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50 years after first Earth Day, Centre County’s Recycling Authority continues the mission to educate

by on April 01, 2020 2:17 PM

Joanne Shafer remembers the very first Earth Day, held 50 years ago on April 7, 1970. To say it made an impression on her is an understatement.

“I’m a professional person whose avocation turned into a vocation and essentially a career because of the first Earth Day,” says Shafer. “I can remember – I think I was in the ninth grade – doing a ‘pollution probe.’ People were just really starting to become environmentally aware. [President] Nixon had formed the EPA, and I was about 15, and here I am all these years later fighting the fight.”

Shafer is the deputy executive director and recycling coordinator of the Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority and has worked at the authority for three decades.

“When I started here 30 years ago, we took soda bottles and milk jugs only,” Shafer says.

Today, the authority recycles 11 types of materials (including electronics), provides curbside recycling service to more than 25,000 residents, manages 125 drop-off recycling centers, services more than 1,000 commercial establishments throughout the county, and coordinates recycling efforts with Penn State. 

‘Time, energy, and education’

In addition to expanding the number and type of materials collected, the Recycling Authority has also undergone two expansions of its facilities. Recycling is mandated in certain circumstances under Pennsylvania state law (Act 101), and Shafer says in Centre County, the public participation is at about 90 percent. Shafer credits the success of the county’s recycling program with a persistent education campaign and the dedication of the authority’s employees.

“People are doing a pretty good job most of the time,” says Shafer. “We have been educating since the first day. We have a full-time education coordinator on staff. We’ve had a whole generation here grow up with [recycling], and we’ve had the consistency of having the school kids in. It takes a lot of time, energy, and education.”

Every fifth-grader from the State College Area School District and at least one class from every school district visits the recycling center’s education classroom every year to learn about how recycling works and about its benefits. The authority also runs radio ads, produces a quarterly newsletter, is active on social media, and provides households with immediate feedback in the event they try to recycle something in their bin that is not recyclable.

“We try really hard to reach people,” Shafer says.

“The continuity of one’s employees” is crucial to any business, and at the recycling authority, “quality is the name of the game, particularly in a bad market year,” she adds.

“I am blessed to have an extremely well-trained staff,” says Shafer. “We put a lot of time and effort into workforce development. We have about 67 employees right now. Out of all those employees, 50 percent of them have been here 20 years or more. What you see is people caring about how important it is to have it right and to make sure they all know [what they’re doing]. We have only ever had two loads rejected in 30 years.”

The problem with ‘wish-cycling’

Though Centre County residents do recycle and generally follow guidelines, Shafer says people still tend to do what the authority refers to as “wish-cycling.”

“That’s when people say, ‘Well, I think it should be recycled, but I’m not really sure, and I’m too lazy to check the website to see what they take, so I’m just going to put it in and hope that it gets recycled,’” Shafer explains.

Wish-cycling, of course, costs the authority time, energy, and resources. The authority has a crew that sorts materials curbside and inspects, separates, and processes materials at the plant. Households doing their part when they put their bins out for collection make the entire process more efficient and ultimately more cost-effective.

“When people think, ‘I’m just going to throw it all together, it’s somebody else’s job to separate it,’ they’re right, but it’s also individuals’ responsibility to find out what is recyclable in their program and to act accordingly,” Shafer says. “Recycling is not only economic, it’s not only environmental, it’s not only social, it’s all of the above.”

Don’t rely on the recycle symbol

Shafer says it’s certainly a positive thing that more people are participating in recycling, but that in an age of instant gratification, people want immediate answers and sometimes are not as diligent in researching whether materials can be recycled.

“The fact that the recycling symbol is on it is no indication of recyclability,” Shafer says. “No one controls the recycling symbol. It could mean it is recyclable, it could mean that it’s recyclable some places. It could mean that it has recycled content, or it could mean nothing at all. There’s no regulation. So the public thinks that they know, but they don’t. They think if there’s a recycling symbol on it, that makes it recyclable. When we say ‘bottle, jug, jar, can, paper,’ that’s what we mean.”

The authority does not collect grocery bags, as their different colors, qualities, and the polymers of the plastics make recycling them not worthwhile.

“We really want these to go back to the grocery store,” says Shafer.

The authority also schedules collection days for special items, such as tires, and households should monitor the authority’s website and social media for announcements on upcoming pickups.

The current market

Recycling has been making national headlines recently because of the consequences of the “single-stream” trend. 

Single-stream recycling is a convenient system that enables households to put all their recyclables into one bin. The ease of single-stream recycling led to an uptick in the number of people participating, but also resulted in much higher contamination rates. 

Fivethirtyeight.com reports:

The benefit – more participation and thus more material put forward for recycling – may have been overtaken by the cost – unrecyclable recyclables. On average, about 25 percent of the stuff we try to recycle is too contaminated to go anywhere but the landfill, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association, a trade group. Just a decade ago, the contamination rate was closer to 7 percent, according to the association. And that problem has only compounded in the last year, as China stopped importing “dirty” recyclable material that, in many cases, has found no other buyer.

The authority hired a consulting firm to study whether single-stream recycling would work in Centre County, and it was determined that single-stream was not the right fit for the program.

“With single-stream, there’s no quality control at the curbside, so that resident can essentially put anything in there,” Shafer says. “But it’s much faster, and one of the plusses for some of the big companies is that their worker’s comps claims are much lower, because that driver is not getting out and off the truck. But the capital expense in the plants – you’re looking at the $20 million range.”

Though Centre County’s system is not single-stream, the authority must still contend with a depressed market.

Read the list

Shafer says recycling is not a “money-maker,” but when the energy, economic, and social equation makes sense, that’s when the authority considers something worthwhile to recycle.

“The overall savings in glass recycling is actually in energy savings because it takes less fuel to melt down cullet (glass that’s been sized and is fed into a furnace to make glass bottles) than it does to make glass from the raw materials,” Shafer says.

“We’re a quasi-governmental agency,” continues Shafer. “We charge fees. The recycling operation does not support itself by the sale of materials, so there’s a fee to send that truck out to the household every week; it costs gas, it costs employees, yet nobody says, ‘Do we make money from trash?’ when the garbage guys go out, and you pay a garbage bill. So here we also charge a recycling bill. It’s a public service – it’s a public utility, and participation is mandated by state law.”

Shafer urges people to read the list of recyclable items on the authority website and to have forethought about what they’re buying.

“Not everything is recyclable, and maybe some folks should think about what they’re buying in the first place,” Shafer says. “You don’t have a choice about everything. But, do you really need bottled water? In Centre County, we have beautiful, wonderful water. Just because we’ve developed infrastructure for recycling, it doesn’t remove the personal responsibility for people. It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of energy. The energy balance for recycling for traditional materials still weighs on the side of recycling, so there is less energy consumed to produce materials using recycled content, in general, than to make them from the raw materials. And, is it the highest and best use for the land to bury things? I encourage people to buy with recycling in mind, so if you know in your particular program that it’s not recyclable, try not to buy that container.”

With recycling, as is the case with many things, as G.I. Joe would say, “Knowing is half the battle.”

“If I could get every Centre County resident into [our education classroom], nobody would question, ‘Why can’t I do this?’” says Shafer. “You always have to be learning; it’s a very dynamic business, and we’ve made it our business, and our board of seven really supports our mission.”

To learn more about the Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority, visit centrecountyrecycles.org.

 

Teresa Mull is a freelance writer in Philipsburg.

 

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