In the past seven months, more than 7,000 people in the Washington region have died of the coronavirus. We'll hear from the friends and families of those lost about how they've coped in a time when the most basic grieving rituals are disrupted.
Ever wonder what to recycle and what to just throw away in the trash? Ever wonder what all those plastic water bottles are used for after they’re recycled? What about those milk jugs – what are they turned into?
Modern day recycling began in the 1970s due to rising energy costs, but a lot of questions still remain. We’ll try and answer them, and provide tips and tricks to simplify and improve your recycling skills.
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
- Jacob Fenston Environment Reporter, WAMU; @JacobFenston
- Pete Keller Vice President of Recycling and Sustainability, Republic Services; @RepublicService
- Megan Litke Director of Sustainability Programs, Office of Sustainability, American University; @GreenAU
- Jonathan Oppenheimer Co-owner and Founder, Glass House Recycling; @GlassHouseFCC
- Danny Oppenheimer Co-owner and Founder, Glass House Recycling; @GlassHouseFCC
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show' on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast a remembrance of John Thompson, Jr. But first...
UNIDENTIFIEDReduce, reuse, recycle. It's very easy to do. It's simple to remember. Recycle what you use. Separate glass and paper. Separate plastic and tin. Then put them in their places in the recycling bin.
NNAMDIReduce, reuse, recycle. Yes, the three Rs of recycling. Today's broadcast will touch on all the Rs, but with a heavy focus on one of them, recycling. Modern day recycling began in the 1970s due to rising energy costs. But many questions still remain about what can and cannot be recycled and whether what you put in the recycling bin actually gets recycled at all. We'll try and answer them and clear things up and hopefully improve our recycling skills. Joining me now is Jacob Fenston. He is an Environment Reporter with WAMU. Jacob, thank you for joining us.
JACOB FENSTONHi, Kojo.
NNAMDIJacob, the average American generates about four and a half pounds of waste each day. How much of that gets recycled?
FENSTONRight. So about a quarter of our waste gets recycled nationally according to the EPA. If you add composting as well that goes up to about a third. So if you do the math there, it's about one and a half of that four and a half pounds of waste that each of us generates will be recycled and composted if you're like the average American.
NNAMDIHow does this region, the Washington region fare when it comes to recycling? How do we rate with the rest of the country? How do we compare?
FENSTONWell, it really does depend on exactly where in the region you live and who you're comparing us to. So D.C.'s recycling rate within the city itself has been stuck around 20 percent for years. It's been inching upward toward 30 percent recently. But that's still just kind of about the national average. And it's way behind a lot of cities especially on the west coast where recycling has been around for a lot longer.
FENSTONSome of the suburbs are doing better. Arlington and Fairfax recycle about 50 percent. Montgomery County and Prince George's County are at about 60 percent. And so D.C. is about where like some other cities like New York are on the east coast. But if you compare to, for example, San Francisco, San Francisco recycles and composts 80 percent of its waste. So we're way behind that.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Pete Keller, Vice President of Recycling and Sustainability at Republic Services, a national recycling and non-hazardous solid waste disposal company. Pete Keller, thank you for joining us.
PETE KELLERThanks for having us, Kojo.
NNAMDIPete, how has the pandemic affected recycling in the D.C. region and across the country?
KELLERWell, we saw a pretty significant shift in volumes. So, you know, when the initial work from home and business lockdowns occurred we saw as much as a 25-30 percent increase in our residential streams. And we saw, you know, a corresponding drop off in our commercial volume. So as much as 20-25 percent in some markets.
KELLERIn addition, to the change in volume, we've seen a big change in mix of materials. So if you think about consumptive behavior, from at home we've seen a lot more aluminum. We've seen a lot more PET, which is plastic water bottle. And we've seen a lot more cardboard in our residential streams and that's a result of ecommerce. So we've seen, you know, a big change of volume and a big change of mix in a real short amount of time.
