Thursday, October 04, 2012

Solid Waste Recovery Since “The Summer of Love”

I didn’t make it to 1967’s “Summer of Love.”  I was a little more than 700 miles east of the “Haight” that summer following my first year of college working on the back of a county garbage truck, trying my best to pick up and empty cans like the one shown in the image in this blog without dismounting or the truck stopping.

Forty-five years later, it seems that I’m still in the solid waste business, as I try to juggle various items that remain ineligible for curbside pickup, such as batteries, paint and plastic bags. My options are to either drop them off to retailers who recycle them or take them myself to various collection points when pickups are scheduled 3 to 4 times each year.

Since distributing 95 lb. roll-out recycling carts to each household a few years ago, Durham, NC, where I live, has nearly tripled its City recycling rate which is now 360% higher than the worldwide average for urban areas and more than 260% above the national average.

My friends among the 11,000 households in unincorporated portions of Durham, 80% of which also have curbside recycling contracted for by the County, were eager to trade in their old 18 lb. carry-out-bin versions this year when they learned the big roll-out carts were included in the Durham County strategic plan only to learn the larger carts were nixed by management at the last minute.

Administrators are now working feverishly to find ways to get the big roll-out carts back into the next budget so they can meet the pent-up demand and triple the recycling rate in that part of the county, as well as realize the savings that will result from diverting an additional 652 tons of recyclables away from landfills each year, which probably didn’t figure into the decision to cut them out of the budget this year.

Next month, November 15th is America Recycles Day and as a single-person household I’ve been conducting a personal assessment of how much recyclable plastic wrap I generate.  I’m talking about the wrappers for dry cleaning, shopping bags, shipping bubbles etc.

My curiosity was peaked several months ago when I noticed that Regency/White Star Dry Cleaners and retailers such as Target now offer to recycle this type of plastic, probably in part because it is not yet eligible for curbside recycling in Durham.

It turns out that every four days, I fill one of those very large carry-out bags used by places such as Target and Bed Bath and Beyond with recyclable plastic wrap, far more than the amount of trash I generate each week.

Years ago I realized that I was segregating batteries and handheld electronics from the trash but never seemed to remember to take them to quarterly collection events sponsored by the City.

So I use a postage paid iRecycle Kit from Battery Solutions.  I get the one that holds 12 lbs. and it lasts me a year.  Businesses use trash-can- size versions and some facilities such as American Tobacco Complex, in downtown Durham, have the sleeve of the container branded for their facility.

One might wonder why I spend $34.95 to recycle 12 lbs. of batteries each year.  One reason is that it is convenient.  A more important reason is that I assumed this expense when I purchased devises that require batteries with the understanding that the manufacturer and retailer are neglecting to incorporate this cost in the price to me or the eventual cost to the environment.

In a truly effective free market, the cost of disposing of the batteries would have been incorporated into the cost I paid for the device; but in our current marketplace, these costs are passed on as externalities to consumers and ultimately taxpayers.

This is the justification behind the market-oriented, beverage container deposits that began to emerge in many states in the early 1970s about the time I graduated from college.

The companies that bottle and retailers that sell the beverages whined that the deposit requirement would lower sales and disrupt the free market while avoiding mention that the market neglected to incorporate the costs the containers ring up on society.

Those that complained hoped that consumers wouldn’t realize they were paying anyway in the form of taxes to fund litter clean up, solid waste removal and landfills.

Studies conducted in the decades that followed revealed that the impact on sales was nil but the deposit laws reduced the volume of beverage container litter between 79% and 83% and the overall amount of solid waste by 8%.  The deposit laws also spawned the innovation of reverse vending machines such as those I saw on a recent cross-country trip, manufactured by Tomra.  Click here to see how it works.

While the lobbyists for manufacturers and retailers for beverages still resisted taking responsibility, much as they are doing today with limitations on portion sizes to curb obesity, the beverage container deposit laws turned these businesses into major advocates for curbside recycling which has expanded more than 500% nationwide from just 6.6% participation in 1970.

We all need to become more aware, especially those who are so opposed to taxes, that the size of government is driven in part by the failure of the private sector to account for the full cost of the goods and services it produces as well as our failure as consumers to accept accountability for what we purchase.

Now about those aircraft carriers being used free of charge to keep shipping lanes open?


Unknown said...

I'm no solid waste expert but do commend you for your advocacy towards keeping things efficient and keeping the streets clean and leaving a small carbon footprint. My uncle works in construction and he tells me that there are only a few skip bins in Perth that get the job done efficiently.

Unknown said...

It seems like you are enjoying your job. I hope to see more Perth bin hire in our city because I don’t want my city to end up looking like a mountain of trash.