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What Goes Around

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After musician Caleb Sweazy and his wife moved to Memphis, he hauled a large load of cardboard to a recycling center on Jackson.

"I had been saving it in my garage," he says. "We had a lot of boxes from moving and buying stuff for our house. Everything comes in so much packaging."

Sweazy had checked the city of Memphis Web site and found that the city's residential recycling program would pick up cans, plastic bottles, glass, and paper, but not cardboard.

"It wasn't as comprehensive as when we were living in Los Angeles," Sweazy says of the program. "The big garbage bin you roll to the curb? We had one that size for garbage, one for recycling, and one for yard stuff."

But just last month, as Sweazy was planning a second trip to the recycling center, the city announced it would begin accepting cardboard.

"International Paper came to us and said, 'Hey, is there any way we can help you guys get corrugated cardboard and paperboard packaging into your program?'" says Andy Ashford, the city's recycling and composting administrator.

Ashford says the main obstacle was collection.

"Cardboard is a bulky item. It was a matter of getting it into a collection vehicle," he says. With help from IP, the city looked at how cardboard recycling was done in similarly sized cities and did some tests. The recycling trucks have two side chambers — one for paper, the other for plastic, metal and glass — and now have slots for cardboard items.

"When [cardboard] was cut to the proper size, our trucks seemed to dump okay," Ashford says. "Cardboard [was not] included in our processing contract from the early '90s, so we had to convince them we could deliver the product."

Ashford guesses the addition of cardboard will result in a 5 to 6 percent increase in recyclables volume, adding somewhere between 1,000 to 2,000 additional tons of recyclables each year. In the last week, the city program collected an additional five tons of recycling, a move Ashford calls "encouraging." He could also call it fiscally sound.

Each ton of recycling earns the city $25. It doesn't cover the entire cost of the program, but it certainly helps. And with more people recycling, maybe it could.

The city's recycling bins hold 18 gallons — the most common size nationwide, according to Ashford. Residents are encouraged to put their overflow into paper grocery sacks, but a larger container might entice them into recycling more.

"As our materials continue to grow, we may evolve to a larger, wheeled container," Ashford says.

The city's solid waste management program has also broken ground on a household hazardous-waste facility, expected to open to the public in December. The facility will recycle things such as batteries and flourescent lightbulbs. Flourescent bulbs are considered more "green" than traditional bulbs because they are more energy efficient, but should not be thrown away because they contain mercury.

Both the changes seem promising, but there are a lot of things the city and its residents could be doing — little, simple things that would help make a difference.

I remember flying into the Salt Lake City airport last spring and having a complete "duh" moment. The airport had been redone for the 2002 winter Olympics and was beautiful. But more impressive were the recycling bins for newspapers sitting next to virtually every trashcan.

Downtown — arguably Memphis' current showpiece — could use some help in this area. Waste management is a residential program. Even City Hall isn't served by the city's recycling program; it's served by a private recycling company. Shouldn't public spaces have more places to recycle? And couldn't tax-paying businesses — corporate citizens — be included in some sort of citywide recycling program?

A friend of mine has an idea of putting recycling bins for plastic bottles and cans downtown. If a recycling center were located nearby, area homeless could take the cans and bottles and redeem them for cash. Or the city could recycle them in other ways.

On the beaches of Fort Lauderdale, recycling containers are buried five feet into the ground, enabling money-saving pick-ups once every few weeks. The containers are designed to reduce odors, and keep animals and insects out.

In Pasadena, California, bottles from bars and restaurants are picked up as part of a pilot program. The city got a grant that enabled them to buy collection bins for the restaurants, as well as collection trucks.

Closer to home, the Tennessee legislature has a bottle bill pending. Under the proposal, consumers would pay a 5 cent deposit for bottles at the point of purchase and would get that deposit back when they returned the bottle. Consider it a cash incentive to recycle.

I'm not saying that it's going to be easy (although most of these things don't seem hard, just a little labor intensive). But we should be looking at ways to make recycling work for the city, not finding reasons why it can't.

Caleb Sweazy says he started recycling because he couldn't continue throwing things away and feel good about himself: "The idea of all this stuff going into a landfill really bothered me. I pictured all these plastic bottles — imagine if you had to keep that stuff and carry it around with you."

And, in a way, we do.

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