Why we're going to have to learn new rules for recycling
By: Liz Allen
It's time to toss out many of our recycling habits — and pitch some new ideas about ways to clean up Erie and save our environment.
That's what I learned from Brittany Prischak, Erie County's environmental sustainability coordinator, and Anna McCartney, communications specialist for Pennsylvania Sea Grant.
Prischak graduated from Mercyhurst University in 2009. She then interned at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium and at an animal sanctuary in Texas before being hired to create the position of sustainability coordinator at Mercyhurst, where she had majored in chemistry and biology and did her senior project on carbon emissions and climate change. She began her Erie County job in February 2015.
McCartney and I became friends when she worked as coordinator of the Newspaper in Education program and I edited the weekly NIE pages at the Erie Times-News.
I interviewed both women after I became frustrated about trying to keep a step ahead of the litter problem despoiling downtown Erie, our neighborhoods and the waterfront.
In late June, Councilwoman Kathy Schaaf and I did a small cleanup on State Street between West 18th and West 14th streets. After pawing our plastic-gloved hands through discarded cigarette butts, cigar tips, booze bottles, pop cans, fast-food bags, energy drinks, plastic bags
I decided that there has to be a better way to counter litter than with a two-women brigade or by employing my recent tactic — scolding litterers. I don't think I made an impression on the kid who ripped open an ice pop and threw the wrapper down at a park, the guy near the Avalon Hotel who tore a plastic top off of a milk drink and let it blow away, or the woman who flicked her smoldering cigarette onto State Street near City Hall.
I was burned up about cleaning up after litterers, so Councilwoman Schaaf and I met with McCartney to learn about small and large ways to curb the use of plastics. She immediately gave us one pragmatic suggestion: use refillable, non-plastic containers instead of buying bottled water.
Liz Allen (left) and Kathy Schaaf (right) joined forces for recycling pick up and research around the City of Erie.
Some businesses and local governments even offer water stations where you can fill up your containers, she says. Now I try to remember to bring my metal water bottle from the 2010 25th International Coastal Cleanup to City Council meetings.
At McCartney's urging, I also visited the "Plastic Pollution Solution: One Small Change" exhibit at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center. The sheer number of plastic bags strung together at the exhibit makes a strong visual impact about what's happened to our environment.
The exhibit also reminded me about how much things have changed since my long-ago encounter with environmental issues.
It was the fall of 1969, my freshman year at journalism school, and as a cub reporter for the college paper, I was named the "exchange editor." My job was to read dozens of college newspapers for story ideas and trends. After I was done with the papers, I'd haul them to the nearby food co-op, which recycled the papers to raise money.
My duties as exchange editor paid off when I was assigned to my first beat — to cover the debut of Earth Day.
Going to school at Marquette in Milwaukee was a good place to cover that history-making event. It was organized by U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the former governor of Wisconsin, who in September 1969 had proposed a national teach-in on the environment for April 22, 1970.
In Nelson's May 1970 Senate newsletter, he wrote: "A new movement had begun, and uncounted millions — students, laborers, farmers, housewives, politicians, professional people, liberals and conservatives — who might have found it difficult to find common agreement on any other subject, were gathering together in a massive educational effort to talk about survival and the quality of survival in a world they all share." (You can read more about it at nelsonearthday.net/nelson.)
To salvage the environment, we recycled newspapers and aluminum cans. We used returnable pop bottles. We ditched detergents with phosphates.
As packaging materials changed, we recycled those, too — containers for frozen-dessert toppings and margarine; plastic milk jugs; bottles of soap and shampoo.
We didn't anticipate that someday we would be awash in plastic products, but we cheered when trash haulers adopted single-stream recycling. We no longer had the messy chore of separating papers, cans, and bottles; we could plop them all into a blue plastic bag or bin and send them on their way. If a plastic container had a triangle and a number on the bottom, we figured it was OK to recycle.
Then recycling collided with trade policies.
As Prischak explains, in 2017, China started to ban some recycling from other countries, including the U.S., claiming that materials such as mixed paper products and plastics had "high levels of contamination."
Even if just one bale in
The material rejected by China had to be shipped back, "to be reprocessed, to remove that contaminant, or to find a new market for it," Prischak says.
In response, in March, Waste Management announced a ban on using plastic bags to collect recyclables from commercial customers, including businesses, schools
Commercial customers wanted to know how they could continue to recycle without using plastic bags.
Penn State Behrend has found one answer by removing recycling containers from classrooms and putting the containers in central locations instead. If you have to walk to a recycling container, it's less likely that you'll accidentally throw contaminated material into a recycling bin.
Erie County will soon launch an educational campaign to inform the public about the new recycling rules.
The educational campaign will address what Prischak calls "wishful recycling," in which you look at a plastic product and just assume it can be recycled.
I'm guilty of being a "wishful" recycler. That's because we were taught that any plastic item numbered one through seven, with a triangle on the bottom, could be recycled. That number with the triangle, though, only indicates the resin content, says Prischak. The only plastic items for which there are recycling markets right now are those with a one or a two on the container.
Do recycle plastic products that "start wide and go to a narrow top with a screw lid." That includes pop, water
Prischak's goal for the education campaign about recycling is to make sure there is a consistent understanding throughout the county about which items can be recycled. "We want to be positive," she says. "We don't want residents to see this as taking a step
Waste Management will honor current contracts with municipalities for whatever recycling method is used now, but as new contracts are executed, the new rules will be used, she says.
It will be critical to have good, consistent signage on recycling containers on streets and in public places to make sure consumers know if something is recyclable before they stuff it in the container, she says.
