Bea Johnson, Zero Waste Guru Visits DC

On Tuesday, April 17th and just in time for Earth Day, zero waste author, blogger, and speaker, Bea Johnson, arrived in DC ready for a full day of events.  For us at (r)evolve, the day marked the culmination of a three-month planning effort that included stakeholders ranging from The DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, the  University of the District of Columbia College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (UDC CAUSES), DC Public School representatives, local environmental non-profits, and neighborhood associations among many (many) more.

We traveled across the District, wanting Bea to see firsthand the challenges and successes of bringing zero waste concepts to a culturally and economically diverse population.  We visited a DC Public School and its wonderful FoodPrints program with a curriculum that teaches young children how to grow vegetables and prepare nutritious meals.  From there, we visited a trash trap along a tributary to the Anacostia River where the Anacostia Riverkeeper showed us how plastic bottles and other items still choke DC waterways though legislation banning plastic bags and polystyrene have reduced those particular waste streams.  We visited MOM’s Organic Market with its limited but still impressive bulk aisle and stock of insect protein - aka crickets and meal worms.

That evening, over 250 people packed into the UDC LEED Platinum Student Center and Ballroom to hear Bea speak about her adventures – and mishaps -- in adopting a zero waste lifestyle.  DC Department of Public Works Director Chris Shorter joined the talk to discuss what DC is doing to help residents and businesses reduce waste.

In line with the evening’s zero waste theme, a pre-reception touted locally-sourced (and delicious!) vegan hors d’oeuvres provided by Green Plate Catering. A thirst-quenching and ever-trendy shrub made from “rescued” fruit peels and rinds was provided by DC Food Recovery Working Group (FRWG) member and Eat or Toss? blogger, Rachael Jackson.  School-Within-School students lent upcycled cloth napkins to the event.  A “zero waste” marketplace included DC FRWG member Kate Urbank of Food Rescue US, while the locally owned and operated East City Bookshop sold copies of Bea’s books.  Veteran’s Compost helped ensure that the evening lived up to its zero waste goal.

Oh, and, Bea’s zero waste tips?  Buy food in bulk when at all possible, and work to limit/reduce your wardrobe.  When you do need to make a purchase, consider buying secondhand at thrift shops or online.  (eBay is one of her favorite places to find used and secondhand items.) “Recycling” is a sub-optimal waste reduction strategy and should only be considered when the only other option is landfilling or incineration.  Consider buying in bulk from companies that don’t use plastic packaging, and, always forego single use plastics – including straws -- anytime you possibly can. 

Photo credit: Renata Crespo

Photo credit: Renata Crespo

Data Killers: Giving life to your old electronics

When we hear about companies that are recycling hard to recycle items, we go visit them.  We love to see what makes these companies tick and who they are.  Through these visits, we get a sense of why these companies are successful, and where they could do better. And we like (geeky) adventures.

On a rainy Friday morning, we ended up at Data Killers, an electronics recycling company located in a warehouse just outside Washington, DC.  Zack Boorstein, the co-owner, met us in a conference room filled with AV equipment, a mishmash of chairs and a huge conference table that from its look, has seen a lot of meetings.  “I never buy anything for any of our offices.  When clients clean out their electronics, they’re often upgrading their furnishings, too.  I even picked up the reception area console from an upgrading project. Are our computers refurbished models?”, he queried.  We nodded an (abashed) “no”. 

And, so began our adventure at Data Killers.  Zack comes from a family that’s been working in scrap metal for over 100 years. Metal recycling is in his veins, and the 21st century version of a scrap metal worker is an electronics recycler.  There’s a never-ending motherload that clients, from the federal government to local school districts, are begging him to mine.  “I’m a cowboy.  I never say ‘no’ to anything.”

With e-cycling centers now operating in Sacramento, Omaha, Boston, Austin, and DC, Data Killers refurbishes computers for resale at PC Retro stores in the DC area.   You can purchase a refurbished computer for less than half the cost of the same model new, and you get a better guarantee. What’s not refurbished is disassembled into smaller parts that are shipped out across the US and the globe for further dismantling and recycling.  What absolutely can’t be recycled in DC is sent to Covanta, where it’s burned as waste for energy. A tour of Data Killler operations (no photos allowed per client confidentiality) portrayed an e-cycling “museum” that included a 4X4X4’ box filled with flip phones and Blackberries (remember them?) and consoles from the 1960s.  It’s all usable - and already purchased.    I spotted a slew of old computer bags.   Every PC Retro computer comes with a free bag. It all gets reused. 

But fortunately, this cowboy knows his own limits. 

As his business abounds, Zach realized he needed more efficient processing and organization.  A Washington Post story recently reported on Data Killers’ merger with the Irish Wisetek Solutions.  Wisetek has the processing system that Data Killers needs.  Staff have traveled to Ireland to learn their system, and there are now 11 Wisetek staff in DC training the 65 Data Killer staff.

All of this is music, indeed an orchestra, to a zero waster’s ears.  But what’s the great thing about Data Killers?  As we walked around, Zack greeted his team.  People were glad to see their boss.  He knew them.  There were embraces for staff who had recently returned from Ireland.  He introduced us to staff who had moved up within the company from sorting to processing. 

Data Killers is thriving.  So, why the success?  Zack knows his business, but he also knows his limitations and where and when he needs to bring in outside expertise.  He values and knows his staff.  And, he takes time out of his busy day to meet with representatives of a start-up company called (r)evolve that might be able to drive some additional business his way.

Oh, and, our next computer purchase? It’ll be a refurbished model.

  Left to right, Kevin Stafford, Ben Sopjani, and Zack Boorstein are just part of the Data Killers team in DC.

  Left to right, Kevin Stafford, Ben Sopjani, and Zack Boorstein are just part of the Data Killers team in DC.

Pizza Boxes are In and Plastic Bags are Out:  DC's Approach to Standardizing Recycling

Washington, DC faced a challenge that many other municipalities face:  what was accepted in recycling sometimes differed depending on whether it was recycled from a single family home, from an apartment or condo complex, an office building, or even a DC government building.  What was recyclable varied according to where you were recycling from – and the hauler that picked up that recycling.  This chaotic reality created confusion and contributed to the District’s low (21 percent) residential diversion rate, a far cry from its 2032 diversion goal of 80 percent.

To address this issue, DC took an interesting step – harmonizing – and mandating uniformity of recyclables across residential, multifamily, businesses (including restaurants) and DC government buildings.  To compile the list of recyclable products, DC government visited eight material recovery facilities (MRFs) within a 45-mile radius of Washington, DC to determine what these facilities recycled – and what they didn’t.  Through this study, the District developed a list of over 200 items that businesses, government, and residents are able to recycle as of January 1, 2018.  The list of items will be reviewed every two years.

The biggest change resulting from the legislation – at least for now - involves pizza boxes and plastic bags.  Pizza boxes can and should be recycled (remaining food removed) but plastic bags are not acceptable.  DC’s study of MRFs found that plastic bags are considered a menace that clog recycling equipment and result in work delays and shutdowns.  Recyclables should be placed loosely into bins or in paper bags.  Meanwhile, any plastic bags should be recycled at specified drop-offs at local supermarkets.  So go ahead and recycle that extra large pizza box—but hold the plastic bag.