How to Create a Community Recycling Center

Learn how one environmentally concerned group created their own recycling center.
By Marj Coverley
July/August 1972
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Create a community recycling center.
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If you're already living on the land, you may well lie awake quiet nights dreading the day when either people from the cities or refuse from those steadily expanding Big Towns will flow, relentless as swift lava, over your paradise . . . and if you're still trying to tough it out in a metropolitan area you're surely haunted—at least occasionally—by the vision of no pure land left to visit "out there" at all.

Clearly, something must be done. Population growth must be curbed and our rip-it-up-stamp-it-out-throw-it-away way of doing business replaced by something better.

But how does a mouse lean on an elephant? How do little individuals begin turning the monster around . . . even the tiniest bit? Well, a number of folks across the land have made their start by collecting and returning for remanufacture some of the incredible amount of waste the nation generates daily. A community recycling center can go a long way in keeping waste out of the landfills, and reduces the use of natural resources.

Sure, sure . . . we all know that such action is a stopgap and largely symbolic gesture. But it is a start, and a few groups—like G.E.R.M., in California—are even making it pay off.

The Green Earth Recycling Movement was established in June of 1970 and just 12 months later—in June of '71—we opened a permanent recycling center to serve Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach in Los Angeles' South Bay. The new facility (donated by the Redondo Beach City Council) covers an acre and is fenced, graded and landscaped. It was designed to accept six transfer bodies at once and sturdy elevated platforms at each station make loading the containers a breeze.

It took only a scant year of dedication, then, to establish a smoothly running, almost self-service center that turns a tidy profit. Yes, it was hard work . . . but we did it. So can you.

Initially, unless you're very fortunate, you'll probably have to start—as we did—with a conditional center and contract for collection trucks and bins as you need them. We persuaded Lucky Stores, Inc. to let us use a portion of their parking lot two weekends a month. In exchange, we pointed out that people stopping to recycle trash would likely shop at the market . . . and we promised to keep the collection area clean and presentable. We had trouble with the "clean and presentable" part of our agreement right from the start, however, and continually faced the possibility that the market would evict us.

By December, 1970—when Lucky's interest in recycling had noticeably paled—we set out to find a permanent location for our growing business. No luck . . . but we did persuade Culver Savings and Loan (across the street from the Lucky store) to House us for a few (it turned out to be six) more months.

During those months we continued trying—with shrinking success—to convince the City Council of Manhattan Beach to set aside land for our use, though end for our use. In the end, (after a solid year of cajoling and wheedling Manhattan Beach), it was Redondo Beach that offered us a piece of city property for "as long as we liked".

The success was due, as much as anything, to the fact that—from the beginning—we were prepared to work with everyone.  

Almost any community is populated with people of all ages and interests. To make out operation a success, we needed the trash generated by folks of widely divergent persuasions. ... so we played no favorites.

Our ("our" being mother Earth, a group of frustrated oil refinery hecklers) very first step—even before we got into the problems of locating land for either a temporary or permanent recycling center—was to contact the Environmental Control Officer of Manhattan Beach. I stress this is a first step not because the Manhattan Beach City Council represented any actual support—even the openly sympathetic members were paralyzed by committee decisions—but because it operated as a perfect contact exchange board. In an effort to get rid of us, in other words, the Manhattan Beach City Council put us in touch with everyone else in town who had ever tried to start a recycling program.

Through the MBCC, we contacted the American Association of University Women, the Dolphins (the local Junior Women's Club), the ecology groups at El Camino College, three nearby high schools, the Girl Souths and the Welcome Wagon... and we mutually decided to pool all efforts to establish a continuing recycling center.

Yes, conflicts did arise within our coalition. At one point, the El Camino kids arranged to deal with the underground Peace Press because the Press would allow us to use their I.B.M. Composer in the wee hours of the morning to print up our flyers. More conservative elements objected. They didn't want to get our group involved with the Peace Press because it was on a list of subversive organizations. In the end, however, we used the Press for composing and a respectable local printer donated the printing. Strange bedfellows for a good cause.

The most active group we joined with was the American Association of University Women. They had already held two recycling drives with success and had an invaluable connection with ABCO Disposal Company.

ABCO, a vigorous trash collection firm with long-range plans for mass refuse recycling, runs a transfer station in a nearby suburb. The station is solving current problems of overcrowding and long distance transportation to the two landfill sites in Los Angeles by acting as a halfway site for nearby city sanitation trucks. The trucks pay to drop off raw trash at ABCO and the company uses sophisticated sorting methods to separate and gather recycle-able materials. ABCO compacts the remainder and moves it to the sanitary landfill. In the future, bio-degradable material will be composted to provide commercial-grade fertilizer.

Naturally, ABCO was interested in our recycling efforts both from a public relations standpoint and as a future contributor to their waste conservation program. They provided the bins and transportation for our first collection free, and let us defer hauling costs until several drives later when we were clearing enough money to handle the charges.

ABCO also provided primary advice in the early days. The company's representatives, for instance, pointed out the necessity of breaking each bottle as we threw it in the bin: it takes up less space that way. Crush all cans for the same reason: salvage companies pay for weight only . . . not bulk!

Once we had a site and trucks lined up, we were ready to let folks—both the established community and the beach people—know we were in the recycling business and needed their support.

We went after individuals with flyers and posters along the beach and in the shops. Groups were even easier to contact: we obtained a list of community organizations—everything from the Soroptimists to the Sierra Club—through the Chamber of Commerce. (All you have to do is call the Chamber and ask. . . they're happy to send a complete list pronto.)

The best approach for prominent groups is a formal letter explaining the problem and setting out your plans. We then asked each group, in our first mailing, if it would like to actively participate as a sponsor. The results were surprisingly good. We found that as long as we approached each organization through its own etiquette pattern (neat letter, follow-up call, time to take the issue to members for a vote), the members were open-minded and helpful.

Some of the groups were already recycling—usually news papers and aluminum cans—on a sporadic basis. This is a passable way to raise money, but it really doesn't educate people about waste ecology . . . so several organizations with such programs underway joined us. The ecology club from T.R.W. Systems stopped hauling their refuse across town and brought their brimming V.W. buses to the center. The Girl Scouts called a halt to the individual collections they had been making and went door-to-door with our flyers instead.

The organizations that weren't onto recycling the first time around were quick to respond to our second letter, in which we offered to send a speaker and slides to one of their meetings. Soon, Green Earth members were giving slide talks two or three nights a week. We also set up an information spot at the collection drives we conducted so that anyone who wandered in by accident would learn exactly what was happening.

Our approach was successful . . . must have been, because it led us hard against the problem of how to deal with the staggering amount of trash that came pouring in! At our very first setup in June of 1970, ABCO left us one forty-cubic-yard transfer-body (a large walk-in box affair) for newspapers and six tree-cubic-yard receptacles . . . one for clear glass, one for colored glass, one for aluminum cans, one for corrugated paper and two for tin.

Surprisingly, the material we collected—5 1/2 tons of newspapers, 1/4 ton of corrugated paper, over a ton of clear and colored glass, 1/3 ton of tin cans and 140 pounds of aluminum—filled most of the bins.

As that first summer progressed—and the amounts of refuse we collected leapfrogged—we never knew how many trucks or bins we'd need for the next drive. This proved to be a big bummer, because it prevented us from showing a profit. Our only cost at that time, you see, was the hauling of the bins and transfer-bodies to salvage buyers. Since we had to vacate our temporary sites at the end of each weekend, we often had to pay for transporting bins that were only half full. It was just as disastrous to have too few containers as it was costly to have too many.

Slowly, however, our logistics problem began to solve itself. By early 1971 the amounts of refuse we collected had begun to stabilize and we usually had a good idea of how many trucks we'd need for a drive and how fast we'd fill them. By that time our good faith had also been recognized and we were allowed to leave transfer bodies in the borrowed parking lot from one drive to the next . . . so we stopped using the small bins entirely and switched to the more efficient 40-cubic-yard bodies for everything.

During the winter and spring of 1971 we were receiving about 7 1/2 tons of newspapers per drive (a truck will hold approximately 20 tons), 5 tons of clear glass and 5 tons of colored (a transfer-body holds 10 tons of glass, so we hauled glass after every other drive), 1 1/2 tons of tin (a truck holds 3 tons) and roughly 200 pounds of aluminum.

