• Don’t throw that shoe (out)!
     | April 21,2014

    ‘My goodness, I didn’t know that solid waste management was so controversial!” said Hillary Clinton, after ducking the black and orange Puma cleat thrown at her by the obviously non-recycler Alison Ernst at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries convention in Las Vegas last week. Hillary’s off-the-cuff remark, made while recovering from the surprise shoe-fling, has rocked the recycling world. Maybe it’s because someone with as much air-time as Clinton enjoys used the phrase “solid waste management” and got quoted, I don’t know. But thank you, Hillary!

    I suspect that Ernst didn’t know — surrounded by the recycling community though she was — that shoes are recyclable. She must have been so desperate to find a non-trash alternative for the resources found in the shoe, that, out of sheer frustration, she threw the thing. If I were there, I could have brought those cleats to CVSWMD’s Additional Recyclables Collection Center here in Barre for her, or even directed her to a Salvation Army somewhere in Vegas, which gratefully accepts usable shoe donations. I hope that if readers of this column find themselves with spare shoes, they’ll consider similar reuse or recycling alternatives before resorting to throwing them at other people (though I can’t pretend not to understand the impulse).

    But kidding aside, in consideration of Hillary’s off-the-cuff remarks, is solid waste really controversial? I hate to bring up a subject that may still be fresh in Barre’s collective mind, but anyone who has tried to site a landfill — or worse, a toxics belching incinerator — might say resoundingly ‘yes, solid waste is controversial.’

    But what about the alternative to landfills and incinerators — reducing waste and recovering the value of the resources we currently throw out? Is that controversial? It is my fervent hope that actions like composting and recycling are so ordinary as to remain controversy-less, but I’m not that naďve.

    To me, the notion of waste itself is controversial. We, as a citizenry, seem to expect to be able to accumulate stuff, but not have to pay much, nor worry about what happens to it when we’ve finished with it. But it doesn’t disappear. Be it a broken cassette player from the 1980s, or an upgraded iPod, a ripped pair of jeans, or a book that got left out in the rain, when discarded, objects fill up increasingly scarce landfill space, leach toxics into groundwater, and contribute to the creation of damaging gasses such as methane. Incinerated, even when filtered to the nth degree, dioxins and other damaging nanoparticles saturate the surrounding environment and cause unending damage to humans, soil, and life in general. Also, it costs money to pay people to haul garbage from here to there, in expensive machinery, relying on multi-million dollar facilities to handle it.

    So why do we, in our culture, seem to have a sense of entitlement about throwing stuff out?

    It would be easy, and maybe a little bit fun, to postulate on that point for a few paragraphs, but I’d like to skip to this: we aren’t entitled to get rid of stuff for free — particularly without regard to how it affects the environment when it degrades — just because at some point we made a bad (or even good) buying decision. We have as much responsibility to make sure the stuff we acquire goes to the right place when we finish with it as we do to not dump our septic tanks into the river.

    Thankfully in Vermont — and increasingly across the US and the world — lots of options are available for reuse, recycling, composting, and food recovery for people and animals, which makes it pretty easy to keep our trash bags small.

    With the help of legislation that ultimately bans recyclables from the landfill by next summer, and bans food scraps and yard waste from the landfill by 2020, Vermont is poised as a leader in solid waste management in the northeast, and potentially across the nation. We are being watched by other states and cities. I know this, because sometimes they call me and ask about our Universal Recycling law (Act 148), or the CVSWMD’s 10-year old organics collection program, which helps businesses put their food scraps back into Vermont’s soil by composting it (and cutting their trash in half at the same time).

    In fact, more and more, leaders in the solid waste world are recognizing that — with or without a shoe thrown at them — solid waste IS controversial. Because waste itself is controversial. But materials management — the managing of resources that have financial and environmental value — is not. That’s why CVSWMD commits all its programing to working toward Zero Waste.

    For questions about reducing, reusing, recycling, or composting, visit the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management website at www.cvswmd.org — and please, donate your shoes. Don’t throw them — and certainly don’t throw them out.

    Cassandra Hemenway is the zero waste outreach coordinator at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District.

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