NNAMDIHow -- millions of Americans recycle, but how many, Pete, how many do it correctly?
KELLERNot very many. So I would tell you that the average contamination rate in the U.S. is in the low 20 percentile. So the good news is in Northern Virginia and the D.C. area contamination is at least for us a high teens. So folks are doing a little bit better job in that region, but it's still a challenge for us. We receive a lot of food waste or we receive a lot of yard waste. Lots of batteries, which are particularly dangerous in our environment. And believe it or not, we get a lot of dirty diapers. So those are some of the things that we're challenged with in the contamination side.
NNAMDIWhat are the basic items that can be recycled, Pete?
KELLERYeah. Most printed papers, you know, think about all your junk mail. Obviously any kind of corrugated container, which is a cardboard box. We like to tell our customers anything with a cap or a lid is generally recyclable. So whether that's a glass jar or a buttercup or a yogurt tub all of those things are generally recyclable. The things to stay away from are, you know, flexible films and flex pack and stand up pouches and zipper bags and things like that. Those are things that are particularly challenging for us.
NNAMDIPete, what are some general tips you can give to ensure that you're recycling properly and not wasting your time?
KELLERYeah. So we like to -- we have a few things that we like to say our customers. So remember empty, clean, dry. You know, if you're throwing away a half full ketchup bottle or mayonnaise jar, you run the risk of cross contaminating really valuable other recyclable material. We like to say, "Know what you throw." You know, we realize that there's some confusion out there in the market place and there's not harmonized programs jurisdiction to jurisdiction. So become familiar with what's allowable on your community.
KELLERAnd then lastly, this is a big surprise to a lot of people. But lastly, we say, Don't bag it. We receive recyclable material that's bagged and usually in our facilities and we have 79 recycling facilities throughout the country, if we receive bagged material we're going to grab it off the line and we're going to include it with the garbage. So, you know, it could be perfectly good recyclable material inside a bag. We don't have the time to go through it and we've also come to recognize that it's a potential safety hazard for our employees, because we don't know what's in that bag. So please don't bag your materials.
NNAMDILet's hear from Brian in Alexandria, Virginia. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANThank you for taking my call. It's definitely of interest to me. I think I've always been a very ardent recycler even before it was a big deal. Here in Alexandria they have done a pretty good job with that. We now have curbside recycling for most things, although last year they changed it where glass is now separate. It's back to a separate bin and I have to take those to several drop off locations around the city, but the rest of the things can go into a single bin.
BRIANMy issue is that I wanted to call about is that as much as they're doing to help encourage recycling, it is still very frustrating, because -- I grabbed a whole stack of brochures while I was on hold that the city has put out showing what can be recycled and what can't. And it's constantly changing. I've got these pages here with little pictures of -- you know, obviously the bottles and cans and that kind of stuff. But plastic drives me up the wall, because they all have those little symbols on the bottom with the little number in it. And I'm just looking through the current brochures and I cannot find in the last set of brochures, which numbers can be recycled and which can't, and those have changed over the years.
BRIANAnd then I've learned -- I've watched some shows on recycling and even things that are supposed to be recycled like soda bottles like your liter soda bottles, for years I would just toss them in the recycling bin. And then I watched a show that said, well, you really should have been taking off the labels all along and don't put the caps on them. And I'm like, well, darn. I didn't realize that. Nobody ever told me that. And it wasn't listed in the brochure. So now I take off my caps. I take off the labels. I'm really trying to recycle, but even the people that are trying to work with us are making it difficult.
BRIANAnd the rules constantly keep changing, what number plastics. I learned recently, just because can be recycled and it says it's recyclable doesn't mean it's recyclable in my area. And I saw shows where they showed bins and bales of plastic that was supposed to go to recycling and it was just being thrown out.
NNAMDIBrian, you're making me crazy here. Jacob, have you heard a lot of complaints similar to Brian's?
