Single-Stream Recycling: A Tour

Last week I had an amazing opportunity to tour the Balcones Recycling Facility as part of Austin Resource Recovery’s Zero Waste Blockleader program. For those of us north of the river, this facility is where all of our single-stream recycling goes for sorting. This facility is full of both advanced machinery and probably a couple of dozen human sorters at any time to get everything sorted.

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Huge pile of residential recycling ready to be processed

After loading everying onto a conveyer belt that feeds into the system, the first step in the process requires human sorters. They stand on both sides of the belt picking out plastic bags or utensils or other things that would interfere with the facility’s machinery. They also pick out some of the larger pieces of trash and things such as wood, which they actually support recycling for also.

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The turnoff for broken glass

After this, the machinery starts separating different types of materials. Any glass gets broken early in the process and falls through to its own turnoff.

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Looks like trash, doesn’t it?

The machines are able to separate large cardboard from smaller papers. Plastic containers and metal cans head down their own route for processing.

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Sorted cardboard heading over to be bundled

So much of the material was cardboard!

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Cardboard, cardboard everywhere

Sadly, anything containing multiple materials (such as packaging for a doll that I pointed out with both paper and plastic) gets sent to the trash. Economically, they just can’t support separating out the materials that are attached together. So please do this before tossing things in the bin. It’s easy enough when you don’t have a full conveyor belt of materials coming at ya.

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Picking rogue items from the newspaper belt

Similar to Lay’s potato chip machines that can detect burnt chips and blow them out of the main processing, there are electronic sorter machines that quickly detect the composition of materials coming down the belt and use blasts of air to sort them to the correct place.

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I think that was actually a soda can. It wasn’t really glowing, it was just moving very quickly.

The output of these machines goes through a human sorter also to handle anything that was misplaced, but the amount would be too insane for a single human to get through.

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We got a strong whiff of laundry detergent walking past this section

At the opposite end of the facility were bales of paper, cardboard, cans, plastic, and a huge pile of glass, all ready to go on to their next destination.

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Tons of paper and cardboard baled up
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Cans and plastic bales outside

Some would be taken in semis, but some would be transported by train.

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Train behind the facility, ready to cart some of it away

It was awesome seeing so much material converted to a format that could be reused rather than sent to a landfill. The only sad part was this pile at the end. The facility has to pay to send to the landfill everything that didn’t get filtered out into one of its recycling streams.

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Behind this worker and boxes, you can see the trash pile growing

 

But, well, that pile is an awful lot smaller than the everything else that does get recycled so it’s not so bad. I know that not everyone is going to want to embrace a true zero waste lifestyle which would prevent much of this refuse in the first place, so I’m enormously grateful that this facility exists and that it’s easy for folks to just toss recyclable items in their blue bin instead of contributing to our landfills. 🙂

Yet Another Way to Prevent Food Waste

At my office, on most days there is some kind of a meeting with leftover food. It usually winds up in one of the kitchen areas for people to randomly find. Some gets eaten, some ends up in the trash. At my office, we also use a chat program for communicating, so I created a chat channel called #free. This has worked great for not just meeting leftovers, but has included some items culled from folks’ pantries at home, personal lunch leftovers, non-food items, and a successful call to eat (or take home for banana bread) the very ripe and spotty bananas in the kitchen one day before they would have been thrown out. This has to be one of the easiest ways to keep food out of the landfill in an office. We’re up to 59 members now who share info on food that needs saving or at least will happily eat some of it. 🙂

Here are just a few of the many recent postings with successfully adopted items:

freestuff

 

Zero Waste Week – Day 5 – Goodwill Tour

Woohoo! It’s the last day of Zero Waste Week and I’ve made it through with, well, minimal waste. Today the Austin Zero Waste Lifecycle Meetup group went on a tour of the Goodwill Resource Center in south-east Austin. If you give something to Goodwill instead of throwing it in the trash, that’s no guarantee that it won’t end up in the landfill but they definitely do a lot working towards zero waste.

It started out with what definitely wasn’t a Zero Waste lunch, but I was prepared for this and had already eaten before arriving.

