Metro December 16, 2019

Rethinking Our Relationship with STUFF!

The Zero Waste Boise Institute

You could say it all started with “The Lorax.” As Jillien Eijckelhof, founder of the Zero Waste Initiative, read the timeless children’s story to her then preschool-aged son, she could see the wheels turn in his young mind. He internalized Dr. Seuss’s foreshadowed message—if you take and take and never replace, soon there will be nothing left. Eijckelhof explained recently: “’The Lorax’ is a story about natural resource exploitation. My son really took this to heart and asked if we could go around the neighborhood and put up posters telling people to stop chopping down trees to make stuff. And I had to say, ‘I don’t think paper posters are the best medium to discourage people from chopping down trees … but let’s get the message out there.’”

The apple didn’t fall far from the “Truffula” tree. Eijckelhof has always had, what she calls, a zero waste orientation. “I have always had this understanding that everything comes from somewhere, and everything goes someplace,” she said. “The stuff of our lives is only in our lives for a short period of time, but the impact is often forever.” The tale of consumption portrayed in “The Lorax” is far from fiction. “Reports suggest that humans have consumed more in the last 50 years than in the history of civilization,” Eijckelhof added. “Natural resource depletion is expected to surpass the Earth’s capacity to regenerate by the year 2030.”

Once the time was right, and that preschooler entered school full time, Eijckelhof launched the Zero Waste Boise Institute (ZWBI): Reduce, Reuse, Rethink. Now in its second year, the nonprofit develops educational outreach and waste reduction initiatives. Eijckelhof explained, “’Our goal is to make it easier to do the right thing because we have to offset this culture of convenience.”

The idea of going “zero waste” may be daunting for some. ZWBI isn’t advocating for absolute, overnight lifestyle overhauls. Rather, the organization advocates for a change in thinking, a reorientation of the way we use things. “We take an incremental approach to waste reduction. In educating the community, we want people to make a mental shift, one material at a time.” For ZWBI, curtailing disposable and unnecessary stuff in the first place is the best place to start. “Everything you buy becomes future trash. Refusing it at the source is the most effective solution.”

In 2019, ZWBI started “low-impact grocery shopping tours” at the Boise Co-op. “The Co-op becomes a real-life learning lab to talk about the material science of packaging,” Eijckelhof said. The main goal of the tour is to teach consumers to leave the store with the least amount of packaging possible. “We had a number of epiphanies around the grocery shopping tours. The grocery store is not just a place to talk about zero waste; it’s probably the best place to talk about zero waste. A third of the country’s waste stream is packaging, and the vast amount is from a non-renewable resource. Most of it comes from the grocery store, and that is universal to all of us.”

The tour compels consumers to reach for bulk goods and fresh, unpackaged food. If packaging is unavoidable, consumers are directed to choose the most “sustainable” wrapping possible. Can the package be reused in some way? Is it recyclable? Finally, consumers receive a refresher on local recycling protocol, to “recycle right.”

ZWBI supported the North End Neighborhood Association (NENA) and Gruntwerks again this year to “green” the Hyde Park Street Fair. Prior to the fair, ZWBI collected used, reusable bags to distribute to vendors to replace single-use plastic bags. Hundreds of bags were donated. “This confirmed my theory that the world could probably stop manufacturing reusable bags. We have enough because everyone has had their fail at the grocery store,” Eijckelhof said. ZWBI also created a guide for food vendors about sustainable serving ware. In response, Jo’s Traveling Bar switched to biodegradable cups. That’s thousands of cups that won’t be in the landfill generations from now.

Eijckelhof also challenged vendors to rethink their marketing. ZWBI created a digital document titled, “Keep Your Logo Out of the Landfill.” Think of all those branded freebies: rubber bracelets, pens, and stickers. It’s all just future trash. As Eijckelhof explained, “The idea is moving away from the tchotchkes, the free giveaways. Consumers are more likely to patronize your business if you have some level of green consciousness. So, we kind of gave them permission to let go of the plastic schwag.”

In the end, zero waste is about rethinking our relationship with material things. “When I first started doing this work, there were some who wanted to paint this as a progressive liberal movement. There’s nothing progressive about zero waste. If anything, it’s old school. A lot of the tips and tricks that we offer dial back to an era that was pre-consumerist. Zero waste is what grandma and grandpa used to do in an era where you could not afford to waste resources. It’s so consistent with Idaho values. It’s about resourcefulness, independence, and self-sufficiency.”

This article appears in the Winter 2019 Issue of Territory Magazine.