The End of Garbage

>Many cities have at least a minimal curbside recycling program. But in Boulder, Colorado, putting out your newspapers and bottles is only the beginning. Eric Lombardi, Executive Director of Boulder's EcoCycle, one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the U.S., is a passionate activist who practices what he preaches. As part of EcoCycle's commitment to turn Boulder into a "Zero Waste Community," Lombardi collects Styrofoam, fire extinguishers, and plastic lawn furniture at EcoCycle's Center for Hard-to-Recycle Material, or CHaRM.

Lombardi spoke with The Atlantic about the art of recycling agitation, the no-free-lunch realities of garbage, and how other cities can get to "zero waste or darn close to it."

lombardi.jpgHow did curbside recycling evolve into zero-waste recycling in Boulder?

We've been around 34 years--we were one of the first curbside recycling programs in the U.S. In 1987 the big corporations moved in and wiped out 95 percent of the mission-driven recyclers who, like EcoCycle, were dedicated to resource conservation.

But EcoCycle hung in there during this mainstreaming period, and in '97 or so we realized that there was much more that we could be recycling. We looked in garbage cans and realized that hey, there's a market for 80-90 percent of this stuff! Recycling is only the beginning! What about composting, for instance? That's half the stuff in our trash.

So a group of us started pushing for a greatly expanded dialog about resource conservation--to explore how almost everything we throw away could be used, either by industry or agriculture.

Government and mainstream recyclers laughed at us when we talked about "zero waste." But we've gone through the classic Gandhi thing where first they laugh at you, then ignore you, then get mad at you, and then join you. In fact, the National Trash Hauling Industry just announced their support for zero waste after they'd been bucking against us for 15 years.

What exactly does the phrase "zero waste" mean?

With big players moving into the recycling movement, it's important to talk about this. A zero-waste community, according to the International Zero-Waste Alliance--which I helped found--recovers 90 percent of its discards for recycling, compost, and reuse. And you treat and landfill the last 10%--you don't burn it. Treating is very important. Otherwise you create methane with live biological material.

EcoCycle realized we needed to make our hometown community of Boulder a model for zero waste. CHaRM was able to take things to the next level, to answer the question, What about all that other stuff? What about the tennis shoes and the Styrofoam and all the computers and all this other stuff that was still going into the landfill? We went to the city and argued that they should let us compete against the big waste companies. The city agreed. We're pretty darn cheap--cheaper than average landfill costs--and we're way cleaner and greener. The community loves the service.

It sounds like you have a good relationship with the city of Boulder. How can that be a model for other cities in the U.S., even cities that are bigger and don't have Boulder's college demographic?

EcoCycle is a private, community-change organization. We shake the tree. If the dialog is good between the community organization and the local government, then you can do what's called an inside-outside change game. They're on the inside, we're on the outside. They're not against what we want, they just can't go as fast as we'd like to go. It may look confrontational sometimes, but what's really going on is that you're having coffee with the mayor, telling him, "We're going to march on you Tuesday night with 400 angry people, but don't take it personally. We're just demanding change--in fact, we're creating cover for you to make that change."

Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson played that inside-outside change game to get civil rights done. They'd call each other all the time, saying, "OK, I'm gonna do this now. It's going to make you look a little bad, but don't get upset." It's a strategy! That's how we change the world for the better.

The second thing that we've done is to negotiate a contract--I call it a social enterprise contract--to run the publicly owned recycling facility here. The contract says that if EcoCycle meets three of the most important criteria for a recycling facility--

1) you operate as cheaply as you can

2) you sell the recyclables for as much as you can

3) you bring in as many tons of recyclables as you can

--EcoCycle will get an almost guaranteed profit of around 8 percent. That turns out to be the same "cost-plus" model that our local investor-owned power utility has with Colorado. Shrinking the big utility model down to a little utility model sets an example others can follow, I think.

Bigger cities seem to be moving in the right direction--papers and cans first, then composting, but how do big cities implement programs for the hard-to-recycle stuff?

Let's start getting more CHaRMs built. Just a couple of days ago we heard that they're going to start one in Atlanta, one of three or four other cities in the country that are working with hard-to-recycle items in their recycling program.

Basically, when savings accrue to the city government, the government is going to pay attention. With a lot of communities the contract is set up so that the government doesn't get the savings, so there's no incentive. That's one of the things we've got to pay attention to--when the community starts to behave in a greener way that saves the city money, the city should get that money, not the private company. At least they should share it. The financial incentive is the biggest thing. I mean, come on, we live in America! Gotta follow the money!

The second benefit from starting a CHaRM is greenhouse gas. Lots of communities are trying to figure out how to lower their emissions. The third thing, and this is the biggest one, in my mind: do you want to make your community happy? Let me tell you--Boulderites love CHaRM. If anybody tried to shut down the CHaRM in Boulder, there'd be a riot.

I've tried to recycle some hard-to-recycle stuff where I live, and it's ... hard! You have to drive it your old computer someplace and then pay to have someone take it --

To responsibly recycle a computer costs somebody money. This is not a profit-making activity.

Will you come and pick it up, at least?

We'll charge you--we've gotta pay our driver and our gas, just like anybody. There are real costs associated with all this, but do you know how much landfill costs? There are real costs to burying landfill or burning it, too. Those two options are actually more expensive than the CHaRM option. Someone is paying somewhere in the system. Nothing is free. The only "free" recycling in town, which we're very upset about, is the kind that ships container loads of old computers over to China. That is disgusting. It is unethical and we need to not do it. We're really injuring kids over there and people who are poor. We've got to bust these guys.

We helped 60 Minutes with an exposé about this last year, on a Denver recycler who was collecting recycling for free, taking all our customers away and shipping the stuff to Asia.

Here's another thing we have that helps ease zero-waste recycling into the community--what we call the "pay as you throw" system. We have different-sized cans with different trash-removal costs--X, 2X, 3X. It's not like the old days where you paid one price for unlimited trash. And that rewards the recycler. If you give somebody a big recycling bin for free but make them pay more to use a big trash can, they'll use the smallest trash can and pay the least amount every month. Because you know how big that block of Styroroam is? Plastic kids' swimming pools, chairs, fire extinguishers, or toilets? If you throw that stuff in your small trashcan, you've got no room for the rest of your trash and you pay more. So there are direct, monetary savings every month, and they're significant.

What are some of the more unusual items that people bring to you for recycling?

Yoga mats. Only in Boulder, right? Bicycle tubes, too--a local manufacturer is turning them into fancy purses and wallets.

How do you reach out to entrepreneurs who might have use for those sorts of unusual and harder-to-recycle items and materials?

They find us. One of the founding philosophies behind CHaRM, and recycling in general, actually, is that if you get a pile big enough of any one kind of material, an entrepreneur will want to buy it.