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What to do with all those annoying styrofoam packing peanuts? Here's one company's solution. More...

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Companion Article: Waste is a Waste

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  Our society creates a lot of waste – an average of 1,642 lbs. per person each year.  In the old days, we whipped our garbage into the streets, burned trash in open piles, or buried it.  Today, littering and backyard burning of residential trash are prohibited. Landfill capacity is shrinking, there are no plans to site new garbage landfills in CT, and many existing landfills are closing.  Therefore, the majority of our waste must either be incinerated at permitted facilities, or recycled. 

Architect and author William McDonough argues that recycling is nothing more than damage control.  He believes it not sufficient to protect the long term health of the planet.  His book Cradle to Crade: Remaking the Way We Make Things proposes that an industrial system that "takes, makes and wastes" can become a creator of goods and services that generate ecological, social and economic value.  The book itself is a concrete example of a different way of thinking.  It is printed on “treeless” paper made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers.  Its synthetic pages are bright white, rugged, waterproof and 100% recyclable.  

Recycling technology is improving.   In the past, most identification and separation was done by hand.  As you might imagine, that is not a fun job.  Optical sorting equipment and giant magnets and vacuums are now improving the speed and accuracy with which materials can be separated.  

Some items like metal and glass can be re-melted over and over again without any loss of quality.  White paper, on the other hand, can only be recycled a half dozen times before the quality deteriorates.  Plastics are often “downcycled” into other products like carpets, which end up in a landfill or incinerator at the end of their useful life.  Products that are a mixture of materials, like computers made of plastic and metal, are more difficult and expensive to recycle.  In some cases, there is no market for recycled feedstock.  Thus, forward-thinking manufacturers and businesses are focusing on reducing the amount of material (like packaging) they use in the first place, and designing products with recycling in mind.

Orange Art, a wholesaler of art and fine stationary in Woodstock, CT, believes that being green is simply common sense.  According to co-owner John Cook, the company considered disposal of styrofoam packing “peanuts” a terrific waste.   For as long as peanuts have been collected separately at the Town Transfer Station, Orange Art has been picking up them up for reuse.  Otherwise, the styrofoam would have to be disposed of as bulky waste. “Why purchase packing material when we can do 100% recycling?” says Cook.  “We urge our customers to do the same.” (Note:  styrofoam peanuts for recycling must be delivered to the Transfer Station, as Orange Art is not set up to accept them directly from individuals.)  “We also bring our wood pallets to the Transfer Station, where they are used to compact garbage,” noted Cook.  “In addition, about 85-90% of our boxes are re-used for packing and shipping.”  Orange Art didn’t stop there.  “We bought a hybrid for our corporate car as soon as they came on the market,” noted Cook.  “And we’re looking into solar power.  Our offices are even recycled – they are located in restored nineteenth century barns.”  

Originally published in the Villager on November 30, 2007

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