(This 1131st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 25, 2012.)


Hydroponic tomatoes in the quarter mile long Modern Inc. greenhouse


Trash needs to be on our personal agenda. Consider why:

Item. We are the Number One trash-producing nation in the world.

     Today in this country each of us generates an average of almost 4 1/2 pounds of trash each day; that's 4/5 ton per year. Dump the resulting 2.4 tons of trash in the front yard of an average Erie County family and you would need boots to wade through it. (This does not even take into account the massive contributions of industrial waste.)

Item. Worldwide, trash generation increases with income. High income individuals create twice what lower income people produce; almost half of the total.

     The trash we generate has been polluting our streams, lakes and even oceans and the effect on wildlife is increasing. This is not just the individual gull strangled by a plastic beer holder; rather, there are more general effects like increased plastic ingestion by young animals that affect their growth, their ability to reproduce and even their lives. Research indicates that plastic debris affects at least 267 species worldwide.

     And ask Sharen Trembath, coordinator of our annual Beach Sweep about the regional social, scenic and wildlife effects of our trash-generating society.

Items. Good news: the per-person waste generation rate is going down slowly. Bad news: despite this, trash generation is expected to almost double in the next fifteen years due to population growth.

     Our general attitude toward trash has long been "out of sight, out of mind." But thankfully today many local town administrators are taking trash problems seriously. And companies that remove our trash are applying science to reduce its impact.

     To see what happens to those blue and green carts of discards we set out each week, I went to the facilities of the aptly named Modern Corporation that handles trash collection from my Amherst home.

     I first visited the Hopkins Street plant in Buffalo that takes the green cart discards for recycling. Several of us donned hard hats and safety glasses to be led by general manager Scott Bradley through the building. Although the decibel level was very high, Bradley was able to show us what happened to material brought in by the collecting trucks. The noise was generated by belts moving the trash rapidly around and through various sorters: magnets moved metal cans from one processing line to another; a second line shook newsprint from cardboard; another sorted out glass; an optical sorter removed some plastics, while men and women along the belts pulled plastic bags from the passing parade. Their processing tasks reminded me of Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball working on much slower moving lines.

     Finally, we were shown the results of all this work ready for export to processing centers. Here were stacks of 80 cubic foot bales separated into materials of different types: compressed cans, newspaper, cardboard, plastics. The mountains of refuse that entered this plant was now sorted and ready for final recycling and reuse, a near total recapture of material.

     I next joined Katy Duggan-Haas, Modern's sustainability educator, at their location on Model City Road in Niagara County. There she showed me the natural gas pumps that power their collection trucks and tires being recycled into various products. Then as we climbed the hill of already collected trash, she pointed out methane collection devices. These carry the hot gas generated by the underlying highly pressurized waste to a plant at the foot of the hill. There it generates energy that powers and heats the company's quarter mile long greenhouse operation. In it 170,000 hydroponic tomato plants are raised, annually contributing over six million tomatoes to regional consumption.

     Engineers like these have made a good start on trash handling but much remains to be done. We still lag far behind the extent of recycling on the West Coast: our rate today is 20%; San Francisco's is 80%.

     And we are not absolved of individual responsibility. Duggan-Haas pointed out simple things we can do. Recycle one can to save not only its contribution to trash but also the energy equivalent of operating a TV for three hours; a dozen plastic bottles to save an hour of air conditioning. There are many other ways to reduce our trash footprint. I urge you to seek them out.-- Gerry Rising