FENSTONYeah. And I think there's sort of a push and pull or a balance between, you know, making recycling as simple as possible and making it sort of as effective for the system as a whole as possible. And I think it's very frustrating in our region, because you can cross, you know, state line country line. If you work in a different county, have different rules. So I think it is very frustrating for people that there are all these different rules and they seem to change all the time. But that said, you know, if you do follow them, you know, your stuff will be more likely to be recycled. And we'll keep the whole system running efficiently.
NNAMDICare to comment, Pete.
KELLERYeah. I would suggest to your listeners to maybe focus less on the resin number on the bottom of the containers and more of the form of that package. So a rigid container with a cap or a lid is generally always going to be recyclable and some of those other types of plastics or packaging not so much.
NNAMDIJacob, earlier this year counties in Northern Virginia stopped curbside pickup of glass one of the things Brian referred to. Why did they do that?
FENSTONWell, there's been sort of a dirty secret about glass in this region. It's not really a secret, but it hasn't really been recycled for a long time, most of it at least in the way that most of us would think about recycling in terms of like an old piece of glass becoming a new bottle or a new jar. That hasn't been happening. It has to do with the way the single stream recycling systems work where everything is in one big bin.
FENSTONGlass just doesn't do well in those systems. It breaks down. It gets mixed with the paper and the plastic and the metal and breaks to the point where you can't really -- the machinery and the systems we have can't really sort it out in a usable form. So it becomes kind of valueless or even has a negative value. And then it also contaminates all the other stuff in the recycling stream, the paper especially.
FENSTONSo it actually ends up costing jurisdictions more to recycle or to put the glass in the recycling bin than to just dump it in the trash. So, for example, Arlington decided last year, I guess, in 2019 that they were going to stop telling residents to put glass in the curbside bin. And they explained the whole math of it, and basically made the argument that there's no real environmental benefit to putting glass in the recycling, because it's just jamming up the system ending up in the landfill anyway. It's cheaper to put it in the trash and have it be incinerated and it's not any worse for the environment really.
FENSTONSo it's not an ideal system. But I think everyone is kind of working toward a fix for what to do with glass. And I think we'll hear more about that later in the show.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left in this segment. But can you talk about some of the biggest shifts that have taken place starting with single stream recycling.
FENSTONYeah. So in single stream I think, you know, came around in the late 90s early 2000s. Before that people were sorting everything out at home. The paper in one thing. The metal in one. And then single stream was supposed to make it all much really simple so that everyone would recycle. But the sort of negative consequence of that was that everyone tries to recycle everything. So people, you know, put all sorts of stuff in there that they hope is recyclable, but actually isn't. People call it wishful recycling.
FENSTONSo that has made it so that commodities that do have a lot of value like paper or -- especially paper that gets contaminated with all the other stuff that people put in there. And that has led to China two years ago in 2018 putting in place a policy basically restricting the import of these recyclable stuff. They were the biggest buyer of it in the world. They cut way back on it and sort of threw the whole world of recycling into chaos.
FENSTONThat's where we are now.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. You can still give us a call at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking recycling with Jacob Fenston, Environment Reporter with WAMU and Pete Keller, Vice President of Recycling and Sustainability at Republic Services, a national recycling and non-hazardous solid waste disposal company. Go back directly to the phones. Here now is Peter in Leesburg. Peter, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETERYes. Hi, Kojo and guests. I try to do my best to recycle. And I just have questions about certain items that seem like they -- I've heard that they might be recyclable. But I'm not sure. Let me just list them off real quick here. Aluminum cans that don't have the recycling symbol, also wine bottles that don't have a recycling symbol, the very hard caps to water bottles or jars that are very hard plastic that don't have a symbol on them. They have it on the container they contain. Also in terms of paper and mailings things, we get mailers that are like they seemed kind of laminated basically and do those qualify? And finally -- those were the things I was kind of curious about.
