Zero-Waste Land: Nantucket Aims to Make the Most of Everything, and Waste Nothing

Zero-Waste Land: Nantucket Aims to Make the Most of Everything, and Waste Nothing

Lynne Peeples
Published: 10/30/2009

There's only so much land for landfills. [Photo by D'Arcy Norman via Flickr]

Recollecting my only visit to the island of Nantucket, the first things that come to mind—aside from its breath-taking natural beauty—are SUVs, big boats and grandiose (second or third) homes. A word like "excess" or "spoiled" would have seemed the most fitting label at the time. But a recent New York Times story and slideshow now has me questioning the fairness of that first impression: While Nantucket's residents may afford to treat themselves well, they also know how to keep from simultaneously spoiling the environment. All around, "green" may be far more descriptive of this moneyed town—even if the people prefer to clad themselves in "Nantucket Red."

[Photo on Nantucket by Lynne Peeples]

The island is the national leader in a growing wave of "zero waste" cities. Only 8 percent of the residents' trash ends up in a landfill; the rest of Massachusetts averages 66 percent, according to the Times.

“[Nantucket] mandates the recycling not only of commonly reprocessed items like aluminum, glass and paper but also of tires, batteries and household appliances,” the Times reports. As a result, it’s become habit for residents to sort through their trash and deliver it to the local recycling and disposal complex, where there is also a receptacle for reusable books, clothing and other household items.

Part of this movement is driven by necessity: an island of less than 48 square miles doesn't have a whole lot of extra room for rubbish, and it’s costly to ship it 30 miles to the mainland. But the motivation goes further, notes the Times, to a realization that "organic decay in landfills releases methane that helps warm the earth’s atmosphere.”

Of course, diverting garbage from landfills via recycling, composting and reuse can only go so far. Better is to lessen the amount of waste altogether. The U.S. News and World Report recently offered up "22 Tips for Minimizing Trash". One of the more creative ideas on the list: "Keep your paper towels out of reach, to encourage you to use a sponge or dishrag instead."

Interested in a more radical strategy? Try a “smart trash can”. If you throw the wrong kind of rubbish into this fussy bin, reports the BBC, it will spit it right back at you.