So, we like to think about zero waste, mostly as an upstream question and then use the downstream, the trash, the recycling, and the compost as a sort of handy reminder of everything that goes into producing a new item, whatever it may be. So, that broadens it even from recycling compost to repair. And Kiwanis has its thrift option, and all these other things that go into reducing a community's burden on the environment in a more holistic view rather than just how we throw something away better.

David Fair: We are a country that loves our single-use plastics. That's one of the best examples of waste because we see it in packaging everywhere. And what do you do with it? We put it in the garbage, and a lot of those plastics end up not recycled, but in the landfill. So, when we talk about creating zero waste communities, it has to be that consortium of municipalities, residents, businesses, and organizations committed to the idea. What role will manufacturers have in getting closer to that 90% diversion rate.

Samuel McMullen: Oh, a huge role. You know, part of it can be addressed through citizens changing what they demand and changing their practices. But, ultimately, there is still going to be stuff produced and figuring out ways to incentivize manufacturers. A lot of people will talk about extended producer responsibility. That's an important concept that's coming up on the horizon in a lot of states, which just means that if you manufacture something, you are responsible for dealing with the consequences of it after it's been used. So, shifting the environmental burden and the practical burden of dealing with trash from residents to the tax dollars to the companies that produced it in the first place is a really important first step because, ultimately, there's sort of a crisis of responsibility. We have this problem of a disposable culture where we go from manufacturing, either call it take/make/waste, manufacture, use something. And then there's this big question. What do we do with it after we're done? And the dream of the circular economy is to bring those materials that were done with back to the beginning of the cycle and sort of close the loop, so that we don't have to continue to extract new inputs. And we can have something useful to do with the outputs of our of our economy.

David Fair: And like most other things, real change tends to start at home. Give me three ways we can start making a difference individually today.

Samuel McMullen: The absolute number one thing you can do is take advantage of Ann Arbor's year-round composting. It's so important to find a compost solution. If you don't live in Ann Arbor, you can explore backyard options or many farmer's markets, but find a way to keep your food scraps out of landfill. Because food in landfill produces methane, which is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2. Number two is to figure out some way to buy used. Find something in your Amazon cart and delete it and go to a thrift store. Because, like we said, so much of the environmental impact isn't actually after you throw it away before you buy it. And then I always love to advocate for people to do this publicly and do it with a smile on your face. So, ask for no bag or or get your sandwich without a wrapping or bring your own container somewhere and do it in a joyful and welcoming way. And don't shame people who aren't doing it, but just provide an example of what could be. So, do something public. Again that's composting, buy something used, and practice zero waste publicly with a big smile.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for the time in the information today, Samuel. Much appreciated.

Samuel McMullen: Absolutely. It's great to talk to you.

David Fair: That is Samuel McMullen, co-organizer of the Washtenaw Zero Waste Coalition's second annual Trash Talk Tour. It takes place this Sunday, September 18th, and he serves as executive director of Live Zero Waste. For more information on the tour, stop by our web page at WEMU dot org, and we'll have all the links and information you need to make the most of the opportunities. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. 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
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