Monday, March 7, 2011

Guest blog #15: Caroline Canning's thoughts on recycling

"I was surprised to hear that Ann Arbor’s municipal recycling plant is only a 15-minute drive from the Michigan Union.  For some reason, I imagined that the plant would be in a far away place, that it was a huge facility, spanning acres, molding our plastics into new creations.  Yet, when we got there, it was more like a large warehouse at the end of a road of landfills.  And, rather than creating new products, the plant sells sorted materials to other companies to reuse them.

Offloading materials

Conveyor belt

About to be compressed

Bales of materials waiting to be shipped off

As the five of us hopped out of the car, we were greeted by a huge pile of trash at the front of the plant.  It didn’t smell too strongly, and we proceeded inside to our tour.  Ann Arbor runs an outreach center that aims to educate its citizens about recycling, so we watched a video about the plant and its new single stream capabilities.  I think it’s great that the city is proactive in educating its citizens about what happens to their waste.  The intern told us that since July, when Ann Arbor made the switch to single stream recycling, the plant has seen almost a 20% increase in the amount of recyclables they receive.

Outreach center
 We then proceeded to take a tour of the machinery. Among the high tech sensors that help sort the waste, workers tediously pick out items and toss them into bins and onto other conveyor belts.  What I first noticed was the loud noise, and in a matter of minutes, I could feel a headache coming on.  The other thing I realized was that it was pretty chilly, even on a lovely day in Ann Arbor.  Okay, so by lovely I mean it was in the 40s and the sun was shining.  Even so, I couldn’t help but think that it was usually much colder, and the working conditions, to put it bluntly, kind of sucked.

Listening to music, and hopefully enjoying themselves
After the tour, Darshan and I talked about two things that piqued my interest: Why is it that we desire recycling, but forget about the people who are actually working at these facilities? How does the recycling plant balance being in the “business” of “doing good” for the world?

Although I didn’t talk to any of the workers, I suspect none of them were especially excited about working at a recycling plant.  We whisk our trash away and forget about it, and never think about who is handling it after.  It would be an interesting project to interview the workers about their jobs, and really delve into what they think about it.  For me personally, I don’t aspire to sort recyclables, but I would like someone to do it.  Is this selfish?  What does it say about the structure of our society?  When caring for the environment, shouldn't we be caring for each other as well?

Keeps coming, keeps coming
 People gravitate towards recycling because it makes them feel good about helping the planet and using fewer resources (in some sense).  But we forget that recycling is actually a business, and the Ann Arbor plant is run by a corporation.  Ann Arbor is unique in her recycling ways.  Due to the fact that the city owns the plant, and that it is in close proximity to the city and the other locales that feed it materials, it is actually more profitable to recycle than trash our waste.  But would the city really try to motivate us if it wasn’t earning a profit?  Sadly, probably not.  Instead of dwelling on a pessimistic view, it does say something that A2 creates an environment conducive to recycling.  However, if we used less resources all together, there would be less to recycle, and profits would fall.  So even though the idea of recycling is usually linked with consuming less, a revenue threshold exists that needs to be maintained.  What I therefore struggle with is the contradiction between business and the environment.  From a recycling plant perspective, are we supposed to stop consuming?

Waiting to be fed into the recycling machines
Overall, the recycling plant was thought provoking and (for lack of a better word) cool experience.  I would encourage anyone to go check it out, you can arrange for a tour like we went on and be back on campus in a little over an hour.  Check out their website:"


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