Thinking Tech

The hard part of recycling

Posting in Cities

It's easy to recycle a lot of things. Others take work and real effort. When will this change, and will business or government lead the way?

It's easy to recycle a lot of things.

Newspaper, bottles, aluminum cans? Chances are your city has a recycling program and will take these things.

The autumn leaves? If you pack them in paper bags, many cities will take them when the time comes. Personally I blow them into the backyard and let them mulch.

Cardboard? Steel cans? Junk mail? My local market takes them. They even take some plastic.

Computers? Keyboards? Tougher, but Emory sponsors regular drives at the local high school. Keep it around a few months and you might remember to go by.

Cooking oil? I put an ad in Craigslist last year and someone came by to turn my used grease into diesel fuel. I felt pretty good about that, but where is he now that gas is down to $2.50/gallon and we just made french fries?

Now it gets tougher. Styrofoam? There's one place about 20 miles away that will take Styrofoam, I learned while writing this. (Here's a complete list of styrofoam recyclers around the country.) But with the cost of transporting it, am I really helping the Earth?

How about electric motors? It seems that every year a few of our ceiling fans blow out. Electric motors contain valuable copper. Anyone want some ceiling fans?

There are cities like San Francisco that manage to recycle most of their waste. But most cities aren't that systematic. They depend on individuals taking action individually, and most don't.

I used to get rid of our food waste easily by feeding it to our chickens. My wife celebrated when the coop crashed down. Now that goes into the garbage.

All this means Mount Trashmore is continuing to grow with my help. Multiply me by 300 million and you get the idea.

The metals boom earlier this decade led to some mining of trash heaps, and the EPA now has a methane outreach program that encourages cities to treat trash heaps as sources of natural gas. Pig manure can become feedstock for biogas and electricity. (So can other forms.)

The problem lies in separating the good bits from the valueless bits. This is best done at the source. What the mining of landfills needs to succeed are high and sustained prices for the raw materials produced. Prices are still too variable.

Everyone from my local handyman to firms like 1-800-Got-Junk are trying to cash in on recycling. Why aren't we seeing more of it?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure