Recycle, reduce, reuse meet rethink and re-earth for Tennessee's first Zero Waste Day

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and its partners are launching the state's first Zero Waste Day on Tuesday, October 27. 

They hope to raise awareness of the amount of waste each Tennessean creates and how individuals can reduce their contribution to the growing U.S. and global trash problem.

"In Memphis and Shelby County, we are producing more than 1.7 million tons of waste annually. That's about 1,800 pounds of waste per person," said Lisa Brown, project manager with Memphis Transformed. "It's time that we embrace the fact that each citizen is part of the solution. There's something each of us can do to make an impact."

Most people are familiar with the basics of recycle, reduce, and reuse, but working towards zero waste also means rethinking buying behaviors to prevent waste before it's created.

"Simple ways to rethink include purchasing only what is truly needed; choosing local products; opting for items with no or minimal packaging; and choosing durable, recycled, and recyclable materials," said Kim Schofinski, TDEC's deputy communications director.

Proponents of zero waste also encourage re-earthing or the composting of paper, food scrapes, and other organic material to divert it from landfills. According to the EPA, paper and cardboard are the largest contributors of waste in landfills. Food scraps come in second.  

"Food waste is not only an environmental issue, but also an economic issue," she said. "$218 billion is spent on growing, processing, transporting and disposing of wasted food that is never eaten."

According to a 2020 report from the Sustainability Consortium, consumer goods, food, and their packaging account for more than 60% of greenhouse gas emissions globally and over 65% of tropical forest loss.

"When organic materials such as food waste break down in landfills, they do so anaerobically or without oxygen which releases large volumes of dangerous methane gas into the atmosphere," said Schofinski.

Schofinski said the term "zero waste" can be intimidating. The goal, she said, is simply to be more conscious of the waste we generate and make better choices whenever possible. 

"It does not literally mean to generate no waste at all. Our environmental footprints are too large and complicated to simply eliminate our impact overnight," she said. 

TDEC has been providing zero waste tips daily throughout October on its social media channels, like this video explaining why its best not to bag fall leafs.

On October 27, TDEC and its partners will offer challenges on social media and the Zero Waste TN website for each of the five categories of conscious consumption: rethink, reduce, reuse, recycle, and re-earth. Challengers can win prizes for competing, including re-usable straws, reusable travel utensils, and a home composting kit.

Those who try all five challenges will receive special recognition from TDEC.

TDEC's partners in Zero Waste Day include the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Tennessee Environmental Council, the Southeast Recycling Development Council, and the Tennessee Recycling Coalition

Rethinking and Re-Earthing

Schofinski offered the following ideas for people who want to begin rethinking or re-earthing but are unsure how to begin.


  • Meal plan and store food items in reusable containers
  • Store produce in the right place and at the right temperature
  • Go paperless for boarding passes, itineraries, event tickets, etc.
  • Support businesses that offer environmentally-friendly packaging
  • Replace single-use cups or bottles with reusable cups and bottles
  • For paper copies of books, visit the library or join a book-sharing club
  • Opt out of plastic silverware and straws when eating out or ordering take-out
  • Buy local. Local products travel less distance and often use less or no packaging
  • If unable to use uncooked food while still fresh, consider donating to a local food bank
  • For items that are used rarely or just once, trying renting, share, or buy them secondhand
  • Buy e-books or audiobooks and switch to online magazine and newsletter subscriptions
  • Look for local repair options or tutorials to fix products instead of trashing and replacing them. Find repair guides on iFixit
  • Buy items like grains, flour, coffee, and teas in bulk to reduce packaging waste. Use the Zero Waste Home app to find bulk buying options


  • Sign up for composting and soil delivery services with the Compost Fairy
  • Locate a food waste drop-off, local farmer, or garden-savvy neighbor who may want food scraps for composting
  • Check out tutorials on backyard composting and other food waste reduction like the Consumer’s Guide to Zero Waste and TDEC’s Get Food Smart TN program

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.