I first met Vanessa when she came to Lithgow Public Library in 2019 to give a presentation on “Wishful Recycling,” the first of many times our paths were to cross. When she reached out a year later to see if Zero Waste Maine would be willing to be the site host of her future graduate project on Maine zero waste retailers, I enthusiastically agreed. In the interview below, Vanessa shares her own zero waste journey and more about her capstone project and retailer map.
Vanessa Berry Born and raised in Maine, Vanessa provides education and resources all over the state as an Environmental Educator for ecomaine. Aligned with the goals of Zero Waste ME, Vanessa’s work allows her to actively encourage others to follow the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, then Recycle! Vanessa started her career in the public school system working in middle school science and special education, overseeing the school’s Green Team, and then transitioned from the classroom to commit a year to serving low-income Mainers through energy efficiency upgrades and education before joining the ecomaine team in 2018. Vanessa also serves on NRCM’s Rising Leadership team, where she empowers Mainers of all backgrounds to become change agents for strong environmental policies that preserve and protect Maine’s beautiful outdoor spaces.
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.
For me, my journey to a zero waste lifestyle really began during my time in college. In 2012, I started a work study position with a sustainability group on my campus, and the rest is history! The most memorable part of that experience was our annual waste audits; our student group unloaded 24 hours of residence hall garbage and sorted out all of the items that should have been recovered by recycling, composting, or simply by donating or reusing the items. That exploration of our waste on campus made it very clear that there was a lot of work left to do, and I started to consider my contributions to the waste stream very seriously.
Why do you think the Zero Waste movement is important? What challenges do you think it faces?
For decades, our society has simply hidden away our waste and made it disappear with curbside programs and dumpsters; however efficient this may be, it also makes it very easy for people to ignore what happens to it and the environmental harm it can cause. We all know that littering is bad for the environment, but don’t often consider what happens when we pile up years of waste into giant trash mountains.
One of the major challenges that I see when it comes to zero waste is eliminating the perceived barriers; many people often feel so overwhelmed about how to fit all their trash into a mason jar that they delay getting started. Anne Marie Bonneau said it beautifully when she said “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” If you’re feeling overwhelmed about how to start, try to find one thing and practice those little habits as much as you can.
What’s been easy for you with Zero Waste? What’s been a challenge?
There have been lots of moments where zero waste has made my life easier. For example, learning how to make my own deodorant or toothpaste with ingredients from my kitchen not only saves me money, but also allows me to adjust the ingredients in my personal care routine to customize them to work better for my needs, and it gives me the flexibility to play around with scents and flavors too!
As much as we try, I think one of the biggest challenges with going zero waste is not always being able to avoid trash. By committing to reduce my waste, I’ve become painfully aware of how much I actually discard in my household trash and in my recycling. The challenge is that, because so much of our typical day is spent in auto-pilot, we don’t often think about the trash we create as a result; a cashier might automatically reach for a single-use plastic bag to help me carry my items at the store, or a barista might pour my in-house coffee into a disposable cup, and sometimes I just can’t afford to pay extra for the zero-waste item. In those situations, we just have to do the best we can and remind ourselves of the bigger picture, but we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff or get too discouraged with ourselves.
If you could give one piece of advice to folks interested in pursuing Zero Waste, what would you say?
Where you are right now is the perfect place to start! For folks who are just starting out their zero waste journey, auditing or logging your waste is a great first step to get a baseline idea of your trash and recycling habits. An audit can be as detailed or as general as you’d like, but ideally an audit is used to collect information about exactly what items you throw away each day. This tracking of trash allows you to get a realistic idea of how much waste you generate in all areas of your home from the kitchen or study, and perhaps even outside your house in areas like your car (drive-thru, anyone?) or at the office. From there, you can make concrete goals to reduce waste in areas that make the most sense.
For example, during my first audits, I realized that most of what I was throwing into the garbage was flexible plastic packaging from items I purchased at the grocery store. After figuring out what was creating the most trash, I became much more thoughtful about buying items at the grocery store and started looking for options that came in packaging that I could recycle or items that eliminated packaging altogether — no more shrink-wrapped bell peppers for me!
We are so excited to be partnering with you on the retailer map project. Could you tell us a little about the project?
I’m so excited to finally be able to share this project with you! With a little help from my friends here at Zero Waste ME, and some insights from our zero-waste-friendly business owners, I’ve managed to create a map of Maine retailers and businesses who offer some of their goods package-free and allow customers to bring their containers for refilling.
About a year ago, I was in the middle of pursuing my Master’s degree when I began the process of selecting a graduate capstone project. I knew I wanted to use this time to research and advance sustainability in Maine, and eventually decided to create a resource that would help everyday Mainers who wanted to reduce waste, but simply might not know how or where to start — it’s a resource that I wished had existed when I was just starting out in my zero waste journey. I’m so glad to be able to share this tool with anyone who is eager to make less waste and support locally-owned businesses in the process.
We know you were very thoughtful about what criteria to include for the retailer map. Could you talk a little about how you arrived at those criteria and what you hope they will emphasize?
When deciding which businesses to include, I thought very carefully about what zero waste looks like in a business and what unique services and experiences they offer. In a perfect world, all goods are sold without any packaging and we all would have the time and energy to make our own products with the best quality ingredients, but with a more realistic lens, we know that’s much easier said than done.
It is exciting to think about how this retailer database could help consumers achieve zero waste, but in order to do that, the businesses we included needed to offer opportunities to purchase goods without packaging. However, for those products that simply cannot be created, shipped or sold that way, consumers deserve infrastructure to responsibly recycle or reuse that packaging, and retailers who value zero waste actively shoulder some of the responsibility for this packaging after the products are sold. For a retailer to qualify for our database, they must meet these three criteria:
- They must offer refills on at least one product through container exchanges, refilling stations, or other systems
- They must provide a take-back or recycling program for at least one other product such as container libraries, TerraCycle, or single-stream recycling
- They must obtain at least 10 percent of the products they sell in refillable, locally-recyclable, or home compostable packaging, or receive them without packaging entirely
**One major consideration that this database accounts for is the current COVID-19 pandemic. There are so many Maine businesses who deserve to be recognized for their leadership in driving sustainability, we all know that health and safety concerns have made these efforts very difficult for them. In light of this, we’ve relaxed some of this criteria so that we may be able to continue to highlight these retailers and hope that someday, we’ll return to skipping packaging and refill-as-usual.
You built a lot of interactive features into the map, including layers and forms for folks to submit suggestions. How are you hoping folks will use the map and engage with the process?
Not only is user feedback helpful, it’s absolutely necessary! Maine is a large state and consists of hundreds of thousands of businesses, and we need everyone’s help to find these rockstar retailers who are making zero waste easier for consumers. For shoppers, please help us make this resource better by suggesting businesses, updating information, and offering feedback. To all of you small business owners out there who are helping Maine create a circular economy, we want to help expand your consumer base and keep that unnecessary packaging out of the landfill, so please connect with Zero Waste ME and see how we can celebrate your efforts!