Trash Talk -- From Our Curbs to China

Categories:  Community    Environment    Opinion
Wednesday, April 29th, 2015 at 7:45 AM
Trash Talk -- From Our Curbs to China by Mary Birdsong
Photo By Mary Birdsong

“Everybody wants us to pick it up. Nobody wants us to put it down.” This, according to Rich Carniewski, senior district manager for Waste Management, is the First Law of Garbage to those in the solid waste business. He tells me this as we sit in his truck in front of the gaping maw of the four-story shed at the recycling transfer station on Erie’s west side.

It’s not a pretty place, but what he’s telling me is true. We all want our trash to magically disappear to some place out of sight. We don’t want to see it, hear about it, or smell it, ever again. And, furthermore, we don’t want the landfill, transfer station, or recycling processing plants near our homes. Period.

Every year, Americans produce more trash than they did the year before. According to Environmental Protection Agency statistics, 88.1 million tons of municipal solid waste were produced in 1960, which is, per capita, 2.68 pounds per person per day. By 2000, the per capita amount had jumped to 4.74 (1,730 pounds per year), with a total generation of 243.5 million tons.  And while the per capita poundage dipped to 4.38 in 2012 — the last year for which figures are available — the overall amount rose to 251 million tons.

Despite our desire to create the illusion of a trash-free and pristine world, we produce lots of it. Food, paper, plastic, metal, soiled diapers, cat litter, dog waste — officially called municipal solid waste — has to go somewhere. In the City of Erie and surrounding municipalities, that means either the Lake View Landfill or a material recovery facility, or MRF (say it like smurf without the ‘s’).

The City of Erie has an extra layer of complexity since it operates its own waste disposal pick-up system instead of contracting it out to a commercial firm. And it’s in the city where issues are most complicated and voices the loudest when it comes to trash night.

Mention trash and recycling to a city resident and you may get an earful. “They take everything all at once and put it in the same truck;” “The city doesn’t really care if we recycle;” “It all goes to the landfill anyway.”

Are any of these true?

In an attempt to find out, Erie Reader conducted a small experiment. We recruited volunteers in four quadrants of the city – northwest, southwest, northeast, and southeast – to watch their refuse pick up for three or four weeks. The volunteers had noticed irregularities and were upset about it, which is why they agreed to participate. They did, however, wish to remain anonymous, with which the Erie Reader complied.

Volunteer A in the northwest quadrant, volunteered based on past observations, telling of watching a crew pick up white bags heavy with cat litter along with the recycling, despite the fact that it had been placed near her trash can and away from the recycling pile. She also tells of watching the recycling crew paw through her trash can and take bags from it after she deliberately started putting the trash in a can to try to make it more distinct from the recycling pile. “Why would they think a heavy white bag on another pile is part of my recycling?” she asks. “The city designates a system, we follow it, and yet the crew seems to go out of their way to take bags from what we have clearly designated as not recycling.”

The system mentioned can be found in the City of Erie Recycling Guidelines. To wit: trash goes in cans or bags that are not clear or blue, while recycling should be put in clear or blue bags. Then, the recycling should be placed on the curb “apart from trash.”

In Volunteer A’s three weeks of observation for this article, she saw nothing amiss. The recycling was picked up and then, later, the trash, with no misdirected bags.

Volunteer B, in the northeast part of the city, had similar past experiences and stories. The crew was on their best behavior during her three weeks of observation. “I’ve had problems in the past, but I chalked it up to being one of very few people in the neighborhood who separate their recycling out from everything else. Maybe they didn’t want to bother with sending a truck to my neighborhood for a couple of bags?” she asked.

Volunteer C, in the southwest part of the city had nothing bad to report, either, in the three weeks he watched. The crew did its job as it was supposed to.

Volunteer D, however, had a mixed bag of results. She watched for four weeks, and for two of the weeks, crews picked up everything correctly. Not so the other two weeks. On one night, the workers took a trash bag along with the recycling, even though it was far away from the recycling pile.  “In fact,” she says, “the guy tried to pick up a larger dark trash bag, too, but it slipped out of his hand, so he just left it. He would have taken both if he could have hung onto it.” On the second problematic night, they took all of her trash and all of the recycling together, and she watched from her front window as the crew moved down the street, picking up the recycling and taking some garbage bags, too, seemingly randomly.  She took video of it.

One person who was willing to go on the record was Amy Jo Smith-Zola, executive director of Environment Erie. “We have seen trash and recycling go in the same truck, and have seen the crews choose randomly what goes and what doesn’t. My husband called about the problem three times and never received a call back.”

