Waste Avengers: Cultivating a zero waste life in the Tetons

By on May 9, 2018

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Betsy Hawkins buys one roll of paper towels a year. She hides them away in a cabinet in her Victor, Idaho, home, only to be used for oily spills that would ruin her cloth napkins and rags. But whenever people come over they’re curious.

“Where are your paper towels?” they ask. “Oh, you don’t need to bring out the nice napkins,” they say.

“These aren’t fancy,” she replies in a thick Tennessee accent. “This is what we use every day.”

It always sparks a conversation about her family’s lifestyle, one that prioritizes sustainability over convenience and works toward a zero waste lifestyle.

Hawkins was raised in a homesteading, self-sustaining fashion, on a rural farm in Appalachia with a garden, animals and an aversion to waste. “It’s never been foreign to me,” she said.

But when her family moved to Teton Valley a few years ago, Hawkins wanted to see how far she could go to minimize her waste. After all, she has access to bulk goods, curbside recycling pickup and the fruits of a plentiful farming community.

But for a family of four, with two middle school-aged kids, it can be hard. Grocery shopping is a process—don’t forget the reusable shopping bags, the muslin sacks and glass jars for bulk food and buy only products packaged in glass or cardboard. If she forgets the bags, she does not buy anything.

The family’s food waste, meanwhile, goes to the composting worms in the closet and to the neighborhood chickens.

“We do what we can,” she said. “I feel like I’m constantly making choices.”

Hawkins said the family has a small garbage bin, smaller than a standard size, that fills up in about two weeks. Her curbside trash can never fills, even in a month’s time, but the recycling bins overflow with glass.

When the family takes trips to get milkshakes at the Victor Emporium, they bring their own insulated coffee mugs and stainless steel straws. If they splurge and go out to eat, Hawkins makes sure to bring their own glass Tupperware for leftovers.

Hawkins admits it’s more expensive to live the way she does—a glass jar of peanut butter, for instance, costs more than its plastic counterpart. “It’s hard to vote with your dollars,” she said.  “But it has to be done or nothing will change.”

The kids, raised with cloth diapers, get frustrated because frozen pizza, which comes in hard-to-recycle paperboard and a single-use plastic wrapper, is off-limits.

“Will they get mad at me because they can’t eat an endless stream of Doritos and Oreos? Probably,” she said. “But hopefully they’ll have a strong understanding of why we made those choices.”

Over the hill, back in Teton County, Wyoming, the community throws away about $3.5 million every year, literally. Each ton of trash costs $115 to haul and dispose at the Bonneville landfill in Idaho. Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling outreach coordinator Mari Allan Hanna said the county exports 100 to 150 tons of trash each day, six days a week.

The county has a plan to divert waste, but people like Hawkins are taking the matter into their own hands by curbing food waste, cutting back on single-use plastic and not purchasing new goods.

“We, collectively, are not living in a sustainable fashion,” Hawkins said. “We just aren’t.”

Betsy Hawkins has made small adjustments in her home that help her family generate less waste. Plastic bags that find their way into the home are washed and hung to dry. She uses cloth napkins instead of paper towels and shops in bulk. (Betsy Hawkins)

The waste stream is more complicated. It’s broken into different materials, each of which poses its own problem and method of diversion: organic material like food and yard clippings, recyclable materials like glass, aluminum, paper and plastic, construction wood and metal, appliances, electronics and textiles—and that’s only part of it. Then there are single-use materials that have nowhere else to go like paperboard, plastic food containers and plastic shopping bags.

It Starts with One

In the past decade, local nonprofits have popped up to help deal with Jackson’s trash—to save organic materials before they become trash and to recycle as much of it as possible.

After a foray into the world of dumpster diving and food rescue, Ali Dunford founded Hole Food Rescue. The nonprofit rescues food that would otherwise be tossed in the dumpster.