NNAMDIPete Keller, care to respond?
KELLERI would say all aluminum regardless of symbol would be recyclable. Glass, I would check locally. We've had a discussion here this morning about, you know, some programs dropping glass. But any glass bottle should be recyclable in any location that accepts glass curbside. A laminated mailer could be a little tricky. If it's got any kind of blister pack or kind of poly coating, a plastic coating, then likely not recyclable. That would be considered a contaminant. And then, you know, there's been I guess a couple of questions or suggestions around caps.
KELLEROur recommendation is to leave the caps on. They are different. The caps are made of a different type of resin, but generally a recyclable resin. And as those bottles get processed into either flake or pallets those caps will be captured through that secondary processing process.
NNAMDIHere is Alexander in Washington D.C. Alexander, your turn.
ALEXANDERHi. My question was is D.C. ever going to consider having a deposit program? In Michigan we have a program where when we buy pop cans they put a deposit down. And when you return those pop can you get that deposit back.
NNAMDIJacob Fenston, know anything about that? Any kind of proposal of that nature here?
FENSTONYeah. I think there's a lot of people who would love to see that happen and who feel like that would really be, you know, the only way to quickly increase recycling rates. And I was over the summer in a state that has a deposit and it's pretty neat to see that in action. I don't know that that's on the immediate horizon, though.
NNAMDIPete Keller, what happens with the items that are recycled? For instance, what are things like recycled water bottles and plastic milk jugs used for?
KELLERSo a water bottle -- this might surprise a lot of your listeners. But a water bottle is made out of polyester. So in the U.S. today, a large portion of recycled water bottles get turned back into textiles either for apparel like sporting apparel or into carpet. So that's the predominant use of water bottles in the U.S. today. There are some bottle to bottle -- you know, there's a separate FDA approval required to go food grade on that recycled plastic, but that's what happens.
KELLERA milk jug, if the milk jug is the opaque type of milk jug that we're all familiar with that can be turned into just about anything that's made out of polyethylene. So a tag jug or a shampoo bottle. So the milk jugs are actually quite recyclable today in the U.S., a really robust end markets for that type of material, highly sought after.
NNAMDIJacob, what are the goals of our recycling programs in D.C., Maryland and Virginia? And are they realistic?
FENSTONI think they are possible. So there's a movement called, you know, Zero Waste, which the idea is to reduce waste as much as possible. Recycle and compost as much as possible. And so a lot of jurisdictions have adopted the zero waste goals and the targets are not exactly zero. But more like 80 percent. So Maryland has a statewide goal diverting 85 percent of waste from landfills by 2040. D.C.'s goal is 80 percent. Arlington is working on a plan to direct 90 percent. So anyway there's all these different goals.
FENSTONI think obviously there are places in the country that are already in that realm of 80 percent or more recycling. So it certainly is possible. I think part of the problem is just that there is so many jurisdictions doing different things. And it really is, you know, you have to have the regional facilities to do this. It's not just a matter of, you know, one county saying they're going to do it.
FENSTONThey have to have the facilities to process everything and a lot more going on.
NNAMDIHere's Rob on Capitol Hill. Rob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBThank you for taking my call. I have one comment. I work for a small renewable energy biomass energy technology company. And we are in the process of finalizing financing to build the world's first zero waste circular economy waste energy plant in South America in a Central American country. And you need to keep in mind that a lot of what the gentleman from Republic and so forth is talking about. When you talk about recycling, all the technologies that are currently on the market are really outdated.
ROBThey date from the paralysis and incineration and anaerobic digestion, technologies that are very inefficient not very economical. And also incineration, which is very popular in Europe and they pride themselves on recycling huge amounts, but much of it is incinerated. Those incinerators spout out a bunch of contamination. So Europeans are very proud of their recycling rate, but in reality they're creating a huge population problems and issues with these old technologies.
