Interviews

Zero Waste in Maine: Interview with Hazel Onsrud, co-founder of the Maine Tool Library and extraordinary Maine librarian

We met Hazel through her work at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick when she brought Julie in as a speaker for one of her Sustainable ME events. You may have met her at the library or when she was out and about volunteering: co-founding the Maine Tool Library, serving on the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association Board, volunteering with the Greater Portland Sustainability Council, or participating on the organizing committee for Maine’s Startup Weekends. Her professional background is also varied; in addition to her Masters in Information Management and Systems, she has a Masters in Energy and Resources with a specialty in sustainable communities. Hazel’s work at Curtis is inspiring- she engages speakers for a monthly sustainability event, has put together kits that people can check out to build items like water barrels, and organizes a social group for folks interested in zero waste.

How did you get interested in Zero Waste? Tell us a little bit about how you got interested in the Zero Waste movement and what your journey has been.

My earliest memory of the “zero waste” concept was looking in my family’s kitchen pantry and gathering up all the offending material that I knew could not be recycled in my community.  I went to co-op breakdowns and saw how even buying in bulk still left one with waste created by company supplies. I knew that the oatmeal and chocolate chips could be delivered in better ways, and I certainly wasn’t willing to let them go! With the assuredness of a 10 year old…I wrote some very badly spelled letters, but got frustrated with the enormity of the task, and gave up. Yet, my “green” interest stuck around…my first CD (rather than a tape) was “Put on your green shoes.” Awhile later, when I was introduced to periods, I remember being outraged at the system, and quickly discovered menstrual cups at the Green Store or Co-op in Belfast. I can’t tell you how many women and men I have had to explain that solution to…once I outgrew those dated social mores of not talking about bodies. (Being introverted and open-minded can often be a blush-inducing combination.)

After some minor rebellions with some materialism as a component, I would say that I became more serious about zero waste during my third semester of college when internet access was finally more useful for information gathering. Later, I could access databases on “appropriate technology,” blogs like worldchanging (later a book called,”user’s guide for the 21st century“) and get books like “Cradle to Cradle” or “Alternatives to Economic Globalization, a Better World is Possible” through the wonders of inter-library loan. Prior, you really couldn’t just “google” (or “duckduckgo”) something; indeed, for context, Wikipedia had JUST shown up when I left for college, and I remember when inter-library loan came to my small Maine town. Trying to optimize my dorm life to be more durable and able to fit in a backpack became a fun puzzle, something I could control, and a real escape from my list of “have tos.” Later I can tell you that one of my relationship stresses was moving into an apartment when it was suggested that my roommate and I have more pots than could fit on a burner of a stove…

Why do you think the Zero Waste movement is important? What challenges do you think it faces?

I think many humans in our cultures are not encouraged to let go and embrace the ephemeralness of our existence. We often celebrate through making, collecting and gathering relationships AND items. Things are a part of that. I love things: that photograph, that tile design, that song lyric, that gorgeous plant, that idea, that dress, that dance… I don’t NEED all of those items, and even if I mange to “possess” or “capture”: some of these items, many will break, have a small useful time and place, etc. No matter what I do, I will forget some of that beauty (AND ugliness). For the last few decades quality plants, resources and tools were especially difficult for me. Going into a place like a local garden center or Liberty Tool were and still are both delightful temptations. I also don’t like to see things go to waste; my partner teases me that I bring home things I decide are pretty because I feel sorry for them and see how they COULD be used/be beautiful. He may be right…so communal places where we can share those things (traditional libraries, tool libraries, swaps, etc.) help me with that addiction. My access to resources and the connectedness of the world now also helps; if I want to listen to music and look at artwork around the world for hours I can. While that electricity, server time, and materials produce an ecological footprint (check out the classic Story of Stuff) I don’t have to have feel as though I have one chance to seize them and savor that beauty. Instead, when I was growing up, I used to try to keep file-folders of some of the snippets of neat treasures I hoarded. (Yes, I was that socially-awkward kid and teen…)

What’s been easy for you with Zero Waste? What’s been a challenge? What’s been a surprise?

Easy:

I began eating vegan when I lived on my own. Over the years I have tried a bunch of different diets, but it has always been relatively easy (and inexpensive) to simply buy in bulk, get a CSA share, and not purchase meat. I often cheat when at my friends’ houses, because they already make gluten-free items for me. It was also easy for me to make solutions (Sew tee shirts into old bags etc.). I grew up with a boy-scout, engineering father and a hippie, teacher mother, so I was introduced to classic DIY and “make-do” skills young.