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Now I really want a Cheeto 😦

A few of the nice folks from this Resource Center and from Goodwill Central Texas shared some more information as other folks finished eating. The mission of Goodwill Central Texas is to empower people through work. That’s not just temporarily working at Goodwill but building the skills and experience to continue on to other opportunities. They’ve even done a ton of advocacy, going so far as to get laws changed, so they can offer the training and GED programs necessary for people to be successful in the workforce. Finding a job isn’t always easy for folks who are trying to make a life for themselves after getting out of prison, who have a disability, and other groups of people, so I’m glad that when I shop at Goodwill any profits are going to a good cause.

Next up, time for the tour! We all put on some orange vests and unfortunately for those of us who weren’t wearing glasses, we had to use some packaged glasses. (They were returned at the end of the tour.)

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I have a pair of lab goggles/glasses. If only I had known I’d need them!

The tour was worth it though. First up we passed through the Goodwill Outlet Store where as much as possible of the goods are sold. And then we passed along through the curtained doorways to where the real magic happens. Here a bin of unsold clothes gets loaded into the baler and ready to ship out to whomever is willing to pay for it.

Next up, we saw the sorting area where tons of hanging signs showed where to put almost every conceivable type of item. Depending on the type of commodity, these boxes and bales can then be sold for anywhere from $0.03 to $0.55 per pound.

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The sorting area has boxes and bins for small toys, luggage, paper, sports balls, vacuums, and so much more

Beyond that there are just boxes and boxes of stuff. All tagged and organized with what they have in them. Some are things that are ready to be sold either at this Outlet Store or shipped to one of the local Goodwill stores to be sold there. But it must be that that type gets disbursed fairly quickly because the majority of labels I saw was stuff that didn’t sell in the stores and is waiting to be sold on the commodity market.

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Computers are a special item because if they’re in working condition, they go to the MacFarlane store to be refurbished and resold. The machines and parts that are hopelessly broken just go to the recyclers.

But wait, that doesn’t look like a computer…

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A bale of stuffed animals hanging out among the electronics

Towards the back there are just stacks and stacks of bales of different materials, but definitely more clothing than anything else.

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Just a few of the clothes bales
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Oh hey, there’s some bales of plastic at the end of a clothing row.

And then of course, there’s the eCommerce department. Jewelry, books, expensive stuff. That all gets sold online so Goodwill can get the most possible value from it to put towards their mission.

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This could be a beautiful library, but they’re all being listed online
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Small items being packed up to ship
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And larger boxes for larger items

It’s not perfect, but Goodwill Central Texas is able to divert about 80% of the resources that come its way away from landfill, which is pretty amazing considering all the crap that people send to Goodwill constantly.

So that’s it, Zero Waste Week is over. I failed a bit at the end just because I missed eating out. Our final meal of ZWW was some fried rice from a chain not far from home. They still have real plates and real silverware, but at some point since my last visit they switched over to disposable cups. I survived without a cup of my own, but my husband’s cup of water tonight knocks off a few points for me. (And probably also his fortune and cookie wrapper, since he wouldn’t have gotten those had I not suggested eating out.) Oh yeah, and the receipt. At least I was prepared with my own containers for the leftovers and those will disappear tomorrow for sure.

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Don’t worry about the chopsticks. They’re from a previous meal that I’ve been reusing.

Zero Waste Week – Day 4 – Blog Bites

We’re almost through Zero Waste Week and I’ve read so many inspirational blogs that for today I just want to share some of my favorites. Enjoy!

Gippsland Unwrapped has a ton of ideas on how to make use of food scraps that would normally go to waste.

Zero Waste Chef shares how to repurpose jars, including removing those labels and some brilliant advice for defunkifying those really strong smelling lids.

Over at gaygeekzero he’s been in the garden but also taking it one step further with some tips on energy waste and repurposing to avoid buying new.

Waste-Free PhD describes her experience that ugly fruit is delicious.

I need to get start growing some lemongrass to try out this awesome zero waste bug repellent idea.

