After a few months of back and forth communication, Amy Perlmutter and I met over coffee at Porter Square Books in Cambridge. Amy is an independent consultant with a knack for recycling and all things green. We initially met through a mutual friend at a Boston Area Sustainability Group event focused on carbon pricing and natural capital. I’m amazingly lucky to be able to sit down with two industry experts in one week.
I arrived to the bookstore ten minutes early to make sure we had a table, and was able to find one outside even though I was mugged by the humidity as soon as I walked out the door. As I was busy taking my notebook out of my backpack, I overhead the people at the table next to me talking about just coming back from Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic’s Conference on Food Waste that had taken place over the last two days. I couldn’t help but engage them in conversation, since I had talked with Gretchen Carey earlier that day who was also attending the conference. I told them about my plan to institute a food saving initiative with the catering companies I work for, and they responded enthusiastically. Apparently, there are a handful of local non-profits that accept food donations to feed those who are hungry (such as the CERO coop and Food Link), as well as federal legislation has been passed in the last couple years, so that restaurants and food service companies can actually benefit by donating their food and receive tax breaks. This law is called “The Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act,” and protects them from any civil or criminal liability. It’s one of the food industry’s biggest myths that one can be sued for food donation. Pure balony that still plagues society’s consciousness.
My conversation with Amy mainly touched on matters related to recycling. With her wealth of knowledge, she cleared up a lot of questions that I have about waste management. In my youth, while living in Portland, I thought recycling was an end-all solution to waste. Boy was I wrong! First of all, the recycling industry isn’t as straightforward as I expected. It is much more complicated. Typically, people assume that once they put their recycled items in their curbside bin it gets taken away, and then turned back into the same item. A perfectly simple system that only depends on individual participation. What they don’t know about is the problem of contamination. Contamination is when multiple items get mixed together and they aren’t able to sort them at the processing facility, or they are too dirty to be salvaged for a second life. This may include garbage, food waste, or diapers that get accidentally thrown in the recycle bin by people who don’t know what they’re doing or simply don’t care. (Believe me, it’s disgusting what people throw in their recycle bins).
Of course contamination is a problem mainly centered around single stream recycling. Cities like San Francisco, Boston, and Portland (Oregon) champion single stream programs as the solution to recycling, but don’t talk about the lower quality materials they receive at the end of the process. An example of this would be when you you throw your high quality office paper in the same bin with a jar of salsa that hasn’t been properly washed and dried. That office paper might get some food residue on it, and will ultimately have to be turned into a less valuable form of paper product i.e. toilet paper. A better recycling program would mimic those they have in Germany and Scandinavia, where residents are responsible to sort their materials into the proper bins, so they don’t make contact with each other. Admittedly, this is difficult for some, but just like any sort of change in history, people will get used to it after awhile.
Overall, Amy felt that one of the largest impacts she had made in her career was getting businesses to think about recycling markets while she was Executive Director at Chelsea Center for Recycling and Economic Development. This goes back to the value of recycled material, and making sure that people are aware of contamination. Recycling as a whole requires a combination of things to be successful. It’s easy to get trapped in the false sense of accomplishment when a city like San Francisco boasts of having an 80% recycling rate when really they are talking about their collection rate. To have an economically successful recycling program, we need a shift in culture. Governments need to dedicate more of tax-payer money to education of the masses, new collection systems, and a way to find a balance between contamination and participation. Personally, I’m quite optimistic, but understand that it begins with the individual (me and you).