“Urban Miner” Tackles Recycling Challenge

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Hangers? Can’t recycle them — but a nearby business might want them.

And as for that new toter — maybe you can reduce how much you throw out instead.

Those questions came into Hamden Town Hall — and got quick answers from the new man on the job.

That would be Joe DeRisi, who has been fielding questions left and right since stepping in as the town’s new solid waste and recycling coordinator at a time when local governments face new challenges in getting rid of their garbage.

As of Monday afternoon, DeRisi had been on the job a total of 23 hours. He hadn’t quite managed yet to follow up on the backlog of phone calls he’d gotten from residents asking about their waste problems.

The solid waste and recycling coordinator, explained Chief of Staff David Garretson, acts as a single voice for the town to sum up all things recycling and trash. The role has been vacant since July of 2018 when Haley Starvaggi, the previous coordinator, departed. That left the rest of the mayor’s office staff scrambling to fill in the gaps, answering questions about trash and recycling between their other duties.

Answering Questions

Sam Gurwitt Photo“I’m realizing that recycling coordinator means a lot more than ‘how many cans and bottles are we recycling’,” said DeRisi.

One of DeRisi’s major duties is helping the town communicate with residents about how to recycle, and answering any questions that residents have about their waste.

On Monday, for example, DeRisi had a conversation with a resident who wanted another trash bin. He had to look up the town’s policies, and it turned out that residents have to pay for extra trash bins.

When residents say they need another trash can (called a “tote”), really what they need, said DeRisi, is to produce less waste. He will have to learn how to tactfully let residents know that perhaps the solution to their problems may involve small lifestyle changes.

He had another question from a resident who had 150 plastic hangers and didn’t want to just throw them out.

They can’t be recycled, said DeRisi, but there is a business in North Haven called EcoWorks that finds creative ways to reuse materials as art supplies.

House Parts

Before becoming Solid Waste and Recycling Coordinator, DeRisi started a business called Urban Miners, which salvages household goods and building materials and resells them.

Construction and demolition, said DeRisi, generate a lot of waste. “How can we not notice that we’re throwing that away?” he asked.

He said he thinks it’s because people compartmentalize how they think about waste. People know that bottles and cans are recyclable, but when it comes to demolishing a building, people just think it’s a matter of demolition and don’t consider that all those tons of material are needlessly thrown out.

DeRisi said he hopes to incorporate reducing building waste into his new job later down the line, but for the time being, there is enough on his plate already just dealing with regular municipal waste.

DeRisi has not stopped working in building materials salvage; his new position is part-time.

His new role allows him to have a greater impact. “I like to be on top of a barn in an ice storm pulling out nails… but I could be much more effective developing a program that recycles materials than I could actually doing the recycling,” he said.

China Doesn’t Want Our Waste

Melissa Bailey File PhotoHaving someone in charge of ensuring that Hamden maintains good waste disposal practices has become increasingly important in recent years. In 2017, China passed a law that prevented the import of plastic waste because of concerns about the country’s environment. Before the ban went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, the US exported 1.42 million tons of plastic waste to China each year, according to the New York Times.

“The market for recycling is abysmal,” said Garretson. It’s cheaper to put recyclables in the non-recyclable waste stream, but that’s not the direction that either the town or the state want to go in, he explained. A major part of making Hamden use more sustainable waste disposal practices, therefore, will involve reducing waste overall.

There are also complications in recycling that a lot of people don’t know about. Pizza boxes pose a big problem. The state says they can be recycled, but if they’re soiled with food waste, they can’t be. Broken glass is another example. If there is even one glass item that has broken in a batch of recycling, the whole batch is considered contaminated and must be thrown out.

Complications like these put DeRisi in a bit of a bind. “A lot of people, they have good intentions,… they’re enthusiastic about recycling, but they recycle things they shouldn’t be recycling,” he said. He explained that he certainly doesn’t want to discourage recycling, but that on the other hand, he has to make sure that people don’t recycle things that contaminate the recycling stream.

Plastics pose similar complications. He had learned on Monday that the hard plastic that Dunkin Donuts gives out for cold drinks is not recyclable in Hamden. “How do you tell a resident that you can recycle this plastic and this plastic, but you can’t recycle this one, but they have the same number?” he asked.

Waste 101

Melissa Bailey File PhotoCommunication about recycling is not simply limited to answering questions. DeRisi is also responsible for programming that will help spread information about recycling and waste to Hamden residents.

Earth Day is a major part of DeRisi’s education programming. Right now, he’s in the process of coordinating which vendors will be at an event planned for April 27.

“Town-wide events are a good opportunity because there will be thousands of people coming through,” said DeRisi. An event like Earth Day, he said, is a chance to share information with a large number of Hamden residents about how to reduce waste and recycle properly.

Hamden’s schools will also play a role in DeRisi’s work. If Hamden’s students are taught how to recycle properly, he explained, they will share the information they learn in school with their parents. Students are already in close contact with the town because they’re at school everyday, so they are easy to reach. It’s harder to share information with older portions of Hamden’s population because many don’t have a regular point of contact with any part of the town’s government.

The recycling coordinator position used to be housed in the Department of Public Works. When the town began providing 96-gallon roll-able totes for trash and recycling to residents rather than having people use their own trash cans, the town decided that the position would be best housed in the mayor’s office because that would make communication easier, said Garretson. The transition to the new totes, he explained, was logistically challenging and required easy communication between the town and its residents.

posted by: Not Worthy on February 15, 2019  4:10pm

It really requires care and attention on the part of residents to do recycling right. Can the guys who do the pickup assess the quality of mixed recycling when they pick it up? If so I would propose a $50 per year per residence fee, which would be refunded at the end of the year based on the number of buckets that contained acceptable materials – with the possibility that one’s refund could be as little as $0, if you messed up every single one with greasy pizza boxes, or as much as $75, if you got them all right. That way you could actually feel like you were making money by following the rules correctly. But it would require the guy in the truck to quickly assess acceptability, Yes or No.

Hat’s off to DeRisi for doing a hard but necessary job. If he can’t implement my fee plan, at least try to simplify and standardize.

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