“So much of what I was eating came out of the trash,” she said. It was edible, tasty food that was destined for dumpsters because of a store expiration date, cosmetic flaw or overstocking. Dunford had moved to the valley from Boulder, Colorado, where that community was forward thinking about its waste.

“Moving to Jackson was this harsh reality that the rest of the world isn’t as eco-friendly,” she said.

Food waste is indeed a serious problem when it gets into a landfill. Food, with its high moisture content, is two times heavier than regular mixed trash, which costs more to dispose of. Once organic materials end up in a landfill, it breaks down anaerobically, which releases methane gas without the presence of oxygen.

But organic waste is valuable. If it’s like the kind that Dunford would find, it can be given to people in need. If it’s unfit for human consumption, it can be fed to hogs, chickens and other farm animals. Foods like lemons and oranges, which animals tend to avoid, can be composted into fertilizer—what gardeners call black gold.

“It’s ludicrous that we’re throwing nutritious calories away,” she said. “With all the things that go into making food, it just blatantly doesn’t make sense to throw food away.”

In three years, from 2013 to 2016, Hole Food Rescue diverted more than 600,000 pounds of food from the landfill and gave it to people in need and hungry farm animals. On average, 300 pounds of food is wasted per person per year, which can lead to a loss of $1,500 a year for a family of four.

Plastic isn’t as heavy as organic material, but the single-use variety comes with grave environmental impacts.

Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic water bottles every hour, according to the nonprofit Recycle Across America. They’re used once then tossed.

“That’s the worst part about them,” said Katie Weiler, who runs the Instagram account @plasticfreebaes and works with Straw Free JH.

Plastic takes 100 to 400 years to break down in a landfill. But the larger concern for environmentalists and plastic-free advocates is what happens to plastics when they end up in the ocean. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that plastics are the most common type of debris found in both the oceans and Great Lakes. Microplastics (about the size of sesame seeds) are small pieces of plastic that measure less than 5 millimeters long and can be formed from larger pieces of plastic degrading into smaller and smaller pieces.


“People who are concerned with their health should be concerned about single-use plastic as well.”


Single-use plastic, especially plastic bags or light-weight materials, are not built for a life in a landfill. Most landfills are set up to receive large amounts of waste, but don’t necessarily have a way to keep it in. All it takes is a gust of wind.

“A plastic bag will blow away and fly into a river, go downstream and end up in an ocean,” Weiler said. “It never breaks down, it just gets smaller.”

In 2011, Jackson Town Councilor Greg Miles proposed a ban or fee on plastic grocery bags, but the initiative did not have the support of then-Mayor Mark Barron and other town councilors. Meanwhile, mountain communities in Colorado, like Aspen, Telluride and Vail, have banned the use of plastic bags and imposed a fee on paper bags.

A citizen group recently proposed a plastic bag ban to Town Council.

The group is proposing a ban on plastic bags and a 10 cent fee on paper bags.

“A lot of what we’re trying to push has been modeled from the Colorado mountain towns,” group member Michael Yin said.

The group compelled Town Council to investigate what a plastic bag ban would look like in Jackson. Town staff will present a report during a May 21 workshop. 

“It’s not going to get done unless someone helps push it along,” Yin said.

A 2009 report from the University of Washington says that microplastics are not only present in the ocean and building up, but they’re being ingested by marine life. Those microplastics and the toxins that they carry are cycled through the food chain and after a seafood dinner, can eventually end up in the human body.

Food isn’t the only vehicle by which microplastics enter the body. A 2017 study by Orb Media concluded that plastics are pervasive in drinking water. A sample size of 150 water taps in five continents found that 80 percent contained microscopic plastic fibers. The U.S. had an even higher average. Out of 33 samples, 94 percent contained plastic fibers. That means, as Scott Belcher, PhD, said in the study  that “chemicals from plastics are a constant part of our daily diet.”

Weiler echoed the study’s findings: “People who are concerned with their health should be concerned about single-use plastic as well.”

She has cut plastic almost completely out of her life, from buying everything in bulk to ordering makeup in bamboo and metal containers. She said she has also eliminated some of life’s little pleasures.

“I used to be such a rotisserie chicken person,” she said, referencing the bulky plastic containers in which the chicken is sold. “I haven’t had one in years.”

Weiler has a big issue with single-use straws, which is why she joined Straw Free JH. It’s an easy thing for people to cut out. The mission of the local nonprofit is to remove single-use plastic straws from Jackson Hole, one restaurant at a time. Convincing restaurants to switch to paper straws or to only provide straws upon request is part of the effort, along with encouraging people to ask for no straw or to invest in a stainless steel straw.

Since the nonprofit started, 23 local restaurants and venues have changed their policies including Center for the Arts, Trio, Local, Orsetto, Café Genevieve, Snake River Grill, Grand Teton Lodge, Signal Mountain Lodge, Persephone, Hatch, Teton Tiger, Teton Thai, Bin 22 and Healthy Being Juicery. 

Local Restaurant made the switch to plant-based straws, which are 100 percent compostable, and wooden cocktail stirrers in summer 2017. Josh Hirschmann, the restaurant’s general manager and sustainability coordinator, said Local once ordered 88,000 plastic cocktail stirring straws and 66,000 plastic pint straws annually.

The restaurant also switched to a “straw only upon request” policy, which has resulted in a 50 to 70 percent decrease in use.

“Regardless of someone’s stance on global warming, this is cheaper,” he said. “You can’t argue with saving money.”

Hirschmann said the restaurant, which serves anywhere from 800 to 1,000 customers on a busy summer day, is hoping to be an example for other local restaurants. “We want to show that this works.”

Across the pond, the United Kingdom has an ambitious goal to help eliminate plastic waste in the oceans. In April, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and plastic stemmed Q-tips, which is set to take effect within one year.

Out of Sight…

Being conscious of your waste is important, but for Iris Saxton, the executive director of Idaho’s Teton Valley Community Recycling, your waste isn’t something you should decide to deal with at the recycling bin.

Saxton considers herself an anti-consumer. She never liked shopping and figured the best way she could reduce waste was to buy less and reuse more. She buys clothes and items from the thrift store, bikes to her neighborhood farm, has her own garden and chickens and participates in community supported agriculture programs.

“I think there’s this human desire to acquire new things,” she said.

But Saxton acquires used things and experiences “that same rush that people get when they buy new things.”

By not buying brand new items that can’t be recycled or aren’t made from 100 percent recycled materials, it sends a message. If you keep buying berries or spinach in non-recyclable plastic containers the manufacturers will keep making it, Saxton explained.

From industrialized farming to mass production of plastics, there is a disconnect between the process of making goods and the public for which the goods are produced. It’s easy for people to keep buying when there’s a seemingly endless supply. But all those products have to go somewhere. The impact of capitalism on the waste stream is evident during economic booms and busts.

Even Teton County sees the impact the economy has on waste. In boom times, there’s more production, more demand for goods, more consumption and more waste. It fluctuates with the health of the economy.

“In 2008, there was a drop in the volume we saw come through here because people were tightening their belts and consuming less and producing less waste,” Hanna said.

The real answer to minimizing waste, she added, is changing the way goods are made by putting pressure on the economy and producers to create better quality products that last longer.

“When we offer a Band-Aid here at the end it doesn’t force mattress producers or appliance producers to change their ways at all,” she said. “We’re not solving anything, it just perpetuates it.”

That disconnect from the front-end of the manufacturing process permeates the disposal side.

“The biggest problem is these gigantic perfect trashcans,” Saxton said. “I don’t know when they got that big.”

The trash goes in, gets hauled away and is no longer your problem. “It just disappears,” Saxton said.

But that’s not really the case. The problem is just hauled away to a new location.

Green Roots

The push for sustainability within the community has always come from individuals. When Sandy Shuptrine moved to the valley in the 1970s, she started doing her own recycling. She and her husband, Dick, would sort out the plastics, cans and paper and store it in their garage until they could make a trip to Idaho Falls. It cut down their waste so much that it made for a few awkward encounters.

“The trash hauler became suspicious because we didn’t order any trash hauling,” she said. “They called and thought we were putting our trash in someone else’s garbage.”

But Shuptrine wasn’t the only one doing her own recycling. By the 80s, Shuptrine met Ellen Fales and they started working on a project to start a recycling program in town. There was a strong interest and in 1990, a primitive recycling facility opened on Gregory Lane.

“None of that would’ve happened if it would have only been our family,” Shuptrine said.

The nonprofit recycling center grew to accept more than just aluminum cans. It was eventually adopted into the county and became the Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling, ISWR, department in 2009. At that time, leaders of the department started looking at other communities like Boulder, Colorado, to come up with a strategy to combat Teton County’s waste.

“They weren’t looking to be super green or be on the cutting edge of this movement,” Hanna said. “They were looking to make good decisions to carefully manage the resources here.”

As the population in Teton County grew, so did its trash problem. In 1990, the population totaled around 11,000 people who created 18,621 tons of waste. By 2013, the population had doubled to 22,268 people. The amount of trash also doubled to 36,000 tons—25,000 of which went to the landfill. The rest was diverted through recycling, reusing and composting.

Teton County became the first community of its size to adopt a zero-waste initiative in 2014. The Road to Zero Waste aims to divert 60 percent of waste that is currently landfill-bound by 2030. The plan is multifaceted, but hinges on the concept of reducing waste, reusing materials, recycling as much as possible and composting organic materials. Strategies include everything from building a food waste composting facility and expanding recycling to increasing outreach efforts and updating the website. As of 2018, 22 out of 36 planned short-term strategies were completed, including zero waste event modeling, construction and demolition material diversion and an annual Road to Zero Waste report card.

The county currently diverts 34 percent, 13,171 tons, of waste, mostly through recycling efforts. Americans generate 4.38 pounds of trash per day, according to the EPA. Teton County residents already average less trash than the national average—3.96 pounds of trash per day.

Being the only county in the least-populated state to tackle something like zero waste can be challenging. Allan said the resources available in places like Salt Lake City and Denver dwarf what’s possible in Jackson. The rural nature of the community makes it more expensive to transport not only trash, but recyclables, too.

But Jackson is an anomaly for a community its size. The roots of conservation grow deep and the list of nonprofits committed to protecting the wildlife, scenery and environment are numerous.

“We are in this community that values sustainability and environmental stewardship,” Hanna said. “We can make a case for having this be our policy and practice.”

There’s almost an engrained awareness and commitment to protecting the environment beyond the Teton views. “The people who’ve chosen to be here want to take care of it and want to be part of making it the place they moved here for,” Hanna said.

Leaky Landfills

Clockwise: Waste that was buried at the Horsethief Canyon landfill from 1949 to 1989 is now being excavated as part of the process to close and cap the site and create more operational space for solid waste transfer and recycling operations. Cardboard and plastics slated for recycling. (TCISWR)

Throwing away trash is not only expensive, it is also a gamble. “The future of landfilling is uncertain because of the possibility of contamination and potential environmental hazards,” Hanna said. “Nobody wants it in their backyard or the liability of it.”

But recycling quality and clean materials is certain. It’s environmentally friendly and cheaper for the county. While it costs $115 to haul a ton of trash to Idaho, it costs an average $15 a ton for recycling. The county currently produces about 16 tons of recycling a day, a $240 cost per day.

By recycling, you’re not extracting resources to make new materials, you’re reusing resources and extending their lifetime. Hanna pointed to paper: office paper can be recycled three to four times and cardboard can be recycled six to eight times until the fibers become too short and weak to be reused.

“You’re not harvesting trees every time you need a piece of paper,” she said.

