Nonprofit Spotlight: Toward Zero Waste

Betsy Sisley, a community organizer for Toward Zero Waste, lets water drain from an empty can before she deposits it in the trash bag held by her husband T.J.

Before they ever met, Dargan Gilmore and Leigh Williams had each decided that they had to do something about climate change.

The day after watching the environmental documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” Gilmore and her husband traded their car for a hybrid. The Raleigh woman also read Bea Johnson’s guide to sustainable living, “Zero Waste Home,” and joined a Facebook interest group. That’s how she connected with Williams, who was also moved to action by Johnson’s book.

“We both made huge shifts in the amount that we’re sending to the landfill and decided to get together and try to raise awareness,” said Williams, who lives in Cary. “We couldn’t be the only people who were concerned about this.”

Among her duties as the Cary community director, Andrea Rushing organizes volunteers for projects like the litter sweep.

The two women launched Toward Zero Waste in 2016 to promote waste-conscious living, raise awareness of sustainable practices, and encourage lifestyle changes. Including the word “toward” in the group’s name was very intentional, says Gilmore, because the climate crisis can seem overwhelming.

“People don’t know what to do, and we want people to be comfortable making little steps and feeling good about that,” she said. “‘Every small change matters’ is what we have on our website, and we really believe that.

“If everybody lived this way and tried to live this way, think about the impact we would have.”

Many of Toward Zero Waste’s outreach and educational efforts target teens.

The grassroots organization spread throughout North Carolina, largely through social media. There are now 18 different TZW groups across the state, some with a few dozen members and others with more than a thousand. Cary, Apex and Morrisville all have community Facebook groups.

Lots of folks were joining, changing their lifestyles, but it felt like the group wasn’t accomplishing enough, Williams says. They wanted to expand individual awareness and actions to influence policy changes at schools, businesses and government.

With that goal in mind, Toward Zero Waste became a nonprofit in January 2020.

Volunteers reach for grabbers and bags at Toward Zero Waste’s July 10 litter sweep in Apex Community Park. The nonprofit organizes monthly litter pickups in Apex and Cary.

“It just made more sense to be a nonprofit, and to be able then to take advantage of grants that would allow us to be able to make bigger impacts,” Williams said. “It has allowed us to get a foot in the door into more places — talking with town governments and engaging with other nonprofits or organizations.”

Spearheading those local lobbying efforts are the volunteer community directors, who tackle issues specific to their towns. They organize other volunteers and promote events like litter sweeps, film screenings and educational forums.

Cary community director Andrea Rushing’s low-waste journey began when she picked up a compost bin at the Cary bin sale and started composting her kitchen scraps.

Betsy Sisley collects trash with her daughter, 6-year-old Nella, during a litter sweep at Apex Community Park.

“I have a daughter, and I was looking at the environment and what is happening and feeling concerned about the world that she’s coming into. What’s being left for her and her generation? The idea of sitting by and doing nothing didn’t fit well for me,” Rushing said.

“It may only make a small impact — hopefully more than a small impact — but at least I can look at her and say I tried.”

Among her many activities with TZW, Rushing enjoys working with children and teens, helping them to become advocates at school and teaching them about careers in environmental fields. She’s encouraged by their passion and commitment, especially the high-schoolers.

Tristan Hailey, 5, steps out of the bushes with his grabber and a piece of trash.

“Young people … give me hope for the future. You can get into the environmental movement, and there’s a lot of sources of despair,” she said.

In another encouraging step, Rushing and other members of the Cary group are working with the town on a pilot food waste drop-off project, expected to launch later this year, says Srijana Guilford, a spokesperson for the town. Food scraps will be collected at the Dixon Avenue convenience center and turned into compost.

“We’re excited to collaborate with Toward Zero Waste on the education and outreach efforts of this pilot project,” said Guilford.

The town also offers backyard composting education sessions and compost bins for sale. The folks at Toward Zero Waste want to encourage all these efforts and more.

“My aspirational goal is getting curbside compost and getting businesses to compost as well,” said Williams, who admits there is a lot of education to be done before that can happen. “How do we get people to understand what composting is, how it’s done, why it’s so important?”

In addition to promoting composting, Williams and Gilmore are currently focused on encouraging folks to find alternatives to single-use items, particularly those made of plastic.

Gilmore says it’s easy to pick one thing and decide to bring your own, whether it’s cutlery, a straw or a container for your restaurant leftovers.

“You can grab something — a Tupperware — that you can just throw in the back of your car and stop using those Styrofoam clamshells,” she said. “It’s just a little small step. It’s so easy, and it saves so much trash.”

For more information on Toward Zero Waste, its in-person and virtual events, and how to support its work, visit

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