CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Earth Day was Thursday, but the impact of humans on the planet and the torrent of waste people throw out every day is always on Norm Steenstra's mind.
It's his job as head of the Kanawha County Solid Waste Authority, whose piles of recyclables and rows of long blue bins at 600 Slack Street are familiar to thousands of area residents who recycle there regularly.
But much goes on behind the scenes people don't see. That includes rows of workers - with music blaring from boom boxes -- who hand-sort all that glass, metal and paper, mixed sometimes with plain junk, as it pours along a conveyor belt or sits in piles inside the sagging 100-year-old main building.
Talk has begun of conceiving a replacement, state-of-the-art recycling center in the county, moving away from this old-school recycling process. Meanwhile, a new program, started to coincide with the week of Earth Day, now lets people drop off electronic equipment.
A reporter recently walked through the facility with Steenstra to talk about the philosophy and practice of reducing, reusing and recycling.
Q: Talk about the new "picnic shelter," as you call it, where people can drop off working and non-working electronics. You're asking a $5 donation for dropping off TVs, but otherwise the service is free through a REAP grant. What can be dropped off?
A: Basically, anything with a cord. People can just walk in and put their electronics, be it cell phones or toasters or computer hard drives or whatever. Every day we'll empty them and once a week a company from Tennessee will come and pick them up for us. This is the stuff that doesn't work that you want to just recycle. Then, there are boxes and benches where people can drop off appliances that do work that they want to offer to someone else to re-use or salvage for parts.
In the past, people had to pay people to take those. We found a recycler out of Tennessee [Scott Environmental in Knoxville] and we contracted with them so we don't have to pay them anything. They try to refurbish what they can and then get the precious metals out, particularly [out] of computer components. We'll take it for six months and see how it works.
Q: So reuse first and only then recycle?
A: There's a hierarchy of waste reduction and the first one is not recycle, but re-use. On this electronics thing, if you've got something that's got a cord on it and works, put it here and whoever wants it can take it. With the idea someone might need a vacuum cleaner. All of us have gotten rid of stuff that still works.
Q: It used to be there were all sort of rules for recycling metal, glass and paper. Separate lids from bottles. Divide plastics according to a number on the bottom. Green glass from blue glass. Now, your bins let you toss in a lot of stuff together. Why?
A: That was an experiment that really didn't work very well. It basically comes down to -- it's labor intensive. If we can keep our paper products from our co-mingled -- which is everything else -- then we've got the ability to pretty well sort it. Those are two different lines. We've tried to make it simple.
However, we're sorting at about a 1960-level of technology. There's stuff out there larger municipalities have for their recycling programs which is almost all robotic. It's amazing. Our high-tech thing you saw out there was our magnet [used to pull steel off the conveyor belt]. Everything else is hand-sorted. With the new technology, there are all sort of ways to delineate between paper, different types of plastic.
Q: What is the one thing people do who come to recycle that drives you crazy?
A: I think 95 percent of the people that come here are conscientious and know the system. But there's 5 percent that see this as something in lieu of a dump. So every day we'll have things dropped off here -- garbage. Bags of dirty diapers. Just anything. What are you going to do? You're always going to have that part of your population. So we take a little bit of crap every day. But still, of all the tonnage that comes through here, about 96 percent gets reused and recycled.