Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Automate It and They Will Recycle

Previous posts (Sept. 3, 2009 and Oct. 2, 2011) discussed early recycling research at the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory. I had a special assignment to do technical editing for project personnel, and also to handle public information tasks. Recycling was a hot topic in the early 1970s. Handling media inquiries and responding to requests for presentations at schools and civic organizations kept me hopping.

To do my work well, I had to have a good understanding of the goals of the research and what was involved. To provide that understanding, Project Leader Wayne Carr spent many hours with me explaining his philosophy and why and how the Forest Products Lab group was working in the area they had chosen. Carr was a chemical engineer with experience in
Good words to live by
the pulp and paper industry. He also was a dedicated environmentalist. He taught me a lot.

Carr’s basic thesis was that despite all the good intentions of many people, recycling systems requiring much work by household members would never solve landfill problems.  Carr firmly believed that although some Americans could be motivated to clean and separate their household trash for recycling, at least as many would not participate even in the best-designed and publicized programs.

Carr saw the need for a new automated industry where homeowners could continue to toss all their garbage and trash into single containers for collection. The waste then would be transported to processing centers for separation and shipment to various manufacturing facilities to be remade into products.

We’re not there yet, but many American cities and towns are well on the way. In San Francisco, a city with serious landfill shortages, the mayor recently announced a goal of 100 percent recycling, with composting the garbage part of household waste as the final step.

Was Carr right about individuals making an effort to recycle? He was if recent history where we live is a good indicator.

Our home is in a rural township. When we moved here five years ago the recycling system in place was cumbersome.  We had to separate trash into cardboard (only small, flat pieces), paper, food cans, and very few plastic items, and then carry it in individual tubs to the curb for monthly pick-up. The majority of township residents ignored the program, and just continued to toss everything into one container for pickup and transport to a landfill.

At the start of 2012, the township changed the recycling program and the residents’ part in it became a whole lot easier. Each home got one 96-gallon container (more for an extra $20 each per year). We could toss all types of paper, cardboard, and metal cans plus many kinds of plastic containers into it and wheel it to the roadside for pickup and transport to a separation center. Weekly pickups of all else went on as before. Our typical “all else” now fills one very small bag, much less than half of what it was under the old system even though we had been conscientious recyclers.

What happened to participation? Under the old “tubs sort-and-carry” program only 35 percent of homes in the township recycled. After six months of the new single-container operation, 51 percent of households were recycling and the tonnage of material collected had increased by 108 percent.  By the end of the year, program growth forced the township to add a whole new collection route for recycling pickups.

Let’s hope the good recycling news keeps coming, where we live and across the nation. Unless immigration (legal and illegal) is drastically reduced or the reproduction rate drops dramatically, the population of the U.S. is projected to double in the next 70 to 80 years. Where will we find landfill space then? 


Kay Dennison said...

I live in one of the few cities where curbside recycling works. I dutifully fill my little blue tub every Tuesday and so do my neighbors.

PiedType said...

When recycling first started in Oklahoma City years ago, they used the tub system you describe. Cumbersome at best. I think the best I managed to do was a tub of old newspapers. I'm in a Denver suburb now and each home has two of the big roll-out trash bins -- one for regular trash and one for unsorted recyclables. Participation looks to be near 100% on collection days. Progress! said...

We have an A-1 recycling program here in Arlington VA. These days, I have more in the recycle bin than in my 'trash' bin. We also compost much of our yard waste.

What we don't compost ourselves, the county takes at the curb and turns into mulch. I love this topic and I am host to about 1 million earth worms. BTW did you know earthworms are imported from Europe and not native critters. Ditto honey bees. Of course you knew that. Dianne

Dick Klade said...

I didn't know that, Dianne. Thanks. We had better be careful about attacking all "invasive species." Obviously, some are good guys.

CathyS said...

I recently heard a report about the severe chemical dumping problem in China and do believe we've come a long way. I wrote this blog a while back about recycling then versus now. I watch my own behavior as I go through a dozen tissues a day and realize I have much to improve.

joared said...

Every home in our city has been receiving 3 bins we roll out to our curbs weekly. One is for green items the city composts. Periodically residents can go to the city yard and obtain free commpost. Another bin is for recyclables (or we can take some of them to nearby sites that will buy them from us i.e. plastic bottles, cans, paper, etc.) The third can is for the remaining garbage. I have very little of the latter, so have only a small container.

I had a worm bed I kept in the house initially as the container company said I could safely do. I really enjoyed them and using the worm juice they produced on vegetation. But, when teeny creatures I was unable to identify appeared on top of the soil, I ceased to want to keep the bin inside. Unfortunately, I had no place outside where I could keep them cool enough in the summer. Outside, a water-soaked gunny sack atop the soil in the bed wasn't enough and actually became a problem.

Dick Klade said...

As in many things, California has been a leader in recycling. Joared, your city deserves a gold star for its program.