Each week, the average New Yorker throws away nearly 15 pounds of waste at home and another nine pounds at work, which comes to a staggering 868 pounds per person per year. This is the kind of information gleaned at one of Jacquelyn Ottman’s workshops. A native New Yorker whose family goes back five generations, Ottman has made it her mission to teach others how to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle.
J. Ottman Consulting, which she started out of her studio apartment in 1989, advises companies like Kraft, Toyota and Nike on how to market environmentally sound products to consumers. Her expertise is sought after worldwide and she’s been asked to advise the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.
All this work first starts at home. At her building on the Upper East Side, she started a library in the laundry room with the superintendent using a bookcase they found outside in the trash. Ottman carries this mindset to the office as well. “Another thing I do is write on the backs of paper,” she explained. “That’s all I ever use in the office. I haven’t bought a pad of writing paper in the 25 years I’m in business.”
Give us the stats on New York City waste.We produce 10,000 tons a day of residential solid waste which comes to 3 million tons per year. And there’s another 3 million tons a year of commercial waste. The average New Yorker throws away almost 1,000 pounds per year and that represents 2.2 million tons of carbon generated with greenhouse gases to truck the stuff all over. Some of our waste goes down as far as South Carolina. We’re spending upwards of $300 million a year of New York City tax dollars on waste disposal. And we’re only recycling 16 percent of the waste, which is collected by city workers, which is only half of what the average is in the US. And a lot of people don’t know this, but we’re incinerating 15 percent.
Tell us about your background in zero waste and green marketing.When I got out of college, between 1977 and 1988, I worked in advertising agencies on Madison Avenue. At one of those agencies, I was asked to do research on a trend that was hot for consumer goods’ marketers. And we picked the environment. So we went to San Pellegrino, for example, and said, “People are concerned about water quality. In the future, they’re going to be ordering bottled water in restaurants. Why don’t you branch out from Italian only to all restaurants? And while you’re at it, introduce San Pellegrino-branded ice cubes because why would you put dirty ice cubes into clean water?” After doing this work for this ad agency for a year and a half, I just said, “I don’t want to do anything else anymore but this.” I had found my calling.
Explain how Mayor de Blasio is planning to achieve zero waste to landfills by 2030.Zero Waste is a diversion goal. It doesn’t mean you stop generating trash. It just means that whatever you do create, you try to divert it from ending up in a landfill or an incinerator. You want it to keep cycling through the economy in the form or recyclables and compost. So there are a few possible goals for a zero-waste plan. Zero Waste to landfill, Zero Waste to incinerator or Zero Waste to landfill and incinerator. The latter is the ideal. Incineration creates pollution. And though some forms of it produce energy, when you burn garbage that contains recyclables, it becomes a very expensive fuel. So you want to really avoid incinerating garbage if you can. DeBlasio’s plan is a Zero Waste to Landfill plan. It really can’t be a Zero waste to Landfill or Incineration plan right now because we have a long term contract now with Covanta to incinerate part of our city’s trash. Technically, if you have a Zero Waste to Landfill plan you can achieve your goal if you incinerate 100 percent of it. We could do that, like tomorrow, right? Right. But in talking to the DSNY [Department of Sanitation] folks, they say they recognize this, but they really want to achieve the zero-waste goal in the right way, which would be to minimize incineration and to do as much as possible to divert from landfill and incineration. So their big strategy is to make it as easy as possible for New Yorkers to recycle, which includes composting, so that we capture higher rates of our trash for recycling and composting, hence, curbside recycling and composting pickups, curbside e-waste, clothing pickups and an initiative to look at single stream recycling. Longer term they hope to initiate some kind of ‘Save as you throw’ system to give all New Yorkers an economic incentive to stop throwing away so much trash in the first place and to recycle and compost what they do generate. In a ‘Save as you throw’ plan, typically it would cost residents to put trash at the curb for pickup, but no cost to leave recyclables at the curb. So after these plans go into effect, a lot of folks will start doing a lot more recycling.
Highlight some things you do to reduce and reuse.First of all, I try to run as close to a zero-waste household as I can. So that means that I take my composts to 82nd Street to my local greenmarket. I take all kinds of still-usable items to a thrift store, my local Housing Works. I recycle everything that I can. I try not to bring plastic and non-recyclables into the house. I carry a Ziploc bag with me at all times and that’s what I use as a doggie bag in restaurants so they don’t have to give me all those containers. And whenever I’m at any kind of a party, I take out that doggie bag and bring food home with me and encourage others to do the same.
What are some things that a New Yorker can do who’s never even thought along these lines?First of all, they can learn what goes in the green bins and what goes in the blue ones. They can recycle their waste because we’re only capturing 41 percent of recyclables now. We can increase that. Another thing they can do is bring their own lunch to work and not order takeout. They can get a reusable coffee mug and get 10 cents off at Starbucks if they fill it up. Or they can order coffee to stay, and the coffee will arrive in a real coffee cup. They can also take clothes to a thrift shop. A lot of people think that if an item of clothing is missing a button or has a stain on it, the thrift shop doesn’t want it, but that’s not true.