Sunday, May 30, 2010

Thousands of People & No Trash

Yesterday I decided to volunteer to help people from all over the world know that Knoxville cares about recycling and is capable of hosting zero-waste events. All week, thousands of kids from 45 states and 13 countries have been competing in the global finals of Destination ImagiNation. These are the kids who are training to think creatively and solve challenges quickly as a team; yep, our leaders of tomorrow. So when the Knoxville Recycling Coalition asked if I would help at one of the lunches that promised to be a zero-waste event, I agreed so that I could see for myself how this worked.

Through trial and error at previous meals, they had it down to a fine science by Saturday. The kids and parents were starting to get the hang of it too, but they still needed a bit of guidance to know where to put what. The biggest component to making this a no-trash event was making sure the food vendor was on board with only providing food and products that were either compostable or recyclable. The drinks were all in either aluminum (sodas) or plastic (water or milk). All drink containers went into one bin that will be sorted and recycled at a facility owned by RockTenn in Knoxville.

The rest: food (including meat products), plates, utensils, napkins, etc. went into another garbage size bin that looked like trash, but here's the best part. Thanks to the Sevier Solid Waste industrialized composting system, all of this will be composted--not taken to landfill. Since they have 13 million visitors a year, a traditional recycling system isn't really feasible for Sevier County. Instead, no one has to sort their trash; it's done for them. They recycle what they can--metal, cardboard, tires, motor oil and newspapers--and compost the rest (minus plastic). The process is similar to backyard composters but on a much larger scale. Higher heats and excessive tumbling means it turns into compost more quickly. This enables them to divert an impressive 70% from landfill.

Even with the constant mantra of "plastic and cans on the sides, everything else in the middle," many disposing of their trash looked a little glassy-eyed. When we'd mention that it all gets composted, you could see the look of confusion. What about the chicken bones? What about these "plastic utensils" and the "plastic wrap" they came in? Normally you wouldn't put meat products in your backyard compost bin because that can attract varmints, but the industrialized system can handle it. And what looks like plastic is actually cornstarch based and will biodegrade (even the wrappers). An added bonus: they are made in the USA.

So was it truly a zero-waste event? The only items that didn't qualify were the occasional food wrapper that people brought themselves: from chips or a juice box, but that probably accounted for one small bag of trash. Amazing!

I commend the Knoxville Recycling Coalition for stepping up and organizing this. They're a local non-profit that's been operating for 20 years. They're the same people who are now recycling styrofoam. Thanks to a large bag from a neighbor, I now have enough for my first run. Hopefully they'll let me see the compacting process; I'll report back later. And for the record, you can include egg cartons and the packaging from meat, but wash them thoroughly. Those will be compacted separately but you can put it all in the same bag.

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