A Dedicated Recycler Shares a Few Secrets
Maybe the seeds came from growing up in a relatively modest household, where allowances came with expectations and opportunities to own spending money were limited.
Maybe it seemed easier than cutting yards for $3 under a hot summer sun. I know it was easier than rising at 4 a.m. every day to help my older brother deliver The Charlotte Observer to the front porch of 300 affluent homes in the Queen City.
Somewhere I learned that if you took 100 pounds of old newspaper to a local scrap company in Charlotte, you could get $3 for it. Everyone subscribed to two newspapers in those days. Newspapers piled up as a result. My mother was willing to help, and she had a station wagon. So, as part of my industrial training as a 12-year-old, I began a recycling “business.” For the younger readers out there, you could actually buy something with $3 back then.
It was simple. All I had to do was get a few neighbors to stack papers up instead of throwing them away. Every few weeks, I’d collect them and put the load in the car. Even then, it seemed like a shame to cut down trees unnecessarily when you could reduce the tree harvest a little by mixing in recycled pulp.
It still does.
My mother, who came of age in the depth of the Depression, used to admonish us with an expression from that time: “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.” Somehow that rubbed off on me.
I’m conservative by nature, as in conservationist, so life has been a continuous effort to use and reuse. The idea of buying a box of paint rags is a laughable notion when one always has old T-shirts and towels. Buying packing boxes to pack stuff for a move?
I’ve got a box of small screws so old it has a 10-cent price stamped on the side. I am constantly on the lookout to scrounge wood scraps for birdhouse materials, to encourage wildlife. I try not to waste.
My wife is my partner in this living exercise, even more dedicated than I am.
As a result, we recycle almost everything at our home in Whispering Pines. All metal we are through with, even the aluminum ribs of a patio umbrella, get disassembled and held for the recycling station in Carthage — or until we go to Charlotte, where we can sell it for scrap in Biscoe.
We recycle cardboard by holding it until it justifies a trip to the county site, where you can sort it properly. Cardboard has pulp fiber that is much longer and stronger than copier paper, so it deserves to be treated better. You can make new cardboard from old, but you can’t make cardboard from 20-pound bond.
We recycle plastic, cans, bottles, paper, metal, cardboard and even plastic grocery bags. If it’s plastic and can have a second life, we turn it around. We capture water that most people waste to water plants inside and out, and the gutters drain directly into the lake. We bought a rain barrel last fall to water the garden, though I haven’t gotten around to hooking it up yet.
The Spillover Effect
Caring about the environment spills into caring about how you consume things, and that leads in a number of directions.
You start taking cloth bags to the grocery, yes, but you also think about the packaging on the things you buy and whether you can recycle it. You start to look at whole foods instead of highly processed foods. You start to think of buying locally instead of buying things that have been shipped halfway around the world.
You start wondering how you can make a difference by using less toxic cleaners, insect controls and other products. You start filtering your drinking water again to flush any toxins before you take them in. You start building birdhouses to encourage a natural approach to lessening mosquitoes and other bugs.
It’s encouraging to see how many products now contain recycled materials. To continue the trend, people have to support the effort.
For example, all of our patio furniture is made of heavy recycled plastic. It is guaranteed for 25 years, isn’t bothered by water, looks as good as wood, never splinters, never needs tightening, and never needs painting. We use environmentally friendly vinegar and water about once a year, and it whitens up like new.
Think about the wasted potential of not recycling plastic products. Plastic can be easily melted and remade into new products, if it’s sorted properly. So much plastic litters the Earth. While recycling efforts are generally successful, it is estimated that only 27 percent of plastics are recycled, even now. The rest of it ends up in landfills, rivers and eventually the oceans.
As an object lesson, the amount of old junk — metal, glass and plastic — lining the banks of most rivers is nothing short of shocking. I’ve spent days floating downstream, filling up a canoe trying to clean them up and recycling. You don’t see litter in Europe — they recycle everything, and the land is beautiful, free of roadside blight. I am reminded of the hiker’s rule: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”
I even wonder why plastic isn’t chipped up and used to help fuel oil-fired power plants. It’s got about the same burn rate as oil, and we’ve buried so much of it over my lifetime. If you cleaned up the banks of a nearby river of its plastic flotsam, you could heat your house for the winter.
