Offering Community Recycling Solutions with Eco-Cycle’s Dan Matsch

November 7, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have from Denver, Colorado, Dan Matsch with us on. Dan is the Manager of Eco-Cycle over in Denver. Welcome to Green is Good, Dan. DAN MATSCH: Thank you. Thanks for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Dan, it’s such an honor to have you because you do such great work at Eco-Cycle, and we’re going to get into that a little bit. Like all of our great guests, everyone has a fascinating journey. Mike and I get so many e-mails all the time because so many of the young people out there in college or in graduate school want to grow up and have a professional career, want to be the next Dan Matsch. Instead of me reading your wonderful bio, why don’t you walk our listeners through first your journey and how you came to be where you are right now? DAN MATSCH: I can do that. When I graduated from college, I found myself, really by chance, working for a wonderful organization called Recycle Ann Arbor, and it was a non-profit volunteer-driven organization back in the seventies that was focused on trying to organize neighborhoods and businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan to get basic recycling services going because there weren’t any. I started there, and that’s where my recycling journey began. I worked for them for a number of years before I decided I needed to move on from college town life. I tried a few careers along the way, and eventually I became an organic farmer in Boulder, Colorado. I sold at farmers’ markets in Boulder and elsewhere, and a real challenge that I had as a farmer was maintaining the fertility of my soil. When I was standing there at the farmers’ market, I always thought, “If I could just bring back — I go with a full truck and I come back to my farm with an empty truck — if I could just fill that truck up easily with food waste after I sell all my good, fresh farm produce and bring it back to my farm and put it in my compost pile, it would be so much easier to compost than traveling all over the place, trying to find manure that works for me and renting some rickety truck to bring it to my farm and then composting it.” I pondered that for a long time, and eventually, I had lunch with the Executive Director of Eco-Cycle, Eric Lombardi, and he said, “You know, that’s exactly what Eco-Cycle is trying to do, except it’s not just for one farm. We’re trying to do it for a whole community. We’re trying to get composting tacked onto the recycling that Eco-Cycle is already doing.” So he convinced me to come on staff and try to get Eco-Cycle into the compost business. Meanwhile, he was starting up a new facility called the Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials. As I worked on compost, he said, “Why don’t you start up this new facility as well?” So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Do you and your wife still have your organic vegetable farm? DAN MATSCH: We do. It’s family property. We’re not professional growers anymore; we just grow as much of our own food as we possibly can. It’s a significant amount. It’s fun. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When you were doing Recycle Ann Arbor, just for our listeners’ sake, that was really way, way, way before it was really cool to be in the green revolution or to recycle. That was very early in this whole curve, whereas now the green revolution seems to be on fire here and we’ve hit some sort of critical mass in the United States, and everyone seems to really want to be getting involved more and more. You were really one of the early movers, one of the visionaries who really got involved with recycling back when. DAN MATSCH: And Eco-Cycle, as it happens, is really a sister organization of Recycle Ann Arbor. It has really the exact same history. It was founded in 1976. It was entirely volunteers originally. They had a bunch of old school buses. They took all the seats out and they went out on Saturdays and picked up everybody’s carefully bundled newspapers that they’d left out on the curb for them. Now, 35 years later, Eco-Cycle has 70 employees and we are the official recycling processor for Boulder County, and we process about 55,000 tons a year now. We operate as a non-profit social enterprise, which means we work on a 10% margin, basically. We’re set up in that way so that we can succeed and fold our profits back into the programs. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re not only the Manager of Eco-Cycle, and for our listeners out there, to see Eco-Cycle’s wonderful website, it’s www.ecocycle.org. Not only are you the Manager of that, but you’re also the Manager of CHaRM. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what the acronym CHaRM stands for with regards to what you do at Eco-Cycle? DAN MATSCH: CHaRM stands for Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials. It was started 10 years ago. Eco-Cycle, to that point, had been a recycling company focused on what we called the traditional recyclables, meaning the paper fiber and all the containers, steel and plastic and so on. That stuff that people are familiar with recycling all over the country, great as it is, only amounts to about one-third of our waste stream. Eco-Cycle saw about 15 years ago that recycling rates had kind of stagnated at that 30-35% rate, and meanwhile the landfills are filling up at a greater rate than they were before. So we realized that we needed to expand our vision and look at the entire waste stream and look at how we could really come up with a realistic alternative to a landfill. So we came up with six essential facilities that a community needs, and one of those is a Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials, or CHaRM, and the point of the CHaRM is that those traditional materials, as I said, are about one-third of the waste stream, and then about really almost half of the waste stream is organic materials. By organic I don’t mean a farming practice like organic carrots, I mean anything that was alive, so yard waste, food waste, and so on. That stuff is all compostable, and that’s about half the waste stream. After that, you have all of our gadgets and products that we surround ourselves with, and a lot of them are not recyclable readily. You certainly can’t put them out at the curb. A lot of it is packaging, a lot of it is products that are made of multiple materials that have to be deconstructed to get recycled, so what we try to do at CHaRM is one category of that huge range of materials at a time, we figure out what it would take to recycle this material. For instance, we started with plastic bags and pallet wrap, and we found that there is a company that is already getting pallet wrap from huge warehouses and turning it into composite lumber, but they hadn’t tried it on a post-consumer level. The key to the CHaRM is that it’s open to the public, and about two-thirds of our visitors here are just the general public and one-third are businesses. Everybody who comes to the CHaRM drives up to the window, and we check what they have and make sure — that’s our quality assurance point — we make sure they have what we’re looking for. We convinced this composite lumber company that that quality assurance would give them the same level of pure stuff that they were used to post-industrial with these warehouses. That’s how we started, and sort of one material at a time, we add new offerings for the local residents to recycle. Now we’re up to about two dozen different materials. MIKE BRADY: In case you just joined us right now, we are on the phone with Dan Matsch, who is a composting Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials Manager in Boulder, Colorado. Dan, one of the things on your great website, ecocycle.org, and I’m looking at it right now, you give the 10 reasons to recycle. Number 5 really strikes a particular chord. A lot of people think about the landfill, it’s like, “OK, it’s just a big hole and you throw everything in there,” but I did not know really, until looking at your site, that the landfill owners are only responsible for their landfill for 30 years after it’s closed. So, when there’s no more room to put it and they bulldoze everything over and try to plant trees to make it look pretty, after 30 years, there is nobody “responsible” for any of the leeching of any of the toxic materials in there into the groundwater system. DAN MATSCH: Right. And, I suppose not coincidentally, the plastic liner that is at the bottom of every modern landfill has about a 30-year life. The EPA acknowledges that the liners that they specify are going to leak at some point, and we’re talking about perpetuity here. There’s supposed to be a cap on a landfill as well, and that’s made out of clay, yet cracks develop in that cap and rainwater works its way through a landfill. It’s called a dry tomb landfill, that’s what a modern landfill is called conceptually, but it’s not. There are a lot of liquids that are being buried in the first place, and then rainwater gets in there as well, and it picks up various nasty chemicals along the way. By the time it’s at the bottom of the landfill looking for a crack to get through, a hole in the liner to get through, it has various chemicals attached to it that then leak into the groundwater. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Dan, on your great website, again it’s www.ecocycle.org, you have a very, very interesting section on zero waste. Can you explain to our listeners, it’s becoming more and more part of our vernacular, or people are reading about it or seeing a headline or seeing a big company’s goals to zero waste or city’s goal to zero waste. Can you explain what zero waste really means with regards to our waste streams, landfills, and what great organizations like yours do to help us all move towards that goal? DAN MATSCH: The beautiful thing about zero waste is it’s not looking only at the end of the pipe, what happens when we’re discarding stuff and what can we recycle and compost there; it’s also looking at what we call the midstream longevity of a product’s use and maximizing that product’s longevity through reuse, repair, and working with industry to make their designs more durable. Also we are working waste reduction upstream, meaning that we are doing a lot of educating with purchasers, whether it’s the general public or our business customers, educating them on what purchases they can make that will result in less waste. Literally, the first thing that we do when we have a new business customer is go through their dumpster with them. We find Styrofoam coffee cups, and we tell them, “Here’s something you can buy as a compostable product. You can buy a compostable coffee cup and you can put it in the compost dumpster that we’re going to give to you.” So, it’s looking at the entire life cycle of a product, and also bringing the manufacturer of the product in that discussion on the concept of producer responsibility, which is that the manufacturer, right at the design table, is thinking about what’s going to happen to this product at the end of its life, and how do we keep it out of the landfill? As long as the designer has that as a design parameter, really 90% of our problems are solved. Then it’s just a matter of educating people to put stuff in the right bin, or in the case of more sophisticated stuff like electronics, make sure you get to the right electronics recycler. It makes our job much easier, and really, we’re not going to ever get anywhere near zero waste until we have the manufacturers onboard. Electronics are sort of the poster child, where there are a lot of manufacturers that are really getting onboard, as you know, John. It is showing a model for other manufacturers in other industries on how that can happen. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, truly, this isn’t just the consumers and great organizations like you working together with landfills and other stakeholders, but it’s truly bringing in the manufacturers of these products, and it’s a very holistic approach to working towards the great goal of zero waste, it’s just not binary. DAN MATSCH: Right. And, another arm of this leg that we need to work is we need to change the rules a little bit. We need government involvement. Right now the laws that settled our country, if you will, favor extraction. Extractive industry built this country into what it is. Now, not so much. Now we need to stop burying our resources in landfills and keep them in circulation. So we need regulations that favor that. MIKE BRADY: You know, it’s really amazing. You just hit on something there that resonated with me, Dan — stop burying our resources. When we start looking at what we “throw away,” and John is so fond of saying, “There’s no place called away,” but if we look at our “garbage” or our refuse as resources, that really does stand the whole conversation on its head. DAN MATSCH: Right. And as a farmer, I witnessed firsthand that the cycles of nature — and in nature, there is of course no waste. Without human invention, there wouldn’t be any waste. So, we need to all get back to nature here a little bit, and mimic the natural cycle of the planet we live on, otherwise we’re going to run into a little trouble. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Speaking of that, then, talk a little bit about the great work that you do with regards to composting. What does that really look like, and what does that mean? How do our listeners get more involved with that growing phenomenon and important form of recycling? DAN MATSCH: Really, the best form of composting out there is backyard composting. Certainly, that’s not for everyone, but in terms of efficiency, you can’t beat it because you don’t have to send a truck out to pick the stuff up. You don’t have to build a great big facility to handle it. You can just do it right in your backyard. The great benefit of that is you have the finished product to use in your gardens. So, that’s definitely part of our message, but we do have a food waste collection program that we offer to businesses and other communities in Boulder, as well as some in California and elsewhere in the country. There is a curbside compost program, where you can set your yard waste and your food waste out on the curb, and it will get picked up once a week and it will go to a compost facility. In order to handle this kind of compost, you need a pretty industrial system because it does generate an odor. Unless you can take it out to the middle of nowhere economically and compost it where there’s no neighbors, you need a fairly industrialized, fairly expensive compost facility. That’s one of the pieces that I mentioned that’s necessary to achieve zero waste. They are expensive and a challenge to design, but on the other hand, compared to sliding a new landfill or an incinerator, it’s a piece of cake. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting. Really, the urban legend is, “Hey, I can just throw my food garbage in with all my other garbage, and it’s just going to biodegrade in the landfill.” That’s not really the way to do it, and that’s not the case. DAN MATSCH: If organic material goes to the landfill, as I mentioned, it’s called a dry tomb landfill, and everyone I think has read stories of unearthing an old landfill and you can still read the newspaper from 1930 or whatever. But organic material does slowly break down if it comes into contact with liquids, but instead of turning into compost, it generates methane, and that methane escapes from the landfill and contributes to global warming. In fact, landfills are the single greatest human source of global warming because methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. Really, I think what listeners need to know is how they really fit in here. You can’t just throw everything in the trash. There’s a fallacy out there that, “I just want one container to throw everything in, and then somebody will recycle stuff out of there and somebody will compost stuff out of there.” It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. It’s too expensive to separate stuff once it’s all mixed together. The sloppy wet stuff contaminates the stuff that needs to stay dry. Forced separation is a key to zero waste, and what that means is that the consumer separates the recyclables from the compostables from the trash. That’s what we advocate, and that’s what a lot of communities, especially in California, are doing, is a three-sort separation. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Dan, you mentioned earlier the sister relationship between Recycle Ann Arbor and Eco-Cycle. Are there other great organizations like Eco-Cycle throughout the United States? DAN MATSCH: Well, there are very few like Eco-Cycle. As I mentioned, Recycle Ann Arbor still does exist. It’s still a great operation, but they, as well as a lot of other of those similar organizations that were started by all those enthusiastic hippies back in the seventies, as certain materials like newspaper and steel cans became profitable to recycle, these for-profits lost out. A city would decide, “This needs to go out to bid now; it’s profitable,” and the for-profits would beat out the non-profits. Then they’d turn around and get rid of anything that wasn’t profitable to them. There are very few organizations like Eco-Cycle. There are organizations that we work with very closely on this concept of zero waste. There’s an organization called the Zero Waste International Alliance, and zero waste is international. In fact, the first country to call itself to zero waste, created a zero waste action plan, is New Zealand. So, there’s a lot going on all over the world. Islands are doing a lot of zero waste work because landfills are always upstream from the development, which is always right on the coast. So, landfills are contaminating the groundwater on an island, and they have limited sources of water, so they recognized very quickly how they need to keep that clean. So, yeah, there is a group that’s representing all over the world that we work with to promote the concept of zero waste. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Dan, we’re at the end here for today, but you’re always welcome to come back on Green is Good and talk about anything else you’re doing and all the great things you’re doing at Eco-Cycle. For our listeners out there, again please go to Dan’s great website, www.ecocycle.org. It’s a fascinating website. It shows you points of entrance for businesses, volunteers, schools, governments, retailers and manufacturers. Wherever you sit, you can become part of this great movement and community towards zero waste. Dan Matsch, you are a visionary and sustainability leader, and truly living proof that green is good. DAN MATSCH: Thank you, guys.