MRC Field Trip

As a part of a Master Recycler / Composter class that I am taking we recently went on a field trip. The two most interesting stops for me were to a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) and a sanitary landfill. Getting a first-hand look in to exactly what happens to single sort recycling and trash was very educational.

The MRF was part impressive technological marvel and part old factory line worker. On the one hand there were sophisticated conveyor belts, gears, magnets, optical lasers, and air pressure to help sort the materials. On the other hand, there was a visible shortage of employees on the line who were tasked with helping to manually sort items that do not belong or were missed by the automated systems. These jobs of watching and pulling various materials flying past on a conveyor belt are challenging to staff but very necessary to ensure a quality product is produced so that there is a market for the materials. For a good visual of how a typical MRF works, check out the last three and half minutes of this video.

The landfill had its technical aspects as well; like collecting methane gas from the breakdown of trash, liners and pumps to protect from ground water penetration, and more. But in the end it is not all that sophisticated, as it is a giant piece of land being filled with trash and covered. In the picture above I happened to take it as the hydraulic line on one of the trucks ruptured. If I had a better camera with me, I would have zoomed in to show the sad sight of a bunch of bald eagles (our national emblem) sifting through and snacking on our garbage.

My trip left me with several takeaways:

  1. As citizens of the planet, we should continue to work towards reducing consumption and voting with our dollar to buy sustainably sourced items. Not bringing something in to the system in the first place is even better than recycling it. As one of my old favorites says, you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely.
  2. Plastic bags are a huge problem. At the MRF they are undesirable as they wrap around the equipment and cause machinery breakdowns. Do not put them in your single sort bin and do not put your recyclables in bags, put recyclables directly in your cart. At the landfill, there were three fence lines surrounding the facility filled with bags that blow around on windy days. We should all be moving beyond plastic bags for our shopping and kudos to Minneapolis for passing a law for 2017 that does just that. So, if you find yourself with a pile of plastic bags they should be brought to a local grocery store who likely has a bin for recycling them. That way they get to a facility who specializes in them and they can use them to create engineered lumber, yard furniture, etc.
  3. MRF’s do not want your shredded paper. It falls through the system and ends up contaminating the glass and other recyclables making them less marketable. Ironically and sadly, I had just shredded a pile of financial statements the week prior and had thrown them in my single sort. Fears of identity theft are warranted but we have several options to improve and keep recycled material at a high quality:
    1. Go paperless – most bills and financial information can be sent electronically which simplifies filing and saves some trees.
    2. Only shred what you need to – There is typically only a part of a page or two that really needs shredding and the rest of the information is marketing or does not have personal information that would be beneficial to a hoodlum; minimize what you shred.
    3. Take advantage of shred events – There is one near me coming up and a quick search should find options. Shredded paper is recyclable but a MRF is not equipped for it so finding a shred event is a great way to protect your identity and ensure the lifecycle of the paper is not wasted.
    4. Compost – as a last resort you can compost your shredded paper, use it as a weed barrier, etc. The caveat is you would want to avoid certain items on a vegetable garden, etc.
  4. Put the caps on your recyclables. MRF’s do not like loose caps as they fall through the system and end up in the landfill, can cause equipment problems, etc. They prefer caps be left on even when it is a plastic cap on a glass item, etc.
  5. Use common sense with recycling and if you are in doubt, check your local haulers website or call and ask them. Garden hoses, extension cords, coat hangers and items like that clog machinery and do not belong in single sort. Our MRF tour guide also mentioned that they routinely see dirty diapers coming down the conveyor belt and that the strangest item was a live turtle. Let’s try to be less lazy with our choices and if you are not certain whether a turtle is recyclable, ask someone :).
  6. Aerosols require special care to recycle. Items like spray on sun screen, hairspray, and shaving cream containers often have a mix of metals and plastic and are pressurized which can create a hazard when going to a MRF and yet they are recyclable. The best way to handle these items is to collect them a take them to your local specialty recycling center like The Recycling Zone which most counties have. One idea is to keep a bin that you put these items, alkaline batteries, fluorescent bulbs, electronics, and similar in and then take it there as needed. The great news is it is free and the workers will even come grab the stuff from your car.

There are 8 MRF’s in the MN metro area and they all offer tours as they want the public to be educated and to improve their recycling efforts so that they produce a high quality product. I encourage you to read up on your haulers website about what exactly they recycle and organize a MRF tour if so inclined.

