Thursday, November 20, 2008

One Word -- "Plastics"

The late great George Carlin had a bit that I always loved.

He mocked those environmentalists who insisted they were "saving the earth" through their efforts.
"The earth will be fine," he would say. "The earth used to be molten rock. For all we know, the earth created us just because it needed something added to the eco-system, maybe plastic."
He may have been joking, but every time I go to Jim Crater's Recycling Services Inc. in North Coventry, I wonder if maybe that old cynic Carlin wasn't right. We sure seem to have made a lot of the stuff.
Most of the recycling operation is pretty simple in my house.
The stuff that the borough collects at the curb goes in the bin under the sink. And the rest goes into my little recycling center in the basement.
I've saved a couple of large boxes to hold cardboard. We have batteries in one bag, aluminum foil in another and one for metal lids and such.
All the rest of our effort in house has to do with sorting and storing the 18 million different types of plastic.
When you think if recycling plastic, you think of the water and soda bottles, maybe the one that held your favorite apple sauce. The stuff that's easy to recycling and easy to find a market for.
But when you start to look for it, you find it's everywhere and in everything and it's the weird stuff that is hard to recycle. Luckily for this area, Jim Crater is relentless and resourceful and has found niche markets for all kinds of plastics.
If you have a child under 15, then you know that nothing you buy them, with the possible exception of organic vegetables, comes without one of those form-fitted plastic packages that requires a chainsaw to open.
(In fact, some manufacturers have finally gotten religion and are making an effort to make their packaging a little less intimidating, as was featured in this Nov. 15 New York Times article .)
With Christmas just around the corner, I've begun to hunt up my bolt cutters and hacksaw in preparation for the Christmas morning wrestling match with the plastic fortresses those damn elves put on everything.
Christmas coming is also why I had to go to RSI Tuesday. I had to make room for the new influx.
Which brings me to the inspiration for this little ditty -- Jennifer Mendez and Jess Henion, the two volunteers who are masters of all things plastic.
The key to an efficient trip to the recycling center is preparation. Separating the items before you get there makes things go smoothly and keeps you from getting underfoot with the people who run the place, literally, in their spare time.
But as much as I try, the plastics always get co-mingled. There are just too many types.
I've mastered the easy stuff: Straws, microwave dinner trays, screw caps, but then even they got tricky and I had to start separating the pull tabs from milk cartons and water bottle tops from the soda tops from the plastic tabs that keep bread bags closed.
I try to keep up, but recognizing the inevitable, my largest box is the one for when I just give-up and toss it in there with the weak-kneed rationalization that "I'll figure it out later."
The easiest thing to do when it comes time to make the trip is to pull out the largest volume of mixed plastics and "leave the rest for the next time."
In our house, that means the crinkly clear containers that are used for things like baked goods from Giant. When I'm in a rush (always) I can reduce the volume in the box by filling a giant garbage bag with just that.
But eventually, the big box has to be emptied and that's when I am truly at the mercy of Jennifer and Jess, two of the most merciful people I've met.
I am constantly amazed at the patience they exhibit as I (and a hundred other supplicants) bring tiny bits of mystery plastic to them, pleading to know what number it is so we can put it in the right bin.
It's an important skill because the companies Crater has lined up to take these plastics need the stock to be pure. All the sixes need to be sixes, and not have a random four or five mixed in, otherwise it can contaminate the load and we might not soon have a place to take these plastics any more, leaving us no choice but to send it to the landfill.
No matter what they're doing, Jennifer or Jess stop and conduct a series of their particular tests that seem to require all the senses but taste.
If they can, they'll crinkle it to hear what it sounds like, bend it to see if a particular tell-tale white stress line appears. My favorite is when they tap it lightly on the side of the bin and can tell by what kind of ping it makes.
I have yet to see them taste one, but I won't be too surprised if I see it one day.
They always try to explain the trick in the hope, no doubt a vain one in my case, that I'll remember and won't have to ask next time. But my brain is so porous these days that I can't even remember what they've said from minute to minute.
And yet, despite my asking of the same question over and over, something which would have my sarcasm gene working over-drive if I were in their shoes, these two princesses of the plastic perform the same test and try, patiently to teach it to the drooling idiot standing before them.
They both have the same quiet, deliberate manner and (they say I'm not the only one to remark on this) they're even starting to look alike.
I keep trying to pull obscure plastics (is there such a thing?) out of my bag of tricks to see if I can stump them, but I never succeed.
Instead, it's me that gets stumped, time and time again.
I don't know what I'd do without RSI's plastic mavens, but we're lucky to have them.
Maybe I should get them something for Christmas ... something wrapped in plastic.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Act Locally


I know I told you I'm going away, and I have.

But, through the magic of technology, I have set this posting to wait until today.

They say the credo of the environmental movement is to "think globally, act locally.

Well for those of you who don't know him, Jim Crater of Recycling Services Inc., not only acts locally, but he thinks WWWAAAYYYYYY outside the box.

Well tomorrow, Aug. 14, he will host the second of his forums on alternative energy and if its anything like his first last month, which I covered for the paper, it's worth going.

