A few dozen Evanston residents gathered Sunday, March 19, to share ideas, experiences and frustrations around recycling and reducing waste at the first Waste Less Workshop presented by the Circular Evanston Working Group.

The event took place at the Rebuilding Exchange on Hartrey Avenue and was kicked off by its executive director, Aina Gutierrez.

Participants – who ranged in age from middle school students to retirees in assisted living – spoke openly and in depth about how reusing, recycling, upcycling, composting, reselling and more fit into their everyday lives.

Karen Bireta, District 65 sustainability coordinator, introduces the Circular Evanston Working Group at the March 19 Waste Less Workshop at Rebuilding Exchange. Credit: Tom Mulhern

“The primary goal of these events is to learn from our neighbors how our community manages and thinks about waste, recycling, circularity, etc.,” said Tom Mulhern, a facilitator for Circular Evanston who also volunteers with other waste-reduction organizations such as Working Bikes and the Rebuilding Exchange. “We want to understand how these practices fit into people’s lived experience and values.”

Circular Evanston includes residents as well as representatives from Evanston city government, local businesses, nonprofits and environmental groups including Collective Resource Compost, E-Town Sunrise (ETHS Students), the Rebuilding Exchange, West End Tool Lending Library, Environmental Justice and Beyond Waste (two committees of Climate Action Evanston), North Shore Village and Sketchbook Brewing.

Mulhern and fellow Circular Evanston members District 65 Sustainability Coordinator Karen Bireta, Ben Bezark and Jerri Garl presented a brief series of slides discussing waste, recycling and “circularity,” which aims to keep usable waste out of landfills through the following actions: refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recirculate, repurpose, recycle.

A circular economy encourages consumers first to refuse things like plastic bags and other single-use items, reduce energy use and the acquisition of consumer goods, reuse what you have (using glass jars to store things in, for example), repair broken items rather than throw them away, recirculate unwanted but usable items back into the community, repurpose items whenever possible and recycle as a last resort.

“Circularity, or what we used to call zero waste, is a critical part of Evanston’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan,” said Garl, a member of Circular Evanston who also serves on the board of Citizens’ Greener Evanston (now Climate Action Evanston) and co-chairs the Environmental Justice Evanston committee. “It will require a big shift in our culture of consumption, along with supportive public policies and regulations for significant change to happen.”

An icebreaker question – “What did you throw away last week that you wish you didn’t have to” – drew responses that ranged from diapers, styrofoam and an energy bar wrapper to broken stereo equipment, a nonfunctioning microwave and even a metal patio set.

Then the four tables of participants discussed two questions: “What makes it easy to recycle/reuse/repair/recirculate?” and “What makes it hard to recycle/reuse/repair/recirculate?” Moderators wrote down dozens of answers, which the Circular Evanston group compiled and shared with participants to help shape future workshops.

Attendees at the March 19 Waste Less Workshop discuss what makes recycling easy as well as hard. Credit: Tom Mulhern

On the easy side, participants cited curbside recycling carts, community food fridges, easy local thrift store drop-offs, online platforms for selling and giving away items, Collective Resource compost pails and online videos teaching repair, among others.

Challenges included confusion about what can and cannot go into recycling bins (which the RoundTable wrote about March 13), multifamily buildings that don’t provide recycling collection, the difficulty of avoiding nonrecyclable packaging, lack of repair skills and the time it takes to sort and deliver items such as polystyrene or prescription pill bottles to special drop-off locations.

“We learned about many widely felt barriers – complexity, cost, inconvenience, mistrust and all the many ways our consumption-driven society makes waste into a default,” Mulhern said. “We also encountered great stories of how people work around that mindset and find ingenious ways to reduce waste in their homes and neighborhoods.” Surprisingly, even the “living green experts” struggled to figure out the best ways to recycle and repurpose items, he added.

Workshop facilitators also shared their newly created “Circular Evanston + Beyond” tool – an online searchable map of local and regional resources to help people determine where to donate unwanted goods, find consignment clothing, used books and bulk foods, repair broken items, take food scraps for composting and deliver recyclable waste that isn’t accepted in standard recycling bins and curbside carts. The map and other resources are part of their efforts to create a “Roadmap for a Circular Evanston.”

Circular Evanston Working Group member Jerri Garl (front center, facing camera) chats with an attendee after the March 19 workshop. Credit: Tom Mulhern

Circular Evanston Group plans to host future workshops in different neighborhoods around the city. Although many residents are engaged in recycling and environmental issues, Garl observed that more effort is needed to expand involvement, especially among busy families and in under-represented and under-resourced neighborhoods.

“We want to open up a continuing dialogue among residents on the topic of a circular economy, and build on Sunday’s event to learn more about what’s working and what isn’t,” she said. “The next step will be to extend our reach to all parts of Evanston and strengthen a culture that takes ‘waste’ out of our vocabulary.”

Meg Evans

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...

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  1. Thanks for covering the event! We are looking forward to doing more of these. One clarification Karen Bireta was at the event in her capacity as program lead for the Beyond Waste program of Climate Action Evanston… not as a representative or employee of district 65.