It Becomes a Habit
So much of what we throw away could be reused or eliminated if people would stop and think about it. It takes 10 percent of the energy to recycle an aluminum can that it takes to dig one from the Earth, for example, and aluminum is endlessly recyclable.
Yes, recycling might seem a small inconvenience at first, but it really takes almost no extra time. It’s more about caring. When the household recycling movement first started, a household had to sort the recycling into glass, metal and paper. Now, most recycling collection only asks that you put the materials out for pickup and they do the sorting. How easy can it get?
The only reason for not doing it is not caring enough. When you get in the habit, it’s something to be proud of. It doesn’t start with a big, faceless corporation. It starts with us, at the most basic level, making different choices.
If conscience issues don’t click on this, think pragmatically about the landfill issues. We’re running out of places to put our trash, and it’s hugely expensive to build new ones. Remember when Scotland County was considering building a giant waste dump to take stuff in from other states? We haven’t seen the end of that, because nobody wants a dump in their backyard.
In fact, I think someday in the not-to-distant future, some smart entrepreneurs will go back to old landfills and mine them for copper, brass, steel and other valuable materials. It would be small-scale mining, but the ore would be pretty rich. Somewhere in there is a pretty good collection of baseball cards, too. I think they were in an old Chuck Taylor shoebox.
One Ambitious Example
My big lesson in landfill site problems came years ago in Roanoke, Va. The old dump nearby was almost full, and there was another being built about 50 miles away. Pragmatically, the tipping fee was expected to go from about $20 a ton to $50 a ton when the old dump was closed, because suddenly the trucks were traveling 80 miles farther per round trip.
The newspaper where I worked, with a large circulation, was throwing away 30 tons of waste paper a month from returns and printing waste. At $50 a ton, that was $18,000 a year literally thrown in the garbage dump.
So I was asked to find a solution, and from this hatched an idea. Where it came from, I don’t quite remember. But we had a lot of dairy farms around Roanoke — some of them closed loops where the milkers never got off of concrete. They were herded in a circle 24 hours of every day from station to station — feed, rest, milking, feed, rest, milking. Farmers were having a hard time finding supplies of sawdust, the longtime bedding material of choice, because makers of chipboard and related products were buying all of it up from sawyers. What was once a byproduct, a nuisance of every sawmill, was now a residual income source. The farmers, who got all they wanted for free, suddenly couldn’t afford to buy sawdust anymore, even if they could find it. If you have ever been in a large dairy farm, it’s easy to see why clean sawdust doesn’t stay clean for long. But that’s another story.
So we bought three new hay shredders for $2,000 each and went to three local farmers and sold them on the idea that if they would come and get a truckload per week, about 10 tons, we’d give them a shredder and they would have a free source of bedding material.
It worked like a charm and eliminated the wastepaper going to the dump, along with the expense. The farmers loved it because it was cleaner for the cows and easier to remove than sawdust, and it broke down better in the slag pond for disposal. Everybody wins. And I’m pretty sure the paper got worn out in the bargain. When they filled up the slag pond, they spread it out on their pastures, paper included.
During that process, in putting the proposal together for the publisher, I learned much about the dire consequences that landfills were facing and the projected future of them. Unless we can reduce solid waste through more recycling and less packaging, we’re all going to have to face the fact that our trash disposal will become a lot more expensive in the next 15-20 years. That means your taxes rates will feel real pressure.
So, to do our part, Lani and I put our banana peels and onion skins, coffee grounds and eggshells in a little bucket on the porch and about once a week, we empty it into a composter contraption. A couple of times a year, we empty that out and use the new soil in our little garden. If it can be recycled, we are determined and resolved to give it back for reuse.
Once a week, I put a small, half-filled trash bag out for the garbage truck. Two days later, I put one 40-gallon trash can out with the recyclables. It amazing how little you have to throw away if you commit to the effort. You’ll be doing yourself, your community, your children’s generation and Mother Nature a favor.
Pat Taylor is advertising director for The Pilot. Contact him at pat@the pilot.com.
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