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Talking Trash: Recycling in Pittsburgh

Are clunky computer monitors, old cellphones, expired prescription bottles and other “junk” cluttering up your home? Now you can give them a second life by barely lifting a finger.



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Get Lean and Green

Much of what we throw away—organic food waste, unpainted wood, grass clippings—will eventually safely biodegrade. But environmental experts have compiled a short list of items that need to be kept out of landfills for health reasons. Here are some resources to help you dispose of these items safely and without too much disruption to your daily routine.

Plastic bags: These potentially toxic bags can easily be recycled at local retailers. Giant Eagle accepts plastic grocery bags, shrink wrap and dry-cleaning bags. Target stores have labeled drop boxes for plastic shopping bags (and also take beverage containers, cellphones, MP3 players and ink cartridges). As you accumulate these items, stuff them all into one bag, and once the bag is full, keep it in your car to drop off during your next shopping trip.

e-waste: Once you’re sure that your data is safely removed, consider donating old electronics to a local charity (that 2009 iMac that seems obsolete to you could be a game-changer for someone else). And Second Life Computer Manufacturing is one local business that refurbishes old, donated computers and resells them at reduced prices in Southeast Asia.

Light bulbs and batteries: Home Depot takes the swirl-shaped compact fluorescent bulbs and also accepts rechargeable batteries for power tools (but not standard batteries). Collection boxes are located at the entrance of all stores. Some electrical contractors offer bulb-recycling services, especially for customers doing renovations. And recycling kits for light bulbs and batteries are available online (visit batteryrecycling.com) including kits in several sizes from Pittsburgh-area trash hauler/recycler Waste Management.

Remodeling and redecorating waste: Before you rent a trash container, consider taking any reclaimable building items to Construction Junction. This treasure trove of used goodies is one of Pittsburgh’s gems.
Construction Junction accepts donations of used building materials, furniture and other items, then gives those items a new life by selling them at low prices to people interested in using recycled materials. Bonus: Large recycling bins in the parking area accept newspapers, bottles and more. Also consider selling any decorative household items that you no longer want at flea markets or a yard sale.

Crutches, wheelchairs and medical equipment, etc:
It sounds illogical, but it’s true: If you sprain an ankle and are given a set of crutches at a U.S. hospital, you can’t bring them back days later so that another patient may use them. A large quantity of medical supplies are briefly used and then thrown away in the U.S. Global Links accepts these items and shares them with hospitals and clinics in developing countries, keeping these items out of landfills and changing the lives of injured and ill people throughout the world. For more information, visit globallinks.org.
 

Join the Party

We have all sorts of things lurking in our garages—old cans of paint or weed killer, perhaps—that we don’t want but have no idea how to dispose of safely. And many of us find ourselves in possession of expired medications and outdated prescriptions we don’t need.

Since 2003, the PRC’s Household Hazardous Waste Task Force has been holding collection events to gather these items from Pittsburghers, diverting more than 1 million pounds of paints, pesticides, corrosives and other hazardous waste from our landfills. In 2010 alone, 257,846 pounds of hazardous waste was collected at seven events.

In 2010, PRC added pharmaceuticals collection to the mix, holding its first Pharmaceutical Collection Day last May. People came in droves, bringing with them more than 670 pounds of pharmaceuticals.

“People came in with bags full of things,” including a surprisingly large amount of controlled substances—about 60 pounds worth of drugs including Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycontin and methadone—says Michael Stepaniak, an environmental-program coordinator at the PRC.

More than once during that event held in Hampton Township, the 8-foot tables, which were used as a drop-off area, were entirely covered with medications.

That huge response was eye-opening, even for the pharmacists and police officers who assisted at the event. But we probably shouldn’t be surprised: “People are prescribed more medications now than ever before,” Stepaniak points out. “On a national level, there are estimates that point to upwards of 200 million pounds of pharmaceutical waste being generated each year in the country.”

In October, another pharmaceutical collection was held in Mt. Lebanon, which resulted in a similar haul and brought the PRC’s total number of collection events last year to 12. To find out about upcoming dates and locations throughout Allegheny County and beyond, visit swpahhw.org.

So the new wave of recycling is upon us, and it does make the earliest days of recycling cans for nickels seem humble by comparison. There are many more types of materials to recycle these days and many more reasons to make sure we do it right.

It will be decades before we can really measure the impact of our efforts. But we know that making an effort becomes easier all the time: Recycling kits can be delivered to your doorstep with the click of a mouse. Collection events happen throughout the year in our region. And slowly, a growing number of Pittsburghers are getting involved. “We’re still not where we could be,” says Mazza. “But there is certainly a higher awareness than five years ago.”

If that awareness continues to grow and we embrace this chance to make a difference, our legacy as the people who created a greener Pittsburgh will pay dividends for generations to come.


Melissa Rayworth writes about a mix of cultural issues—from sexual politics and popular culture to home design and parenting—for a variety of national news outlets, including The Associated Press.

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