By the bag or by the box

“That’s one thing that the perception of recycling needs to get away from — it is different from garbage. It’s a resource that has another life somewhere along the stream.”

— Laura Wolf, Curbside Management

All across America and beyond, landfills are groaning under a continuing stream of stuff that gets manufactured, distributed — and tossed away, often long before it has ceased to be useful. The environmental, economic, aesthetic and medical consequences of this profligate mass behavior are considerable.

To some folks, recycling is practically a religion; to others, it’s anathema. But whether you place yourself in either of these camps or somewhere along the very broad spectrum in between, you might be surprised by some of the diverse forms this seemingly pedestrian activity may take. In this ensemble piece, a cadre of Xpress staffers joins forces to explore the many faces of recycling in our community.

It’s in the bag

by Margaret Williams

Bet you didn’t know you could make a bra out of a plastic grocery bag.

A recent Internet search turned up that idea along with countless other clever ways to reuse this ubiquitous household clutter-creator. The bra suggestion came with this caveat, however: “Please note that the standard white plastic bags can be a little ‘see-through,’ so it will pay to check your appearance in a mirror before venturing outdoors.”

This particular option might seem, as a female employee at a local recycling company exclaimed on hearing the idea, “a little bit uncomfortable!” but don’t let that deter you from exploring other ways to re-use a mass-produced item that piles up everywhere and is tough to get rid of. Recycling them is difficult because, as Chaz Miller wrote in Waste Age magazine, “The manufacturing process uses diverse resins and colors” that create “remanufacturing problems.” And for those who simply toss the offending sacks in the trash, he notes that the plastic film the bags are made of won’t compost.

A local expert, former Madison County Solid Waste Director Ron Townley, reports that plastic grocery bags “are a bane to landfill operators” for a different reason: “They’re just like those little parachutes those action-hero figures used to come with. When folks unload [garbage] at the landfill, those plastic grocery bags … blow everywhere, and [staff] spend untold hours collecting them from trees and things,” says Townsley, now solid-waste coordinator for the Land-of-Sky Regional Council.

On a more serious note, the Sierra Club Web site reports that “In New York City alone, [using] one less grocery bag per person per year would reduce waste by 5 million pounds and save $250,000 in disposal costs.”

Perhaps that has something to do with why environmentally conscious shoppers at Earth Fare were put out when the local gocery stopped collecting the bags for recycling about a year ago, explains General Manager Tony Warren. “I was told [by recycling companies] that no one in North Carolina collects them anymore [because] there’s no money in it.” His recycling hauler reported that the closest place buying the bags for recycling was in West Virginia, but the logistics of collecting enough bags to send there proved nearly impossible, Warren reports.

And then, of course, there’s the age-old question: What’s better for the environment — paper or plastic? “That’s a tough one,” says Warren. Personally, he prefers paper, especially bags made of recyled paper. And paper bags, he notes, can still be recycled locally in “mixed paper” bins.

But plastic bags, says Townsley, are so cheap to make, which may explain why supermarket clerks dispense them so generously even when you buy only a few items. Paper bags can cost 25 times as much to make than the thin plastic ones, he notes.

That price break could account for the fact that four out of every five grocery bags used in America in 1996 were plastic, according to the Film and Bag Federation. The trade group also reports that nearly half of U.S. supermarkets collect the bags for recycling. In Asheville, all three major grocery chains — Bi-Lo, Food Lion and Ingle’s — provide this service.

And as for Warren’s question about which is better, the Sierra Club’s answer is, “Neither! The fact is that the difference between paper and plastic RECYCLING is small compared with the REUSING [of] bags.” In other words, instead of focusing on recycling those brand-new bags you get in the checkout line each week, you might do better to either keep using the same bags to haul your groceries (double-bagging them, of course, in case one suddenly decides to give up the ghost) or, perhaps, switch to a more durable, reusable cloth carryall.

Meanwhile, however, that leaves you with the question of what to do with the small mountain of plastic sacks you already have — so it looks like we’re back to the plastic-bra idea … or else less-sweaty fixes like using the little sacks as wastebasket liners (my favorite approach). You can only go so far with that idea, though, so Xpress went to askjeeves.com and linked to an article, “How do I Recycle Plastic Bags? Let me Count the Ways,” by Teresa Higginbotham. This Martha Stewart of plastic-bag reuse suggests such strategies as “Use a sack to harvest your garden vegetables,” “Take a bag on your dog’s walk,” “Take a few sacks in the diaper bag for soiled or wet diapers on the road,” and “hang a sack … in the laundry for dryer lint,” just to name a few.

