“Garbage Pickers” did not offer the takeaway I expected from a DVD about a walking tour of a specific neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. In defense of the film, it offers a fascinating take through a beautiful neighborhood in Louisville, led by a very knowledgeable, and charismatic tour guide. At one point, he starts explaining the public health nuisance created by a privately owned dump in the neighborhood earlier in the 20th century. Several families of “garbage pickers” lived on the open dump in ramshackle shacks, and spent their days scrounging for valuables and recyclable materials the dump’s owner would compensate with local grocery-store vouchers. So, in exchange for finding metal cans, they could get credit to buy food. Not cash, just food credit.
It’s like the company store in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, starring Cletus from “The Simpsons.” Beyond the immediate sense of empathy and repulsion, it got me thinking about zero-waste initiatives in cities.
According to the EPA ,“in 2013, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash, and recycled and composted about 87 million tons of the material, equivalent to a 34.3-percent recycling rate. On average we recycled and composted 1.51 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.4 pounds per person per day.”
The idea of zero waste is pretty self-explanatory: to get to a point where municipalities recycle, reuse, repair, or compost all waste produced in their area. Now, if readers know me at all, it comes as no surprise I have a bleeding heart, filled with pixie dust and love for the environment. I like trees and dogs more than average humans, and if forced to choose between a tree or whims of tree-killing people who prefer a “clean, manicured view” over a lung full of fresh air, to me, the choice is obvious.
My interest in recycling, composting, reusing, and repairing should not really come as a surprise. I do remember when recycling bins appeared as part of the weekly curbside pick-up program in Wilmington: S.M.A.R.T. (Separate Materials And Recycle Together). For the generation after me, it’s impossible to imagine curbside recycling hasn’t always been part of life. But the battle was long fought and hard won. My friend, Kit, whose mother was at the first Earth Day celebration in California, loves to recount to people how curbside recycling was one of the major goals for Earth Day organizers.
Local governments do not make decisions, enact policy or allocate funding based upon the conscience of tree huggers. They respond to money. As the EPA notes: “The recycling industry in South Carolina has grown from 26,537 employees in 1995, to a total of 37,440 employed in 2005, with $6.5 billion in economic impact. This contributed $69 million in state tax revenue.”
The report of recycling growth was released by the EPA over a decade ago. Hard as it might be to believe, when I enrolled in college at the end of the ‘90s (the same vintage as the report above), in spite of having multiple vending machines in every dormitory, classroom and office building on campus, an aluminum can recycling program was not part of daily life. The environmental club on campus decided to write a proposal for can recycling that began with the cost (plastic trash can with a can-sized hole cut in the top, cost of emptying cans, hauler’s collection fees, etc.) and ended with the projected income the project would bring to the university. I don’t remember exact numbers (it was 20 years ago), but I do remember in bold type and underlined: “We are sitting on a gold mine.”
At the club meeting, when the proposal was presented before it went to the university administration, there were some not-quite-joking comments about what would be involved with pursuing it as a fundraiser—or a career choice. Shortly after the presentation to the administration, large plastic trash cans with can-sized holes cut in the tops appeared around campus—motivated by hope of collecting both money spent on drinks vended and cash from the metal value of the cans.
It is a lesson I took to heart, both as a lover of clean air and as an entrepreneur: You have to keep your eye on the bottom line at all times, which means keeping overhead down and not throwing any potential revenue out the window. (There is a joke at the bookstore: The first thing new staff members learn is not to throw anything away. “That thing you think is trash, is not trash.”) So, yes, metal scrapping is a big part of my daily life—and an endlessly irritating one for folks around me.
We recycle cans and an assortment of scrap metal from the bookstore, such as scraps from magnetics we make.
My home with Jock and the endless renovation project on Market Street are filled also with scrap-metal containers. The dogs produce at least two metal cans a day form dog food (at least 730 steel cans a year). Our backlog of things awaiting repair, or to be harvested for parts, is hard for a lot of people to conceptualize—especially living as we do in a culture that encourages people to de-clutter and throw away all aspects of their lives they consider disposable. (When did computer printers become disposable items? It is now cheaper to buy a new printer, which comes with ink, than it is to buy refill cartridges.)
Compost also is an important aspect to the equation. Food preparation creates a lot of waste: banana peels, used coffee grounds, tea leaves, egg shells … the list goes on and on. The EPA estimates in 2013, 14.6 percent of waste generated in America was food waste. One solution is to compost, whether at home or in a municipal setting. Charlotte-Douglas Airport made national news a few years ago for their worm-farm composting program, which generates revenue for them rather than costing money to dispose of food waste.
Compost quickly becomes a heated (pardon the pun) issue. If not approached correctly, it will attract rats and other animals scavenging for food. When I began talking with the health department here about licensing the bed and breakfast on Market Street, one requirement was that no compost was allowed on the property. It is sad to me that an almost 30-year-compost project is coming to an end. Figuring out plan B, which will involve the Princess Street house somehow, has become a priority for us. Yard waste, which in 2013 the EPA estimated to be 13.5 percent of waste generated, can also be part of the compost solution.
The amount of usable material for building top soil that gets wasted, especially in perfectly manicured neighborhoods, is incredibly depressing. According to the World Wildlife Fund, in 150 years, we have lost half the top soil on the planet. Building fertile soil to grow food is one of the simplest and easiest ways we can reduce waste and consumption, while keeping an eye on the bottom line of our home finances. If anything, I find myself looking around, amazed by the opportunities so easily wasted.