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: https://www.facebook.com/FrederickRecycles/?ref=br_rs

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.

The Grocery Story: Our Food and Co-ops in the age of Big Grocery Retail

The Grocery Story: Our Food and Co-ops in the age of Big Grocery Retail

grocery storyI walked in the C. Burr Artz Library expecting a large crowd gathered in the community room. There were a couple of tables set up, chairs lined in their rows, and an elderly crowd making
chit chat as we were waiting for Jon Steinham to begin his discussion on his new book: AGrocery Story. Once we all gathered at our seats, the lights dimmed and Steinham took his
place behind the podium.

The talk began with Steinham thanking his sponsors and the various co-ops he visited along his trip from Canada to most of the East Coast. Before starting his book tour through North America, Steinham worked in radio and television as a journalist and was a former elected director of Kootenay Co-Op from 2006 to 2016.

Jon Steinman

The important question that comes into play is, how and where do we get our food? It’s not something we really think about in our day-to-day lives, but Steinham took this question into a much deeper thought. Today, we have left our food in the hands of corporate giants such as Wal-mart, that shape price perception on food prices, our environment, health, and local economy.

Why have we left this enormous responsibility to the private sector? With only a handful of corporations running the grocery store market, collusion and fixed pricing can occur along with monopolies leaving local grocery stores little room to fend for themselves. This issue was first seen in the early 1900s, but there were efforts to combat this with legislation and people actively shopping at independent retailers. Once we hit the 1980s during the Reagan Administration, one can see the drastic and rapid increase of corporate grocery stores due to lax regulations in trade.

This is where the co-op comes into play! While looking into alternative grocery stores, Steinham not only discussed co-ops, he brought up stores such as MOMs and Whole Foods. Unfortunately, natural grocery stores are not free from the hands of corporate money; Amazon recently purchased Whole Foods.

As organic and local food started becoming more popular among our growing and environmentally aware population, you can now walk into any store and see aisles of these foods. “Local” was no longer local as they were once advertised. Grocery stores could label something as local, but actually produced 200 or more miles away. The value and meaning of local and organic was slowly diminishing.

Co-ops generally adhere to an upstanding value of good, healthy, and local food/ wellness products. When Jon Steinham was working at Kootenay, the board of directors coinedthe term, “TRUE local” foods meaning that those were produced 0-150 miles away. Not only do co-ops support local farmers, they stimulate the local economy. With the head office located in your town/city, big decisions are made by people who live in the community, not by a headquarters located out of state. This cotnributes to economic development when co-ops use local legal services, construction companies, etc. to keep business running. In my opinion, co-ops follow the public sector model in a way. Not only are they run by community members (and not by a major corporation), they act as community centers for wellness classes and workshops.

Also a fun fact, co-ops are three times more likely to give back to the community by donations and investing in the economy, Steinman said.. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Vanessa at the Common Market, which sponsored Steinman’s talk.

When I attended college at the University of Maryland, I lived in a co-op called CHUM (Co-Op Housing of the University of Maryland) so I am very familiar with how co-ops generally run.

I love the idea of grocery store co-ops, but the issue that still boggles my mind is: How can we
make this food affordable for EVERYONE to purchase? A member of the audience asked Steinham this question and he admitted that it is a tough issue to address. You are paying a higher price to support your local farmer and have that food readily organic, but that doesn’t appeal to every person. There are some co-ops that offer discounts if you are at the lower end of the income scale, but aside from that, prices are going to be a little higher. I hope that one day we can address this issue as it would be amazing if one day everyone could buy from a co-op and stop supporting these corporate giants.

Author: Vanessa Moreno, urban planning and sustainability enthusiast while always trying tofind the best place to support my local grocery store. This is her first blog post!