Before you laugh these off, consider that the average household produces nearly 20 pounds of plastic bags every year (that’s a lot of bags, considering how light they are). And even if you do manage to recycle your bags, they’ll be delivered to a manufacturer who’ll make them into — you guessed it — more plastic grocery bags. Or so says the Bluewater Recycling Association’s Web site (bra.org, though this is not the source of the plastic-bag-bra idea).

One last thought: Ireland recently enacted a Plastic Bag Environmental Levy to reduce the number of bags handed out to retail customers in that country (the current estimate is 1.2 billion bags per year). The law, passed this March, charges people for using plastic shopping bags; the money goes into the country’s new Environmental Fund, which “support[s] waste management, litter and other environmental intitiatives,” according to the oasis.gov.ie Web site (a government-sponsored public-information site in Ireland).

The number of bags handed out, says the site, “is excessive and largely unnecessary. Plastic bags are a very visible component of litter in Ireland throughout our towns. … They have a negative impact on our environment and on our wildlife and their habitats. The charge is being introduced to encourage the use of reusable bags and to change people’s attitudes to litter and pollution in Ireland.”

Keeping toxic TVs (and other e-trash) out of landfills

by Tracy Rose

A lot of people would probably agree that half the stuff we watch on TV is toxic. But fewer folks realize that the stuff inside our televisions can also pose threats to both environmental and human health.

In fact, the cathode-ray tubes found in TVs and most computer monitors contain an average of about four pounds of lead apiece. And when it’s time to replace these and other kinds of electronic equipment (a frequent occurrence, in the case of many high-tech gadgets), they often end up in the landfill.

Discarded electronic equipment may also contain other pollutants, including mercury, selenium, cadmium, arsenic and zinc. In fact, electronics waste accounts for about 70 percent of the heavy metals in the nation’s landfills, according to the Carolina Recycling Association, a nonprofit organization that aims to conserve resources by advocating for waste reduction and recycling in North and South Carolina.

That’s why the association — along with a coalition of local governments, environmentalists and other recycling advocates — supports a proposal to ban the disposal of “e-waste” in North Carolina’s landfills and incinerators. The proposal also would establish an “advance recovery fee” that would be tacked onto computer and TV purchases; the money would be divvied up among local governments to help fund electronics-recycling programs. The fee would be similar to the ones consumers pay when they buy tires and large appliances, says Scott Mouw, the state’s recycling chief in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

North Carolina residents produce more than 50,000 tons of electronics waste each year, according state estimates. In Buncombe County, the figure is estimated to be around 1,300 tons a year.

“That’s enough lead to blow out the environment,” observes Ron Townley, regional solid-waste planner for the Land-of-Sky Regional Council (who also sits on the Carolina Recycling Association’s board of directors).

And though strong liners can delay the process, “all landfills ultimately leak,” the Association noted in a recent legislative alert sent to its members. Keeping toxic materials out of landfills to begin with is the surest way to keep them out of groundwater, says the bulletin.

At the moment, it’s illegal for businesses and government institutions to dump electronics waste in landfills, but there’s nothing on the books to prevent individuals from doing so.

Buncombe County is one of 14 local governments in N.C. that already have e-waste recycling programs; some localities, however, are considering discontinuing theirs due to budget woes. Others want to start programs but don’t have the money.

The proposed disposal fee would be about 15 cents per pound, which works out to about $7.50 for a 50-pound monitor and $1.05 for a 7-pound laptop computer.

But such proposals aren’t without opposition, admits Townley. The computer industry advocated against a similar proposal in South Carolina, and the initiative got tabled until 2003. Meanwhile, groups in California, Idaho, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Nebraska are pushing for electronics recycling in their states.

In North Carolina, however, the problem of e-waste has already caught the attention — and potential support — of members of the General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission, a joint legislative body that considers solid-waste and other environmental issues, says Mouw.

“They want to see, I think, a greater effort across North Carolina to see that those materials don’t go into landfills,” he reports, adding, “This is one of their hottest concerns.”

The Environmental Review Commission will consider the issue either this spring or in the General Assembly’s next session, Mouw says.

For more info, contact Townley at Ron@landofsky.org or Carolina Recycling Association Director Tavey McDaniel at (919) 545-9050 or taveym@cra-recycle.org. For more on the Association, check out its Web site (cra-recycle.org).