We also will have to weigh the pros and cons of adding more recycling bins and then having to deal with contaminated products that can't be recycled. "I'm less worried about recycling on the streets and a little more concerned about recycling in the home," where we are less distracted and more likely to actually take the time to check to make sure something can be recycled, says Prischak.
In regard to my concerns with the amount of trash being discarded in downtown Erie and elsewhere, Prischak says that "maybe if you're dealing with a littering situation, you don't jump to recycling first. Maybe you put out trash containers."
She recently participated in a litter cleanup along the waterfront, from Holland Street to the Bayfront Convention Center and the hotels. In two hours, 20 volunteers from UPMC Hamot cleaned up more than 2,000 cigarette butts. That's not a surprise. Cigarette butts remain the No. 1 source of litter everywhere.
The scold in me wants to scream: "Just walk your butt to a butt container!"
Prischak looks to solve the problem in a different way, by actually working with smokers.
As part of the "Keep Erie County Beautiful" campaign, volunteers at the Downtown Block Parties passed out pocket ashtrays to use at the event and also in their cars. Concert-goers appreciated the gesture; they realized that they were littering when they threw cigarette butts on the ground, but didn't know where to dispose of the butts. "They were glad there was another option," she says.
Of course, you can't hand every smoker a portable ashtray. Prischak says the solution could be to put out more cigarette butt containers or to move them closer to the exits people use at bars, restaurants
Schaaf, my Erie City Council colleague, has been researching the Sidewalk Buttler system she saw in use during her vacation this summer to Portland, Maine. A business owner there, Michael Rylos, invented the Sidewalk Buttler, which
Meanwhile, McCartney, my friend from Pennsylvania Sea Grant, is busy preparing for the 33rd annual International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday, Sept. 15.
The PA Coastal Cleanup will take place at 18 sites on that date. In addition, about 30 teachers across Erie County will organize cleanups to tidy up school grounds and to encourage students to become environmental stewards.
But just as Schaaf and I discovered during that our litter patrol, more has to be done. "We can't just keep cleaning up litter," says Prischak. "The purpose of the data (collected by the International Coastal Cleanup) is to have us come up with solutions."
"It's not like we fix the problem by doing cleanups. (Rather), we shed light on the problem," says McCartney. "If the next day or week we get a storm, all that stuff is back again."
That's why McCartney expanded her original environmental mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle," to start with "refuse."
Don't grab a plastic straw for a drink. Don't pick up plastic silverware to eat a takeout meal at home. Push back against grocery stores that wrap everything in plastic. "Remember the
She advocates for "producer responsibility" to address the mounds of trash and litter created by our reliance on disposable products. "We have to get rid of unnecessary plastic. Recycling is not going to do it."
One of the most irksome things she spotted recently was a coconut wrapped in a mesh bag at a big grocery chain in Erie.
I have to agree. That's just nuts.
Liz Allen was inspired to write this column by Isabelle Locco, her 10-year-old granddaughter who belongs to the environmental club at her school,
The film A Plastic Ocean returns to the Tom Ridge Environmental Center's Big Green Screen Theatre on Friday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m.
The film was first shown in Erie in July. "It was so well-received, the S.O.N.S. of Lake Erie agreed to pay for another showing," said Anna McCartney, communications specialist for Pennsylvania Sea Grant.
Seating is limited to 175. For reservations, call 838-4123.
On Friday, Oct. 5, there will be a free lecture and book signing at TREC with Jay Sinha, co-founder
Sinha's talk is presented in conjunction with the "Plastic Pollution Solution: One Small Change" exhibit at TREC, which is sponsored by the Tom Ridge Environmental Center Foundation, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, PA Sea Grant, the Regional Science Consortium, Erie Arts & Culture, the S.O.N.S. of Lake Erie and Environment Erie. The exhibit continues through Oct. 31.
Doors open at 6 p.m. for Sinha's 6:30 p.m. presentation. Capacity for his talk is also limited to 175.
The annual PA Coastal Cleanup takes place on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 15 sites in the Lake Erie watershed, including Presque Isle State Park.
For more information, contact Brittany Prischak, Erie County sustainability coordinator, at (814) 451-7326 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you know?
The Pennsylvania Legislature unanimously passed Senate Bill 431, which Gov. Tom Wolf signed on June 28. The new law goes into effect six months from the date Wolf signed it.
In "litter enforcement corridors," fines for littering will be doubled and in some cases tripled. Violators must also do mandated community service, including cleanup of the litter or illegal dumping.
"We're very much in favor of it. It really does make the punishment fit the crime," said Shannon Reiter, president of Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, based in Greensburg.
Details about how the law will be implemented will be coming soon from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. For updates, visit www.keeppabeautiful.org.
Join the movement
One local business has taken notice of various efforts, including the Ocean Conservancy's "Skip the Straw" campaign, to reduce plastic pollution.
Room 33, the Prohibition-era bar and restaurant at 1033 State St., has switched from plastic to paper straws, according to Rebecca Styn, who owns the business with her husband, Rob Mahrt.
"At the heart of it, we opted to phase out plastic straws after listening to our customers," says Styn. The paper straws are more expensive than the plastic ones. Demand has also increased for paper straws affecting shipping time.
But Styn is happy with their decision. "We did our research to ensure the replacement would be both eco-friendly and durable, in an effort to play a tiny role in helping the environment, while still recognizing that our decision is not a panacea when it comes to the problem of plastic in our oceans," she says.
Customers like the new straws and there are some perks, too. "There are many options in design with paper straws – we have black-and-white striped, red-and-white striped and gold so far – so we have been able to have a little fun with it, especially in the realm of adding a small detail to an already great cocktail," Styn says.