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.

Clarence Harms is worried about your old batteries. He’s also worried about that old cell phone you don’t use anymore. And he’s worried about the expired prescription bottle—the one you forgot about—that’s currently cluttering your medicine cabinet.

He knows that you and your neighbors have caught on to the importance of basic recycling. It’s been a long time since we have congratulated ourselves for rescuing a few bottles and cans from a landfill. But it’s the other, more hazardous items that will sometimes keep Harms awake at night …

As director of Westminster College’s field station, professor emeritus of biology at the school and an environmental expert who is passionate about recycling, Dr. Harms is really hoping we all catch up with the latest wave of recycling before things get dangerous.

Be honest: Do you toss old remote-control batteries in the trash when you realize they’re out of juice? What about an expired bottle of cold medicine or aspirin? Or Styrofoam packing peanuts?

Until recently, most of us put these things into the garbage can without a second thought.

But an extensive statewide study of municipal waste released by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2003 revealed some disturbing information: Nearly 13 percent of the trash thrown away in Pennsylvania’s southwestern region was made up of “inorganic items” such as synthetic carpeting, drywall and other construction materials, electronics that contain poisonous metals and hazardous household chemicals.

In other words, more than one-eighth of our trash consisted of stuff we really don’t want leaching into the groundwater. And there’s about 247,000 tons of it per year.

In order to combat this danger, the latest phase of recycling focuses on keeping things like batteries and electronics out of landfills and also eliminating another scary source of groundwater contamination: pharmaceuticals.

The conventional wisdom used to be that people should flush unwanted or expired medications. But that’s a really bad idea, according to the local office of the Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC), which oversees our region’s Household Hazardous Waste Task Force.

Water-treatment plants can’t necessarily remove all drugs from our water supply, and studies have already found measurable levels of everything from antibiotics and anti-anxiety drugs to steroids and seizure medications in U.S. drinking water.

However, another disposal option is not recommended either. Harms is amazed that some pharmacies in Ohio “simply advise people to tape the bottle shut” before throwing away old medications into their landfill-bound trash.

“I hear that,” he says, “and I think, Oh my. It’s only a matter of time before a bulldozer runs over that bottle, and it ends up in the water supply. Maybe it’ll take a year or it’ll take 50 years, but it will happen.”

With batteries and electronics, the worry is metal: “Mercury, cadmium … And every computer has within it a lithium battery that keeps the clock running,” Harms says.

“Eventually, those heavy metals are getting into the water supply” and into the food chain.

If you’re thinking of turning the page in search of better news, keep reading. Progress is being made. Pittsburghers are thinking about this next wave of recycling and many are embracing it just as we embraced the beginnings of the recycling movement a generation ago.

“We get calls daily [asking]: ‘What can I do with this?’ and ‘What can I do with that?’” says Joy Smallwood, Allegheny County’s recycling officer. And collection events where people can drop off hard-to-recycle items have “obviously grown in popularity,” she says.

The challenge is that while people do want to pitch in, “not as many people are willing to go out of their way,” says Dave Mazza, regional director of the PRC. By planning recycling and collection events throughout the year, Mazza’s office makes sure to arrange its events in many neighborhoods.

“We try to move them around as much as possible,” he says, because people aren’t likely to travel more than a short distance to recycle.

Fortunately, there are new resources and events popping up all over in the region. In the pages that follow, we’ll tell you what and how much trash is thrown away around the Pittsburgh region, which worrisome items you can safely recycle and where you can do so. Additionally, we’ll spotlight some organizations that can help you make it happen.

Come with us on our comprehensive trash tour. You’ll be glad you did, and Harms will sleep better at night.


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 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

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

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.

Categories: Community Feature, From the Magazine