By Gail Parsons, 1st Infantry Division Post, Fort RileyDecember 10, 2018
While members of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency separated trash from the recycling on one side of building 1982 at Fort Riley, on the other side, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was separating trash into several distinct piles.
The waste and recycling studies were two separate projects with different funding sources but were done concurrently, said Christopher Otto, recycle and solid waste coordinator, department of public works environmental division.
"We are required to do waste characterization studies as part of our solid waste plan," Otto said.
The Corps of Engineers staff went to a handful of bins that were pre-selected based on what the intent of the building was. Trash was collected from administration buildings, motor pools, retail stores, barracks and more. Staff went to the dumpsters outside of the buildings and collected 100 pounds of trash at a time. They also weighed the amount of recycling that was collected at those locations.
The corps staff weighed, bagged and tagged the trash to indicate where it came from. Then, each bag was opened and its contents were sorted into one of several blue buckets arranged on a table. There were buckets for plastic, paper, metal, steel, aluminum and more.
The study allowed Otto to see where recycling materials are more likely to be thrown away with trash rather than separated. For example, one roll-off eight-foot dumpster at one of the brigade headquarters was full of recycling, which could have been sold. Instead, Fort Riley has to pay to have it removed.
"They are analyzing the total nonhazardous waste stream coming out of Fort Riley," Otto said. "Anything that is not hazardous -- that we throw away or recycle, maybe there's something we're missing that's a recyclable commodity."
Otto said Fort Riley is throwing away a lot of cardboard. This study will break it down and show how much is being discarded and the value of it compared to the cost of taking it to a transfer station.
Abigail Brake, a research biologist with the Corps of Engineers, said that after the data is collected, they can make recommendations for finding ways to reduce waste.
Just like their peers from the EPA, her crew reports finding many interesting items when they conduct these studies.
"The barracks are always odd," Brake said. "You will also find some weird stuff at the hospital."
From the barracks, they often find new and like-new items such as USB drives, XBox games and Fitbits still in their original packaging.
"We have found a lot of MREs (meals ready to eat) and MRE heaters which is actually hazardous waste," Brake said. At other installations, the heaters have been known to explode and cause dumpster fires.
"We found a bunch of meat -- packaged meat, unopened like someone was going to have a barbecue and then they just threw it all away," she said. "Soldiers can only take so much with them when they move, so whatever they can't take, they toss."
Other common items thrown in the trash are clothing items and electronics -- items that could be taken to a thrift store.
"We will address those things in our plan," Brake said. "That is the point of doing these studies -- to see if maybe they need a thrift store bin right next to their dumpsters. These are the kinds of things that we are looking at."
Otto said the EPA recycling study was the first of its kind at Fort Riley and is part of the Net Zero program, an Obama administration initiative implemented to reduce waste. Net Zero projects are geared toward helping military installations become more sustainable and resilient.
Net Zero has three components: water, waste and energy. In 2011, Fort Riley was chosen as an Army Net Zero Water pilot installation to decrease overall water consumption. Otto worked with the water project until he transferred to his position at the recycling center, where he reached out to the EPA to start working on the waste component of Net Zero.
"They are finding innovative ways to reduce waste on the installation," Otto said.
The EPA team brought hoppers of recycled materials to building 1982, where they spread items on the floor and started sorting trash from the recyclables.
Mixed in with the recycled materials were solid waste -- trash -- items such as dirty diapers, a dead hamster still in its cage, a kiddie pool, small appliances, a drill, blank ammunition, a fire extinguisher, deployment records, and copies of driver's licenses and Social Security cards.
The crew at the recycle center have sorted as much as 30 percent and as little as 14 percent trash from the recycled materials studied. The information they gather and the data they collect paints a picture of the waste patterns of people living and working on Fort Riley.
"We are analyzing the neighborhoods," Otto said. "They are trying to get some correlations between what we see come down here and what neighborhood they are from." This allows targeted advertising to those neighborhoods to remind people how to recycle.
What's the harm in tossing the half-eaten pizza in with the soda cans? On the surface, it may not seem like a big deal, but Otto said it can, and has, caused a tremendous loss of money. Not only does it take increased man-hours to separate trash from recycled goods, it has caused serious problems in the recycling industry nationwide.
In recent years, China, the No. 1 purchaser of U.S. recycling material, stopped buying it. The reason they cited was contamination: the amount of trash that was mixed with recycled material.
"Now, since China is not buying recycled material, it's flooded the market," Otto said. "Plastics, we used to be able to sell out of here for a decent amount of money. Now, it's going to cost us money to recycle. The mixed paper we used to be able to sell for $80 a ton, now we are getting $10."
Once all the data is compiled, Otto will have a foundation to build a stronger, more efficient recycling program. "I want to get a baseline of what we are throwing away here to see if there is anything that we could be recycling but we're not," he said. "Also to see if there are things that we should do a better job of advertising for. Cardboard, for example. We are finding so much cardboard. Maybe I want to advertise that we can recycle that, or Styrofoam. We can recycle that, too."
Often people tend to think of recycling simply in terms of environmental importance, but Otto also looks at it from the perspective of the taxpayers' dime.
"Everything we put in the trashcan takes taxpayer money to get it to the transfer station and then to the dump," he said. "Anything we bring here to recycle we segregate, bail it and sell it like a commodity. Right now, we can sell cardboard for $80 a ton."
All proceeds from selling recycled material go directly back to Fort Riley to support the community. It first pays the cost of operating the recycle center and remaining proceeds go to the community. Remaining proceeds paid for recent upgrades to the bowling alley and also provided approximately $3,000 to Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation for the benefits of military units on Fort Riley.