Doug Mitchell, Director of the Erie Department of Public Works, and Sarah Galloway, Recycling Coordinator for the city, don’t like to hear about mistakes being made or phone calls not returned. They encourage all Erieites to pick up the phone and call 870.1450 and report a problem if observed.  They promised that the department will respond to phone calls and take action when needed. “It’s in our best interest to make sure that everything that can be recycled is,” says Galloway. “It saves the city and residents money.”

Seeing the problems may not be very easy to do, though. Crews come at night, when a good majority of us are asleep.

Certainly, our experiment could be called unscientific at best, and what Smith-Zola reports is anecdotal. Both are perhaps not widely representative of the entire city, but do suggest that problems exist and that citizens might have some legitimate gripes.

Trash removal is a complex system, where lots of things can go wrong. Let’s take a look:

Anything that gets put into a trash truck (or is picked up from a commercial trash dumpster), whether it is a city truck or one operated by Waste Management, goes directly to the landfill. Sorting out anything that does not belong is impractical; it just gets dumped. Things that get picked up by a recycling truck (or picked up in a commercial recycling dumpster) go to a Waste Management transfer station at 16th and Raspberry streets, where items are loaded into semi-trailers for a trip to a MRF, in either Akron or Pittsburgh. At those processing centers, the material is sorted by type, baled, and sold to companies that either turn it directly into something else, or further process it for sale to third parties.

This sounds very cut and dry, but it sometimes isn’t; glitches abound at all levels of the process. It is, after all, a human-driven system, fraught with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies.

If refuse gets in with the recycling, it goes to the transfer station, too. It gets trashed at the MRF during an initial sort. This wastes time and money. So, how “clean” the recycling material is when it arrives is of paramount importance to both Waste Management and the city.

How much gets into each system matters a great deal to the city, which pays $48.25 per ton of anything going to the landfill. The material headed to recycling only costs the city $6.50 per ton.  They are motivated to get as much to the recycling center as possible.

According to Mitchell, recycling saves the city approximately $200,000 a year in deferred landfill costs. Which is why the city prints and distributes a recycling guide every year to encourage citizen participation. The guide thoroughly outlines what materials can and cannot be recycled, how to correctly put your solid waste on the curb so that crews know what to pick up, and when to do it.

So why are irregularities occurring? There are many reasons, but one big one is, in a word, labor.

As you may imagine, working on a city trash crew would not be considered desirable employment by many people. It’s a night shift job, worked outside in every kind of weather. One-third to one-half of all workers are considered “on-call” employees, meaning they make $8.50 an hour and receive no benefits. Many are at the bottom of the employment ladder with no skills and are, in some cases, ex-cons trying for a fresh start. There is a lot of turnover. A high-turnover rate leads to errors by new employees and costs additional money for training and supervision.

“The crews are monitored regularly, and we try to correct problems when they are known,” says Galloway. “We had to let three or four people go at the end of last year alone.”

People’s perceptions are partially to blame, too. Mitchell stated that, in the past, the recycling crews would grab bags of garbage and take them to a central collecting point such as the mouth of a cul-de-sac, as a favor to their trash co-workers. “People thought they were taking the trash. We ended that custom to avoid the appearance of bad practices,” Mitchell says.

Unskilled crews and lingering memories aren’t the only problem, though.

We, the citizens of Erie, contribute to the problem by not doing what we are asked. We co-mingle trash and recyclables; we place everything in one big heap on the curb, making it genuinely hard to distinguish which is which; and, we don’t use the proper containers.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is using the wrong bag,” says Mitchell. They’ll use clear bags for garbage, put their recycling in something other than a clear or blue bag, or include something in either one that should not be there. One big mistake lots of people make are putting contaminated cardboard food containers, like greasy pizza boxes, in the recyclables. “The bureau chief regularly visits the transfer station to watch for trash in the recycling.”  In turn, crews keep track of residents who do not comply with the rules. “We don’t fine people. We want to use positive reinforcement and education instead,” adds Galloway.

The good news is that the number of Erieites who do recycle is up. Eighty percent of people who put out trash, separate their garbage from recycling, according to Galloway. “We have pretty clean recyclables, too, but there is always room for improvement.” According to what the department sees, the more affluent the neighborhood, the higher the rate of recycling. “People struggling to pay the bills will use what they have and not buy extra bags to recycle,” says Galloway. “We ask grocery stores to provide clear or blue bags, but they don’t always. People will take the cheapest route.”

