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EARTHWATCH : Trash Is Money : By recycling some office materials, you'll do your boss, yourself and the environment a favor.

July 12, 1990|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | R ichard Kahlenberg has worked on behalf of Greenpeace and has been active in The Urban Resource Network and The Environmental Coalition.

My first job out of school was with the government. So it was no surprise to me to hear recently that the biggest "export" of the District of Columbia is waste paper. We used to refer to the trash basket as "the circular file," always hankering to move things in that direction and out of our harried lives. Now, it turns out, what we were putting into that container was one of the valuable commodities in the office.

This is a column about the virtues of recycling at your place of business, so let's get to the bottom line right away. If you collect your used computer paper you can sell it for over $100 a ton (and the buyer picks it up). For your copy and letterhead grades, it's $30. If you can do something to cut trash in half--say, from two dumpsters down to one--that's $75 or more a month that stays in the bank. And if you're thinking that all of this is something for your boss to worry about then consider this: As a taxpayer, if you start using separate bins for the recyclables at work, you can keep down future garbage fees and the threat of new landfills.

Waste paper accounts for nearly 40% of what's choking our landfills. America is making progress intercepting the newsprint part of the flow and getting it recycled. We'll be up to 50% with old corrugated boxes and computer paper. So-called "mixed paper" is the next target. Not only should we be keeping it out of our landfills, we will need it as a resource. The paper industry is gearing up to fill orders for ever more paper--up from 14 million tons to 25 million in one decade. That's not counting newsprint, by the way. To fill the need, industry (for raw material reasons) and government (for landfill reasons) are trying to get us to recycle 40% of our mixed papers by the middle of this decade. That means office recycling, folks.

This summer several communities in the county are going to start intercepting what is usually passed from the desk to the dump. Last week the city of Thousand Oaks decided to promote a "business recycling starter kit," and to set an example it began recycling throughout City Hall. In a spirit of what you could call "doctor heal thyself," the city is providing special recycling boxes for each employee's desk and also placing labeled collection containers throughout the building.

Grahame Watts, the city's recycling coordinator, provided me (and his co-workers) with a really nifty turn of phrase for figuring out how to get thinking about this sort of thing. "No Stickies" is written on one group of containers, the ones on the desk. "Stickies" is on another, elsewhere in the office. He wants you to get up from your desk if you have a burger container, wad of gummed labels or sugary coffee cup to toss, and walk over to "stickies."

Anything containing dampness or glue or grease is a "sticky" and unrecyclable. The container on your desk is for letters, copy paper, even junk mail--all recyclable. I already mentioned the aristocrats of waste paper (computer print-outs) and they have their own bin. There are also bins for redemption cans and bottles. There's a bin for newspapers but Watts said it doesn't get much business. At night, the custodians transfer all this stuff--now designated "clean load," another nifty phrase--to storage bins. A contractor (Simi Valley Recycling) takes it to the Ventura City Intermediate Processing Center. This fall, Watts says, his City Hall will begin buying paper supplies only if they are made from recycled fiber.

Elsewhere in the county there are examples of business involvement already up and running. Taking the no-stickies thing a step farther, Ventura's high profile, environmentally oriented manufacturer Patagonia last year simply stopped using most stickies--i.e., it got rid of its disposables. The company no longer carries paper cups and plates (or plastic) in the cafeteria, using regular plates, glasses and tableware instead. And in its child-care center, cloth diapers.

Otherwise, its program is similar to the Thousand Oaks effort, especially the part about having each employee sort his own stuff at the source, rather than hiring people to sort somewhere down the line. If this sounds like lots of trouble, consider the results. Patagonia claims to have cut its trash by 60%. Sure, that company's workers were probably already candidates for Heros of Recycling medals when they started working there. But hey, a good example at this time in the garbage crisis is an inspiration to us civilians.

Right now, Watts' Business Recycling Starter Kits are intended only for Conejo Valley firms. But by August, the city of Ventura will have a similar program of its own. Oxnard is already working with businesses to generate "clean loads." But county businesses will be well served if they contact their municipalities now (see Details). And I mean well served in the strictest sense. The recycling people being brought on by local municipalities are, I have discovered, "no stickies" themselves. They do not gum you up or dampen your enthusiasm. I wish there had been more of them around when I was in government.

* THE DETAILS: Thousand Oaks city office recycling information (Grahame Watts): 496-8679. Ventura city (Stan Hakes): 984-4700. Patagonia (Kevin Sweeney or Paul Tebble): 463-8616. American Paper Institute (Tom Kraner): (212) 340-0626 or API-Recycling, 260 Madison Ave., New York 10016.

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