It started in 2009 with a grassroots campaign to keep chemical-laden Styrofoam packaging out of Beacon restaurants. Then it branched out into electronics recycling. Today, Sarah Womer, president of Zero to Go, manages waste of all sorts — and not just in Beacon, where this transplanted Hyde Park resident has lived for a decade.
At events all over the region like Poughkeepsie’s Community Day in Upper Landing Park, the Farmland Cycling Tour with Scenic Hudson, and at the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Business Expo, you’ll find Womer and her team stationed at eye-catching silver, blue, and green cans marked “Garbage,” “Compost,” and “Recycle.” The goal is to redirect compostable and recyclable material away from the waste stream while educating the public through friendly banter.
“People don’t think about waste,” says Womer. “That’s why we use bright colors and wear fun clothes so people are like, ‘This is cool.’ I want people be excited by different possibilities.”
Because it’s all about education-based waste management, team members don’t just tell you where to put your cup. They explain what happens to it next. They’ll talk about the importance of recycling and offer shocking statistics like this: More than 1 million plastic bags are used every minute, and we currently only recover 5% of the plastics we use in the world. They’ll also talk about the environmental enemy that started it all: Styrofoam, which doesn’t biodegrade, breaks up into zillions of pieces in waterways, and leaches benzene content into cups when hot liquids like coffee get poured in. You’ll even learn about composting, which isn’t just about food: The company provides compostable cups and flatware, too.
Womer has partnered with Riverkeeper for three years now, rolling up her sleeves at the annual May cleanup event at Beacon’s Long Dock Park. Last year alone, some 50 volunteers collected 2,410 pounds of material: 43 bags of trash, 39 bags of recycling, and 18 tires.
One of Womer’s most memorable and successful events was a Peekskill Craft Beer Festival attended by 4,500 people that produced only eight bags of landfill and 120 bags of compostables.
For festivals that actually take place in Beacon, like Riverfest each June, she and her crew will even remove the trash by hauling it away themselves on electro-assist cargo trikes, riding over to the local recycling plant, ReCommunity Recycling, where Womer gives tours twice monthly.
That’s a heck of a lot to accomplish by age 31. And we haven’t even gone into her work as an AmeriCorps volunteer during and after college at SUNY Oswego, her work on the board of the former Hudson Valley Materials Exchange, and her Forty Under 40 Shaker Award bestowed by the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce in 2012.
Womer also launched a Kickstarter campaign in April of 2015 that raised $20,000 in two-and-a-half weeks for The Beacon Compost Project, a bike-powered food waste pickup program for businesses and restaurants.
“I’m trying to win hearts and minds,” says Womer, who since June has logged thousands of pounds from four restaurants and 30 households, “I was surprised by the volume,” she says while going over her spreadsheets, noting a staggering 4,800 pounds for the month of August alone.
While she’s thrilled with the results — and the fact that she has a waiting list — Womer remains frustrated that it’s not part of her program to give healthy compost and soil products back to people who are participating. But that’s the next phase of the project, when she hopes to have her own composting facility in town.
“I want to inspire people, but I never want to be superwoman. I don’t want to take on everything. We need more people to step up and take charge. I strongly feel we need more education and we need to create this cultural change.”