Recycling has evolved dramatically from the days when only people pegged as “tree huggers” talked about it, to a time when consumers are demanding services and states are setting aggressive diversion targets. Nonprofit Eco-Cycle has evolved right along with the growing movement, beginning by recycling in Boulder, Colo., and today helping those around the country and globe reach for what is now commonly known as “zero waste.”
Kate Bailey, Eco-Cycle’s director of Eco-Cycle Solutions, is leading much of the organization’s work. Bailey started at Eco-Cycle in 2003 as a part-time researcher and has since become the nonprofit’s zero waste guru of sorts. In her role, she has created national reports, websites, webinars and tools to empower citizens, government staff and elected officials to adopt zero waste practices. And she helps them set up for success.
Bailey, who is a 2018 Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, spoke to Waste360 about her passion for sustainability work. She discusses what has changed in the way she thinks of recycling in relation to the larger sustainability picture. And she shares insight on what she thinks counts as zero waste—as well as ideas on how to get there.
Waste360: What does Eco-Cycle do today, and how did it expand from recycling for Boulder into more roles and more locations?
Kate Bailey: Today, Eco-Cycle has two core functions: we are both a recycling business and an advocacy organization.
Running Boulder County’s recycling center, we process 50,000 tons of single stream materials a year and market and ship commodities. We also work as a hauling company that picks up recycling and compost from businesses. Additionally, we run a center for 24 hard-to-recycle materials like electronics, mattresses and block foam packaging.
We understand the ins and outs of the entire recycling business. We were always about education of people of all ages, but we began leveraging our knowledge and local experience to do zero waste programs around the country and, to an extent, globally. We also work with local and state governments to advocate for zero waste policies. We use revenue from recycling activities to help fund this advocacy work, which includes projects such as Eco-Cycle Solutions.
Waste360: Tell us more about Eco-Cycle Solutions and your role as director of this program.
Kate Bailey: Eco-Cycle Solutions was built to share Eco-Cycle’s experience and knowledge, as well as best practices from around the world, to help community’s take action toward zero waste. Me and my small team support communities whether they are ready to move an inch or a mile. Some are considering curbside recycling, and others have established recycling and compost programs. We help them figure out how to go further, looking at reuse and reducing how much waste we produce. We work both with elected officials and the general community.
The foundation of our approach is our Community Zero Waste Roadmap, which is a blueprint of four components: policies, programs, infrastructure and community engagement. Me and my team work with communities to customize a plan or to work on any of the individual Roadmap components. For instance, if you are considering putting in policy, we can do an analysis of options and advise on how to build community and political support.
Waste360: What do you consider zero waste, and what’s realistic in achieving it?
Kate Bailey: I support the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) definition of zero waste, but to me, it’s more important to think about zero waste as a journey and vision. Whether you want to call it zero waste, circular economy or closed loop, it’s the same vision. It’s a goal to use our natural resources as efficiently as possible. I help communities to not get too hung up on “zero,” but rather to progress toward significantly reducing and recovering materials. It’s something we can do at many levels, including in our own lifestyle, in our communities and in how we design and produce products.
Waste360: I understand that your work not only extends beyond Boulder and other cities, counties and states, but that you travel to other countries. What are you doing as you move around?
Kate Bailey: Eco-Cycle Solutions tracks best practices from around the world, so we spend a lot of time looking at what other communities are doing and how it’s working. It’s a two-way system: we can share our successes with others, and we can improve our local programs based on what’s working elsewhere.
This year, I’ve worked more at the big city level—first in Boston, and then I spoke in Brazil at the first Zero Waste Cities conference. We get requests from communities, large and small all around, from Nebraska to Nepal. And that’s what’s exciting about zero waste. Everyone wants to take action, and we are trying to do our part to help.
Waste360: How do you meet the individual needs of each entity you work with?
Kate Bailey: Each community has different stakeholders, decision-makers and geographic challenges. We use our Community Zero Waste Roadmap as a foundation and then engage with each community to customize what works for their needs. We can be experts on zero waste programs, policies and services, but it takes a partnership with local residents and leaders to help customize a plan to fit with their communities and their values and priorities.
We work with them to discover how zero waste can be a solution to their needs. For example, if their priority is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or local job creation, we try and look at zero waste as a way to support these goals.
And we don’t just work with one group; we work with government and community groups. Customizing is about looking at everyone’s perspective and values within each community.
Waste360: Are you doing what you thought you’d be doing when you first entered into sustainability work?
Kate Bailey: Early on, I wasn’t sure I’d stay in recycling, which I’d worked in during college and since then at Eco-Cycle. I thought maybe I’d want to do broader sustainability work because my background is in environmental studies. I was interested in energy, water and other issues.
Why I continue in recycling is I realized it’s not just about trash, and I actually have an opportunity to help communities work on these larger sustainability issues using recycling as a tool. For example, we recycle to save energy when we make new products. This in turn reduces fossil fuel, which in turn reduces carbon emissions, which means our work directly helps reduce carbon pollution. Through recycling, I am making a difference every day in energy conservation, climate change, clean water, protecting ecosystems and building resilient local economies. That’s pretty powerful from such a simple action.
Waste360: What do you find hardest in your work?
Kate Bailey: My biggest challenge is working with communities and citizens who are very passionate about zero waste but have little or no support who ask, “how can you help?” I have to find a balance between helping and finding a whole lot of time and money, and it’s a constant challenge to find that balance to be able to do as much as we can efficiently with limited resources.