The road to eco-hell is littered with good intentions

words by Susan Covey

Sometimes, when I try to be good it goes wrong.

As a kid in the 1960s, one of my first entrepreneurial reuse efforts was offering a stack of three cigar boxes—in three “price ranges”—to swap with other kids for bits and bobs. Later, as a fledgling 1970s recycler, I tore apart motors and dragged home pieces of scrap iron to sell for spending money. In the 1980s, when distributing bins as part of a recycling campaign, I found it startling older adults were leaving messy coffee cans of grease to be supportive of “the effort.” After a lifetime of thinking I was doing the right thing, my good intentions have arrived at a bad result. I put my recyclables in a clear plastic bag.

This was wrong. It costs us all both money and labor.

Rich Swirsky and Karen Starr at PorchRokr (Photo Shane Wynn)
Rich Swirsky and Karen Starr at PorchRokr (Photo Shane Wynn)

If an event like the recent Porch Rokr can recycle two-thirds of the discarded materials from 10,000 people with only one-third going to waste—or the Akron University InfoCision Game Day Challenge can rank first in the Mid-American Conference and second in the less formal National Division by recycling 88.808 percent from both stadium and tailgating—then why can’t I remember to keep my pizza box out of the recycling bin?

But I’m not alone.

Robert L. Harris, Jr., Solid Waste and Recycling Manager for the City of Akron, says recycling contamination has become a small problem with its curb service customers that can be corrected with better education.

Though residents recycle about 8,000 tons each year, about 500 tons of non-recyclable trash get pulled from the single-stream system. That costs the city about $23,000 a year. On average, the city picks up almost 70,000 tons of trash annually, which costs about $3.1 million a year to haul away. (Ed. note: We incorrectly reported the non-recycle trash amounted to 69,000 tons at a cost of $3.17 million a year. Mr. Harris has kindly corrected the figures for us. We sincerely regret the error. – Chris H.)


Just by reading the Blue Bin lid and following the directions, Akronites could help resolve the contamination problem so officials could put that extra money to better use.

But what about the stuff that doesn’t go in your recycling bin? When you’re cleaning out your garage, take that old paint to the Summit ReWorks site. If you have boxes of bottles, the Akron Fire Stations come to your rescue even if your kitty isn’t stuck in a tree. Let’s say you have a separate load of aluminum cans, AFD’s Sierjie Lash says the proceeds from those go to the Children’s Hospital Burn Unit.

Once you’ve got things locked down at home, turn to GAINS (Greater Akron Innovation Network for Sustainability) for help intertwining your recycling routine at work. Local artist and musician Karen Starr, owner of Hazel Tree Interiors, introduced me to the group’s focus on the community building side of sustainable businesses. Anyone interested in furthering the cause can join their meetings on the second Wednesday of every month at the Musica (51 E. Market, downtown Akron) from 5:30–7:30 pm.

At the last meeting, Yolanda Walker of Executive Director of Summit ReWorks broke-down the changing world of composting and organics. Cleveland’s “Rust Belt Riders” showed how they’re composting by making pick-ups from area restaurants—first by bicycles but now in small vans.

Karen, who was also an organizer for Porch Rokr, talked about the event’s success reducing waste. With almost 10,000 people in attendance, there were only eight bags of trash and 56.4 lbs. of food scraps collected.

The big efforts continue on college campuses, too. Andrew Henry, Recycling Superintendent for The University of Akron, has worked with a large corps of volunteers to stay ahead of students’ recycling needs. He credits the volunteers with both efforts and ideas to improve the opportunities in recycling. The on-campus convenience stores stock only product containers that can be recycled and end of term discarded clothes now end up in boxes for donation instead of the landfill.

Maybe knowing a little more about some of these amazing efforts to improves lives, save money and create jobs will help you realize how much your little actions can add up.

Resources for more information:

***CORRECTION: In the print version of this story, we incorrectly listed Roger Riddle as the writer when it was actually Susan Covey who wrote this piece for us. – Chris  H.***