Since opening our permanent center in June of 1971, the amounts of waste we collect have continued to leapfrog. We're now gathering over 1,000 pounds of aluminum a month, up to 33 tons of newspapers, 20 tons of glass, 4 tons of tin and 2 tons of corrugated.

We've had only one space crisis since putting the the permanent center into operation. That was when we closed the operation over last season's Christmas holiday. Then it rained. When the sun came out, so did everyone in town . . . with a month's newspapers. Next time we'll have an extra truck on hand (in colder areas, such foresight is critical).

Gradually, through trial and error and experience, we've learned to both forecast and level out the peaks and valleys of the refuse we collect . . . to our financial advantage. We've also improved our dollars-and-cents picture by finding ways to cushion or stabilize the prices we're paid for the salvage we sell.

At first, of course—like so many other groups into recycling—we were completely at the mercy of the salvage buyers who did or didn't accept (at their own prices) what we sent them. Newspaper sank from $14.00 a ton in June, 1970 to $7.00 a ton in December . . . and, by January of '71, paper companies in our area weren't buying recycled newspapers at all. Obviously, such a situation was intolerable to us so we worked out a deal with Pioneer Paper: we fill a bin three or more times a month and Pioneer guarantees us $6.00 a ton, gives us use of their transfer bins and absorbs hauling costs.

We have a similar deal to deliver corrugate (which had earlier gone from $15.00 a ton to a "no-buy" status) at a fixed rate of $10.00 a ton.

Tin was a really tough one. In the summer of 1970 there was no market for it at all. The amount of metal in a modern "tin" can is so slight that the containers vaporize into ash in a melting heat. We did persuade an independent salvage company to haul tin for us . . . once. The cost was $50.00 and the load sold for $5.25. So we stored our tin cans with ABCO until—finally—in the spring of 1971, various salvage companies began buying tin cans for $14.00 a ton.

We have established some degree of stability for ourselves in the perennially uncertain salvage market, then . . . but our battle is far from over. ABCO has recently expressed an unwillingness to continue hauling for us and we may have to purchase our own transfer bodies.

To stave off this burden, we're trying to work out more direct agreements with companies that have a specific use for a particular recycled material. Currently, for example, we're arranging to sell tin cans to a company for $12.00 a ton. The firm will also (as does Pioneer with newspapers) lend us a transfer bin and absorb hauling costs. We find it increasingly easier to land such contracts as our volume goes up.

Large volume or small, Reynolds Metal has fixed the price of aluminum at $200.00 a ton. Though their corporate heart is in the right place, their recycling operations are—unfortunately—largely public relations. Several times our trucks have been sent back 30 miles across town because the Reynolds collection center wasn't equipped to handle volume loads that day.

The mere fact that Reynolds is playing the game, though, has encouraged other firms to jump on the ecology bandwagon. Some are even virtually subsidizing the price for recycled material.

Owens-Illinois is paying $20.00 a ton for glass and, in combination with Sessler Glass Co., is absorbing the problem of removing labels and aluminum rings from the necks of the bottles they accept . . . even though they presently use only 40% of the glass they buy. Owens hopes to reuse 100% of the recycled glass eventually (the clear variety is easy . . . what they're looking for is a reliable use for the more plentiful colored returns) and already has developed a road paving made of crushed bottles.

New uses for refuse are being found. The tin we gather is now being sent to Arizona where it's put into service in the strip mining of copper. Yes, strip mining is decidedly an eleven-letter word to ecology-conscious people . . . but it's at least a small step in the right direction when we use recycled tin for this particular process rather than plunder the land for fresh tin with which to plunder for copper. We definitely must keep our eye on the main battle . . . but we mustn't forget the smaller skirmishes either. With some of the profits we realize from our recycling center, we hope to exert, pressure where necessary to insist that the results of our efforts are in keeping with the Green Earth spirit.

The deeper we get into our project, the more we realize that each step forward is a hopscotch into new challenges. At first, we worried only about clearing enough money to keep our operation alive long enough to establish it on a permanent basis.

That hurdle was cleared when Redondo Beach fenced, graded and planted trees on land for our use . . . but the city's generosity forced us to spend $950.00 for concrete pads on which to park the transfer-bodies and to build catwalks between them.

Then we found we needed to hire a friend to work at the center while it's open, clean up afterward and—generally—look out for the place. About that time, too, one little boy was bitten by a rabbit that lived under the bins and loose talk of lawsuits sent us running to a lawyer. We now have insurance coverage for the operation and we're applying for a non-profit incorporation with the State of California.

