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Q&A with Kyle O'Keefe of Appalachian Zero Waste Initiative, a Sugar Bush Foundation Initiative

Kelee Riesbeck
February 6, 2015

Kyle O’Keefe’s business is turning waste into wealth. Literally. He is the director of Rural Action’s Appalachia Zero Waste Initiative (AOZWI). The zero waste economy concept that AOZWI subscribes to has already gained world-wide recognition. Simply stated, the idea behind it focuses on turning trash into an economic development tool that provides income and creates jobs while at the same time reduces—and eventually eliminates—the use of landfills, contributing to a healthier environment. Rural Action coordinates AOZWI in partnership with Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and is funded by the Sugar Bush Foundation, a supporting organization of the Ohio University Foundation. Read on to learn about O’Keefe’s vision to turn southeast Ohio’s trash into treasure.

Q: What is the concept behind Zero Waste?

A: It’s where communities build local wealth and environmental health by increasing waste diversion and supporting the development of a zero waste economy. The AOZWI is a growing collaborative initiative, coordinated by Rural Action, that works with OHIO’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, whose staff provides technical assistance, project research, and plays a key role in catalyzing zero waste practices on Ohio University’s campus. The Voinovich School also provides businesses with technical support and other OHIO colleges help by leveraging the university and students as a resource. 

Q: How is this idea received by the local community and students?

A: This effort has been recognized in Ohio and by Ohioans as forward and progressive. Once the concept of a zero waste economy is introduced and understood, people learn that if they choose to recycle and compost, instead of throwing things away, it creates more jobs for people, maybe someone they know. The city of Athens was the first in Ohio to offer curbside recycling in 1984. These kinds of efforts are deeply rooted in the community because the community created them. We all participate in this because we all create waste. At AOZWI, we ask, how do we want to manage this as a resource rather than burying it in a landfill? For example, can the material be recycled and then sold and made into park benches?  

Q: What are AOZWI’s next steps?

A: We have organized our next steps into four pillars. First, we need infrastructure to help with collection and processing. Next, we need to engage in more education and outreach. Then we need stakeholder engagement and policies established by counties and cities (Athens is part of the Athens-Hocking Solid Waste District) that puts our initiative into practice. Finally, we must engage in economic development by supporting entrepreneurs to grow or start a recycling-based business, like Aluminastic Corporation, based in Ironton, Ohio.

Q: How does the zero waste economy work within the region?

A: The people in the Appalachian Ohio region are resilient: They make the most out of their resources. I think zero waste will be worked into our lives in the future. Waste is seen as a liability now but it will be seen as a resource for community development one day.

Q: What has the impact of the support from Sugar Bush Foundation meant for AOZWI?

A: AOZWI would not exist without the support from the Sugar Bush Foundation. The idea for AOZWI was an idea that Sugar Bush trustees initially came up with and then looked for two partner organizations who could give life to their vision. They thought Rural Action and the Voinovich School were best-suited to organize partners who could then drive Athens and Hocking Counties towards zero waste.

Q: The Nelsonville Music Festival invited AOZWI to work their event. Will this be an ongoing partnership?

A: Yes. Because of our partnership with the festival, we have been able to increase their recycling and composting rate every year, from 35% in 2011 when we first started to 96% last year. The festival acts like a lab for us. It helps us refine our system so that we capture as much recyclable and compostable material as possible, as well as reduce the total amount of waste.  Working at Nelsonville helps us figure out how to streamline our costs so we can offer this zero waste service to other events both big and small. It also provides Rural Action with a funding mechanism, too. Our amazing Rural Action AmeriCorps members organize volunteers and do the sorting.

Q. What else do the AmeriCorps members do?

A. Outside of zero waste events, the volunteers do workshops with kids, organize dumpsite and litter cleanups, and conduct waste assessments at institutions like hospitals to help them reduce waste. Rural Action runs the only environmental AmeriCorps program in Ohio, so Rural Action allow the volunteers to learn about what it’s like to have a career in this kind of non-profit work.