To voice an opinion on the electronics-recycling proposal, contact the co-chairs of the Environmental Review Commission: Sen. “Fountain” Odom at (704) 377-7333, (919) 733-5707 or Fountaino@ncleg.net; and Rep. Pryor Gibson at (910) 572-1217, (919) 715-3007 or Pryorg@ncleg.net.

Trash into treasures

by Sammy Cox

Old places contain valuable clues about a community’s past. And for local recyclers, wood-workers, retail business owners and preservationists alike, preserving the past sometimes dovetails with reusing the present. Linking all these people into a sustainable stream that blends economics, waste reduction, cultural heritage and art is the painstaking process of salvaging building materials.

Before an old building is demolished, salvage contractors “deconstruct” it, carefully removing reusable materials — wood flooring, windows, doors, assorted hardware, moldings and other items — so that they can find new life in other construction or renovation projects.

One of the most colorful local salvage contractors is Bradley Barrett. A familiar sight to downtown residents and shopkeepers, Barrett drives around in his huge truck, sporting his trademark hard hat and hard-earned smile. All sorts of interesting-looking building materials hang from his flatbed trailer. For the past several years, Barrett has made a living reclaiming and selling salvaged building materials. He operates Asheville Recyclers, one of a growing number of locally owned architectural-salvage shops.

Barrett started doing carpentry as a teenager and quickly learned the art of recovering discarded materials. “We basically try to reverse the process of the original construction,” he explains. Often called “deconstruction,” this way of systematically dismantling a structure takes a great deal of patience. Barrett’s holistic approach was influenced by Pete Hendricks, hailed as the “father of deconstruction.” The Piedmont resident has coordinated more than 50 deconstruction projects throughout the Southeast; in 1998, he was named Recycler of the Year at the Southeastern Green Building Conference.

Deconstruction, says Barrett, is good for the environment and for the local economy. “We provide the service of removing materials and a supply of reusable materials for construction and renovation projects.”

In 1998, Barrett coordinated the deconstruction of the Williams Building on the Warren Wilson College campus. Logs from the old structure were carefully removed and stored in the wood lot adjacent to the school’s sawmill. A couple of years later, the logs and other salvaged lumber were used to build an on-campus blacksmith shop.

Recent graduate Karen “Rudy” Rudolph helped coordinate the project. What began as a classroom assignment in Program Planning and Design soon blossomed into a rewarding but labor-intensive endeavor. “Looking back, it seemed like things just fell right into place,” she reflects. Warren Wilson student Justin LaMountain, who’d studied timber-framing in his native Maine, erected the skeleton using wood harvested from pine-beetle-damaged trees in the school’s 600 acres of forest. “The college’s Natural Resource Crew milled the lumber, and students constructed the blacksmith shop utilizing alternative building methods,” Rudolph explains. The logs salvaged from the Williams Chapel provided the infill for the cordwood-and-mortar walls. The roof decking, she notes, was also reclaimed from the Williams Building; randomly placed, recycled glass bottles allow light to penetrate the 8-inch-thick walls.

Rudolph says she derives a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that school officials and people like Barrett had the insight to save these materials for future use. And in this she’s not alone. “We had a elderly couple stop by during the construction who had attended WWC and actually got married in the Williams Chapel many, many years ago. They came by and asked for a cordwood section to remember the occasion,” Rudolph recalls.

Trash into art

Jeff Burgner has helped Barrett with various deconstruction projects, often recasting the salvaged materials as works of art. Burgner is one of 30 crafters who exhibit their work at the Asheville Hemp Company on Biltmore Avenue. Co-owner/manager Megan Blair, who manages the unique art-gallery-cum-retail business along with Barrett and Burgner, speculates that nearly 75 percent of her eclectic inventory has been made using recovered materials. From barn-wood tables to hand-bound books, Blair’s recycled-art gallery is a delightful blend of form, fashion and utilitarian craft.

Burgner, who uses both new and recovered materials in his fine-carpentry projects, observes that both present challenges. If you’ve ever spent a good portion of an afternoon picking over a fresh stack of boards at the local lumberyard, you’ll know what he means. The quality and character of new wood sometimes lacks consistency, says Burgner; used lumber, on the other hand, has its own peculiarities.

“With old boards,” Burgner observes, “no two pieces are exactly alike. This can make things difficult when you’re trying to achieve similar results, such as matching panels on the doors of a cabinet.” Over the years, he’s learned to take advantage of the unique characteristics of recovered materials in creating one-of-a-kind designs. Burgner works on both high-end speculative pieces and affordable, craftsman-style furniture made from rustic materials.

