We Bid Farewell to Rural Action Zero Waste Program Director Kyle O’Keefe


Kyle O’Keefe attending the 2014 Association of Ohio Recyclers Conference

Kyle O’Keefe has dedicated a large portion of his life to zero waste. Not content with simply producing less waste himself, Kyle turned his passion for improving resource management for the benefit of the community into a career. As the founding director of the Rural Action Zero Waste Program, he played a crucial role in getting this program off the ground. Even though he worked at Rural Action for four and half years, his dedication to zero waste extends back much further.

Kyle was interested in the concept of resource management from a young age. This concept drove him to pursue a career where he could influence people to see the importance of zero waste as he did. He said, “I’ve always believed that our success and survival depends on how we design for our resources to be managed; how we design for abundance. The concept and philosophy of zero waste and recycling is central to that, and in many ways it’s the front lines for creating the needed change.”

Kyle was involved with Rural Action before the Zero Waste Program. He began as a Summer VISTA with the Sustainable Agriculture program in 2010. He wanted to continue working for Rural Action and got his chance when the Sugar Bush Foundation suggested the creation of the Appalachian Ohio Zero Waste Initiative. The AOZWI is a partnership between Rural Action and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University. He was hired to coordinate the Initiative and also to lead Rural Action’s zero waste work.

During his tenure as the Program Director, the Rural Action Zero Waste Program grew significantly. The Rural Action program started as one person writing grants and doing waste shed analysis, but it is now much more robust. The Rural Action team is now composed of two staff, three AmeriCorps, and interns and has multiple focuses including waste assessments and the zero waste pledge, K-12 education, dumpsite cleanups, and zero waste events. Kyle doesn’t point to any specific moment as his greatest achievement, but is happy with the program as a whole and the legacy he leaves behind.

Several highlights of his time at Rural Action include:

  • Kyle brought in almost $350,000 in grants to the local community which helped fund various zero waste efforts.
  • Kyle built relationships and partnerships with dozens of local, state, and national organizations.
  • As a result of a grant Kyle wrote for the Athens Hocking Solid Waste District for rural recycling drop-off containers, the number of townships served by recycling jumped from 10 to 18. 13 of these 18 townships expanded collection from 4 hours per month to one week per month.
  • The Nelsonville Music Festival was recognized as one of the six greenest festivals by Outdoor Magazine. Rural Action’s zero waste event service, grown by Kyle, was a major contributor. This event service has won national recognition from Keep America Beautiful for diverting over 90% of festival waste from the landfill.
  • The Athens-Hocking Zero Waste Action Plan was completed, which is Ohio’s first community developed zero waste action plan.
  • He was invited to present at state and national conferences because of his innovative work in a rural area.

“Overall, I’m hopeful that we’ve been able to shine some light on the value and impact zero waste can have with planning and community development. Most importantly I believe we’ve been able establish a collaborative pathway forward for addressing the communities recycling and zero waste needs.”

Although Kyle is leaving Rural Action, he isn’t giving up his passion for zero waste. He has accepted a position at the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio as the Director of Innovation and Programs. Kyle is originally from Columbus and looks forward to giving back to his home town. He’ll help to advance the recycling, composting, and resuse systems in Columbus as well as building collaboration and economic development opportunities. Kyle’s contributions to Rural Action will not be forgotten and we wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors.