Recycling Matters: A St. Louis Update

by Jean Ponzi, Green Resources Manager, Earthways Center, A Division of Missouri Botanical Garden

Nature doesn’t mess around – she achieves ZERO WASTE!

Think about it: in the natural world, every organism’s waste materials – from lunch leavings to dead bodies, last season’s nest to this morning’s poop – become food or habitat for some other living creature. We humans have “achieved” the spurious distinction of generating types of waste that nobody else can eat or live in.

We have a lot to learn. More and more of us are trying. And we have the best possible teachers, with fine examples humming away all around us.

Our human practice of recycling mimics one of Nature’s most elegant systems, the cycle of decomposition. Items that have served their original purpose become raw material to make new products. We’re not yet playing in the big leagues of Zero Waste, but recycling gets us into the game.

Recycling participation and types of recycling practice are expanding around the St. Louis region, generating both economic and environmental benefits – and increasing Green awareness.

Documenting Recycling Impacts

Ten years ago, St. Louis became the first city in our country to formally evaluate the economic impact of recycling. The St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District teamed with the University of Missouri-St. Louis to study our region’s recycling industry, using a methodology developed by the National Recycling Coalition and US EPA, which has also been used by many states.

Our local Recycling Economic Impact Study reported that nearly 1,500 Recycling, Reuse and Remanufacturing businesses were sustaining nearly 16,000 jobs (7% more than the national average) with annual payrolls of nearly $640 million dollars (6% better than the national average). In terms of employment, annual payroll and annual receipts, the recycling industry overall was shown to economically outperform our region’s chemical, primary metals and food manufacturing industries, the printing industry, and our utilities! An update of this study is currently underway.

A separate recent local analysis, using EPA’s Environmental Benefits Calculator, reported impacts of Missouri’s average rate of waste diversion. Almost half of  our state’s household and commercial waste materials are being reused, recycled or composted instead of going into landfills. This amount of waste reduction is equivalent to keeping at least 5 million trees standing (and sequestering carbon), taking 225,000 cars off the road, and annually saving enough energy to power 110,000 homes.

It’s true that a whopping 80% (or more) of waste that we typically send to landfills can be readily reused, recycled or composted – so we absolutely have more to do. But this kind of impact information elevates recycling from a nice, feel-good casual status to a serious practice with significant benefits.

New Local Recycling Options

Single Stream Recycling, phased in over the past decade, has become the norm for household and commercial programs around our region, with most recycling companies now offering this service.

Single Stream means that all recyclable materials are collected in the same container. Paper, cardboard, junk mail, food packaging – materials classified as Fibers – go into the same bin with glass, aluminum, steel and plastic Containers. After they leave your home, school or workplace bin, these co-mingled materials are eventually sorted back into separate streams and the collected materials are brokered to companies that use them to make new recycled-content products.

Concerns about material quality initially dogged Single Stream, but this system’s logic has proven effective. Contamination of co-mingled materials is higher than when recycling customers were expected to separate fibers and containers. However, the higher volumes of material collected outweigh contamination issues, overall.

For example: in a single stream recycling bin or truck, food gunk gets on the papers; the collected paper gets sold at a lower value than fibers collected separately (in those yellow and green Paper Retriever dumpsters at schools, or by document shredding services) – but significantly more material gets recovered when individuals more conveniently co-mingle, and more people engage in recycling.

Food waste composting has also taken a big jump up in practice and popularity. Organic materials, meaning food scraps and yard waste, comprise about 20% of the community waste stream. Missouri has had systems in place since 1991 to separately collect and compost yard waste. And any home can process organics in a compost pile. But permits issued to industrial-scale companies to process organics on a regional scale only covered yard waste – until now. Route 66 Landscape Supply, located in Pacific, and St. Louis Composting (with several local facilities) have been permitted to process food waste in their composting operations. Both companies work with haulers who collect the material, in the same way that recycling and trash gets collected.

This new waste reduction service has focused so far on collecting organics from commercial customers, generators of large volumes of food waste, rather than on running fuel- and labor-intensive additional hauling routes to households.

Washington University, Frito Lay, St. Louis’ wholesale produce district, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Busch Stadium are all food waste composting customers. So is the Laclede Gas Building, where tenants including Arcturis Design, the McCormack Baron companies, the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis and Laclede Gas Company are all recycling and composting at work.

Hard-working and visionary partnerships have added composting to the recycling systems for some of our region’s public events, including the St. Louis Earth Day Festival, Taste of St. Louis, and the Best of Missouri Market. St. Louis Earth Day’s Recycling On The Go team brings equipment, person-power and know-how to collaborations like these, making  the concept of Zero Waste visible, convenient, popular – and closer to being a practical reality!

Green Practice Grows Profitable

All this becomes affordable when trash collection costs go down as waste is diverted from the landfill by recycling and composting. You can get a smaller dumpster, or have your dumpster emptied less often – and reinvest the savings into sustainably-focused services. Our Waste Stream transforms into flows of useful Resources.

Municipalities (and the homes they serve), individuals, school districts, colleges, businesses and community institutions are increasingly making this Green equation work.

Of course recycling alone won’t resolve every environmental issue, but it has a powerful, fundamental effect. Our efforts toward nature’s Zero Waste goal are helping to root Green thinking and action, community-wide, with humans of all ages – sustainably.

Jean Ponzi is Green Resources Manager for the EarthWays Center of Missouri Botanical Garden. She hosts the environmental radio talk show Earthworms, Mondays 7-8 pm on FM-88 KDHX.