Conversation with Jonathan Levy on Waste Reduction

This series of conversations aims to highlight the efforts of various people who all share a commitment to the planet that they put into action, each in their own way and with a focus on a particular issue. There are more of us than we know!


Jonathan Levy goes by the nickname “zero waste guy”. He caught my attention on Instagram with his educational posts on plastic and waste reduction, rooted in his personal experience.

jonathan-levy-picture

Tell us about your website, Zerowasteguy.com.

Zerowasteguy.com is my blog, but I am also in the process of integrating my consulting website, so that it will provide readers and potential clients, alike, a more comprehensive picture of the services I offer and the way I think. Many zero waste blogs focus on how-to content, which is helpful, but not for me. Instead I share my real-world observations of ways in which businesses, organizations and individuals can have large impacts with small changes.

You’re widely known as the “zero waste guy”, so there’s probably no need to ask you what issue is dearest to your heart. You say you grew up in a minimum waste lifestyle, but what was it that finally broke the camel’s back and made you fully commit to going Zero Waste, and in such an outspoken way?

I grew up in the Bay Area, which is generally known as a progressive and environmentally-friendly part of the country. I have memories as a child of sorting materials into several types. I don’t remember the specifics now, but I’m fairly certain there was a wheelie bin for trash and three smaller totes for recycling: cardboard, glass and plastic.

When I moved away to Southern California for college I was hit with culture shock: my dorm didn’t have a recycle bin. When I asked my RA (resident advisor) what was up, I was told, “They [the garbage company] recycle for you.” This was traumatic, at first, but over time I got used to it. Looking back down, that was probably the start of a slow environmental demise.

But, to answer your question! In 2012 I took a job with one of America’s largest retailers for all the wrong reasons. It paid well and was a step up, but I learned quickly that it just was not for me. I found myself in a warehouse for 12 hours per day supervising the mechanics and maintenance workers who were responsible for keeping the building running. I felt inundated with disposable and other single-use items on a daily basis. It drove me crazy. After only nine months I quit to travel Europe to learn more about myself, but also to see what Europe was doing right when it came to sustainability. Upon my return I started working with garbage haulers on regulatory compliance, completing hundreds, if not thousands of waste characterization audits. After spending a few years in the industry working with mostly businesses and municipalities, I realized that there were quite a few people who, like me, wanted to do better, but didn’t know how. I launched my blog in the Fall of 2015 to start helping people with every day tips and tricks for living more with less.

Did you run into anything especially difficult, and how did you solve it?

I receive quite a bit of pushback from both businesses and individuals with respect to adopting zero waste practices. There seems to be a perception amongst business owners that anything environmentally-friendly is more expensive. In these instances I have to show them how going zero waste actually reduces expenses, both directly and indirectly. Also, more and more people are seeking businesses that are sustainable. Showing your customers how green you are is absolutely good for business.

When it comes to individuals, a common thing I am told is, “You should see my recycle bin at home, it is always full,” or “I am doing my best.” In the United States only about one-third of material is recycled or composted, which means that two-thirds is going directly into the landfill. Recycling infrastructure is weak or even non-existent throughout much of our country, which means that even our best recycling intentions are often not good enough. Many people do not realize that recycling a material is only as good as the hauler’s ability to find a market for it. If the hauler can’t find a buyer then he will simply send the material to a landfill. Once I explain why we should avoid packaging and use of unnecessary materials, people are usually much more receptive to adopting new ideas.

You live in L.A., is that correct? How is it being zero-waste there, in terms of resources and in terms of people’s reactions?

I live in Pasadena, CA, which is adjacent to downtown Los Angeles. One of the greatest challenges we are faced with in Southern California is the “they recycle for us” culture that I mentioned earlier. We currently have a system where some haulers sort material for us and some require us to separate it, so there isn’t uniformity. It is hard to educate people on ways to reduce their waste and/or increase recycling when they have no sense of what is actually recyclable.

Presently in the City of L.A. there are about 40 approved haulers. This means that if you own or work at a business or live in an apartment or condo there are potentially 40 different companies that can service your location. In addition to multiple haulers servicing the same block (which causes excessive pollution and congestion), there is that issue of inconsistent service. Some offer source-separated recycling and composting, while others do not.

We are in an exciting time, though. The City of L.A. has broken up the city into 11 garbage districts and has awarded exclusive contracts to eight haulers. These franchise hauling agreements mean only one hauler will service your block, instead of several. Additionally, all businesses and multi-family dwellings will soon have access to the exact same services.

Do you have a hard-earned piece of advice for someone warming up to such a shift?

Pace yourself. I tried to drop waste cold turkey, which was incredibly difficult, and very discouraging. Social media has created an all-or-nothing attitude, which caused me to feel pressured into being 100% zero waste. Perfect. Even today, I am not completely zero waste. It is just impossible. There are too many variables. The best advice I have for someone looking to go zero waste is to start small, be consistent, and don’t give up. Perfect isn’t necessary. The important thing is that you make the effort and stick with it.

Is there a resource you particularly recommend?

Here are three books that are must-reads:

  • Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (Michael Braungart and William McDonough, 2009)
  • The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time (Paul Connett, 2013)
  • Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life (Bea Johnson, 2013)

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Zero waste is a lifestyle and it takes a holistic approach. Focus on one aspect of your life to start, but overtime expand your quest to all aspects.

Follow Jonathan’s work on Zerowasteguy.com, Instagram or Twitter.

6 thoughts on “Conversation with Jonathan Levy on Waste Reduction

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