As I sat down to put this column together, the title immediately came to me. It has to do with achieving the Four Rs, which are Reducing, Reusing, Recycling and Rotting (composting) our waste to be good stewards of the environment -- not to mention doing the right thing financially -- and how we get to the point where we can say we are successful.
In my opinion, it comes down to making it Easy, making it Efficient, making it Economical and then Enforcing the rules and regulations to get it done.
Let me talk about these in the context of the recent Kessler Report.
What I got out of the report was that not only is the great majority of what we are paying to be hauled up to the mainland to be incinerated recyclable, it makes economic sense for a community like Key West. I think it is worth noting the main point, that fully 70 percent of what we are currently paying to haul up to Miami is either recyclable or compostable. Even more noteworthy is the fact that in our community, something like 40 percent of our trash is organic material that can be composted and used here in Key West. These two points frame the rest of the argument that I am going to make now.
First, yes, there is a misconception that recyclables have no commercial value. It is absolutely true that certain metals, most prominently aluminum, copper and some of the other metals that go into electronic equipment are very valuable. In fact, there has been an explosion in the value of these commodities and it is infinitely cheaper to recycle material from electronic equipment than it is to mine new ore. Just to prove the point, in some communities they are actually taking the street sweepings and extracting the metals found in road dirt, including such valuable metals as platinum. These metals are deposited by the catalytic converters presently mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. If you knew the tons of material it takes to mine one ounce of gold, you'd be astonished: It's 30 tons on average per one ounce of gold!
Second, and more to the point, we live on a marl island that is "dirt poor." I don't mean that we're poor economically but that we don't have any broken-down material in which plants grow easily. If 40 percent of what we throw away is compostable, why are we hauling it to the mainland to be burned? Why aren't we doing a commercial composting operation here? Yes, land is relatively dear in the city but there are plenty of other places where a joint effort with the county would be eminently doable. In this process we would do two things: save the hauling fees to Miami and create mulch and dirt for local residents.
Then there is the reality of glass. Glass has virtually no value in recycling. I remember as a kid we used to collect bottles and they were taken back to the factory, washed and used again. For the most part, people don't do this any more unless they are absolutely forced to (which, in fact, happens in some communities). In any event, most of the glass that comes out of here is in the form of beer, wine and liquor bottles that have no residual value. Yet they are heavy and they take up a great deal of volume in trucks hauling them to Broward to do what we could do here, which is crush them. Almost all glass taken up north is crushed and put into asphalt. It seems to me that putting glass in a crusher down here and simply adding it as composite material in asphalt and concrete would be much cheaper than hauling it north for the same purpose. In fact, since glass is inert, it could be crushed and deposited in the lakes at Toppino's rock pits. It would take forever to make even a small dent in the volume available.
Now, back to my four Es. The four Rs have obvious philosophical and financial reasons for achieving them. I think in order to do that, however, there are four things we must add to the mix. First of all, we must make it Easy. Today, putting your recyclables in a box (even though we have a single-stream system) and then taking it to your garbage can is easy but not easy enough. It has been proven that a larger household container will immediately increase recycling. This is what we should do first: provide large-capacity recycling bins and put them where they are easy to access. Furthermore, there are certain things that mount up in great quantities, like bottles, that would save us money by separating them. I'm talking about newspapers, corrugated boxes and, potentially, glass bottles. But we need to have specific places to take the material. They do this in other communities, why not here?
Next, we need to make the process Economical. Recyclables do have value and we should be reaping the benefits from the efforts of recycling. They should come off the bills of what it is costing us to turn it over to someone else (Waste Management) but get nothing for it. Just the crushing of our own glass and composting our organic waste would make the entire process more economical through less cost of transportation.
The third thing I think needs to be done is to make the process Efficient. By that I mean we need to make it a process whereby we are expending less energy in "self hauling" and trying to figure out where to take these materials than we are doing now. For example, I have several pieces of electronic equipment that I simply cannot bring myself to put in a plastic bag with the rest of my recycling. I have a strange suspicion it will be crushed up and not recycled properly. These electronic instruments have other things in them besides material we want to reclaim that are not good for the environment, such as plastics, heavy metals and things like mercury and arsenic. Let's have community drop sites for electronics and consider separating glass from our waste.
Finally, we need to Enforce the rules we agree on as a community. As I have said many times before, it is strange to me that a community that sits so far out at sea and must bring everything in, pays to have everything taken out. There are a lot of things we can do voluntarily to reduce use and reuse things -- but the recycling and rotting of our throwaways is something for which only government can establish rules and then enforce them.
So there you have it. In order to make the Four Rs work, we need to make it Easy, Economical, Efficient and then Enforce the rules we set for ourselves.
I will if you will.