How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

Longing for a zero waste community filled with like-minded people? I don’t blame you! It’s so important to connect with others on your zero waste journey: Individual action is important, but a community can accomplish so much more. Maybe you have dreams of getting your neighbors in on starting a community compost heap. Or perhaps you’d like to create a community garden everyone can access fresh, package free veggies from? Maybe start a petition together to ban plastic bags? Whatever your motive, it’s much easier to create lasting change when we think big but act locally. After all, what’s more powerful than a community coming together? Here’s how to build a zero waste community in your neighborhood.

How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

Why is community important?

When you have a strong community, there’s a lot you can accomplish. Having relationships with your neighbors and being able to help one another is key to building the kind of world that focuses less on the individual and more on the whole. We’re all in this together, after all. And we can’t expect one person to save our planet – it has to be all of us.

By having a strong community that rallies together, you can create some amazing changes! For example, lets say you’ve noticed your community doesn’t have enough green spaces, or access to fresh plastic-free foods. With that information in mind, you can gather your community members and brain storm solutions to this problem together. Having more people on your side will also help show local government officials you’re serious.

Community that cares for one another also tends to participate in circular, sharing economies. For example, lets say your next door neighbor Lucy has a pear tree that fruits like crazy. When she has strong community ties, she’s more likely to give away the pears she can’t eat herself to her neighbors, instead of letting them rot.

Also, everyone in your community has different gifts to offer: Someone may be incredibly artistic, someone else an excellent cook. Whatever their gift is, they can use it to help out others within their community to make it a better place for everyone. For example: The cook can make a meal for those in the community who need it most (this is considered mutual aid – which is very important + I talk more about it later), whereas the artist can create signs for a community-driven march.

In short, community is important because you need it to make lasting change, have support, and create lasting relationships. If we want to save our planet, we have to also save our people.

How can I create a zero waste community?

Now here’s the question we’re all dying to know – can we create a zero waste community? If so, how?

Truth is, creating any sense of community is hard, but often times rewarding, work. You have to be willing to put in the effort. There are certain steps you’ll have to take to make this work – but because you’re dealing with living, breathing, feeling human beings – don’t expect things to always go as planned. Sometimes, beautiful things happen outside the lines, after all. This is just a guide to help you get your foot in the door.

How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

1. First things first, assess where you live

What kind of neighborhood do you live in? It’s very important for you to know this, if you’re to address the needs of the people and the planet. For example, if your community doesn’t have access to composting, that could be one of the first things you tackle!

It’s also important to note that there may be environmental racism happening within your very own community. And if we’re to create a zero waste community that benefits all, we need to establish environmental justice for all.

Here’s a list of questions you should consider to get to know your community better:

  • Do you live in a city or the country?
  • How long does it take for you to reach a neighbor?
  • Do you live in an apartment complex or house?
  • Do you live in an environmental justice area?
  • What are the demographics?
  • Are you in a redlined area?
  • What’s the estimated income of your neighbors?
  • Are there green spaces? Parks?
  • Is the area rundown or modern?
  • Where is the nearest grocery store?
  • Is there access to public transportation?
  • Are there any trees on the sidewalks?
  • How many freeways are there?
  • Are there any industrial factories nearby?
  • Do you have access to fresh, affordable food?
  • Do you have access to clean water?
  • What is your neighborhood’s air quality?
  • Is there a lot of construction in your neighborhood?
  • Do they frequently tear down green spaces for buildings and homes?
  • Do you have access to composting sites or curb side composting?
  • How polluted is your neighborhood on a scale of 1 to 10?
  • Do the schools have green space, community gardens, and/or composting?
  • What are the school menus like? Fresh foods or processed foods with excess plastic?

If you can answer all these questions, you’ll have a better idea of the place you’re living and the problems you will need to solve along the way. Creating a zero waste community requires knowing what environmental problems your community is facing first hand.

You might be surprised to find you live in a redlined area or an environmental justice area. If this is the case, your community may have lower air and water quality, more pollution, less green space.

An environmental justice area is defined as low-income or minority communities. These areas have been (and continue to be) more vulnerable to potential environmental injustices due to factors including systemic racism and inequitable resource distribution. If you happen to live in one of these areas, it’s even more important to create a zero waste community that seeks true environmental justice for all.

Even if you don’t live in an environmental justice area, you can still make a difference! You can still get your community on board with all kinds of green iniatives that will benefit everyone (including the planet) in the long run.

How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

2. Decide what environmental problems to tackle first

Now that you’ve had a good look around your neighborhood and gotten to know it a little better, you can start thinking about what environmental problems are at the top of the list.

If you live in an environmental justice area, you might notice a problem with heat from too many cars and lack of trees; Flooding from lack of wetlands (which act as nature’s sponges); and high levels of pollution from litter and factories nearby. These are all issues worth addressing.

But, if you don’t live in an environmental justice area, you can still do a lot of good. You may notice that not everyone composts, or has access to maker spaces; Perhaps not everyone recycles properly; There’s a lot of plastic packaging at the grocery stores you do have. Whatever things you’ve come to notice, make a note of them.