Constant challenge:

“The wants.” (Beautiful fabrics, books, plants etc..) I especially love crafts and DIY culture, so it really hard for me to turn down a bunch of broken plates when I know I can create durable mosaic garden pots with them. Yet, in the meantime those materials sit around my house and have to be stored. I can’t tell you how many cardboard boxes have been collected from our local coop for “trains” turned into temporary storage, forts, and sheet-mulched in our garden…

“The needs”: I really want to take action that scales well, but improving the lives of many is so much harder than simply making a few people smile on a daily basis, and the enormity of the challenge, and its impossibility gets to me. That’s when I set off down a rabbit hole: get lost outdoors, go dancing, listen to music and reset, again.

Surprises:

It was super hard for me to compromise when I look on the internet and see really fancy custom and expensive solutions for some of my conundrums. Yet, my budget prevailed. For example, a) My bug-proof storage. I love natural fibers but hate how they can get eaten throughout time. Storing them inside or outside in cedar chests just wasn’t truly realistic for me at this time, so I caved and gave into a few  big, clear, THICK and locking plastic totes. b) Even with a kid,  I can tell you the exact amount of plastic I have purchased or been given in the last 10 years (my literally and figuratively duct-taped computer, a star projecting ladybug etc.). However, I get most of my clothes from clothing swaps and goodwill, and so I find that I do let myself use a lot of synthetics. I worry about all of the synthetic material, and the microfibers, but I haven’t yet been strong enough to get them out of my house.

We are so impressed with the sustainability work you are doing at Curtis Memorial Library. Could you tell us a little about these projects- what they are, what inspired you to do them, and what that experience has been like? What has the community response been? What are some projects that you have in the pipeline?

We have a long way to go. I think the most exciting projects are ones that have a multi-stakeholder solution. In Brunswick and Harpswell the basic needs of many are not met. Here we have a lot of folks who are hungry, without housing and have transportation troubles, yet, we are so lucky in comparison to many others in the world, and it is hard to take energy to take climate action, if you can’t get food or housing tonight. Because of this position, I like to think of what can we as a community and what a library, as a hub, can do for as many diverse stakeholders as possible. I like to work to address some of those BIG issues and amplify the work of existing partners WHILE creating a solution that is green. For example, what if we as an institution decided that we wanted to help tackle some of our communities’ housing crisis? What if we hosted a forum where we discussed the problem and  alternative solutions with varied stakeholders? What if from that meeting a variety of ideas appeared? What if later, we as a community, allowed tiny houses in people’s driveways as long as they worked with the town to had a plan to responsibly empty their waste, and safely access requirements like lighting and heat? What if these same new residents helped us with the labor shortage and let aging Mainers stay in their homes by paying a little rent? What if these same locals then were able to get their snow shoveled and garden tended by knowing these new neighbors? and so on…  All of a sudden many problems for many stakeholders can be solved by a multifaceted solution; together, thinking creatively, we can create win/wins. (Oh, and did I mention that one density solution is really green too?)

Finally, what if this one program was only one of many? Together, through sharing ideas and things, we could make scrap crafts, eat our yards, support growing literacy, become more equitable, improve our health, support decolonization, welcome new residents, and potentially, work to create a more sustainable me.

Want to help? We don’t want just a sustainable world, we want to make the world a “better” place (where better is a highly subjective term.) We’ll happily partner. Email hazel@curtislibrary.com, call or stop me in the street; it’s Maine, we’re one person away from knowing each other. 🙂  From an institutional perspective also, of course, we’re trying to pick the low-hanging fruit that make the most impact to our goals (like classic GHG cost abatement curve). In the case of the library, reducing global GHG emissions is crucial, but our job is also to serve the immediate need of our community to engage and escape. Balancing that with goals like zero waste make this a (fun?) challenge.

If you could give one piece of advice to folks interested in pursuing Zero Waste, what would you say?

At home, at work, and at your organization, just do it. Try hard not to give up experiences and relationships you love, but I have yet to meet anyone who LOVES disposable items and their many costs. Because that sentiment is reserved for much more important relationships, I try to replace any disposable habits with positive ones. For example, when I started really making my own bread, beverages, and kombucha, I upped my Kiva loans with the savings. (Prior my rule had always been that if I had enough money to purchase treats, I also had enough to give to others.) This helps me stick with these new habits.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about?

You can do it! All the solutions we NEED exist, and folks are inventing more everyday. While we all pick our own hypocrisy, I think that simply acknowledging that is a valid and motivating step. I certainly mess up, A LOT, and just hope that someday I will outgrow the various levels of mortification I have at myself. In the meantime, I hope that everyone tries to treat each other with as much empathy as they can and that all of us are kinder than necessary.

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