ROBThere is a series of small companies like mine that are bringing forth new technologies that will not emit any pollution into the air or into the water. And will convert 100 percent -- well, 90 percent of all waste except metals and glass into different energy products and organic fertilizers. Not compost, which has very low economic value.
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have Pete Keller respond. Pete, is Rob's self-congratulatory point well taken.
KELLERSounds like a little bit of an advertisement, Kojo. But, no, certainly familiar with some of the approaches and technologies mentioned there. And we couldn't agree more. You know, in Europe incineration is considered recycling. In the U.S. it is not unless you live in Florida. So agree with a lot of what the caller just said.
NNAMDIPete Keller, what does the future of recycling look like?
KELLERWell, recycling is going to continue to be important into the future. You know, we've done a lot of customer insights and outreach. And recycling is important to our customers. It's also important to the supply chain here in the U.S. You know, and that really proved itself during the pandemic. The recovered fiber that we were making available in the market place and in some of the recovered resins and certainly the aluminum became very important to a lot of our customers. Just in being able to supply, you know, the various types of packaging into the market place.
KELLERSo, yeah, you know, in a lot of jurisdictions recycling is mandated. In most areas of the country, our customers expect to have recycling services and they continue to demonstrate their willingness to pay for it. So we don't think it's going anywhere. We do have some challenges, some structural challenges in the market place with contamination and China and some of the changes that China, you know, have been taking in the last few years.
KELLERBut the markets will solve for themselves over time. And we feel good about long term prospects of recycling.
NNAMDINancy in Annapolis, Maryland has a very basic question. Go ahead, please, Nancy.
NANCYA basic question, however, I have a lot of follow up questions to what I've been hearing on the phone here.
NNAMDIWell, let's have the basic question first. We don't have a great deal of time.
NANCYI know. The basic question is we always put our newspapers in the brown grocery bags. But don't do that either? Don't put those in?
NNAMDIHear anything about that, Jacob?
FENSTONNo, those are fine. I think we're talking about plastic bags in terms of not using plastic bags in the recycling.
NNAMDIOkay. Nancy, one more.
NANCYFor cardboard milk cartons, again, keep the cap on even though it's plastic?
KELLERCartons aren't accepted everywhere. So, again, I would say check locally. If you're looking to recycle paper cartons and I know this is confusing, but take the lid off.
NNAMDIAnd now Steve in Silver Spring. Steve, your turn.
STEVEYeah. My question is about these bags that chips and treats come in. They look like they're metal. But they seem more like plastic. Where do they go?
NNAMDIBags of potato chips, Jacob Fenston.
FENSTONIn the trash.
NNAMDIPut them in the trash, Steve. And I'm afraid, Steve, that's about all the time we have in this segment. Jacob Fenston is an Environment Reporter with WAMU. Jacob, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIPete Keller is the Vice President of Recycling and Sustainability at Republic Services, a national recycling and non-hazardous solid waste disposal company. Pete Keller, thank you for joining us.
KELLERThank you so much.
NNAMDIComing up, you'll hear about how two teenagers in Northern Virginia are helping to recycle glass, which is not being picked up at the curbside. And then we'll have a remembrance of John Thompson, Jr. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. American University was the first urban campus, the first research university and the largest higher education institution in the United States to achieve carbon neutrality in 2018, two years ahead of schedule. American University, by the way, holds WAMU's license, but how did they do it, and what's next for them? Joining me now is Megan Litke, director of sustainability programs with the office of sustainability at American University. Megan Litke, thank you for joining us.
MEGAN LITKEThank you so much.
NNAMDIWhat does it mean to be carbon neutral, and how did AU achieve that milestone?
LITKESo, carbon neutrality means that we have reduced our emissions by as much as we can across our campus. And then we've managed the rest of our emissions through using things like renewable energy credits, investing in renewable energy elsewhere and purchasing carbon offsets, which are a mechanism that allows for a reduction of offsets somewhere else for an emission that we're creating on our campus that we can't reduce right now.