Westywrites gets into food waste prevention with some serious food planning.

As Lard tell us,

Unless you care, no-one else will...

So I hope these inspire you as much as they inspire me to be a better person and to continue striving to enrich this world.

Zero Waste Week – Day 3 – Gratitude Journal

Going zero waste isn’t about denying yourself the good things. In fact, the things that are trying to frustrate me this week don’t have anything to do with zero waste at all…. Well, the soda has been beckoning me and it’s hard to resist and it’s quite wasteful, but I have much better reasons to not drink it than Zero Waste Week.

And I definitely have the things that really matter, so without further ado, here are just a few of the things that I’m grateful for this week….

I’ve said it before, but first and foremost, I’m grateful that we have healthy and inexpensive tap water available so there’s no need to resort to a bottle.

I am grateful that we have a refrigerator and stove, which together make eating leftovers a breeze. (We ate yesterday’s leftover soup for dinner tonight, this time remembering to add the chickpeas and mushrooms.)

I am grateful that one of our local farmers at the market had tons of delicious cucumbers last weekend, and our local grocery sells package-free carrots, cabbage, and salad mix.

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Breakfast salad

I am grateful for working somewhere with a foosball table and plenty of coworkers willing to play a game or two. When your job involves staring at a computer screen all day, getting up, moving around, and maybe letting out a bit of aggression is a very welcome option. And other than the occasional drop of rod grease used, it’s zero waste entertainment.

I am grateful that my husband and I were able to afford this house and that it has a great yard that was (and still is) rich with weeds. There was plenty of clover adding nitrogen to the soil and dandelions loosening up the soil by sending down their long tap roots. Without them, we wouldn’t have these happy cowpea sprouts and squash baby.

I am grateful that even though I didn’t realize until after I picked it that this canary melon wasn’t fully ripe, it turned out to still be sweet, crisp, and satisfying.

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If this melon was ripe, the flesh would be white

I am grateful that although some insects are in the biting mood lately, most of them are totally harmless to me.

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On a melon leaf

What are you grateful for?

Zero Waste Week – Day 2 – What Makes a Soup?

Growing up I only knew one kind of soup. It required chicken, white rice, carrots, celery, corn, cabbage, salt, pepper, comino, garlic powder, and part of a can of tomato sauce. That was the only soup I knew, so if I had planned to make soup for dinner and didn’t have one of those ingredients on hand, I ended up eating something else instead.

Well, that was just silly. Soup can be made from anything, and it’s a perfect way to use up random veg in your fridge.

So today, into a pot half-filled with water I added veggies that I had on hand: carrots, onion, bell pepper, garlic, and corn. At the last minute I also discovered a potato hiding away and threw it into the pot. There’s so much potential for food waste prevention here. I had a couple of bell peppers, so I chose the one that was slightly softer to add. (Sometimes bell pepper seeds add a nice texture, but unfortunately my pepper today was not seed-rich.) Got ugly carrots? Slicing and boiling them makes those cosmetic blemishes totally disappear.

For seasoning, I added the standard salt and pepper. Plus some red pepper flakes (I have a ton of flakes from pizza lunch leftovers at work), comino, coriander, and oregano. If I had other seasonings in my pantry, I’d use those instead. Just don’t add something like cinammon unless you’re really adventurous. We’re trying to keep food out of the trash, remember?

Did I need chicken? Not quite. Strangely, I saw two of them walking through different parts of the neighborhood on my way home from work today, but I wasn’t tempted to slaughter them for dinner.

Of course, if you have a half-eaten chicken leg in the fridge or other random leftovers, throw those in too. It’ll only add value.

Some people use mushrooms as a meat replacement. I had some in the fridge, as well as some chickpeas that were ready to go. I totally forgot about them. Did the soup suffer? Nope, it was still delish. (The shrooms and chickpeas will get eaten later this week, no worries.)

For carbs, I added a bit of everything–brown rice, wild rice blend, and also barley for texture. Every once in a while I’ll throw in a bit of quinoa because my husband loves it. Other times we’ll just throw in some kind of pasta. Pretty much anything will work here. The only thing is if you use something that generally cooks fast, wait a bit longer before throwing it in to keep it from getting too mushy.

