A Place for Everything
Ed asked me to share some thoughts after spending a couple of hours watching how he manages the recoverables he collects each week. So here goes. I hope you find this interesting and/or helpful...or at least, not too boring to finish.
Let me start by saying that I don't know Ed well at all. But as anyone who has met him knows, it’s easy to fall into a conversation with him and pretty quickly feel as though you do know him well and that he's a trustworthy guy. My wife, daughter, and I met Ed at Clifton Day last October, where he had a booth set up next to my wife's. He stopped over first thing in the morning to introduce himself and to help us get our pop-up canopy tent set up. And later in the day, when somebody decided to become an annoyance by hanging out at my wife's booth and bothering our daughter, Ed gently guided the man away and got him engaged with something else. A stand-up guy helping someone he had just met.
"I assumed he must be some sort of 'eco-warrior'"
Ed gave me the pitch for the Resource Recovery Project that day, and I signed up for weekly collection. I watched him give the same pitch throughout the day to many, many people, with the same enthusiasm at 4pm that he had at 10am. I assumed he must be some sort of "eco-warrior", willing to do anything and everything to save the planet. What I learned from my audit is, that while Ed absolutely wants to see less junk proliferating in our environment, it’s not really his primary driver. What he sees is an important, but massively broken, process for recycling/reuse that he’d like to help fix. When I asked him about that, he said simply, "I like to organize things." And he sure does. He is meticulous with his handling of the materials he collects and with his record keeping, and he is relentless in his thinking about how to make the processes work better.
At one point, while surrounded by a few hundred pounds of stuff, as he unloaded some recoverables from his truck, a watch battery fell from the pile and onto the pavement.
Ed stopped what he was doing to find the watch battery, which was only slightly bigger than a dime. If he had ignored it, I wouldn't have thought twice about it, because - did I mention it was a WATCH BATTERY? But Ed's “everything-in-its-proper-place” ethos would not allow that tiny piece of someone's junk to go unrecorded or to remain outside of its proper place. He picked it up and dropped it into the battery jar and proceeded on to other tasks.
Ed had collected 17 BgBs from his customers the day I observed, and then went through each bag one at a time to sort it into the several recovery streams. That means moving crap from 1 bag into at least 20 other bags, boxes, bins, and jars depending on what the item was. The sorting was precise. There are 8 types of plastic, 5 categories of metals, and 4 of glass, plus several other one-off types of commonly used items for a total of 22 recovery streams. In addition, there are several that fall into kind of specialty categories that Ed keeps around while he seeks a recovery stream to feed it into – stuff like electrical wires and copper piping. There is very little waste that needs to be turned around and fed back into the trash. Mostly that was paper mailing envelopes that are padded. These mixed material items just need to go to a landfill. Pretty much everything else Ed received that day he could recover in some way.
Once sorted and aggregated from all customer bags, Ed weighs and records all the various types of stuff he has collected. This will assist him, and hopefully the industry more broadly, to understand what’s in our trash so that more and better recycle/recovery/reuse processes could be put in place.
While I didn’t accompany him on his rounds to deliver what he had collected, Ed had stuff to drop off at the following companies/government entities around the area: Republic, Salvation Army, County purple glass bins, County transfer station, White Hall farms, Giant, and Home Depot.
"There are some particularly responsible companies out there that actively engage in the resource recovery process"
What I learned from my audit experience was the following:
(1) The resource recovery problem is very complex with at least 20 different recycle/reuse/recovery streams. It takes training and experience to tell the various types of plastics, in particular, from each other. Ed can just crinkle them up in his hands and tell by the sound what type it is. He is an expert. That makes him invaluable to making this process work. It also highlights the challenge ahead if this type of operation is to scale up and serve thousands rather than dozens of customers;
(2) There are some particularly responsible companies out there that actively engage in the resource recovery process and which I intend to support and hope you will too: Solo, Rubbermaid, Febreeze, Tom’s of Maine, and Bic. They handle about what you’d think they do – not just their own stuff but their competitors too.
While they don’t encourage individuals like you and me to send them stuff, Ed can because he aggregates enough of it to make it cost effective for them.
3) Wear socks when auditing. And a hat too, probably. I foolishly assumed we would be inside on what turned out to be a cool and windy day. Instead, we were outside in the driveway with periodic forays into the nearby garage. Note to self for next time.
Thanks to Ed for what he is doing. I encourage everyone to sign up your neighbor to his service.