A quest to reduce the island’s waste
The back of Jamie Johnston’s McPick truck is filled with bulging trash bags, taken from 34 vacation homes from around the island. This is the trash that has been left behind by the renters. Johnston’s business is to pick up the trash and take it to the transfer station.
During the past few years, Johnston has been noticing what he considered to be an upsetting trend: bags filled with perfectly good, unused, untouched food that was simply going to be tossed out, along with leftover food scraps that could be used as composting material. On top of that, there was also in the trash bags material that simply could be recycled.
But because all these materials were mixed inside the bags, it has traditionally all just been taken to the transfer station and thrown out.
Johnston’s conscience nagged him to the point where he needed to do something about it. Enlisting the help of Block Island Conservancy and a small troupe of volunteers, Johnston decided to find out just how much good food, recyclables, and composting material was inside those bags.
On Sunday, July 14, eight volunteers gathered in Johnston’s yard to see what they could find. The bags were hauled out of the back of the truck and the volunteers went about the sometimes unpleasant task of going through it.
After the separation process was completed, they found that in about 1,200 pounds of mixed trash, there were 117 pounds of recyclable material — paper, plastics, etc.
There was a total of 220 pounds of compostable materials, such as bread, banana peels, quahog shells, leftover greens, and the like.
Then there was the full table of food that was unused or unopened. This included packages of hot dogs, sausages, all kinds of whole fruits and vegetables, peanut butter and jelly jars, clams, loaves of bread, hot dog and hamburger rolls, and lemons and limes. That food weighed about 113 pounds.
Out of 1,170 pounds of mixed trash, 450 pounds could have been reused in some way, whether it be as recycled materials, composted, or eaten. The remaining 720 pounds was headed to the dump.
This was the weekly trash generated by 34 homes. This made Johnston think about how much food and other materials are simply being tossed from the hundreds of homes that are rented each week every summer, aside from what residents may also toss out.
Clair Stover, executive director of the Block Island Conservancy, was one of the volunteers. She was asked how she learned about the project.
“Jamie’s at the forefront of this. He sees it all the time, and I feel like we’ve been talking about this for a while. Even before starting at the BIC I had heard about it,” she said, “but all the pieces fell together this year to begin to draw attention to this issue.”
The goal for the BIC, she said, “is to look for ways to help make the island more sustainable and this is a good way to get started on that.”
Johnston said his goal was to reduce the amount of trash that is simply thrown out. He would also like to start a mandatory composting program on the island, and to that end has started a mini-project himself, which sees about 100 pounds of materials composted each week.
Stover and Johnston wanted to make one thing clear. This project was not about chastising people for throwing out food at the end of their vacations. It was about creating awareness of an issue and finding a possible solution.
“This is really about how easy it is to throw something in the garbage and not think about it. It’s not in the forefront of people’s minds. You’re on vacation. It’s the easiest thing to do and it’s completely understandable,” Stover said. “This is just to try to bring awareness.”
After going through the material, Stover was asked if she had learned anything new.
“It was surprising to see all the really good food that was getting tossed,” she said. “I also learned that I have a lot to learn about managing my own waste. No one is perfect in this, but there is a real opportunity here. We have been a model in a lot of things — land, the wind farm — and this is an opportunity to learn how to manage our waste on this island.”
Johnston, who has been doing this as a job for years, said he wasn’t really surprised by anything, but he said he was a little surprised at how many paper plates people could use in a week.
The trick, they both said, will be how to capture all the recyclables, composting materials, and food before they get to the dump.
“We don’t have a great solution for people. This is something we’re working on for the future,” said Stover. “We need to figure out a way to easily divert this waste.”
“We just need to figure out what that plan is,” said Johnston. “As an island, how can we use that food rather than throw it away? Maybe somebody who reads this has that plan.”
There is a small start. Rosemary Tobin, an agent at Lila Delman Real Estate, said they have been asking people that rent homes through them to leave good, unopened food or condiments in the fridge. That food can be taken by the house cleaners or checkers, if they can use it.
“We’re encouraging them not to throw good food away,” said Tobin. “We’ve had no complaints at all. It seems to be working.”
In the end, Johnston said, it’s about changing a few longstanding habits of how people think about their trash.
“Let’s stop and think about this for a while,” he said. “We all have a choice.”
Johnston said he will continue with the experiment of separating the recyclables, usable food, and compostable materials every other week throughout the summer to try to get a better handle on how much material can be reused.
The volunteers going through the trash were: Isabella duPont, Jamie Johnston, Susan and Keith Stover, Lars Trodson, Ken Ross, Mary MacGill, and Angel Chang.