Friday, May 28, 1999
Compost and Recycling Survey Results: Sorting out the Carlisle Mix
Most people in town compost...or at least they think that they do...or that someone in their household does....
Of the 59 respondents to last month's Mosquito survey, 62% claimed to compost "brown" materials (leaves, pine needles, saw dust, etc.). As I gathered 53 of the surveys through in- person interviews at the transfer station, I was able to ask follow-up questions. (Another four surveys came in through posted mail; two came through electronic mail).
I found out that "compost" often meant piling leaves in a corner of the yard. Experts will tell you that the process takes much longer if the materials are left in the open than if they are placed in an appropriate bin that increases the heat and, thus, the decaying process. A few respondents even admitted to burning the pilesI guess I had to restrict my definition to ground vs. airborne composting!
Furthermore, 49 percent of the respondents assured me that they compost "green" materials (fruit, vegetables, grass, etc.). Well, perhaps they didn't exactly, but a half-dozen guys thought their wives did.
I found it easy to believe the good composting habits of the eight people who only had one bag of general trash, and the twelve people who had two bags. But can you believe that three guys, each driving a vehicle loaded with bags, told me they usually only have a couple bags of trash but they were helping their mother-in-law move that weekend?
On the average, people disposed of 3.5 bags of general trash. Most recycled anything they could. There was no significant difference between newcomers and residents living in town over five years. Only one man admitted to not recycling at all, and another told me he had an aversion to recycling glass. Surprisingly, 22 percent of the entire sample recycled everything with the exception of mixed paper.
Demystifying the mixed paper bias
OK, I admit it. Before this survey, I didn't recycle mixed paper either. I didn't understand where it went. From the questions I got while interviewing, it sounds as though many others don't know either.
As you drive into the transfer station, there's a small sign that describes contents of all the bins. Due to the sign's angled location at the entrance, it makes it hard to read while driving and difficult to stop without blocking traffic. If you do have an opportunity to read it, you'll see the first bin houses "mixed paper." But if you look inside, you'll see that most of the contents are newspaper! If you continue to the second bin, you'll find only newspaper. In fact, that's where it should go, and that's where those who understand the transfer station layout put it.
Some of the other bins at the transfer station have signs. If the mixed paper bin did as well (with a reminder for "No Newspaper"), perhaps there'd be a boost in Carlisle's mixed paper counts. Does it matter? You bet it does. The value of bins for recycled materials declines steeply if the materials are not properly sorted.
Although small-scale surveys are useful in identifying trends, it's dangerous to put too much credence in my sample size.
Case in point: men appear to have the responsibility of going to the transfer station on weekends. Some bring their wives and children along, but most come alone. I asked six women to take this survey, but three declined! Out of the fifty men I asked, the same small number couldn't help me. So you can see the inherent danger in small numbersI could erroneously conclude that 94 percent of Carlisle men are helpful while 50 percent of women are downright unfriendly. (A side note; unlike the majority of their male counterparts, all the women who responded asked me follow-up questions and made suggestions for improving the transfer station.)
I leave you with one final comment. After I started sorting mixed paper this month, I found that my family generates one less bag of general garbage a week. Meanwhile, our two Brave New[TM] Composter bins have arrived. It will be interesting to see if they cut back further on our trash. Nobody ever warned me that composting was addictive.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito