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And you thought recycling couldn’t get any greener…

September 20, 2009

To celebrate us being together for 8 months this week, Austin decided to make this lucky girl a homemade dinner of grilled chicken burritos.  ( I know, how romantic.)

As I sat at the table watching him struggle to wrap another overstuffed tortilla, I picked up the empty sour cream container to check its recycling potential.  Crossing my fingers for a PETE 1 or even a HDPE 2, the little triangle instead bore a disappointing and definite PP 5.

Although the 12th and Haskell Bargain Center here in Lawrence accepts all plastics, it unfortunately doesn’t collect glass or plastic sacks.  Walmart on the other side of town does collect glass and plastic sacks, but doesn’t accept plastics above #2. Can’t a girl have her glass and plastic…and recycle them too?glass recycling

Unfortunately at the time I didn’t realize the 12th and Haskell Bargain Center accepted #1-7 plastics, so I painfully threw the sour cream container away.  Only through doing research for this post did I realize that there were more places to recycle than just Walmart and in the process uncovered the green side of recycling (and I’m not talking about the environment).

While at the Walmart Recycling Center a few days ago, Austin and I chatted up one of the employees there.  You know, one of the mysterious guys on the other side of the recycling window who keep the whole operation running.  While talking about the strange things found in recycling bins (bras and coffee mugs), Austin suddenly asks, “Why don’t you take #5 plastic?”  He was frustrated that he had so diligently washed out a cottage cheese container only to find that Walmart wouldn’t accept it.

The employee explained that it all came down to the green: money.  Regrettably, there’s been an addition to the interconnected trio (reduce, reuse, and recycle): recession. As the demand for new products decreases, the demand for recyclables also decreases.  Furthermore, for many materials, particularly plastic, it is simply cheaper to produce more rather than recycle.  And as with all businesses, no demand means no money which invariably means no point.

recyclingWalmart, who is in contract with Midwest recycling tycoon, Deffenbaugh Industries, only recycles #1 and 2 plastic (water bottles, milk jugs, shampoo bottles) because it’s more economical.  I called up Chris Scafe of Sunflower Curbside Recycling for more insider information on the green behind this green trade.  He explained to me that because #1 and 2 plastic have a higher demand, it is more profitable to spend the effort and money on collecting, storing, and transporting these rather than a #5 (yogurt containers).  The only reason Walmart is able to accept glass as well is because it has the facilities to sort the glass, which is much more valuable to Deffenbaugh than unsorted glass.

The 12th and Haskell Bargain Center on the other hand, who is also in contract with Deffenbaugh, doesn’t have the facilities to sort its plastics or glass.  Therefore it is more feasible for them to sell their plastic to Deffenbaugh at a lower value and leave glass out of the equation completely.

Well now that I got all my plastics in a row, what does it all mean?  Why should we care?

Austin and I became an eco-Sherlock Holmes and Watson in order to find out why Walmart wouldn’t accept #5 plastic.  Our detective work took us from one recycling provider to another and we began to wonder why the City of Lawrence doesn’t provide a city-wide curbside recycling program.

The reason?  The green didn’t justify the green.  The city is actually saving money throwing our trash into the Hamm Sanitary Landfill not only because the landfill has such a low tipping cost (the cost to dump trash) but also because recycling is losing its monetary incentives.  Yet at a time when more and more people are recycling, it is important that the city provide an accessible service to meet the demand and to encourage more recycling.

In the meantime, Lawrence has many different curbside recycling programs available for a low monthly fee.  Sunflower Curbside is only $18 a month for weekly service.  For those who live outside of Lawrence, click here to search for local recycling centers.

Though the economy influences the eco-friendly, recycling is still incredibly important for minimizing the amount of trash on our earth.  The most encouraging part of writing this post came when I asked Chris Scafe how he would feel if the city did implement a citywide curbside service and put Sunflower Curbside out of business.  His reply?  “I got into the recycling for the environment, not the money.  I’d be more than happy to see Lawrence have a citywide recycling service.”


A special thank you to the employees at Walmart’s Recycling Center and Chris Scafe of Sunflower Curbside Recycling for all their helpful insight into the world of recycling.

How timely!  Click here for for an article in the latest issue of Greenability Magazine about Ripple Glass, a new glass recycling company in Kansas City.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Dannt Smyl permalink
    September 20, 2009 7:09 pm

    Yet another thought provoking article by the environmental aficionado. Excellent.

    The more I delve myself into the ever complicating environmental world, the more unsettled I become. Communities, of all sizes, find themselves weighting the potential costs and benefits of investing in the environment. Recycling vs. Landfill belongs to the confusing environmental category for a multitude of reasons.

    Recycling is a frustrating topic to analyze because it cannot be completely analyzed by quantifiable means. We see two sides of the argument: The warm and fuzzy side that will go to any length for nature preservation and the pocketbook side. For instance, we may examine Lawrence’s case. The total cost for pickup/disposal of recycling material is $18/month*household, which seems relatively cheap. We must, however, note that there are 32,000 households in the community; the total, collectively, becomes $576,000. Of course, over a couple years this monetary amount could become substantial enough to warrant a significant community project (Day care services, shelters, gvnt. subsidized housing, subsidized food, whatever).

    We must not blindly dive into any issue, as every action has consequences. Chemistry tells us that manufacturing petroleum based products emits substantially less carbon dioxide (*another subject, entirely) than recycling, not to mention upwards of 75% of many types of plastic are burned (turned to gas) during the recycling process. The effects of burning plastic go without mention. Additionally, there may not be a recycling process for a given plastic. So what happens to recycled plastic? Who knows. Most recyclers have no clue where their recycled waste goes, nor do they have the technical background to understand the processes their waste is undergoing or the processes are generally effective/efficient. From that light, we may as well dig a hole in our backyard and throw our plastic recyclables in it.

    Of course there are other types of recyclables other than petroleum-based products, but plastics are the most important category. I very much an advocate of living in a relatively non-polluted world, but the United States needs to look at recycling from a different light. We need to stop seeing recycling as the only good solution to waste management — rather, a small piece of the pie. The best way to approach “green waste” is to reevaluate our waste storage/compaction techniques, as opposed to spending most of our resources on recycling (considering that metals, glass, and paper products already have an efficient means of reuse and recycling).

    • janiec52 permalink
      September 21, 2009 5:25 pm

      Plastic has always been a controversial subject when it comes to its manufacturing, health implications, use, and waste. I don’t know if you got the chance, but you should definitely check out the City of Lawrence’s answer as to why they don’t provide a citywide curbside service:

      In the link, there is much more detailed information about exactly why the city maintains that a citywide curbside recycling service wouldn’t be economic for its residents.

      I agree that the money Lawrencians would be spending to pay for such a service could easily be used on another public service project. However, when you consider that the Hamm Sanitary Landfill is only a few miles from city limits, doesn’t it also seem worthwhile to minimize its growth and coinciding effects on our local environment?

      I also agree that recyclers (and nonrecyclers alike) should know where their recyclables go. It was my ignorance of Lawrence’s recycling system that sparked my little investigation. I am very intrigued by the argument you present about the negative environmental effects of recycling.

      I thought you might be interested in this article about how recycling may not be the best option for plastics and how we must focus on reducing and reusing its products first:

      And here’s another one about the complexities of plastic and how they significantly lower the effectiveness of recycling plastic:

      In response to both articles, I feel like we should still make the effort to recycle the plastics that we can. Plastics may not be created equally, but just because one kind isn’t recyclable doesn’t mean we should throw the whole batch out. The key is educating yourself about the differences and acting accordingly.

      You mention that recycling is only a small piece of the pie. I’ll have to admit that for me, recycling has always been a very big piece of the pie. What are the other slices you had in mind?

      • Danny Smyl permalink
        September 25, 2009 1:00 pm

        I just realized I misspelled my name.. lol

        For large populations, the most significant “slice of pie” is water treatment. Water treatment, historically, is the largest issue regarding pollution; water treatment directly affects our health or lack thereof. Personally, I feel that most of our environmental interests should be centered around improving the water quality of developing countries. Of course, this isn’t likely going to happen as a government subsidy; it will have to happen on our own accord.

        This isn’t to say we should neglect recycling, rather, that we should find the most economical/reasonable approach to recycling (specifically plastics). Nor should we neglect other environmental concerns such as air pollution, ground contamination, and orbital trash.