They certainly will. Waste Management’s Carniewski tells a gruesome tale of how a voluntary recycling dumpster had to be removed from one county location. “We always saw a lot of non-recyclables in it — people will take advantage of what seems like a free place to dump anything — but we decided to pull it when we found a dead dog in it.”

We have come a long way since the mid-twentieth century when everything went to the landfill but it seems the public may be a little slow on the uptake as to recycling as a concept, how to value a free public service, and, well, maybe treating their pets with a little more respect. We have a long road ahead of us, still, and we may have to face the fact that reaching for something “better” may require something that’s not “easy” or “convenient.” Part of that could be taking a hard look at the plastic bags we are required to use for recycling that ultimately get wasted as we try to do a better job of dealing with our solid waste. Get wasted? Yes. The bags we use to put our recyclables out do not get recycled, even though they are, technically, recyclable. During the initial sort at the MRF, bags are emptied of their contents and put in a trashcan.

Why? Because any kind of “film-type” plastic — grocery store, deli, or bread bags, for example — jam the rolling screen machines used to sort materials. Workers have to clear the machines on each shift, which costs time, and of course, money.

Why not use permanent hard-sided containers for recycling instead of buying one-time use bags? Toronto, a city of 2.79 million people does, as well as many other municipalities.  Mitchell says they have looked into containers, but obstacles such as initial start up costs, maintaining an inventory, climate, and reduced efficiency (he says it takes longer to empty containers than pick up bags), keep the city from jumping in. And he adds, “Many people are happy with bags.”

Some are not, though. Smith-Zola of Environment Erie would love to see everyone use containers for recycling. “We shouldn’t have to buy plastic bags to recycle our plastic. It would be great if everyone could use a container.”

Erika Young, Public Affairs Coordinator for Waste Management in Pittsburgh recommends that rather than putting any film-type plastic that is marked as recyclable out on the curb, it should be taken to drop-off locations that accept it, such as grocery stores. If massed together separately, plastic of this variety can be recycled effectively and economically.

But do Erieites have a choice? Do we have to waste money on plastic bags that end up in the landfill just so we can be good citizens and recycle? Maybe not. Rumors abound that suggest if a citizen wants to, she can buy any kind of large, blue hard-sided container, put her recycling in it, place it on the curb, and the recycling crew will accept it.

So I tried it. They took my recycling. I’m a convert. Perhaps if everyone did this or petitioned city hall to go to containers, we could effect change (and reduce the amount of plastic going to the landfill).

Erie’s recycling guide also states that we can recycle all plastics that bear the recycling symbol and are numbered one through seven, with the exception of “plastic toys, furniture, or styrofoam.”

This is, semantically, untrue. Styrofoam, a trademarked name, is a specific type of closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam. Like the trademarked Kleenex, though, it has become a generic term, used loosely.  The stryofoam in Erie’s Guide should really be called “foamed” plastic. Examples are meat trays from the supermarket, foam plates and cups, and foam-style take out containers. Most are No. 6 plastic. Another type of No. 6 plastic, which is hard —CD cases for one — can go on the curb to be recycled.

Foamed No. 6 plastic is recyclable but reclaiming and processing it is not economically viable. “Most recycling collection facilities will not accept it, because it is too light and fluffy,” says Galloway. “They would have to collect an entire warehouse full just to get one ton.”

The bottom line is that if this type of foamed plastic goes in the recycling stream, it will end up in the landfill. The hard truth is that if a recycling company cannot make money on something, it does not reclaim it.

There’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of the process so far. Now, after all the lucrative waste has been sorted and baled by type — at which point its name changes to scrap material — what happens to it?

Young of Waste Management could not share which companies buy their scrap, but could describe the geographic destinations of what they sell.

According to Young, corrugated cardboard is sold mostly in the domestic market, as is No. 1 and No. 2 plastics (the most valuable types). Also sold domestically are aluminum, steel, and glass. Paper cartons, such as cereal boxes, go to tissue companies (no location offered).

Everything else — newspapers, mixed paper (office and junk mail), and mixed plastics (No.3 through No. 5 and No. 7) — are exported to China, Korea, Vietnam, and India.

The going price for each type of scrap can determine its destination.

“All recyclables are listed on a commodity market, so their prices fluctuate daily,” says Young.  Aluminum is Waste Management’s most coveted commodity, as it fetches the highest price. It is also easily recyclable and can be used an infinite number of times, if recovered. “Aluminum can be turned around quickly, and be back on the shelf in as little as 60 days as a new can,” says Young.