LITKESo, for instance, with regard to waste, when we do send things to landfill, we recognize that methane is created by landfills. And that's an especially potent greenhouse gas, so we actually invest in landfill projects, where they capture that methane and use it to produce electricity in different areas around the country. And so, we use that to kind of balance out the rest of our emissions that we're not able to reduce right on site.
NNAMDIWhat is American University's Zero Waste program and what role did it play towards carbon neutrality?
LITKESo our Zero Waste program is over a decade old now and it is our goal to reduce the amount of waste that we send to landfill to the point where we're only sending, at a maximum, 10 percent of our total waste generated to a landfill. And the rest of it is diverted in some way. It's really been a joint effort between administration across the university, our faculty, our staff. And our students, of course, play a major role in the program, not just encouraging us to do a better job but actually working on the ground to make sure that we're getting there.
NNAMDIWhat issues does AU still need to address when it comes to sustainability?
LITKESo, I think one of the things that we've really been aware of, as we keep reaching milestones, is that these are really only milestones. Our end goal of sustainability is not something that's easily achieved. So, with Zero Waste, as the previous guests mentioned, there are a lot of challenges within our region in terms of getting all the way up to a 90 percent diversion rate. So, we're not there yet and we're still trying to get there. So, we're constantly looking for new methods of dealing with our waste, new opportunities to reduce the amount of waste overall and find new ways to recycle, new ways to compost.
LITKEOn top of that, we also are looking at our energy use. And, even though we've reduced our energy consumption by 30 percent per square foot over our campus, we still want to continue to drive that number down, increase the number of renewable that we're using on campus. So, in a lot of these areas, we might've taken the first several steps towards sustainability, but we know that we have a lot more steps that we can take and a lot more work that we can do in all of these areas, really.
NNAMDIIn 2012, American University beat out 604 other American colleges to become the grand champion in the 2012 Recycling Mania Contest. What makes AU's recycling program so successful?
LITKESo, I would say that the simplest thing, but also the most important thing, is signage, especially on a campus where we have multiple buildings. And you, as an individual who comes to our campus, might spend a lot of time in one building or even a lot of time at a couple of buildings. But there are always buildings that you rarely visit, and we want to make sure that, as a student or as a staff member or even as a visitor, anytime you walk into a new building on campus, it's easy to tell what you should do with your waste.
LITKESo, we have consistent bins, consistent signage that we use across campus. We bring out that same signage when we have an event. For orientation events on our campus, we always have student staff members standing there helping new students who are just moving into our campus understand what can go into each bin. So, we really want to start that education process as soon as people get to our campus. But then we want to make sure it's easy, where, if you're just a one-day visitor to campus, it's easy for you, too, to figure out where that waste that you're holding in your hand should end up.
NNAMDIWell, you not only got college students to recycle at award-winning levels, you got them to compost, too. How did you do it, and how does composting work at a university in a city like Washington, D.C.?
LITKEYeah, so we were one of the first schools, not only in the area, but in the country, to have campus-wide compost. So, we started with compost sort of behind the scenes in our dining halls, where it's much easier to control. You know, if you're peeling a carrot, then those peels are going to go into a compost bin behind the scenes. And that's a process that's just a little easier to manage.
LITKEYou can kind of set it up into your streamlined approach to how you're doing things in the kitchens or even in our coffee shops that are run by students. We have composting where we collect the coffee grounds from those things, so we have one set of practices that we use for all of those types of operations that are happening on campus. And, actually, the end product of those operations is managed by students. So, we have a compost crew on campus that's managed by students, and it's all student employees. And they go around to these different organizations on our campus, collect their food scrapes and bring it to a central location where we deliver it to our compost facility.
LITKEAnd then we have the second side of our compost, which is front-of-house compost, where we have bins available in main areas in all of our buildings on campus, where any individual who is eating an apple in a hallway or in a class can throw that apple core into a compost bin when they're done with it. And that's obviously a little bit harder to manage so we do have to keep a close eye on it for contamination so that we're not sending bags of compost that have contamination in them to our facility. So, it really is a matter of ongoing communication, ongoing messaging across our campus to make sure that people on campus recognize the important role they play in not contaminating our bins.
LITKEWe always hear this, you know, myth on campus that somebody's going to sort your waste at the end of the day, because we do have people that check the bags at the end of the day. Our housekeeping staff plays a huge role in making sure we're not sending contaminated bags away. But if the bag is contaminated, it ends up at landfill. It doesn't get sorted behind the scenes, so we really do rely on our community to take ownership of what they're doing with their waste, put it in the right bin, and help us to keep our contamination rates down so we can get our diversion rate up.
NNAMDIAnd, finally, AU's goal in 2010 was to be carbon neutral by 2020. You accomplished that two years early in 2018. What are AU's environmental goals now?
LITKESo, we're actually in the final stages of finishing a new sustainability plan that will take us into this next phase. And, in the next phase, we really are looking at decreasing our reliance on offsets, increasing our efficiency on campus. We want to make sure that the things we're doing on campus are going to support the sustainable D.C. goals. And even broader than that, we want to make sure we're looking at goals on our campus that are going to support the UN sustainability goals.
LITKEAnd so we know that the things that we're doing on our campus can have a much bigger impact cross the world and across the District, not just on our campus, not just in the, you know, individual buildings on our campus. So we really want to make sure that everything we do on campus can sort of reach out into the community in some way. We're looking a lot at environmental justice, a lot at wellness in all of our programs that we're creating now, as well.
NNAMDIMegan Litke, thank you so much for joining us.
LITKEThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAs we discussed earlier, Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria and a few other jurisdictions have stopped accepting glass in curbside recycling bins. Why? Because recycling glass is apparently difficult and costly, and a lot of it just ends up in the landfill, anyway. In Fairfax County you can go to recycling centers and place your glass items in large purple dumpsters which many people are doing.
NNAMDIBut two high school kids have made it just as easy as it used to be. Those kids, Jonathan Oppenheimer and Danny Oppenheimer, they are cofounders of Glass House Recycling. Jonathan is a senior at George Mason High School. Danny Oppenheimer is a junior at the same high school. Jonathan Oppenheimer, thank you for joining us.
JONATHAN OPPENHEIMERThank you so much for having me on the show, Kojo. It's great to be here.
JONATHAN OPPENHEIMERJonathan, why did you guys create Glass House Recycling, and how does it work?
JONATHAN OPPENHEIMERSo, you covered it pretty well at the start. As you said, in about early February, multiple municipalities, including the city of Falls Church, announced that they would no longer accept glass in the single stream recycling system. And having heard that, my brother and I kind of were thinking, this sounds like something we could do. You know, we can get the glass. We can bring it to, as you had said earlier, the drop-off centers. We call them purple bins, as they are big old purple bins that you put glass into. And it just started from there, just an early idea of thinking that we could do this.
NNAMDIWell, Danny, I promoted you to a junior. You're actually a sophomore, but I think you deserve to be a junior because of what you guys are doing. (laugh) But, Danny, you started this business with your older brother in February. How's it been working out?
DANNY OPPENHEIMERIt's been working out pretty well. So far, we have upwards of 90 customers, so we've got a lot of support about our recycling business. And, you know, originally, when we had put out the word over Facebook and deck store (sounds like) and tried to see if we would have any possible customers, you know, there's some dissenters saying, like, oh, this will never work. But eventually, you know, we got a lot of people that did want to have their glass picked up. And it was kind of a learning experience, we’re lucky. You know, don't always listen to everyone. And it's been pretty successful so far.
NNAMDISo, Jonathan, what exactly happens to the glass you pick up for recycling?
