Recycling program revamps, calling for new political action

Vashon’s plastic and styrofoam recycling program has tapped into people’s deep desire to curb their contributions to the region’s landfill — and over the years, the modest program has mushroomed.

Nearly five years ago, Nadine Edelstein started collecting Styrofoam in a truck alongside the highway – her personal effort to combat litter and to ensure that a truck that went off-island once a week to pick up food for Vashon’s food bank did not leave empty.

But she was tapping into something big — people’s deep desire to curb their contributions to our region’s landfill — and over the years, her modest program mushroomed.

Fifty people now volunteer, many of whom go to the Sheffield Building twice a month to heft bags filled with spent plastic and Styrofoam products into huge containers. Other volunteers, clad in orange safety vests, direct the line of cars that at times snaked for blocks.

Their statistics are mind-boggling. They’ve recycled 3,839 cubic meters of Styrofoam, enough to fill nearly two Olympic-sized swimming pools. They’ve collected more than 100 tons of mixed plastics. Six hundred households participate, one-tenth of the island.

The program, sponsored by Zero Waste Vashon and co-led by Edelstein, Steven Bergman and Jacquie Perry, is the only one in the country that recycles not only clean Styrofoam and plastic film but also mixed or dirty plastic. Its success, Edelstein says, is the “proof of concept” she sought — evidence that people will go to great effort to keep their garbage out of the waste stream.

Now the program is undergoing a pivot, even as Edelstein is sounding a different call to action.

The change is this: After taking the month of July off, the crews will resume the program on Sunday, Aug. 6, at a new site — the Vashon-Maury Island Food Bank at Sunrise Ridge — and with a new approach.

Instead of twice a month, they’ll collect materials every Sunday, resulting in a more streamlined process. And for now, they’ll no longer collect so-called Option 2 materials — a long list of mixed or dirty plastics that ultimately ended up in kilns in Canada to make cement — due to changes in that process.

As for the call to action, it is this: Even if this wildly successful program is replicated in communities across the country, it is not the solution to a staggering, global problem. As Edelstein wrote in a letter to her volunteer crew last month, “To stop plastic pollution, we must stop making plastic.”

Edelstein, seemingly tireless in her campaign to rid the region of plastics, now hopes to build a different kind of movement on Vashon. She hopes to encourage islanders to join others around the country who are working to ban single-use plastic items and to require manufacturers to take responsibility for the products and packaging they create.

That doesn’t mean she wants to see recycling end. “We have to continue to manage these materials responsibly,” she said. But what Vashon has shown, she added, is that people want to make a difference and are even willing to change their behavior to do so. “Vashon is helping to lead the way,” she said. “Now, we need to show our politicians that they too have to deal with this issue.”

Meanwhile, King County looks like it will step into the picture. Kerwin Pyle, the county’s program manager for recycling and transfer stations, says it’s “highly likely” that the county will begin collecting clean Styrofoam and plastic film at Vashon’s transfer station – possibly by the end of this year. Pyle has met with Edelstein and others at Zero Waste Vashon to discuss details, he said. The county is working carefully to set something up, he said, in part because “we know it will be extremely popular.”

Edelstein says this is one of the outcomes she has long sought for her program. “From the start, I wanted to work myself out of a job,” she said. “This is a program that should not be on the backs of volunteers.”

A recent issue of The New Yorker captured the severity and magnitude of our world’s plastics problem. According to the July 3 article, “A Trillion Little Pieces,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now a 600,000-square-mile island of floating debris between California and Hawaii, thought to contain 1.8 trillion plastic shards. Animals, from tortoises to elephants, die from ingesting plastic garbage. Microplastics, tiny particles that larger pieces of plastics devolve into, are being discovered everywhere — including in our bodies. Researchers recently found microplastics in human placentas, Kolbert wrote.

Edelstein is well aware of these sobering facts. She recently took a class offered by Beyond Plastics, a nationwide project based at Bennington College in Vermont, and in May attended the Washington State Recycling Association conference in Yakima. She’s frank about the hubris of manufacturers who say the solution is to simply recycle. Even plastic that is remade into a cell phone case or a pair of slippers or building materials will eventually degrade into microplastics — under current mechanical technologies, plastic material can only be repurposed so many times.

When it comes to the industry’s call to recycle plastics rather than end their use, she said, “We’ve been sold a bill of goods.”

So what keeps this team working so hard to combat the problem? In a wide-ranging conversation at the food bank last week, Edelstein, Bergman and Perry talked about their motivations, their successes and how they’re reshaping the program.

Perry, the program’s volunteer coordinator, noted that the recycling stream is stronger and better in the region — there are more options for re-use due to some innovative companies like Styro Recycle in Kent, which takes Vashon’s Styrofoam waste. At the same time, she said, the region has much to lose if it doesn’t curb its waste. “We have more resources here, but we’re also very vulnerable because of Puget Sound,” she said.

Bergman, who represents Zero Waste Vashon on what’s now being called Every Sunday Styro, sees the program as a way to demonstrate what people are capable of and what it means to live responsibly in a complex world. “We have a committed community,” he said. “I don’t think we’re seeing a volunteer effort like this one anywhere else in the country.”

All three are moved by the people who come to the collection site month after month — some of them on bicycles, Edelstein noted – offering up bags of carefully sorted items. Vashon businesses have been remarkably generous — Minglement provides coffee to the volunteers and Tom Bangasser, owner of the Sheffield Building, allowed the crew free use of the building’s loading zone for the last three years.

“One of the reasons the program has been so successful is that it has given people empowerment — they feel they can do something about a problem that seems so huge and out of control,” Edelstein said.

Edelstein has strived to provide transparency about the program — badly needed in an industry known for misleading the public about how they handle recycled waste. The program began taking Option 2 materials — dirty, mixed and multi-layered plastic, like potato chip bags — when she discovered that a local company, DTG, could turn the waste into a kind of fuel that could power kilns for the cement industry. It seemed a perfect solution, Bergman explained, not only because the waste was used for fuel, but because its residue, a toxic ash, got used in the making of the cement.

But DTG stopped making that fuel a year or so ago and began sending mixed and dirty plastics to another company, Merlin Plastics in Vancouver, B.C., a leader in mechanical recycling, Edelstein said. At the recycling conference in Yakima in May, she met with Merlin’s general manager to discuss what the firm could and couldn’t recycle and learned that the picture was more complex than she had realized.

“I’m at the point now where there are some questions I can’t answer,” she said.

She hopes to resume Option 2 recycling once she has a complete picture of the process, she said; there are also other promising technologies on the horizon. “I want to find a responsible way to maintain this part of the program,” she said. “I continue to have hope.”

From the get-go, Edelstein has been committed “to only doing things that really work” and to stop a practice when she’s not sure. At the same time, she says, she knows recycling will not solve the plastics pollution crisis.

“You can’t use a teaspoon to empty a bathtub when the faucet is on full-throttle,” she said. “We have to manage these materials responsibly, but we also have to solve the bigger problem. We have to dampen the flow of plastics pollution.”

More information

Every Sunday Styro will collect clean Styrofoam and plastic film from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays at the Vashon-Maury Island Food Bank, beginning Aug. 6.

Nadine Edelstein will staff a booth at the Strawberry Festival to answer questions about the program.

— Leslie Brown is a former editor of The Beachcomber.