Here’s an example list to inspire you. Try not to make it more than 10 problems – 5 is ideal to start. Make sure to write down your top concern as the #1 item on your list (this is often the most urgent problem that needs addressing ASAP):

  1. Lack of green spaces (not enough forests, parks, wetlands, trees).
  2. Lots of traffic, too many people on the road, lots of smog + air pollution.
  3. Schools have no access to fresh, package free meals.
  4. No composting options.
  5. Over abundance of plastic packaging at grocery store.
  6. No circular economy in place: Everyone creates lots of trash.

Once you’ve identified the main problems, you can begin tackling them one at a time. Which leads me to my next point…

How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

3. Gather people together

Now comes the hard (but fun) part. Actually gathering people together is the first steps to community action. Look at the list of problems you’ve created and identify what you’d like to tackle first. It’s okay if you go out of order, but ideally the most urgent problem should be at the top of the list (and your priorities).

I highly recommend creating an unofficial “group” to call your community members and treat it like such. This will help in the long run, as it will make people feel like they’re a part of something – and they are! Create a simple or fun name for your group everyone will recognize, ideally with the neighborhood’s name in it. Example: Environmentalists of New York, Staten Island or Zero Waste Staten Islanders.

Social media group

You can rally people together by creating a presence on social media first, if that’s more comfortable for you. Perhaps create a Facebook group using your group’s name and add people in your community to it – it’s okay to start out with just family and friends! Tell them to invite people they know as well. The goal of your Facebook group should be to engage with your community and spark curiosity in all things zero waste and environmental. You can post information about the problem you’ve decided to tackle first to warm them up to it. You could also create a newsletter using mailchimp if you like the idea of sending weekly emails better.

Chit chat with the neighbors

If you’re looking to really catch the attention of your neighbors, consider getting to know them the old fashioned way: Going door to door. Checking up on them, stopping to say hello and chit chat every time you see them. Then, eventually, bringing up your new environmental group! Ask them if they’d like to join on Facebook. If you’re really clever, perhaps you can find a way to mail everyone on your block a flyer advertising the Facebook group, or your group’s latest event! If you live in an apartment, post about it on the lobby bulletin board.

Create flyers

Speaking of flyers, create flyers and printable infographics to hand out to local businesses and pin up at any community centers. On these flyers, feel free to share the name and link of the local Facebook group you’ve created so people can join. Talk about the problem you’re looking to fix. Bring attention to it and show interest in gathering people’s support and ideas.

Important note: If you plan on distributing flyers, I highly recommend the flyers have some sort of event to attend too. For example, an online Google Meet session or Zoom call to get people talking and some sort of community forming. During your little webinar event you can talk about the problem, get to know your neighbors, and listen to other people’s opinions/ideas. Your first online meeting doesn’t necessarily have to solve any problems just yet, but you should come prepared with some ideas of your own and start throwing them out there for people to think about!

You can also schedule an in-person meeting, if that feels right to you. Perhaps a local coffee shop will do the trick, if it’s big enough. Here, you can all introduce yourselves and talk about the problem you’d like to address within your community. See what people have to say and the solutions they come up with, then bring up your own!

How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

4. Create an event

Now that you’ve gathered some interest and brain stormed some solutions, create some sort of event that will seek to solve the problem. It’s okay if this isn’t a one and done solution too – there may have to be multiple events down the line that solve the problem you’re looking to tackle. What matters is getting started!

Determine time, date and place

The event can be in person, or virtually. Ask people what time and date works best for them (you can create polls in Facebook groups that help with this). Settle on the most popular time and date and work from there.

Event topic: What are you trying to solve?

Your event should seek to solve a community problem: Perhaps it could simply be creating a petition together, or crafting an email to a local representative that addresses the problem. It can be a workshop where you teach people in your community how to compost, sew, recycle, or DIY their own zero waste toiletries. Or, it can be a full on march to protect and/or protest something. Have a clear goal in mind and make it fun!

Event marketing: spreading the word

Events can be shared all across social media, as flyers with businesses, and emailed (or snail mailed) to your community members. Spread the word far and wide and ask people in your group for help if you need it! Remember earlier how I said everyone has a gift? See if anyone has the skills to help you with coordinating the event, be it marketing it or creating flyers for it.

Depending on the kind of event you’ll be hosting, be sure to do your research. Do you need a venue for it? A permit? Will there need to be a police escort for the march? Will you need supplies for your workshop? Who will you send your petitions to? Be thorough and make sure you plan things out carefully – having a planner handy will help tons!

How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

5. Participate in mutual aid

Aside from planning events and solving the main problems on your list, it’s also a great idea to support mutual aid in your community.

 Mutual aid is a form of solidarity-based support, in which communities unite against a common struggle, rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves. It comes in many forms and is quite powerful at building a stronger, more resilient community. Plus, most forms of mutual aid help create a more circular, sharing economy (instead of a wasteful, linear one).

Here are some amazing forms of mutual aid you can use to build a zero waste community:
  • Share extra clothes or home goods with your community members. Feel free to post them in the Facebook group to see if anyone wants, or on Facebook market place.
  • Support someone with money through a local mutual aid group.
  • Offer to buy someone groceries and ask for their list.
  • Double a meal you’re making and give it to someone in your community.
  • Share helpful resources with your community in a Google Doc they can reference whenever.
  • Start a little free pantry or seed library.
  • Join or start a community garden – better yet, save some veggie plots for donating to a local food pantry.
  • Excess garden produce? Give it to your neighbors, post it on your Facebook group, or setup a “free” table outside your home for passersby’s to take.
  • Support farm to school programs. Many children don’t have access to fresh, plastic-free foods, and don’t even know where their food comes from.
  • Offer to mend clothes for your community members.
  • Send out a few letter templates for community members to use and send to local reps.
  • Handy? Help your community with repairs, be it with their car, home, or appliances.
  • See if you can create some kind of maker space you all share to create items (even if it’s just in your backyard shed area).
  • Support your local library – it’s a gold mine of resources. See if you can possibly host some events there.
  • Share your skills – be it fitness, cooking, foraging, caregiving or painting. Find ways to help enrich your community with them, be it with free classes or doing favors.
  • Share information – some people might not know what’s going on in your neighborhood, or may even be illiterate. Try to help them by explaining it as clearly as possible so they understand and can make more informed decisions too.
  • Share your space. This is a big ask but if you feel comfortable, and have the room, see if there are some ways to share your space with those in need in your community.
  • Help with transportation. Not everyone owns a car or can afford public transportation – see if you can give someone a lift to work or the grocery store.
How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

6. Bring zero waste into it

Talking is powerful. Now that you’ve built this community and are doing stuff to actively change things, you can hopefully introduce zero waste living to them. There are a number of ways to do this. Honestly, most of the mutual aid options I’ve listed are pretty versatile and promote a zero waste lifestyle too. However, there are ways to get people more actively on board.

  • Start conversations about zero waste living. Tell your neighbors and group members the average American creates approximately 4.4lbs of trash per day, and that only 9% of plastic actually gets recycled. These stats will likely surprise them and make them curious as to how they can reduce their waste.
  • Encourage your community members to do a trash audit. This will help them realize where their trash is coming from and how they can reduce it.
  • Consider giving zero waste items away. Maybe people in your community cannot afford expensive zero waste items like menstrual cups, reusable water bottles or bamboo utensils. An amazing way to help them out would be to give away some zero waste items your community might need. Maybe make little zero waste “goodie bags” so to speak and give them away at your next meeting. Or run a giveaway within your Facebook group.
  • Donate zero waste items to local homeless shelters. Especially reusable period items to a local women’s shelter – those are always high in demand.
  • Hold zero waste workshops for your members/community that teach them how to make zero waste DIYs like toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash, or lip balm. During the holidays you can even teach about how to wrap gifts sustainably without plastic.
  • Create a compost heap together. Composting is a great way to reduce food scrap waste and lower methane emissions. If your community is up for it, a great project to do together is creating a compost heap you all share! Find a suitable area for this (maybe someone will volunteer their backyard) and get started.
  • Organize a cleanup. Notice some trash around the neighborhood? Maybe tons of litter and pollution on the local beach? Organize a cleanup and ask a local representative if they’d provide some materials to help you clean it up (like garbage bags, litter picker uppers, garbage pickup).
  • Share zero waste resources within your community. Maybe create a PDF or Google Doc for your Facebook group that helps them easily access local bulk food stores, compost drop off sites, farmers markets, or zero waste shops they can utilize in the area. Or, you can share zero waste DIYs, recipes and ideas in said document.

Having a zero waste community basically means getting people into the idea of a circular economy.

How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

Remember: Building a zero waste community takes time

It’s natural to want to make big changes right away. But nothing happens overnight and it takes time to build trust with people.

Also, while I’ve labeled this article “how to build a zero waste community” the truth is, it’s so much more than that. You want to build a resilient community that can combat climate change, fight environmental racism, support one another, and reduce waste all at the same time. Because truly, the future of environmentalism is intersectional.

We’re diverse humans that don’t fit into one label at a time, we’re multiple things at once. Which means that having a “zero waste community” expands beyond just zero waste – it’s about environmental justice, food security, climate resilience and better infrastructure. It’s so many things at once, beyond just reducing waste.

I hope this post inspires you and serves as a guide. Bookmark it for future reference – this will make your life easier, trust me.

Just take it one day at a time and seek to create long lasting relationships that are sustainable for all. A good community will uplift one another and work together in times of hardship and joy – always remember that.

How to Build a Zero Waste Community in Your Neighborhood

How do you plan on creating a zero waste community in your neighborhood? What are some tips you have to offer? Leave them in the comments below!

Want more community based action tips? Learn about food injustice in your community and how you can fight it!

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By Ariana Storniolo (Palmieri)

Ariana Storniolo is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste and sustainability. Her work has also been featured on Going Zero Waste, Green Matters, Mother Earth Living and several other online publications.

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