Tackling Zero Waste on Every Scale

by Katie Anderson

Why decide between top-down and bottom-up approaches to large-scale change? My Energy Corps position is jointly shared between Home ReSource, a nonprofit building materials reuse center which offers a Zero Waste Ambassadors Program for 5th-grade students, and Missoula Public County Schools (MCPS), with which I will be working to develop a zero waste plan. The City of Missoula has committed to a resolution to become a zero-waste community by 2050; MCPS is a key player in these efforts. With bottom-up student education and top-down district leadership, MCPS is well-positioned to become the first zero waste school district in Montana.

Last week, an after-school group of elementary students rolled up to Home ReSource in a yellow school bus. The 2nd– and 3rd-graders’ pent-up after-school energy was put to good use as they completed creative reuse projects. My supervisor, Jeremy, and I let the students loose on a table covered with trinkets and doodads, helping to assemble coatracks, nametags, hamster mazes, and even a small engineering project. I loved the chaos of children of ages 7-9 crowding around our work table listing their specifications for holes to drill or knick-knacks to attach to the wooden base of their projects.

These young people get it. They answered questions such as, “Where does this stuff come from? Where does it go?”, and “Why is it important to reuse things?” quickly and matter-of-factly. The importance of resource conservation and waste reduction is already a “given” for them, even at 7 years old, and, given the tools and the time, they can intelligently and creatively start rethinking our materials-based economy. All while nailing knick-knacks to doodads.

This week, I’ve had my first exposure to scaled-up zero waste efforts. Jeremy and I met with MCPS District Superintendent Mark Thane, who has publicly expressed support for zero waste efforts in the district. I presented findings on financial benefits of waste reduction efforts in schools, different approaches to zero waste, and the importance of strong district leadership in creating a “school culture” of waste reduction. We spent time brainstorming and outlining the next steps towards a district-wide zero waste plan.

My position is unique in the accessibility it offers both to budding environmentalists and reuse specialists through Home ReSource and to district leadership representing over 9,000 students in 16 schools. The need for action is urgent, momentum is building, and collaboration is key—now it’s time to get the ball rolling.

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Katie Anderson holds a bachelor’s degree in Geosciences and Environmental Studies from Pacific Lutheran University. Prior to Energy Corps, Katie worked in summer camps and with her university’s Outdoor Recreation Program. Katie joined Energy Corps in October 2017 and will serve in Missoula as a Zero Waste Educator/Planner. She will plan and lead education and community Zero Waste efforts for the city of Missoula through Home ReSource, a local non-profit. Katie will also be instrumental in helping Missoula County Public Schools to pilot a
zero-waste classroom.

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