See something, Say something

The “If You See Something, Say Something” mantra became commonplace after 9/11 and there is still an active campaign by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which they licensed from the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The campaign includes signs stating this near airport entrances, public service announcements, partnerships with various agencies, and more. At the core of the DHS initiative is the idea that “It takes a community to protect a community. Informed, alert communities play a critical role in keeping our nation safe.” After watching a Frontline episode last night (American Terrorist) which outlined the story of David Headley and the failures of intelligence analysis to prevent the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the need for everyday citizens to speak up when something seems wrong is critical. Despite their best efforts, security agencies cannot effectively review the 3 million e-mails sent every minute and the countless other online communications to keep nations safe from terrorism. They require the help of everyday citizens to speak up.

At the start of today, I found myself very frustrated. It is Earth Day and the amount of fanfare and conversations about it seem very limited. Many folks I have encountered seem to have no knowledge of it and give it no more thought than National Candy Corn Day, Peculiar People Day, or Talk like Shakespeare Day. Yes, those are all real “days”. On the one hand it is sad that we need an Earth Day and that every day is not spent helping to better promote caring for the one planet we have. On the other hand, we will see an increase in some media coverage today regarding the importance of mitigating our use of fossil fuels which might spark some healthy dialogue. Unfortunately much of the media attention today thus far has been focused on the differing opinions and giving equal airtime to those opposed to action despite the overwhelming evidence that the time to act has been in hand for a long time. One example is president Obama giving an address on the importance of taking action while in the Florida Everglades today. The leading media outlets are busy talking about how the fossil fuel funded presidential nominees are responding and the uncertainty they feel there is on man’s impact to the warming planet. The story should be as simple as 13 of the 14 hottest years on record have occurred this century, the last global cold temperature record was in 1911, the greenhouse effect has been well understood for nearly 200 years, and more than 97% of peer reviewed papers on the subject agree that global warming is real and being caused by human activity. Global warming is not something to believe in or not believe in, it is a scientific explanation for the facts.

Part of my frustration stems from a lack of meaningful action being taken by society as a whole, or I should clarify, the frustration stems mostly from a lack of meaningful action being taken by the U.S. Working towards handing future generations a planet thriving and sustainable should be a core priority to be taking the lead on. Instead, we (the U.S.) consistently see profit margins and the economy taking priority over the environment. One recent example is the desire by some in Congress to turn over the federal public lands and national parks to states to manage. This includes a provision allowing the states to privatize the land for mining, drilling, and to sell portions to real estate companies in the name of economic progress. Sure, selling some of the northern Minnesota forests to a paper mill might create some jobs and additional tax revenue, but what if every state acted selfishly like this and did not consider the broader impacts? If we want economic benefits and a healthier planet, the answer is a carbon fee and dividend program which will help gradually shift us away from fossil fuels while not punishing taxpayers.

So on this Earth Day, let’s not lose sight of our moral, spiritual, and personal responsibility to care for this pale blue dot. We as a collective society need to do more of See something, Say something. There is a fine between bringing a concern forward and getting traction versus appearing like a crazy person. I have had various successes and failures in this area and have no doubt a few people I have engaged view me as radical, in part because my approach was not as respectful and articulate as it should have been. Implementing an environmental See something Say something campaign could be trying to get your local sports facility to recycle, getting your kids school to stop using polystyrene, or trying to get your company to investigate the ROI on installing solar panels where the typical ROI is now 7-10 years. Regardless of your passions, establishing a constructive dialog is usually the first step in making improvements so on this Earth Day and every day that follows; let’s not be afraid to use our voice.

It’s the holiday season

With the holidays almost upon us it is a good time to start to reflect and plan for holiday shopping. It has taken a while, but I have come to realize that if I put more time and focus in to thinking what to get for a person, I feel more excited about the gift and likely the recipient does as well. One of my goals for this year is to avoid giving things that will end up unused and dusty, or quickly in a landfill. Below are some of my thoughts on the subject.

