G.E.R.M. had great success in creating a community recycling center.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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