It will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Norco Fire Hall on Route 724 in South Pottstown.

According to their handy release, "The speakers will cover a range of topics from solar water heating for space and domestic hot water, wind power, and ground temperature to community building through co-op buying. The event will also highlight the points of interest from the last workshop called "How to do what you do but better."

Their release also provides the following information about the forum:
Thursday’s speakers include Robert Ihlein from Sunergy Systems, Matt Lillard from Greensavers LLC, Brian Creswell from Creswell & Company, Jon Costanza from Sunpower Builders, John Malm from Radiant Comfort Systems, and Crater himself.

Robert Ihlein was trained in Solar Engineering Technology at Colorado Technical College in the early 1980s. During that time he has been working on a number of different types of solar heating systems. He also has experience working on superinsulated and passive solar homes. Currently he is the owner of a local business called Sunergy Systems, and offers sales, service and installation of solar water heating systems. He also offers other energy related services such as installing solar attic fans. Robert and his wife Alice installed a small solar water heating system on their home in Pottstown two years ago, and have been saving money on fuel oil every since.

Matthew Lillard lives in New Garden Township near Avondale. Matt is a LEED accredited professional certified by the US Green Building Council, as well as a certified Home Energy Auditor in the HERS system, and a Certified Project Management Professional by the Project Management Institute.

Mr. Lillard is a former executive with extensive background in organizational leadership and the management. Most recently, Matthew was a Senior Vice President for Bank of America, the world’s largest credit card company and largest deposit bank in the United States.

Like many of you Mr. Lillard has felt a growing sense of concern over global warming, the visible changes occurring in the world and the risks that these changes bring. He is also concerned about the United States' dependence on foreign sources of energy and the conflict that can result.

These are among the factors that led Mr. Lillard to seek to educate himself on sustainability and which actions he could take to have the biggest positive impact. Mr. Lillard formed Green Savers LLC a company developed to help people learn, prioritize, and provide convenient assistance to make progress toward your priorities saving money, reducing your environmental impact, and living a more healthy and productive life. Visit them at

Brian Creswell was born and raised in the Pottstown area, is an honors graduate of Owen J. Roberts H.S., and attended Lehigh University with a major in architecture. For the past 20 years Mr. Creswell has been involved with various aspects of the building trades from historic restorations to commercial and new residential construction and spoke about his projects at the last event.

Currently he owns and operates Creswell & Company, an award-winning design-build construction company that specializes in green building. Creswell & Company is completing work on the first potential LEED platinum rated residence in Pennsylvania. His topic will be: "Managing your green: Life-cycle costs and paybacks for green building and technology."

Jon Costanza was constructing one of the first solar houses built on the East Coast 33 years ago, when the oil embargo was forcing Americans to re-think their energy usage. He started SunPower Builders in 1972 at the age of 18, built his first solar house in 1974 and, as he confidently states, "never looked back."

John is dedicated to the profound common thread between the art of historic restoration and energy conservation. Today, SunPower occupies this unique niche in the solar market, integrating PV and SHW installations into farmhouse restorations. In the past year, Jon has been excited to see SunPower’s solar division expanding and expects this trend to continue.

An active member and advocate for the solar community, Jon is on the Board of the Philadelphia Solar Energy Association (PSEA) and the Northeast Solar Energy Association (NESEA). He will never stop promoting in his vision of "Massive Change", in which humans can learn to consume and renew, responsibly and simply. Jon lives in Collegeville, with his family, his solar array and a plethora of pets.

John Malm founded Radiant Comfort Systems to fill the need for well engineered radiant heat systems in the MidAtlantic market. As an engineer (John has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Penn), he appreciates the capabilities of these advanced systems. John lives with his wife, two sons, and many horses and assorted animals in Elverson. He will be speaking about ground temperature.

Crater is the President and General Manager of Recycling Services, Inc., in Pottstown. For about 40 years he has been tinkering with many projects and environmental ideas.

He has focused his attention mostly on wind and solar-power projects. He started with water heating in dark hoses and solar air heating units with recycled cans, and then he moved to wind spinners and rebuilding several wind generators. After that his focus went to Solar PVs, electric vehicles, and alcohol and vegetable oil fuels.

Now Crater is experimenting with ground-temperature heating and cooling. He has also worked on energy-saving programs and held a number of alternative energy events.

His most recent endeavor was to power approximately 30 music events using his mobile solar electric unit. His motto is: "Have sun, will travel." Other recent projects include using a passive solar design for heating and heat displacement, a small floating undershot waterwheel, and a 100 MPG project car. His project list goes on and on. Mr. Crater considers himself an energy worker. His question to the community is: "What will we call alternative energy when everybody uses it? Common sense I suppose."

In addition to the scheduled speakers, environmental organizations will be available to answer questions and provide information.
For information on the event, contact Jim Crater, General Manager for Recycling Services, at or 610-323-8545, or simply visit the website: Attendees should BYOM (bring your own mug) for water!

No longer a matter of interest, the ideas proposed here will also be a matter of financial and, eventually, planetary survival.

Make the time to go.

You'll be glad you did.

Labels: , , , , , ,