Monday, March 16, 2015

Garbage and recycling

My small town in rural Maine has a population of less than 3000 people and a few years ago we instituted a zero sort recycling pickup.  Prior to that all recycling had to be sorted and taken to a series of containers at the town office and only a few stalwart citizens made use of this system which was cumbersome.  It was particularly challenging during the heavy Maine winters.  Now we put out a single bin of mixed recyclables every two weeks, while our regular trash is picked up weekly.  Residents have been slow to commit to the recycling plan and in 2014 the numbers were not very encouraging.  922.8 tons were sent to either landfill or waste to energy facilities, while only 217.5 tons of recyclables were sent to a sort facility.  While we are charged for garbage and recycling pickup, there is no tipping fee (based on tonnage) for the recyclable pickup.  So you would think the town residents would see the incentive to recycle since it would reduce our local property taxes.

Being someone who is very committed to sustainability, my waste and recycling stream is minimal but I decided to measure my garbage and recycling output to see how well I am doing.  Before I take the bins to the curb I weigh them and subtract the weight of the container to get the net weight and enter it into a spreadsheet from which I can extract this chart:
chart will be updated weekly throughout the year

Not documented are redeemable cans and bottles (we get 5 cents each in Maine), but this amounts to only a few ounces a week.  Also I pick up roadside trash around my neighborhood in a 1/2 mile radius and that adds a pound or so a week of recyclables, redeemables and trash.

Throughout the winter my I recycle less paper and cardboard because I use those materials as kindling for my 2 wood stoves, so my numbers are a bit low to start with.  Most of what ends up in the garbage is food packaging and some office waste. 

Occasionally I dispose of some broken piece of equipment, but I usually strip out any parts that I can use before it goes in the garbage.  Larger electronic devices such as computer printers are taken to the local electronics store to be recycled rather than trashed.  And rechargeable batteries and old CF lamps go to the local drop-off bins in Lowe's hardware store.  Bulky thinks like old appliances or furniture are delivered to the land fill - but this happens very rarely.

I am pleased to see that I am averaging around 60-70% recycling to 30-40% trash.  Given the very small amount of actual materials I dispose of, all it will take is one large heavy item to skew the statistics.  So it will be interesting to see how I average out at the end of the year.
For reference the EPA says an average American: "...recycled and composted 1.51 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.38 pounds per person per day.My weekly average so far is about 1/3 of that.  I do see a few neighbors that put out three or four garbage pails per week and very little in their recycling bins and it is hard for me to understand how a family can create that much garbage.  Our local landfill was supposed to have been closed a year or two ago but they somehow found more room to keep building a mountain of garbage there.  Maine is slowly moving toward a more sustainable waste stream with a number of waste to energy plants and biomass to energy plants for organic waste. 

The thing about garbage is once it leaves the curb most people do not think about it whereas I personally have visited both the local garbage dump and the recycling sorting facility that processes our recycling.  Both places are quite amazing.  The technology for sorting recyclables is so efficient that less than 1% comes out at the other end as garbage and this is mostly due to people putting things into the recycling bins that don't belong there due to ignorance or laziness.  

Zero sort recycling plant separating materials
Recycling plants operate at a profit and every month bidders show up to make offers on the spot market for all of the recycled materials.  One thing I learned from a tour of the plant was that all of the glass gets crushed into a single pile of mixed brown, green, and clear.  This is sold to the nearby Coors bottling plant because the average net color is quite close to the light brown color that they use for their bottles.  Here is an excellent video showing how the materials are sorted at the plant that processes our recyclables.

Here is my chart from 2015, the numbers are a little higher until October when my ex-wife moved out: