Thursday, May 7, 2009

Going Green in Denver is a Dirty Business

Last weekend, I volunteered at the Green Festival in Denver, co-hosted by Green America and Global Exchange. My assignment was to oversee a recycling, composting and trash station on the trade show floor. Throughout my four-hour shift, exhibitors and attendees stopped by. In many cases, they knew where to put their waste. Other times, I had to help out. Most of the discarded products--plates, napkins and food waste--went right into the compost bin. What surprised some people was that the utensils went there, too; the food vendors were using products made of corn. Occasionally, when I was engaged in routing one person's waste to the correct bin, I didn't have time to get to someone else who ended up dropping such items in the trash bin. In those cases, my hands encased in latex gloves, I went foraging through the trash to dig it out. Not fun, but after a while, it became second nature to rummage through all the discarded items.

It wasn't always easy to figure out where discarded items belonged, though. Our volunteer leader, for example, said one particular kind of fork belonged in the trash. He snapped one in front of me, pointed out how the easy break revealed it as cheap plastic, and then threw it away. And yet, about a half hour later, he returned with a sheepish expression. He'd checked the box the forks had come in and admitted he'd made a mistake, that in fact, those forks could be composted too.

There is a lot involved in learning how to go green and, in some cases, it is a dirty job. Many items were recycled: Tetra Pak juice containers, e-waste such as batteries, and bottle caps. Aveda has a bottle-cap recycling program. After a few hours, someone came over with a giant, empty, plastic meal container. It had obviously come from outside the festival because it looked different from anything I'd seen that day. Sure enough, it had to go into the trash. After all the hours I'd spent routing different products to the recycling and composting bins, that plastic container seemed like the ugliest thing I had seen all day.

One of the most fascinating parts of the day, and which I suppose is the element of going green that people know (or care to know) the least about was when I emptied the bin bags, tied them and brought them through a side door of the well-adorned trade show floor. (The festival was in the Denver convention center). In a low-lit loading dock out back, other members of the green team were emptying waste content from the bin bags onto long, flat tables and sorting through it. The festival had partnerships with different recycling and composting vendors, and sorting through the waste materials was essential to making sure everything ended up going to the right place (in most cases, not to the local landfill). While I was on the trade floor, several people actually asked me who our partners were. I was wearing a staff t-shirt and the assumption they'd made was that I wasn't just the guy standing at the bin station but that I also knew a lot more about the business relationships in place. I wished I could have been more helpful.

Another fascinating part of the green festival was the number of devout and appreciative expressions I received, ones you would expect would be reserved for the likes of heads of state and rock stars. That greatly surprised me. I supposed I might be perceived as the grubby guy sorting through the trash, but this event had drawn loyal and very committed advocates of sustainable living. In hindsight, I suppose, the volunteers monitoring the stations were perceived as nothing less than front-line warriors of the green movement.

By the end of my shift, I had unloaded five composting bags and only one trash bag from the bins while my station partner, who was overseeing the recycling bin, had unloaded three bags. As Thomas Friedman and Auden Schendler have pointed out, the sustainability movement isn't an ethereal, magical party. It's a dirty job. Being on the front line is quite an experience.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice work for the earth and the rest of us. Dee Vee