Local wood-worker Wesley North says the natural patina of older wood makes it perfect for restoring antique furniture. “I often salvage the oxidized face of older boards, which make seamless patches for fine antiques. This saves me time and hours of trial-and-error attempts to achieve the same effect with stains or shellac,” North explains. His River District shop is stacked with chestnut, maple, oak and cedar.

Although North has personally reclaimed wood from barns and demolition projects over the years, he normally buys from local salvage outlets such as Asheville Recyclers and Architectural Salvage on Rankin Avenue. North says he especially appreciates the “truth-in-advertising” aspect of older wood. “When I get a 2-by-4 rafter from an older building, I can count on it measuring 2 inches by 4 inches,” says North with a chuckle. (A standard 2-by-4 bought at a home-improvement store now measures 1-1/2 by 3-1/2 inches.) That extra material helps North match the look of an antique when he’s producing tapered legs for tables, hunt boards or larger pieces of fine furniture.

On a recent visit, North’s latest project, an English farm table, stood out like a centerpiece amid the mix of chisels, power equipment and wood shavings cluttering his shop. The fat turned legs and wide pine boards recalled an earlier era, when craftsmanship was an inseparable component of everyday life.

North says he senses this history whenever he works with antique furniture. “Sometimes, when I’m repairing a piece or pulling a hand-wrought nail from a piece, I have to journey through time and try to get into the same mindset of people who lived in a much more deliberate time,” he reveals.

Not all of the salvaged materials at Asheville Recyclers find their way into other construction projects, says Barrett. “We’ve rented out some of our materials for storefront designs and theater props. People can be quite creative using some of the hardware and fixtures,” he says with a laugh. Wherever these materials end up, however, it won’t be in the waste stream.

And that’s no small thing. Last year, construction-and-demolition debris accounted for 29 percent of the material entering North Carolina landfills, according to an annual report compiled by the state Division of Waste Management and the Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance.

Preservation, the ultimate recycling

Susan Bakewell, former president of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, has worked directly with salvage contractors on a variety of projects. “From a preservationist point of view, demolition is the last option among many when it comes to preserving a place,” Bakewell explains. “If we are faced with those prospects, we make sure that we recover as much material as logistically possible.” The Preservation Society contracts with salvage companies to do the actual deconstruction. “Component parts [flooring, mantels, doors, etc.] are recovered and utilized in other preservation projects, or sold by the salvaging contractors.” The local Preservation Society receives a portion of the sales whenever the item is eventually sold.

The Society, says Bakewell, helps preserve our region’s heritage by providing both educational and technical services. “We’re kind of in the middle of the process … acquiring a property, then marketing it to a sympathetic developer who ultimately restores the historic property.”

This approach has produced a string of successes, including the Richmond Hill Inn (perched on a knoll overlooking the French Broad River), the Gudger House (in Montford) and the Manor (on Charlotte Street). Earlier this year, the Society bought a charming 1899 Victorian cottage that was recently moved from its original Asheland Avenue address to Short Street in Montford.

Saving and restoring a vacant historic structure, notes Bakewell, entails several levels of recycling. “When we preserve a historic place, we hold onto a piece of history and restore the cultural heritage. The spirit of our past is carried on for others to enjoy.”

Preserving and revitalizing Asheville’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, she comments, not only improves the area’s overall aesthetics but also stimulates the local economy. New businesses and residents, as well as tourists, appreciate architecturally unique communities like Asheville, says Bakewell.

“We’ve always been known for our natural beauty. More and more, we’re being recognized for our city’s architecture and the historic neighborhoods surrounding Asheville,” she asserts.

And in the final analysis, whether you’re a preservationist or deconstruction specialist, a recycled-art dealer or an artist who turns trash into treasures, reusing resources rather than sending them to a premature burial can benefit the community in surprising ways.

99 bottles of beer in the bin

by Steve Rasmussen

The next time you’re in a local restaurant or bar, when you ask your server to bring you another glass of wine or beer or soda, the members of Better Asheville Recycling Coalition would like you to ask another question, too: “Do you recycle?” In most downtown eateries, they say, the answer will be “No.”

B.A.R.C. was born last fall when a group of UNCA students, discussing the world’s most pressing environmental concerns in Kara Rogers‘ humanities class, realized that the local restaurants where many of them worked were not recycling the large volumes of aluminum cans, glass bottles and cardboard boxes they generate — even though most had been approached by several recycling services. Asheville’s ordinances focus on the residential waste stream; businesses are not required to recycle.

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