Waste and recycling are critical topics as we think about how to reduce our personal footprint on the world and be responsible global “green” citizens. We thought some education from the waste processing side could help us all do a better job of disposing of our waste responsibly. We went straight to the top for some expert advice: Trevor Mance, founder of TAM Waste Management, a leading waste management provider in Vermont, is our very first Eco Interview! Trevor explains why clean recycling is more important than “more” recycling, the limitations of single-stream recycling and what we can do about it, and gives us all a compost challenge.
Eco is Sexy: What are the tops things that people should be recycling that they are still throwing away?
Trevor: In areas where curbside recycling and/or drop-off recycling stations exist (which is most of the country at this point), we should be more concerned with recycling correctly than adding additional items. Check with your hauler or municipality to help ensure not only that your recycling can be processed, but that everyone else’s recycling that your materials gets mixed into can be as well. If recycling loads come in with too many contaminants, Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) will make the decision to send it to a landfill to protect their machines, quality of material they send out, or workers’ safety.
Eco is Sexy: How can customers be more helpful to you in the process? What are customers routinely doing that they shouldn't?
Trevor: With recycling in a kind of crisis mode due primarily to China pulling out of the market,* the number one thing to focus on is clean recycling. We have gotten spoiled and frankly lazy with the introduction of single stream recycling. Single stream gives many people a false sense that they can throw everything together and we figure out a way to separate it. Items like multi-material packaging, kids’ toys, clothing, lawn mower and other scrap metal, garden hoses, film plastic and many more items are often put together.
It is important to understand that single stream recycling does have its limitations. Some of the items above are absolutely recyclable… but not in your blue bin. For example, we get lawn mower blades which are hardened steel come over the line in the summer, and if they land just right in the glass breaker, they stop the machine dead and break one or two shafts… this is a $4,000 repair. Those blades belong in the scrap yard not a MRF that is designed to handle tin cans.
Another item that is very recyclable but not in most MRFs is film plastic (any plastic that is not molded into an item: newspaper bags, grocery bags, shrink wrap, etc.). People should find a location that takes film plastic (usually their grocery store). Film in a MRF wraps around the star screen shafts and stops the machine from being able to separate materials. These items cause us to shut the line down every other day for an hour and a half in order to cut all the plastic from the shafts. Any wrap-able item is dangerous and expensive for MRFs.
Eco is Sexy: What are some misconceptions about commercial composting programs and can you please tell us how it really is.
Trevor: Probably the biggest misconception is that all compost yards smell. Composting, when done correctly, does not have objectionable odors more than a hundred feet or so from the active area. Another misconception on the organics side is that “we don’t produce enough food waste.” I challenge anyone who says this to get a five-gallon bucket and put all your food waste, dirty napkins, coffee grounds, etc. in it for a week (if you make it that long before filling it) and tell me you don’t have enough! When you fill that bucket and compost it, you have offset the use of burning a gallon of gasoline in your car (composting saves the release of methane when food waste is put in landfills). It is a tangible, and quantifiable, measure of the environmental benefit that we all to often can’t get in the eco world.
*For more than 25 years, wealthy North American and European countries shipped their plastic trash to poorer countries in Asia, many of which were developing nations and lacked the capacity to manage the waste. China alone took 45% of the world’s plastic waste imports. At the beginning of 2018, China refused to take more, citing environmental concerns.
About TAM Waste Management:
Trevor Mance started TAM Waste Management in southwestern Vermont in 1996 when he was a senior in high school. Today, TAM has grown into a hauling company with 40 trucks and 67 employees. In 2012 TAM initiated a local facility for recycling organic materials (composting), such as yard debris, food waste, wood chips and manures. It currently serves commercial food waste producers, but will expand to accommodate additional customers as the project develops. In its first operating year, TAM processed 1600 tons of food scrap into rich composted soil. In 2014, TAM opened a local facility to process recyclable materials. Processing locally helps keep transportation costs and environmental impact down, and these jobs stay in the local Vermont community. Thank you to Trevor for sharing his insights!