OPPENHEIMERSo, what our customers will do is just like they had previously when the city picked up their glass, they will put their glass out on their porch. We'll come by that afternoon, and we'll empty their glass into our car. And then we will take it to a purple bin, where we dump it off. And, from there, there's an interesting story from Fairfax County about how successful their purple bin program has been.
OPPENHEIMEROne of North America's largest glass recyclers, Strategic Materials, takes the glass from the purple bins to customers that are interested in processing that glass. So, one of the biggest ones around here in Virginia is Owings Illinois, Inc. And they take 3.6 million bottles a day. You know, they take them from all these municipalities up here in Virginia and can process them into new bottles and new glass products. And all of it, you know, stays in Virginia. Glass is recycled and reused rather than ending up in a landfill.
NNAMDIWell, Jonathan, as we heard earlier, glass is notoriously challenging to recycle, for a number of reasons. How are you overcoming issues like breakage, mixed glass and glass that comes in contaminated, basically dirty?
OPPENHEIMERSo, yeah. So, part of that is messaging with our customers. And we've run into issues, stuff like bottle caps, stuff that isn't even glass. So, we've had to be pretty careful on our end as we are kind of, you know, the trip between the customer and then one of the glass drop-offs. So, we've, you know, encouraged our customers to clean their glass as well as they can. We personally will do some quality control before we put stuff in the bin. But overall our customers have been very good about returning clean glass and items that are solely glass.
NNAMDIDanny, what part of the business do you focus on?
OPPENHEIMERSo, yeah, me and my brother try to split up the business, so we both kind of have equal tasks. So, my job is more on the physical side of things. So, as we drive around to each residential house that has glass pickup for that week, I will hop out of the passenger seat side of the door, I'll grab their glass reciprocal and pour it into our van, so we can keep going and drop it off in the purple bins later.
OPPENHEIMERAnd, in addition to that, in order to, you know, communicate with our customers, I've created, like, an automatic invoice sender to be able to, like, bill them and also just help with communications and emails.
NNAMDIYou're 15 years old, and you just mentioned you developed your newly founded company's invoicing system. You talked about billing. Where did you learn about the business side of all this?
OPPENHEIMERI mean, a little bit from lessons from my parents. And we've also had, you know, some classes in school related to all this networking and stuff. So, I guess kind of just picked it up along the way.
NNAMDIJonathan, what part of Glass House Recycling do you focus on?
OPPENHEIMERSo, as Danny mentioned, in the actual driving part, I am the one behind the wheel, going across town. I think I may have gotten the better end of the bargain on that part of the actual pickup. (laugh) But in terms of managing the business, while my brother does the invoicing, I will do, like, day-to-day communication by email with customers. And then I do our social media. We have, not a huge presence, but it's nice to kind of share stories such as this one that we're involved in. And, additionally, I've worked on trying to sign up new customers.
NNAMDIJonathan, do you foresee yourselves sticking with this business or any sort of entrepreneur line of work after school?
OPPENHEIMERYou know, it's been a question that I've gotten before. For quite a long period of my life I've been interested in planning to go get a further education in (unintelligible) college. I'm interested in computer science, which isn't, as most people think, terribly related to a business such as this. So, while I'm not -- I don't have, you know, plans to go pursue business, it's certainly -- as my brother said, it's been a learning experience and something that, you know, maybe this is something I want to do in the future. At 17 years old, it's hard to tell someone what, you know, my life is going to be like years head of it.
NNAMDIHow about you, Danny?
OPPENHEIMERYeah, so as I've been growing up, I kind of picked up some of the interests that Jonathan has, too. So, I'm also interested in computer science as I grow up. But, I mean, also doing this has been a lot of fun, so, like, when I'm growing up, this might influence my decisions for what I want to do when I get my job and I...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Danny Oppenheimer, Jonathan Oppenheimer, thank you both for joining us, and good luck to you.
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