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Garbage In--but Not Garbage Out : Clever plastic recycling process produces walls that resist the stain of graffiti

April 23, 1993

Worms that eat oil, cars that run on manure, gliders powered by sunshine--California thinks it has heard it all by now and, more often than not, heard a little later that, like cold fusion, it didn't live up to its initial billing. But only reserves of such cynicism can restrain the enthusiasm that will leap up in the Californian heart at word of a new technological development that, hang on:

1. Provides much-needed jobs in East Los Angeles.

2. Recycles trash.

3. Saves money in Sacramento.

4. Foils the spray-paint graffiti fiends.

The wonder in question is being worked at the California Recycling Co., 3360 E. Pico Blvd. where discarded plastic bottles and tread-worn tires are ground up and turned into a plastic composite material that is guaranteed not to rot, crumble or fade for 25 years.

That promise of durability (bio-non-degradability put to good use) has caught the eye of the California Department of Transportation. But even more appealing is the reported imperviousness of this new product to spray-paint graffiti. At a recent demonstration, Ed Heidig, director of the state's Department of Conservation, and Caltrans chief deputy Bob Watkins played tagger with cans of spray paint trained on a six-foot-high wall made of the new material. After the paint had dried, California Recycling employees wiped it off easily with a solvent and a rag.

According to proponents, a one-mile wall made of the new material would spare California landfills the burden of 2.4 million discarded plastic containers or 31,000 tires. And the easy-cleaning feature would save at least a little of the state's $3-million graffiti-cleanup bill. Caltrans is making a cautious start with a 50-yard experimental section of wall along the Hollywood Freeway, near the entrance to Melrose Avenue.

Every year, according to proponents of the new product, Californians send 4 billion beverage containers to landfills. Nationwide, Americans throw away 28 billion glass bottles and jars, enough (ah, the playfulness of statisticians) to fill the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center every two weeks. The supply, in a word, is unlimited.

Can recycling divert part of the river of plastic? Maybe not, but all graffiti-hating drivers in plastic-trash-strewn Southern California, not to speak of a few newly employed high-tech workers in East Los Angeles, hope it can. If fire can be fought with fire, maybe garbage can be managed with garbage.

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