How Many Paper Towels Does It Take?

Does anybody remember the animated Tootsie Pop commercial?  “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”

Strangely, I thought about that commercial the other day while in a public restroom.  I know, how odd!

Anyway, what made me think about this was, “How many paper towels does it take to dry your hands after washing them?” One, or two, or even three?

As I try to use less and less in my daily life, I am watching other people.  They make me think, how can we do better by our environment?  I see people quickly grab two or three paper towels give a few swipes on their hands and throw the half dry paper towels in the trash and walk away.  Do they give a thought as to what went into making those paper towels?  The raw resources and manufacturing energy needed?  Then there is the resources and energy that goes into disposing of the now little used paper towel.

No, they don’t.  It is just something to use for their convenience.  It has always been there.  So why give it any thought?

Well my conservationist brain has thought about it.  Just like avoiding plastic water bottles, straws, and plastic bags, we should avoid unconscious use of more paper towels in public restrooms than we really need.  I can dry my hands in one paper towel.

Just in case any of you don’t remember or are too young to know how many licks it does take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, Mr. Owl stated three before he bit into it.

Leann lives and works in Frederick and is passionate about cleaning the earth and sustainable energy.

How Recycling Really Works

Emily and I walked into the community room at the C. Burr Artz Library on a hot, Thursday evening. To my surprise, the room was packed. The crowd ranged from many different age groups, but the majority being an older crowd with their bags of recyclables to ask questions about. I rejoiced in the free reusable bags offered and we readily took our seats in the first row.

When Annmarie Creamer stood in the front of the room, off the bat, you could tell this was going to be an interesting talk. Annmarie gives off a witty and charismatic vibe that while I expected a couple angry citizens to be at the talk, it seemed to be a very relaxed environment overall. Before Annmarie started working for the County in 2008 as a Recycling Outreach Program Analyst, her “prior adventure” was working as a professional gardener with degrees (yes, degrees!) in environmental studies, educational leadership and horticulture!

As the talk began, I started to formulate my own basic questions. When did the County start recycling? Why can’t we have weekly recycling? How many trucks do we even have? To my surprise, Frederick County started recycling in 1991! For less than 30 years, our recycling program has been existent.  It made me wonder how many tons of recycled matter did we let rot in our over capacity landfill. It was a scary image I pushed away.

Today, there are 80,000 households in the County that will have that blue bin outside their house waiting for recycling day. With so many people recycling nowadays, I’m sure I’m not the only person who would love a weekly recycling schedule. What seems like an easy goal to accomplish, the problem of weekly recycling goes a lot farther than I anticipated. Frederick County does not have their own recycling trucks or County employees to physically pick up those blue bins. Those blue recycling trucks you see are contracted by the County to collect our trash. There are 10 trucks (on a good day, 12) available for the entire County with about 1-3 drivers per truck. For weekly recycling, the contracted company would need to double the amount of trucks and workers to collect our recycling, which is a lot more money than Frederick County is willing to shell out. Members of the audience begin to ask questions about what can and cannot be recycled and I even learned that clam shells cannot be recycled! What would lead to another long discussion on the different types of plastics that are recyclable, we move on to the rest of the conversation.

Once our recycling gets picked up, it is taken to Frederick County’s transfer station where it will be transported to the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) in Elkridge, Howard County. MRF is a private business, not a government facility, owned by Waste Management Recycle America. We had the chance to watch a short video on how recyclables get sorted, which was quite interesting. Once the transfer station is done sorting our recycling into plastics, paper, metal, etc, it will be sold to industries where they will reuse those recycled materials and BAM! Recycling at its finest. Most importantly, this is where economics comes into play. I think we tend to forget that recycling is a business, not just a government responsibility. The sorting center makes the rules of what is and what isn’t accepted due to the market.

As we get more into the economics of recycling, I hear Sweet Caroline in the background as Alive @ 5 continues to go on. I find it a little humorous as I’m sure I’m not the only one who hears the music in the background. So back to the serious question being posed. Why is the recycling market in crisis? It’s because no one wants our trash anymore. China was the main buyer in recycled goods and has stopped purchasing not only our trash, but many other countries around the world. Why is that? Well to put it into simple terms: We are horrible at recycling. We send China “contaminated” recycled goods meaning there’s a lot of unrecyclable or dirty recycled products (ex. Greasy pizza boxes) that costs a lot of money to try and separate. Aside from our poor recycling habits, China has a lot of issues such as land or environmental issues they’d like to address domestically rather than continue to put money into trash.

So what now? I want to say that the simple answer is to start recycling properly, but alas, there is more that comes into play such as politics, government funding, and the market. In my opinion, I believe it’s important that we begin pouring funds into our own domestic recycling infrastructures rather than send it overseas.

Visit Recycling in Frederick County’s Facebook page for more up to date news on recycling. Link:

About the author: Vanessa Moreno, a recent graduate from the University of Maryland with a degree in geography and sustainability with the hopes of becoming an urban planner one day.