Recycled materials are commodities.

“They have value,” Hanna said. “If those were not recycled all that material that could be sold is just being buried. And we would be paying to have it buried.”

Single stream services, where you can throw everything into one bin, are common around the country, but Teton County has a single commodity system. Hanna said the goal was to keep it simple and clean.

“It’s always been expensive to transport these materials to market,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that transportation was worth it and to make sure what we sent would actually be recovered.”

As China cracks down on importing low-value recyclable materials, it’s hurting communities that use a single stream and no longer have a place for their materials. 

“We were mostly very forward thinking, and a little bit lucky,” Hanna said.

Teton County was one of the earliest communities in Wyoming to close its landfill and start transferring trash out. The landfill in Horsethief Canyon closed in 1989 after groundwater and soil contamination was detected.

The original plan to remediate the Horsethief Canyon problem was to close it and reopen another one in Teton County. Shuptrine said they looked at 32 different sites within the county, some within Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest, but none panned out. “Clearly there wasn’t a good place here,” she said.

In 2009 the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality found that groundwater contamination was becoming prevalent in the state’s landfills.

“The landfills are leaking in the rest of the state,” Hanna said. “They were all just piles of trash that were thrown into canyons, unlined and unmonitored.”

The state devised a plan called cease and transfer which meant any community that has a leaky landfill has to stop taking trash and transfer it to an existing facility, with grants available from the state.

According to a 2015 annual report, 74 percent of the 112 landfills tested had evidence of impacts above groundwater protection standards. More than 80 landfills could eventually have to close down, remediate the problems the landfills are causing and transfer their trash to other communities.

Teton County received state funding for remediation in 2015, 26 years after the landfill closed. A cap will be placed in 2019 over the 40-acre landfill that will prevent toxins from leaking into the groundwater and soil.

“Jackson was ahead of the curve and has been so successful because of the community support and initiative,” Hanna said of the diversion programs. “Smaller and more rural Wyoming communities aren’t so lucky.”

The recycling programs in Fremont and Lincoln counties, for example, have had to reduce the number of materials they can recycle in recent years. “Programs around us are shrinking because it’s more costly,” Hanna said.

Andy Frye, superintendent for Fremont County Solid Waste Disposal, said the recycling centers in the county, which include Dubois, Lander and Riverton, no longer accept glass. It also no longer takes plastics 3 through 7, like Teton County.

The decision wasn’t made lightly, but the challenges of doing business in rural Wyoming outweighed the possible environmental impacts.

“We’re geographically challenged,” he said. “We’re surrounded by mountains and challenging passes and all the markets are southeast and southwest of us. It drives up the price of doing business.”

But the cease and transfer has incentivized some communities to do as much waste diversion as they can, with Teton County as a model in the state.

“It forces your policies to change very quickly,” Hanna said. “It’s not a hippy idea or what all the cool kids are doing, it’s a necessity.”

While zero waste is a noble goal, it will never be attainable, at least not until new technologies and policies emerge.

Hawkins, who strives for zero waste, noted that unless you’re living off the grid, there will be some waste with which to reckon.

Nobody is perfect, “but if the goal is zero waste, you are bound to do better,” she said.

Although she gets discouraged when she sees trash bins overflowing every week or grocery carts filled to the brim with paperboard and plastic, she said her behavior is impactful.

“If no one ever thought they made a difference how would we ever collectively make a difference?” she said. “You have to start somewhere.” PJH

This week is the 50th annual spring cleanup. Free yard waste bags are available from the town and county, and the transfer station will accept it for free if you bring it in loose or compostable bags. If you don’t want to travel to the transfer station, place the bags curbside on Monday by 8 a.m. and the county will pick up for free. All the yard waste will be composted. Check TetonCountyWY.gov/Recycle.

Nonprofits, government agencies and businesses working toward a more sustainable future will be at the EcoFair from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Snow King ballfield.

About Erika Dahlby

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