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One man’s trash is another's recycling

Californians are pretty good about thinking twice before throwing things away—we divert more than 60 percent of our waste away from landfills. But what about that remaining 40 percent?

When we imagine a world with zero waste, what would it take to get there? Arthur Boone says we need to completely rethink our concept of garbage. For almost 30 years, Boone has devoted his professional life to trash—he’s a recycling pioneer.

Boone is a former minister – big and strong, even at the age of 73. And he’s still preaching. But these days, his message is all about recycling.

"I put in here anything that will rot. Now that, of course, includes paper milk cartons. It includes your egg carton-type material," says Arthur Boone, peering over a half-full, city-issued green compost cart in the backyard of his Berkeley home. On top of rotting vegetables, he finds a sheet of mailing labels. "That's all organic-based," he explains, "so that can be composted."

Boone’s journey with garbage began early in life. He remembers crushing cans during World War II to support the war effort. His mother grew up poor in Oklahoma, and her family’s frugality made an impact on him.

"My grandmother never threw anything away. And my mother, which I think is pretty common in the older generations, everything that they had was fairly important to them, and they didn’t just discard things easily," says Boone.

Boone says after World War II, the U.S. entered an era of wastefulness. Even by 1983, recycling was still an unproven venture. But it was in that year that Boone took over the North Oakland Recycling Center.

"There were about 4,000 of us at one time, all scattered around the country, mostly in liberal, progressive type communities, where people could bring their cans and their bottles and we would make sure that they got back into the stream of commerce, or back to people who could use them for something," explains Boone.

As Oakland started its own curbside recycling program, Boone sold the business. Today he’s semi-retired, but still works as a consultant. And he’s still pretty obsessed with recycling.

Boone is a bit of an extremist.  His laundry room is his "sorting room." Bins and plastic bags are piled haphazardly all around. There are old yogurt containers full of used batteries and metal odds and ends. He compares the disordered order to a spice cabinet – a really big one.

"Cans and bottles go in here," he explains. "Newspapers go in here. Then over here, this is my piece de resistance. I keep my foil in here. I take that down to Berkeley and dump it in their foil bin. Only three percent of the aluminum foil in this country is recycled. Most of it goes in the trash."

There’s the problem right there. A lot of stuff that could be recycled isn’t. Berkeley only recycles number one and two plastic bottles. And that’s where Boone’s commitment kicks in. He rinses clean all other plastics and drives them to Super Link, a collection center in Oakland that ships recyclables to China.

But more attention to recycling is making a difference. Since 1989, the amount of stuff going into landfills has come down by about 30 percent—that’s according to California’s recycling agency. But to get anywhere close to “zero waste,” we will also have to start thinking about how things are made.

"This is the bottom of an old lamp," explains Boone. "There’s actually three different materials in here, and the guy who wants the metal doesn’t want the concrete. The guy who wants the plastic doesn’t want the concrete. The guy who wants the concrete doesn’t want the plastic. I mean, you know, these are the problems that we have in our society." So lamps like these usually end up in the trash and, and ultimately, at landfills where they’re usually buried underground.

Data from the recycling agency shows that in 2008 California sent nearly 36 million tons of garbage to the landfill … that’s roughly the weight of 36 million old Volkswagen bugs. And nearly half of that incredible pile of garbage is lumber, cardboard, paper, food, leaves, grass, plastic, and glass—all of which could have been recycled or composted.

"You know, with very little effort, a lot of that stuff could go to the compost yard," notes Boone. "But nobody wants to take the effort. "

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