'Waste watchers' are changing the recycling game at large-scale events

Waste Watchers
Photo credit Courtesy of Waste Watchers
By KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Picture this: Bacteria are chowing down on our discarded plastics so they can digest and pass it all out into an easily recycled material, which could then be used in construction and insulation. Wouldn’t that solve some problems?

The idea is getting serious attention from European researchers looking for ways to break down all that pesky polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — which is used in single-use water bottles — and polyurethane (PU), a multi-purpose plastic in everything from wood sealants to skateboard wheels. They’re notoriously difficult to recycle, but this could be one way to make it work.

Until that happens, municipalities are forging ahead to discourage single-use, landfill-clogging plastic products wherever possible. Camden County has become the latest in the Delaware Valley to approve a ban on all single-use plastic bags, straws, stirrers, utensils, Styrofoam, and single-serve containers of bottled water in county facilities and at county-sponsored events, beginning Jan. 1, 2020.

Recycling is an ongoing challenge, especially at big public events. Garbage going in — in the form of single-use plastics — definitely means more garbage coming out.

A recent Green Philly presentation on producing sustainable events highlighted the main points for planners trying to keep events as eco-friendly and on-message as possible: Choose a venue that is ideally easily accessible by mass transit. Pick food and beverage options for your audience, aka meat eaters, non-meat eaters and so on. Drum up community support — for goodwill going forward, as well as good attendance — to keep the event’s waste out of the landfill.

When you have trash to throw away, it’s a hassle to just carry it around, especially when it’s human nature to drop it in the nearest wastebasket. But noticing, much less seeking out, a designated recyclables receptacle at a street fair or road race is also a struggle.

Clean Air Council Special Events Director Bobby Szafranski said while the city has been an excellent partner for CAC’s annual GreenFest Philly in providing waste bins and removing them afterward, everything in them must be properly separated, starting with dumping discards into the right repository.

“It means we have to staff volunteers at all of the waste stations,” Szafranski said, “to make sure that all of the trash in the recyclables bin is actually recyclable in Philly’s waste system; that all of the stuff put in the compostables bins really are compostable. Otherwise, it‘s no good. All of what we want to recycle or compost gets contaminated in the stream and winds up in a landfill.”

Contamination — meaning when any non-recyclable or unclean item is tossed into a batch of recyclable material — is a huge obstacle, which is one reason Philadelphia officials burn half of collected recyclables. Half.

As for landfills, municipal landfills in the U.S. are the country’s third-biggest source of human-related methane emissions. Methane is such a quick-acting greenhouse gas that Scientific American describes it as “warming the planet on steroids for a decade or two before decaying to carbon dioxide,” which hangs around in the atmosphere for centuries, or even millennia.

On a positive note, there are marvelous volunteers who man the bins and make sure distracted event-goers can distinguish between the trash, compost and pristine recyclable bins. They’re vital to keeping the garbage organized for optimal eco-friendly disposal, and for a quicker breakdown after the crowds leave.

The Philadelphia Marathon hails these hearty folks as Waste Watchers and is actively recruiting for the big running weekend Nov. 22 to 24. 

These efforts last year put the marathon at an “89.3% waste diversion rate and climbing, meaning 9 out of every 10 pounds of waste is being recycled, composted, donated, or reused,” according to organizers.

“As sustainable event organizers, you’re a creative problem-solver,“ Clean Air Council’s Szafranski explained. “You ask yourself, ‘How can we make it so that every year the waste is smaller and smaller?’

“And sometimes the answer is pretty low-tech: You fill a U-Haul van with 5-gallon jugs of water and you get half a bunch of pitchers and a couple of dozen volunteers and refill people’s water bottles or compostable cups. Things like that.”

Fortunately, bins for recyclables are becoming increasingly available in public spaces, and it only takes a few extra seconds to separate your trash and be part of the solution.