Polly Campbell: New recycling hub finds a place for everything

I consider myself a pretty dedicated recycler. I would no more throw a plastic bottle or a can in the trash than toss it in the woods. I lug food scraps from the kitchen to the compost heap even in the winter, and I try to find appropriate places to give away items I no longer use. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

But if you want to see recycling as it should be done, practiced by a master, check out my husband, Neil. Like me, he’s a recycler by conviction, but for him it’s deeper: It’s simply not possible for him to waste things. So he interacts with the reduce, reuse and recycle triangle on every side. He’s one tiny disruptor of the system of always-growing production and consumption that has gotten the environment into the perilous state it’s now in. 

He won’t buy something new if he can buy it used, though he makes exceptions for new things that are more energy-efficient, like our highly satisfactory electric lawn mower or new energy-efficient windows. He won’t throw anything out if he can fix it and he does, sometimes wearing the socks our daughters gave him for Christmas that say “I said I could fix it!” 

He has a hierarchy of how to give things away: If it’s worth money and not too big, it goes on eBay. You should try this: It can be a real thrill. He was encouraged by an early experience of getting several hundred dollars for a 10-year-old electronic dog collar and receiver. If it’s bulky, Craigslist. Not too valuable, it goes on our neighborhood Buy Nothing list. Clothing goes to Goodwill. Plastic bags go to the grocery store. He collects egg cartons for someone who keeps chickens, eyeglasses to eyeglass drives, etc. 

Anything Rumpke takes, goes in the green bin, clean and sorted. And plenty still goes in the trash. Neil isn’t some kind of freegan outsider. We live a perfectly comfortable life, though I will admit to sometimes being irritated when he takes something out of the trash that I just put in.

A new option

So what a great thing for him – and all other recyclers – that there is now the Cincinnati Recycling And Reuse Hub, a nonprofit with a warehouse in the West End where they accept all kinds of things that have nowhere else to go. They take Styrofoam and old shoes, glue sticks and toothpaste tubes, old denim and aerosol cans, no-number plastic and a lot more. 

The three women who got it started were each involved in particular kinds of recycling. Colleen McSwiggin worked on electronics recycling drives at Mount St. Joseph; Carrie Harms spearheaded the recycling of design samples like wallpaper books and leather samples; and Erin Fay collected chip bags and more through Terracycle. Those all started as time-limited drives, but the demand was year-round, and all the projects needed more space. So they opened their warehouse on April 1, 2021. 

Like Neil on a bigger scale, they have places to send everything where it can have its next highest purpose. Early on, someone asked if they took silica packets. He was a caver, and needed them to keep food stashed in caves dry. The Hub now has one box in their warehouse for saving silica packets. 

But that’s just a small example. More than half of what they take is electronics. They take small pieces of PVC materials to recycle into plastic lumber. And they take No. 2, 4, 5, 7 and no-number plastic, and send it to Bright Mark in Indiana where they use pyrolysis to break it down into diesel fuel, industrial wax and, in the gold standard of recycling, a closed loop, into new plastic.

So you don’t have to sort all your stuff by where it goes, and add a lot of stops to your to-do list, you can combine quite a bit of it and make one stop to get it to places it will be used. You can help further by volunteering, which is essential to the Hub’s work. It’s not a bad volunteer gig if you like something simple and hands-on like sorting straws by color or packing office binders in boxes. 

I think of recycling as simply cleaning up after yourself. I wish it was more of an automatic impulse in more people. McSwiggin knows what they do is a drop in the bucket when she thinks of the looming deadline of 2030, when climate change will be too far gone to fix. 

Recycling is just one small part of fighting that inevitability. It’s not about diverting items from landfills for its own sake, it’s about the products people don’t buy, the resources saved, the energy not burned by re-using existing materials. 

She and the other people involved in the Hub put a lot of work into it. But, says McSwiggin, “When I’m exhausted at the end of the day, and I see people lining up, doing their part, I do feel hope.”

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