That’s it! Water and whatever else you have on hand. That’s what makes a soup.

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So good I ate most of it my bowl before snapping a picture. 🙂

What recipes do you have to help prevent food waste?

 

Zero Waste Week – Day 1

Today was the easiest day of zero waste week because it was a holiday and I wasn’t tempted by the junk food at work. Instead around lunch time I made a huge pot of vegan chili full of various diced veggies. FYI, this is also a great way to use up random veggies that would otherwise go bad. To start out the week, I’ll share the foods I stocked up on this weekend in preparation for this no-fast-food week. Not perfectly zero waste, but fairly close.

I knew I would need plenty of sweet fruits to avoid the week without regressing to soda so I picked up some peaches, pears, and holiday honeydew (maybe?). Plus there are a few canary melons in the backyard which are almost ripe.

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Fresh grub from the farmers market

Likewise, plenty of bread for satiety.

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Package-free bread and bagels

More carbs and plenty of nuts, plus peppercorns for good measure. (I’m already fully stocked on beans).

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No mason jars required!

Extra veggies, with a few stickers just to taunt me. I got these pears before getting the farmers market pears shown above and probably should have skipped these. And I know avocados aren’t the most eco-friendly item to buy these days, but my husband is so happy to eat the occasional avodado.

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Non-local produce
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Mixed greens and garlic that somehow avoided being in the previous photo

Then of course, there are the weekly wasteful things. Milk is a necessity for my husband and he’d be rather upset if I didn’t get him any… and then go out and get it himself. As for the toilet paper, well, at least the wrapper and cardboard core will be composted, and I imagine some of the tissue particles will wind up in Dillo Dirt.

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The wasteful things

To make up for that waste, though, I did something adventurous to make sure the pumkin blooms in my backyard weren’t going to waste. This morning there was both a male and female flower open, so I pulled off the male flower, stripped it down to the stamen, and showed that female flower a good time. I’m usually less concerned about wasting future food, so this is my first lesson learned for Zero Waste Week.

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Well, that’s it! Time to get to sleep early so I’ll be less tempted by the caffeine tomorrow.

Zero Waste Week 2016

Could you go Zero Waste for one week?

Could you go for one week without disposable cups, straws, napkins, bottles, or other single-use disposables? Well great news! Next week, September 5-9, is Zero Waste Week.  Sign up to participate. Or just try it on your own.

I, uh, drank a can of soda today and also picked up some fast food for lunch with significant packaging so I definitely have some room for improvement. For at least one week I can be prepared with bringing my lunch every single day! I’ll make sure to stock up at the market this weekend so I don’t fall to other temptations later in the week. And who knows, maybe it’ll really stick this time.

Zero Waste Week 2016

Every year they have a theme for those who have already mastered the previous years’ challenges, and this year the special theme is “Use it up!” You may hear a lot about plastic waste, but food waste might just be the worst waste of all. We’re talking about food that uses up good land and water, pollutes other water sources with artificial fertilizers, and so much more. And all that for food that doesn’t even get eaten!

So even if you feel like you can’t get away from disposable napkins for a week, consider some of the other things that you may be able to do to help reduce your food waste:

  • Buy only what you need.
  • Have a no-new-food day or two, and just eat leftovers or whatever other perishables you may find in your fridge. Consider making this a regular thing.
  • Learn a new recipe like how to make older apples into applesauce.
  • When you go grocery shopping and you see a wonky carrot with two legs, buy it instead of letting it get tossed out by the grocer later.

There are more less-waste ideas on the Zero Waste Week website.

So what do you think? Are there any Zero Waste changes you’re interested in trying out for a week?

Everything Has Value

Every time I see a beverage can littered somewhere, I think of can collectors. Yes, the men who would go around collecting cans in a large cart or large bag to take to the cash-for-cans machine. Why don’t I ever see them anymore? Why are so many areas totally littered with cans? Is it because they no longer have any value? Is there too much other trash to wade through everywhere? Or is it just not convenient enough to be worthwhile?