  • As opposed to buying a bunch of toys or other typical gift items, consider giving the gift of experiences.  This could be tickets to the water or trampoline park, a zoo or Netflix membership, concert tickets, a music subscription, a date night, a vacation, or a variety of other events.  A friend of mine who is now an empty nester, talks about how he used to ask his kids what they got for Christmas last year and they would rarely remember.  But if he asked them where they went and what they did on vacation they could quickly recall with a smile on their face.  That was part of the catalyst that transitioned his family in to spending more on being together and less on unmemorable gifts.  I think this sums up the idea of giving experiences very well, people are a lot more likely to have fond memories of a thoughtful and personalized experience than a standard store bought item.
  • Stealing a line from Dick Enrico (2nd wind exercise), why buy new when slightly used will do? I have commented before on how it amazes me the things that I consider junk that people are willing to take off of my hands.  It also amazes me the things that are not junk that others are willing to sell.  This season consider checking out thrift stores, e-bay, play it again sports, and other second hand retailers.  Chances are if you look, you can find you might have your own version of a This and That or Reclaimed by Joy with unique gift items.
  • With the above in mind and the idea of investing more time and thought in to gift buying, try and avoid impulse purchases.  Make a list, have a plan, and stick to it.  And while you are it, bring a re-usable bag and avoid buying gift wrap.  In the U.S. alone, 4M tons of trees are turned from carbon absorbing entities to wrapping paper and gift bags.  Consider using part of the gift as the wrap (scarf, blanket, etc.) or making a unique gift wrap from ideas on Pinterest or similar.

Now that I have posted this, the pressure is on…. Time to go do some thinking about those on my gift list-

The good, the bad, the ugly: phone books

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My “No Soliciting” sign has been effective at keeping most door to door sales people away but much to my dismay, last week I was greeted to a phone book lying on my front step.  Historically when a phone book arrives I grumble and then move on.  This time, I decided I wanted to see what options exist to prevent this unsolicited delivery and to learn what the real environmental impacts are of phone books.  To me, receiving an unsolicited phone book is the equivalent of a stranger leaving their broken electronics on my front step.  Neither are something I want and both require some care to recycle appropriately.

The Good:  In the last 10+ years phone book companies have responded to the public pressure to evolve their practices and reduce their overall environmental impact.  Hibu is one of the major players in phone books and have helped create the opt out website for those that do not want to receive phone books.  Hibu also has an entire environmental sustainability plan and publishes their emissions data and more.  In addition, many phone book manufacturers have shifted to soy based ink, non-toxic glues, paper suppliers with sustainable forestry certifications, and to using a high percentage of post-consumer recycled material.  Some cities have also put their own ordinances in place to help address the issue that include things like having the phone book company have to manage and opt out website and pay per book recycling fees and penalties for inappropriate deliveries.  In San Francisco they have implemented an opt-in system where only residents registering to receive one get one.  Shifting the costs of the issue back to supplier is generally an effective means of invoking change.  In short, the phone books themselves have become much more environmentally friendly and the options available for recycling have improved dramatically.

The Bad:  While there has been much progress, there are no national standards and as a result many manufacturers of phone books will only change when they are forced to or when it makes economic sense to do so.  For many, environmental sustainability is not high on the priority list.  When faced with scrutiny some companies will make arguments about how a phone book not recycled has a much smaller environmental impact than an computer used to look up the same information not being recycled.  While an accurate argument, it is clearly not apples to apples.  It is like saying it is okay to pour oil down the storm drain because it has less of an environmental impact than the Exxon Valdez did.  In Minnesota, phone books have been banned from being placed in municipal solid waste since 1992.  Despite that statute, telephone directories remain a problem for waste managers as only about 55% of Minnesota phone books are recycled.

The Ugly:  In the U.S. it is estimated that 4,680,000 trees are used annually for phone books, that is the equivalent of 14 football fields of forest per day.  On average, only 40% of the content in phone books is from post-consumer recycled material.  Nationwide over half of phone books were sent to landfills or combustion facilities with recycling rates for them only at 44%.  There are enough phone books created each year in the U.S. to measure 106,700 miles when lined up end to end. This means they would circle around the earth about 4.28 times.

While phone books clearly have some value as the college kids in the picture demonstrate with their make shift couch, there are opportunities for optimizing their sustainability and making the distribution more targeted.  For now, if you do not want to receive phone books you can register at https://www.yellowpagesoptout.com/ and pick and choose what phone books you want to receive.  In the U.S. you can also go to https://www.catalogchoice.org and select which phone books and junk mail you do not wish to receive.