Although metals are the darlings of the recovery industry and have plenty of suitors, other materials have a bit more trouble finding the right match. The reclamation system for these is freighted with politics, regulations, corruption, and the whims of governments, primarily because they are messier, harder to handle, and fewer companies need the raw materials. The major market for them is Southeast Asia, where virgin resources are harder to come by.

In early 2013, for example, Chinese government officials grew weary of shipments of mixed scrap paper and plastic arriving at port contaminated with large amounts of non-recyclable materials — as much as 20 percent — that was going to their landfills. They cracked down with a policy that came to be known as “Operation Green Fence.”  Rather than allowing shipments to reach Chinese companies that used the scrap materials, officials cracked down at the ports, turning away any loads that had more than 1.5 percent contamination. This was not a new law, but a step up in enforcement of an old one. In the first quarter of 2013 alone, imports decreased by 5.5 percent.

Green Fence set off a tidal wave in the material recovery industry, with both good and bad results. Some Chinese manufacturers lost money from lack of raw materials and MRFs around the world that were being sloppy with their processing had to clean up their act (and their bales) for fear of finding their cargo back on their doorstep with a hefty shipping and storage bill on top. Other companies benefited. U.S.-based users of scrap materials suddenly found new resources that were cheaper to acquire, boosting their capacity and bottom line.

In general, most in the material recovery industry think that Green Fence was a positive wake-up call. Environmental groups were pleased. The jury is still out if China will maintain its scrutiny at such a high level, but most experts agree, the industry is changed for good, and probably the better. There is a dark side though, as other Asian countries, hungry for resources are now becoming the dumping ground for the dirty scrap materials some first-world processors are unwilling to clean.

Trash is now a global concern. We’re running out of places to put it, and the 5 Gyres Institute estimates that 27 million tons of plastic have now made it into the oceans. According to EPA statistics, in 1960, less than one percent of the total tonnage of solid waste was plastic. In 2012, that number rose to 27 percent. Incredibly, only nine percent of that 32 million tons of plastic waste generated in 2012 was recovered for recycling. Improving our recycling rates, especially our plastic recovery, will keep those landfills available much longer.

One of the few things left that we can do to change the dynamics of this growing problem is to make or consume fewer goods that are made of plastic or are packaged in plastic, a tall order in a world that drank 41 billion gallons of water out of plastic bottles in 2004. In 2014, in the U.S. alone, about 50 billion plastic water bottles were used. Thirty-eight billion of them were not recycled.

And yet, many of us are unmoved by this looming crisis. Like climate change, it’s hard to see on a personal level. In Erie, like just about everywhere else in this country, we don’t have to face our own mess. This is, for the most part, a good and sanitary thing. But we have to teach ourselves to see it, whether it’s right in front of us or conveniently out of sight.

The genesis of this story was a writer who was angry because an Erie recycling crew took her trash along with her recycling. It ends with a better understanding of where it all goes, a new regard for the (mostly) men who clear away her solid waste every week, a new respect for the people who process it, and an even greater desire to do more to preserve this lovely earth we all share.

I invite you to join me. You may want to start with ditching one-time use plastic water bottles and buying a reusable water bottle (I recommend stainless steel). If you think bottled water is better for you, remember some of the most popular brands such as Dasani and Aquafina, come from a municipal tap, with minimal filtering. You could up your game by procuring and utilizing reusable tote bags for your grocery and other shopping (or using the ones you acquired with good intentions and then forgot because they’re not “convenient”). If enough people stop expecting plastic bags at retailers, things will change.

You could also stop before purchasing products that are plastic-heavy, choosing instead items that have less packaging or are made of renewable materials (canned or glass beverages rather than those that come in plastic, for example). Manufacturers have been shown to respond to consumer demand (or lack thereof).

And if you reside in the City of Erie, please consider acquiring and using hard-sided blue containers for putting your recycling on the curb.  The one-time purchase of a standard 30-gallon blue storage tote (around $10-$15 at a big box store) that can be used for years is a bargain compared to purchasing one 100-count box of 13-gallon clear bags (approximately $8 at a big box store) that will have to be continually replaced with more.

Early in 2014, Susan Collins, President of the Container Recycling Institute told a Public Radio International reporter “The public has been trained to put their stuff in their bin at the curb, and for the stuff to just go away. And of course there is no such thing as away, away is always somewhere.”

Somewhere is going to be our own backyard soon. If we do nothing.

Mary Birdsong can be contacted at, and you can follow her on Twitter @Mary_Birdsong.

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