If the turnout for Earth Day: Celebrating 40 Years! is any indicator for how much Iowa Citians care about recycling, we’re screwed.
Earth Day Meeting
The event, held on April 22 at the Iowa City Public Library, featured four local guest speakers and felt more like PR for the Iowa City Sierra Club than an event that was supposed to inform the audience of what they can do to help.
Including the guest speakers, 22 people were in attendance, scattered through a meeting room that was set up to seat well over 50.
The topics ranged from a history of Earth Day, energy conservation and a student perspective on environmental causes. The event ended 30 minutes earlier than scheduled, concluding with a poem, read by North Central Junior High Student, Amy Shun.
Not a word was spoken regarding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Regarding recycling and maintaining a healthy eco-footprint, Gruwell said, “This is the issue of my generation. At this point, it isn’t even an option … we don’t get to choose, it just has to be done.”
She added that students do show initiative to recycle if given the option. I couldn’t help but wonder if she’s ever been on campus the weekend after finals when myriads of recyclables are tossed into dumpsters and furniture abandoned on curbs.
Gruwell also attended the Copenhagen Climate Summit held earlier this year. I wondered how much the jet fuel calculated into her eco-footprint.
Cynicism aside (I had just spoken with anti-recycler, Mike Sammons) Gruwell spoke of great ideas for Iowa City: Namely, a bike-exchange program that would allow students to rent bikes from the Bike Library for a specified amount of time.
During the meeting, Conservation Chair of the Iowa City Sierra Club, Jim Baker, (who made it clear that, yes his name is Jim Bake and no, he is not a convicted televangelist) applauded Environmental Advocates, the longest lasting environmental group in Iowa City for its 30 years of dedication to such issues as; yard pesticides and curbside pick-up for recycling.
Outside of the Meeting Room
Upon conclusion of the meeting, we filtered outside, where Iowa City was hosting RiverFeast. Could there be a more appropriate day for local businesses to peddle food to residents while disposing high volumes of Styrofoam, paper and plastic utensils?
To put the cherry on the sundae, many of the items were set adrift in the April breeze, sent to drift aimlessly through the community. On Earth Day!
I couldn’t help but wonder how those at the meeting genuinely felt that they were making a difference when, the moment they left the meeting room, they were confronted with the waste of their community.
Nearly ten years ago, Lone Tree resident, Mike Sammons read a New York Times article that would forever change his views on recycling.
In 2001, the Muscatine native was a self described, “dread-locked, hippy who believed in saving the world through recycling.”
That was before he read John Tierney’s article, “Recycling is Garbage,” a few years after it first appeared in The New York Times. The article confirmed what Sammons had suspected for years: recycling is overrated.
“We recycle because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy but the end result isn’t what people think,” Sammons said as he took a sip from his bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon — a bottle he had no intent of recycling.
Mike’s viewpoint is not popular among his peers, but then neither are many of his other beliefs: He is also against disc golf and “completely over listening to bluegrass.”
“I’ve been universally rejected, people just don’t want to hear about it,” he said.
“He has some interesting points, but I can’t help but disagree,” said long-time friend, Luke Mescher, who’s had altercations with litterbugs outside of his former place of employment, Falbo’s Pizza.
Mike’s main reason for believing that recycling on an individual level is a waste of time is how much big businesses throw out every year.
“As residents, we can recycle as much as we want. It’s still not going to make enough of a difference if companies continue to produce so much waste. Even if every household did recycle, we would still have a major problem … we’d have all kinds of excess recyclable-material backup, waiting to be recycled,” Sammons said, adding that glass is especially not worth the effort.
“Of recycled glass, only about five percent can be used in new products,” he said.
Sammons also lauds Styrofoam, claiming that the energy that goes into creating a ceramic mug is 1,000 times greater than that of Styrofoam.
“And don’t even get me started on paper,” he said, claiming that we waste more water through recycling paper than what we would use creating new paper.
While Sammons admits that plastic waste is bad, he references Tierney’s article when he makes the argument that cardboard and paper, though technically biodegradable, have a hard time breaking down in segregated landfills due to lack of oxygen. This results in paper products taking up much more space than their plastic-packaging counterparts.
“We spend needless time worrying about recycling paper, which is a renewable resource, Sammons said, “yet we don’t think twice about trashing cell phones and I-Pods, let alone the resources it takes to make the damn things.”
A point Dave Gilson made clear in the March 2010 issue of Mother Jones.
But what about the “go green” movement? The amount of individuals that bring reusable bags to the grocery store have to be doing something good, right?
“The only reason they’re bringing those bags is because the stores started charging for throw-away bags,” Sammons said. “The things that an individual can do aren’t going to offset the damage of industrial pollution,” he said.
Not to be entirely wasteful, Sammons does practice composting, though not because it’s good for the environment. “I compost because I have a garden, not because I give a damn,” he said.
“I’m cynical, I’ve given up hope. Let’s just enjoy the sinking ship,” Sammons said.
I owe this entire project to the Iowa City Yacht Club’s Tuesday night Dance Parties. If not for the obscene amount of plastic cups we bartenders dole out to thirsty patrons, I may have never noticed the lack of recycling done by downtown businesses.
Then again, strolling through downtown alleys, the problem is pretty much in your face.
