Zero Waste in Maine: Interview with Suzanne and Julie, co-founders of Zero Waste ME

How did you get interested in Zero Waste? 

JULIE I’ve been interested in Zero Waste practices for a long time, without ever having the phrase “Zero Waste” to describe what I wanted to do. 

SUZANNE Me too! My interest in the Zero Waste movement began long before I had the terminology for it. When my family and I took the leap from teaching to farming, we were doing it with the mindset of sustainability, and of course, delicious vegetables. I started preserving our food, filling the pantry with more and more glass, but filling the freezer with more and more plastic bags. While I reused the bags until they fell apart, I was still purchasing plastic Ziploc bags each season. One day it just dawned on me that there must be a better way to store fruit. I started using gallon milk jars from when we offered milk to our customers. Over time, I just started seeing the plastic in our kitchen and made small changes. Then, I started to see plastic in other places in our house, on our farm, and just in our lives. It wasn’t until October of 2018 that I started actually learning about and using the term Zero Waste, but our family had been traveling down that road for many, many years.

JULIE I’m a librarian, so for me it was all because of books, of course. I’d always been an environmentalist and a bit of an Earth mother type, but I think things really started to come into focus for me about a decade ago when I read Colin Beavan’s “No Impact Man” and then, shortly thereafter, Annie Leonard’s “Story of Stuff.” Then there was a period for a couple of years when I got really off course, and it felt like we were just making so much trash- it was appalling. Then I read Bea Johnson’s “Zero Waste Home.” Together, these books gave me a framework for what I wanted, the reason why I wanted it, and a name for what it was I was trying to do: Zero Waste!

Why do you think the Zero Waste movement is important? 

SUZANNE The simple answer to why I think the Zero Waste movement is important is because we, as humans, have created the problems of excess that have led to the need for dramatic solutions. Nature doesn’t have waste. As a society, it seems we have placed our values in more and better and faster and cheaper, leading to increased pollution, demolition of rain and palm forests, climate change, poorer working and living conditions for millions of people, and increased anxiety. The Zero Waste movement is an effort to slow down, buy less, use what you already have, make thoughtful choices about where to spend your money, and decrease the size of your environmental impact. It isn’t about being perfect, producing a mason jar of trash a year, and never buying anything new ever again. It is about asking yourself, “Do I really need this? Is it replacing something broken? Will I use it again and again? Will it improve my life/job/play? Is it made ethically and sustainable?” 

JULIE I absolutely agree 100% with all of that! Also, I think Zero Waste practices empower people and make them question the status quo, which is so important for enacting change. It’s easy to feel disempowered and disenfranchised while we watch the global environmental crisis unfold, but Zero Waste gives you tangible evidence that you can change the world today. It makes you question all of the things we take for granted in our culture (disposability, our disconnect from community, our need to acquire), and these two things together – empowerment and questioning – will create a cultural shift that’s critical to reducing the rate of global warming and our destruction of the planet.

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

JULIE Some things have been really easy, like eliminating disposable paper products. Some things have been hard and are still hard! My two biggest challenges are 1) food packaging, and 2) my family. Food packaging by far still accounts for the most waste that leaves our house (either in our trash can or recycling). It’s hard to feel like the only member of my household who makes Zero Waste a priority, and I can honestly say that there has been more than one marital dispute about that. I’ve been working on finding solutions that work for everyone and that will further reduce our waste.

SUZANNE Well, I have the advantage of time. My full time job is taking care of our homestead and family. That means I have the time to make food from scratch, grow my own food, travel to other farms to pick or glean, go to the butcher, then the bakery, then farm stand, etc. I don’t have to pick up all my groceries after work, then drive home and make dinner in 30 minutes. This lifestyle affords me to talk to my butcher about bringing my own containers, (which takes longer than buying their pre-sliced, prepackaged meats). That being said, I do not have infinite time- I can’t DIY everything, so I don’t. I don’t make my own laundry soap. My local Co-op offers bulk laundry soap and I fill up there. I don’t make my own shampoo bar. There is a lovely woman in Belfast who makes them already. My dear cousin owns an herbal products business in Palermo, and I get all my body care needs from her. The biggest challenge I’ve found with Zero Waste is accepting that I do not know all the answers to every question, all the solutions to every problem, or every study that’s ever been done. Sometimes people expect me to be perfect, and I’m just not. I try to be knowledgeable but I’m still learning, too. It’s a process, a journey, and one that I hope to be on for the rest of my life.

JULIE Yeah, I know exactly what you mean about not knowing the answers. Zero Waste has made me have to think about everything, questions I’ve never had to ask before. How can I blow my nose without throwing away a tissue? How can I wash my hair without throwing away a plastic bottle? How can we celebrate the holidays without throwing away wrapping paper? There are so many questions that I know the answers to now, but when I was starting out it was exhausting to feel so inept and ignorant and be figuring out everything for the first time. That was a huge challenge when I was first starting out! Of course, there are still questions I don’t have the answers to, but it’s not an endless barrage of them all day long.

What is your role in Zero Waste ME? 

SUZANNE We co-founded Zero Waste ME together.

JULIE And we do most things with this project together or we work on them by ourselves after talking about them together. We each bring a lot to this project, and it’s a great complementary set of skills. I’m a librarian, and she’s a teacher, so we are both educators and want to share information.

SUZANNE Absolutely! We’ve worked together on the resources for the website, and we’re both interviewing individuals and business, and we’ll give talks and demonstrations at organizations both on our own and as a team. Julie is the tech guru behind the website and does most of the graphic design, and I take the pretty pictures for and manage our social media. 

JULIE We’re a great team. And it’s so much fun to be doing this with a good friend!

What excites you most about Zero Waste ME? 

JULIE I love connecting people with resources. Whether it’s a book, a store, or a community, I love building those connections and watching that network and excitement grow. I’m really excited to be creating this local resource for folks in Maine and to connect them to each other and show them that we can do Zero Waste practices everywhere. I think Maine and Zero Waste is a really natural fit.

SUZANNE It’s a growing movement, with more and more businesses and individuals wanting to participate. Maine is a front runner in many ways and my goal is to continue to be a strong voice for Zero Waste and Maine. Quite frankly, Mainers tend to be frugal and conscientious, employing many of the Zero Waste strategies already. Traditionally, Maine has always been an agricultural state, so you see lots of backyard gardens, canning materials in the grocery store, U-pick and fruit stands throughout the state. Eating in season is Zero Waste. Preserving the excess is Zero Waste. The phrase Zero Waste can be intimidating, and I hope the materials and talks we provide help people in Maine (and beyond) feel less stressed about it, and see how they are already living many of the principles of Zero Waste already.

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

JULIE I would say, “be gentle.” Be gentle with yourself and others, and grant yourself forgiveness. It’s easy to get discouraged and get hard on yourself about the imperfect choices and the compromises you’ll make, but don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Don’t give up because you have to make some compromises or aren’t reducing your trash as much as you wish you could- just keep going, be gentle, and it does get easier as you go along.

SUZANNE Zero Waste is a process. Every step, no matter how large or small, forward or backward, counts. It’s not a race, it isn’t always pretty, and it is far from perfection. Be kind to yourself, and others, and lay off the judgement. 

JULIE I couldn’t have said it better myself.

SUZANNE Aw, thanks!

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