Still and all—even with painting, signs and other expenses—we're clearing between $500 and $700 a month and it's great to see our recycling center brimming with people and trash Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and all day Saturday. Our tonnage is increasing and most of our headaches are disappearing. The total amount of refuse we handle certainly doesn't deplete the city's trash collection much, but it's a start.

We're all volunteers and we plow the profits we make into waste education and enlarging our G.E.R.M. of an idea. If you duplicate our success on your own, however, you might apply what you make toward a homestead you could rest a little easier in, knowing that the folks in town who followed your example will be far less likely to toss trash in your direction.


What's a "Stabilized" Price For Recycled Materials?

The G.E.R.M. price stabilizing procedure really comes down to just one word: wheedle. Salvage buying and selling is still an unstable business in which it definitely pays to bargain and deal. Whenever possible, move in the direction of sorting the refuse you collect and selling each specific material directly to a company with a use for the particular commodity.

It's most important to point out to businessmen just where their self-interest really lies . . . this, they respond to. Now that the glass companies have been convinced that they'll have extensive use for recycled glass in the future, for example, they're subsidizing the price right now as a public relations move to keep the supply liquid until they tap it for real.

We've found two persuasive ploys that work well for us when we're opening markets for our recycled materials:

(1) The real cost of salvage vs. new material is illusory. If companies were forced to actually pay for the cost of new resources—pollution and waste-wise—salvage (even salvage needing some reprocessing) would be much cheaper.

(2) When you have material procured on a volunteer basis (getting cans out of a house) vs. resources obtained on a paid basis (getting metal out of the ground), there has to be a profit somewhere for the companies handling the materials gathered by volunteers. This is especially true in the case of aluminum (recycled aluminum cans are both less expensive and easier to remanufacture than starting fresh with new ore).

Admittedly, sophisticated ecological and economic arguments make little headway with the local can man . . . so we push and hope for the best deal we can get.  Our current rates of payment are sure to fluctuate as the salvage market continues to adjust to new inputs and breakthroughs. 


Tips on Picking a Site for Your Recycling Center

As you look for a site—temporary or permanent—for your recycling collection point, keep in mind that (1) the location should be easily accessible and visible from the street and (2) you should plan right from the start to keep the station open often enough to make recycling a convenient habit for even the most reluctant housewife.

If you're forced to operate on a "drive" basis in the beginning, schedule those drives regularly—we staged our initial collections third weekends of every month—so that a single advertisement will tell people when to use your facilities on any month.

The longer you can persuade your first landlord to let you stay, the better. The "creature of habit" is still alive and well in urbania (as elsewhere) and, in time people will work your center into their Saturday morning errand patterns.

The permanence of your operation also helps to solve the most basic problem of convincing city officials and local businessmen that your plan is serious and workable. Many pillars of our community seemed to resist us not through a dislike of recycling or fear that it would compromise their business interests, but because they were afraid that recycling was a passing fancy. No kidding! They didn't want to be caught supporting something that might suddenly brand them behind the times.

Expect to have to hustle to keep any temporary sites donated to you . . . we worked hard to maintain use of both of ours. Once, at Lucky's, the glass bin was accidentally tipped over while being loaded onto the transfer truck and the market's manager naturally took an uptight view of three tons of broken bottles in his parking lot. We all turned out to sweep up and the manager let us stay on . . . impressed, I think, less with the salvaging of resources than with our determination to keep the operation running.  


How to Handle Plant and Animal Waste in Your Recycling Center

One of the greatest obstacles to recycling natural wastes is the tax advantage given to chemical and mining interests by the government . . . an advantage actually greater than the notorious one enjoyed by oil companies. This unfair leverage allows the chemical and mining giants—who, in effect, are not forced to bear the real costs of manufacturing the fertilizers they produce—to undersell natural, recycled fertilizer and, thereby, hold a tight rein on the market.

If this unfair leverage were taken away from the chemical and mining concerns, we would quickly see the merits of composting agricultural, food and other such wastes into commercial-grade plant food. This would save local governments millions of dollars in disposal costs (burying and burning), produce an ideal fertilizer at low cost and dramatically slow our current reckless consumption of natural resources.


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