The fact is, in a city that seems to pride itself on shopping locally and boasts a very hip bicycle culture, it’s a bit surprising to learn that, as a community, we suck at recycling. A fact that is only confirmed by many local businesses and apartment dwellers.
Why residents don’t recycle
As many local apartment dwellers know all too well, the city doesn’t offer on-site recycling services to buildings with more than four units.
This is a serious –and complicated– problem that city officials are hoping to address within the next few years.
The problem with offering recycling to larger buildings is that the system currently in place doesn’t allow for expansion to large units.
In order to implement recycling in larger units, each unit would be issued a small receptacle for curb-side pick-up. This would be both expensive, and a logistical nightmare come pick-up day, according to Iowa City Recycling Coordinator, Jennifer Jordan.
Even the 55 to 60 percent of Iowa City residents who have the option to use the city’s curbside pick-up service for their recyclables don’t always opt for the service, and though there may be a variety of reasons for not “going green,” when it comes down to it, there is one simple explanation.
“People absolutely hate sorting their recyclables,” said Jordan.
The system currently in place calls on residents to do the labor prior to pick-up. So, even if you only have to walk the stuff to the curb, you still have to organize it beforehand.
If you live in an apartment, chances are you have to haul the load to one of the six recycling centers in town.
“I’m busy with too many other things,” said downtown resident Colin Zhalhofer, “my cans and bottles go to the bums and everything else goes in the trash.”
Why businesses don’t recycle
Businesses are responsible for paying for their own means of recycling, according to Jordan.
However, it is apparent downtown that, even if a business paid for recycling bins, in many cases there simply isn’t any room for more receptacles.
“It’s really sad that Iowa City thinks of itself as such a progressive place and all that crap yet they have no system for recycling downtown,” said Iowa City Yacht Club Manager, Pete McCarthy.
McCarthy stores all of the bar’s cardboard in an unoccupied room. When enough cardboard has accumulated, the owner of the bar, Scott Kading takes it to City Carton on Benton Street.
The bar’s liquor bottles get placed in the alley, where they are left for the taking.
Plastic, however, goes right into the garbage.
New Belgium Brewery sponsors beer specials at local bars, requiring the bars to use plastic cups bearing the brewery's logo.
“We’re a small bar and usually only use plastic cups for dance party,” said McCarthy. “Bars like The Union use plastic cups every day and I know for a fact they don’t recycle.”
The Union and The Yacht Club aren’t alone. On a grander scale of waste, restaurants like The Airliner and Quinton’s don’t recycle anything but cardboard. Considering they are getting large food service orders in weekly, the waste adds up quickly.
“We recycle our cardboard but not our plastic. Though I wish we would, because we throw away a shit-ton of it,” said Quinton’s employee, Zech Ward.
Ward also worked briefly at the Atlas, and said that they were much more sensible about the environment than most restaurants he’s worked at. The Atlas recycles metal, cardboard and plastic.
The Airliner uses plastic cups, plates and silverware daily, all of which are thrown away, according to employee, Kori O’Brien.
“It’s too much work to not use plastic. Without it, Airliner would be overrun with dirty dishes,” said O’Brien.
The more restaurant and bar employees I spoke with, the more it became apparent that, when it comes down to it, the businesses don’t want to pay for recycling services, regardless of the restaurant’s size.
Even a large chain like Red Lobster tosses recyclables, according to employee Courtney Taylor.
“It’s a choice (the businesses) make based on willingness and ability,” said Jordan.
“We’re in the midst of the go-green trend, now’s the time to (recycle) by their own merit,” Jordan said of why local businesses should take it upon themselves to reduce waste.
However, Jordan doesn’t see that happening without a push from the city.
She has proposed a variety of ideas to the city, based on what has worked for other cities in the area.
Cedar Falls and Waterloo have an incentive program for businesses to recycle. The program gives official recognition to businesses that recycle by awarding them with a sticker they put in their front window.
The city may also consider offering financial incentives for businesses that choose to recycle.
Another option would be for the city to make recycling mandatory for businesses and force apartment complex owners to provide recycling dumpsters for their tenants.
The problem here is that the recycling regulations could be at odds with other regulations in place for property owners, according to Jordan.
An example would be parking issues. Currently, the city requires apartment complexes to have a certain amount of parking spaces, depending on the size of the complex. In many cases, the lots bear the minimum amount of spaces. If recycling dumpsters took up another parking space, owners may be penalized for not providing enough parking.
Yet another option would be for the city to take over recycling and garbage removal altogether. Which would not be in the best interest of small waste removal companies.
“I hope you’re starting to see that this is a very complicated issue,” said Jordan.
Both Des Moines and Cedar Rapids have successfully implemented single-stream recycling. As a result, Cedar Rapidians recycle over twice as much as Iowa Citians (70 percent, 32 percent).
However, Jordan is leaning more toward dual-stream recycling due to contamination problems with single stream. With dual-stream recycling, cardboard, magazines and paper would be separated from everything else.
“With single stream, we may see a 15 percent increase in recycling but a 20 percent increase in contamination,” Jordan said, adding that with dual-stream recycling, the risk of contamination is significantly lowered.
Jordan hopes to implement dual-stream recycling in Iowa City by July 2011. While the service would initially only be available to residents with access to curbside pick-up, she hopes the program will expand to include businesses and apartment complexes.
“We’re trying to come up with a system that doesn’t cost the city a lot of money and is easy for the public to use,” said Jordan.