  2. Richard Heckler permalink
    September 20, 2009 9:54 pm

    It seems to me that PAYT…Pay As You Throw should also come into the equation.
    The more thrown away the more you pay. PAYT could pay for itself is my guess.

    What could truly pay for itself? If ALL of us become smarter shoppers. Bring home less trash and recycling material. Where do we start is the million dollar question.

    One way would be to buy more beer from Free State in the reusable jugs that come with a deposit attached.

    Another way would be to use wine bottles as edging around vegetable and flower gardens. Stick the top in the ground one bottle at a time….sooner or later the edging is done. Got this idea from a neighbor.

    Bring cloth bags to the grocery store not only for sacking at the register
    but for produce and and bulk goods.

    I am getting into the habit of hauling a large cooler to the Merc for my fresh produce,refrigerated and freezer items. I load up the cooler traveling about the store( in a grocery cart),unload at the cash register then reload at the sacking point. This way there is the option of not to hurry home but include a visit and other errands. Sometimes all of our groceries fit into the cooler thus holding the cooler temp for an extended period.

    Yogurt containers make a good kitchen compost containers. They are also good for storing nuts,bolts and screws. And they are good for mixing paints when doing art projects.

    • janiec52 permalink
      September 21, 2009 5:50 pm

      Thanks for the ideas on reusing! I especially like the one about the wine bottle edging and yogurt containers. Austin and his two roommates buy 20 of those yogurt containers each time they go to the store. I can’t imagine the mountain those little containers would make if you collected them all.

      When I was studying abroad in Germany this summer, I learned about how some European communities utilize the Pay As You Throw system and have seen a significant decrease in the amount of trash they produce. Can you imagine if Lawrence started a system like that? Throwing away trash for free seems so second nature to us. What do you think we’d have to do to get people on board?

  3. Daniel Poull permalink
    September 21, 2009 9:05 am

    This is a glaring example of where market economics is not responsive to the long-term needs of the health of our world. There needs to be incentives and penalties involved in promoting recycling and reduced packaging, even beyond Pay as you Throw. Recycling also keeps/creates domestic jobs which is also a critical for the economy and recovering from the recession.

    • janiec52 permalink
      September 21, 2009 6:03 pm

      The incentives and penalties you mention reminds me of what some people call the carrot and the stick. Carrot policies are policies that provide an incentive for people to act (like waving a carrot in front of a horse to make it move) whereas stick policies are policies that force people to act (like beating the horse on the butt to make it move).

      I’ve always felt that these policies must work simultaneously, when taking one thing away, provide an alternative so that people don’t feel as if their conveniences/rights/luxuries aren’t being stripped away.

      If we were to implement Pay As You Throw (stick policy), recycling (carrot policy) would definitely thrive, but there also needs to be cooperation with the sources of our waste: the companies that give us all those plastic-wrapped products.

  4. September 21, 2009 9:23 am

    If you’re interested CNBC is airing an original documentary, “The NEW Age of Walmart” which premieres Wednesday, September 23 at 9P ET on CNBC. The show will discuss the store’s new green policies with the CEO. Check out the sneak peak here:
    And for more info:
    Thanks so much and good luck with your work.

  5. janiec52 permalink
    September 22, 2009 10:47 am

    I realized that in my pursuit of the recycling truth, I had completely forgotten to contact the city itself.

    Today I called Kathy Richardson, operation supervisor of the Waste Reduction and Recycling Division for the City of Lawrence, for some more information regarding the recycling options we have in town. The city has a targeted approach when it comes to providing city wide recycling services. After conducting a waste audit, they discovered that the two biggest contributors to waste were yard waste and paper products. Therefore, they decided to create a yard waste pick up service for all city residents and provide cardboard, newspaper, and mixed paper drop off locations around the city. In this way, they can target the two biggest recyclable materials and still be considerate of economic constraints. For all the other recyclable materials, residents have a variety of options, from the Walmart recycling center to private curbside services.

    After talking to Kathy I realized that for the residents of Lawrence, the various recycling options provided to them ensures that the city is not only being environmentally sustainable, but economically sustainable as well.

    Though I still hope that someday the city will provide citywide, curbside service, in the meantime, I am thankful that our city has so many different options for recycling.

    For more information, here’s the link to their Waste Reduction and Recycling Division website:

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