When I was younger, my family used to save our cans and take them to a cash-for-cans machine at the supermarket. We saw it there regularly, and the big “CASH FOR CANS” sign made it obvious that cans had value.

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An ugly version of the cash-for-cans machine

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen one of those machines in a long while. These days cans are just a nuisance and once they’ve served their purpose they all too often get tossed into a trash bin, on the ground, or even in the creek. 😦

How do we make it obvious again that things have value and shouldn’t just be thrown away? Should I start a business with these cash-for-can machines to drive awareness? Maybe those states that have a deposit fee are on to something?

Anyhow, my point is that everything has value. If something is laying on the ground, it can still have value. Even if most people can’t see it, those cans are valuable resources. The plastic bottles too. Even the polystyrene foam cups.

… Although even I don’t bother trying to find a recycling home for those. If it’s foam, I just throw it in the trash can. I may feel a twinge of disappointment, but that’s my limit at the moment.

But to close on a happier note, I’d like to share the story of one resource whose value I have done my best to honor. I have previously shared some examples of reusing old tshirts by means of tshirt yarn creations, but I’ve since learned to take it one step further.

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Disassembling the seams

By practice disassembling tshirts to make tshirt yarn, I’ve discovered that there’s a way to undo the hem such that you can often salvage longer threads for reuse. And I now have several different colors in a baby food jar either for necessities or for embroidery practice.

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Bonus thread!

Just this week I used some of my tshirt thread to hem up my most recent jeans acquisition. Sure, these little pieces of thread wouldn’t have maxed out the landfill but being able to find another purpose for them sure felt good.

Zero Waste Popcorn

I failed at many of my Plastic-Free July resolutions, including staying away from bagged popcorn at the office. But the journey doesn’t end with the end of July! Today I popped up some popcorn from the bulk bin to my own to satisfy my carb urges tomorrow.

It all starts with some a bit of oil in a saucepan. I love the occasional dab of butter, but popping with it hasn’t worked well for me as walnut and olive oil have. I’ve discovered by experimentation that this particular pan can handle six tablespoons of popcorn kernels, so I measure those out while the oil starts warming up.

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Stored potential

My mom has a specialty popcorn pan with a handle you can turn to keep the kernels from burning, but it’s totally not necessary. I grab the handles and lid of this pan with a dishtowel (so I don’t get burned!) from time to time and give it a good shake. Once it starts popping vigorously, it doesn’t really need to be shaken any more because of all the action going on inside.

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All popped!

If you have a glass lid for your pan like I do, it’s especially easy to see how much of your popcorn has popped. But the real determination for when it’s done is when a few seconds have passed and you haven’t heard any popping or if you start to smell anything resembling burnt popcorn. Yup, if you put in more kernels than there’s room for things can go bad. And as I mentioned before, my recent experiments with using butter for popping resulted with mostly unpopped corn. 😦

Anyhow, that’s it! You can season your popcorn if you like. Most of the time I just add a dash of salt and the popcorn disappears soon enough.

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This jelly bean container once had that nasty popcorn-flavored jelly beans. Now it contains delicious real popcorn!

For tomorrow, though, I stored most of it in this reused container. And for once, I will avoid the evil bagged popcorn, oh yeah!

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Popcorn–the condensed and expanded editions

P.S. – I know a lot of folks have always prepared popcorn this way, but I was raised on microwave popcorn and the occasional Jiffy Pop, so this is for other folks like me. For a while I also tried switching to popping the kernels in lunch-size paper bags which worked pretty well, until one day I left the popcorn unattended while it was popping and…

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Microwaved popcorn disaster

I freaked out when I came back into the kitchen and saw the microwave power was off, and then even moreso when I opened the microwave door and saw the popcorn bag on fire. This is what it looked like after I quickly grabbed the un-fire side of the bag and threw it into the sink to put out the flames. The microwave still seemed to work after that incident, but I’m much more comfortable with the stove now. And it’s way more fun to watch through the glass lid and see the kernels expand and pop all around.