The Recycling Guru

Oakland expert Arthur Boone says recycling isn't as simple as it seems.

Cans and bottles, paper and cardboard: What else is there to know? Plenty, and Arthur Boone has spent the last 28 years studying recycling’s myriad complexities. For starters, there’s food waste, electronics, and those troublesome plastics. Oakland resident Boone knows them all. He knows how to recycle the components of a mattress as well as anyone in the country. He knows about recycling clothing, furniture, Christmas trees, and scrap metal. He’s got friends in high places, and is recognized by specialists across the country. “If there were professors of recycling, Boone might well be one,” his web site attests, “but there aren’t, so Boone labors on as a practicing scholar.” The semi-retired 73-year-old seems to like it just fine that way.

The comment about being a professor isn’t so far off. In addition to consulting with businesses and public agencies, conducting research, and writing papers for some of the industry’s technical journals, Boone has taught introductory recycling classes in various guises for more than twenty years. These days, he leads a three-day class on recycling through the Northern California Recycling Association, of which he is president. He likens the course to military basic training. Many of his students are interns for public agencies and other organizations who have been hired to support greening efforts. Even, the Alameda County agency dedicated to waste reduction, sends interns his way, said Recycling Director Tom Padia.

Boone takes his mission seriously. “The whole issue of how we conserve resources is not a subject that the state government or the federal government has spent a lot of money developing brain-power in,” he noted. “It’s not extremely complicated, but there is a lot of detail.”

So what, exactly, does he teach? For one, the differences between materials and how they’re processed. Not all glass is created equal, and even beer bottles eventually need to be sorted by color. Clean paper gets recycled while soiled paper and cartons go with green waste. Then there’s the plastic minefield: polypropylene, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyvinyl chloride, and three different sorts of polyethylene, all recycled differently. Boone educates students on the ups and downs of commercial recycling, too: Many companies bundle, ship, and melt raw materials for profit, and not necessarily ecological reasons. This isn’t taught in school, but can be key knowledge in the East Bay’s emerging green economy.

Boone’s three-day recycling blitz is only the beginning. The deeper you delve into the recycling world, he says, the more complex it gets. For the serious players — those former interns turned managers, perhaps — Boone hosts an annual one-day seminar in Oakland, again for the Northern California Recycling Association. This is the event for which Boone is best-known, where as many as two hundred recycling minds from across the country gather to share new ideas and present innovations in ten-minute bursts. Padia, who has 25 years of experience in the industry, calls the conference “excellent.” Boone developed the format and has been leading it for fifteen years.

At this year’s seminar, which took place last month, a host of challenges were addressed. First, there’s the sheer diversity of modern products awaiting recycling solutions. “A lot of products are manufactured today, and when people want to get rid of them, they don’t want to spend too much time thinking about it,” Boone said. So the notion of extended producer responsibility, where manufacturers are on the hook for their products at the end of their useful life, is particularly enticing. This encourages companies to use fewer hazardous materials and to make their products easier to break down or recycle. The idea is catching on around the world, especially in Europe, with the United States bringing up the rear. However, that may be changing; 32 states have enacted laws making manufacturers liable for the cost of recycling TVs and other electronics, and ten have addressed manufacturer responsibility for plastic bottles.

Plastics in general pose a challenge that neither Boone nor his brain trust at the Northern California Recycling Association — nor indeed anyone around the world — has been able to reliably solve. More than 20,000 different formulations of plastic exist on the market. Many have different melting points and flashpoints, and therefore need to be grouped separately if they are to be melted down and reconstituted as recycled products. But when they get mixed in the waste stream, there’s no easy way to separate them other than by hand — which is what happens in China, where many of our plastics end up, and workers earn dollars a day slowly sorting through them. As Boone quipped in his forthright way, “Plastics are a product of our brilliance, but they’re also a pain in the ass.”

Trickier yet, the prevailing fee structure for curbside recycling has been rendered all but obsolete. As the City of Berkeley recently learned, it’s tough to convince people to pay for recycling and green-waste service when their trash bin is hardly used. So how to maintain an incentive to recycle and compost without bankrupting residential waste-management services? No one knows for sure, but Fremont has begun experimenting with flat-rate service fees augmented by per-bin charges. Berkeley may be next.

In the complex world of modern recycling, where many people think they know everything they need to know, problem-solvers like Boone will, in his words, labor on. Contamination issues, commercial waste, the shortcomings of biodegradable plastics, the slow proliferation of green-bin composting, the debate over single-stream recycling (he supports it): While the rest of us struggle with codes on plastic containers, these will occupy Boone. It’s a part of who he is. “My mother grew up poor in eastern Oklahoma,” he said. “She never threw anything away if she could possibly avoid it. I think a lot of that rubbed off on me.”


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