Recycling Reno

In these days of heightened environmental consciousness, is northern Nevada doing its part to reduce, recycle and reuse? Sorta.

Illustration By David Jayne

It’s difficult to imagine that there were ever worse times for the environment in Nevada.

The Clean Air and Clean Water acts have been subverted, enforcement of mining regulations has been weakened, public-lands- management budgets have been cut, the Roadless Initiative has been diluted, the Healthy Forests Initiative is encouraging logging, the Department of Defense has been granted new exemptions from air-pollution and hazardous-waste laws—the list goes on ad nauseam.

Many blame George W. Bush for these environmental setbacks, but the fact is that the public has been extremely apathetic in the face of the planetary onslaught, allowing the president to get his anti-environment way. Think back to the 1970s, when Richard M. Nixon, another stalwart Republican, instituted many of the laws that Bush is decimating. Nixon did so under the pressure of a fired-up, pro-environment public. These days, the angry rumble of environmental activism is a whimper compared to the outcry over the war in Iraq.

So, apparently, it’s up to us, the regular citizens, to help old Mother Nature along in our little ways—but a drive down the street on recycling day doesn’t suggest that people are exactly falling over themselves to decrease the amount of reusable stuff that’s headed out to the Lockwood landfill.

But maybe that’s just the appearance, and maybe people around here are doing their part to conserve energy and resources. Maybe.

David Friedman, recycling coordinator for the State of Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, says that, contrary to pessimistic opinion, Washoe County is doing pretty well.

“Washoe County ranks very well, actually,” he said. For 2002, the last compiled statistics, Washoe County had a 24 percent recycle rate for municipal solid waste. That means that 24 percent of the material that can be recycled is. “I say that based upon the public resources that are put into the recycling program in Washoe County. There are other areas in the country that have higher rates, but they also have to pay a lot more to get to that higher level. I think it demonstrates that there’s a real culture here that sees the value in recycling and conservation, and they pretty much do it without being mandated.”

To put that 24 percent rate into context, during the same period, Clark County had a 13 percent rate and the state of Nevada had a depressing 16 percent recycle rate.

Friedman says there are states that have higher rates—in California, for example, the state mandated a 50 percent recycling rate for all waste. That law went into effect in 2000. The difference in Nevada is taxpayers don’t pay and aren’t required by law to recycle.

“On a cost-effective basis,” he said, “that 25 percent that Washoe County has is meritorious.”

Others aren’t so sure. Kevin Reilly, recycling manager of RSW Recycling, which is the largest recycling business in Reno by far, says consumer participation could be higher.

“It hasn’t changed much [over the last couple of years],” he said. “It’s about 40 percent participation rate.”

David Friedman, recycling coordinator for the State of Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, picks up some recyclable garbage at Squaw Valley USA’s Earth Day celebration last week.

Photo By David Robert

Reilly counts his numbers slightly differently than the state does. He measures customer participation. In other words, about four out of 10 residences use those little green and yellow recycling bins his company supplies.

“We’re probably a little better than average for participation [in northern Nevada],” he said. “I think around 33 percent [nationwide] participate in some kind of a recycling program. But we’re just the collector; it’s not us who are good or bad. It’s the people. I think we could have a better participation rate than 40 percent. I don’t think that’s poor, but the program is available to every home in the Reno, Sparks, Washoe County area, and it’s so easy to do.”

Reilly also said that businesses have some opportunities for recycling that residences don’t necessarily have—cardboard and office paper pickup, for example.

“It all comes down to making the Earth greener, period.”

It’s pretty easy to guess why you don’t see more of those yellow and green crates sitting alongside the curb every other week on trash day. It’s a bit of a hassle—all that separating, rinsing and crushing of those cans, bottles and containers. People lead busy lives, and it’s difficult to imagine how an empty Dr. Pepper can on Plumas might bring down the price on a roll of Reynolds wrap in Pioche.

Reilly said what’s lacking is a healthy dose of self-interest in recycling.

To non-recyclers it may seem the trash company uses the customer’s labor to clean and separate the valuable glass, aluminum and newsprint, then takes our recyclables and resells them to the highest bidder. Seems like we’re doing all the work but getting none of the profit—unless, of course, you want to count the good feelings you get by helping out Mother Nature. Not that that would fill up a bank account very fast.

There are those, however, who are doing recycling and making it pay. Aside from Reilly and his friends at RSW Recycling, there are those who are making green out of being green. Some have taken the simple acts of reduce, reuse and recycle and turned it into cost savings; others are making honest-to-goodness cash; still others are looking at making real bank from turning trash to treasure. And it’s not just little guys—many have heard about Patagonia’s massive Earth-friendly business practices; Starbucks’ Grounds for your Garden program; and Wild Oats’ compostible food containers.

Here are some businesses and individuals you may not have heard so much about.

Not surprisingly, the University of Nevada, Reno, is taking the local lead on one aspect of recycling: cleaning up kitchen grease. In October, the university began running its shuttles on a mix that uses old grease from the school’s deep fryers and diesel fuel.

There are three principal investigators in the project: Dr. Hatice Gecol, professor of chemical engineering, Dr. Jason Geddes, Nevada assemblyman and environmental health and safety manager at UNR, and Dr. Glenn Miller, professor of natural resources and environmental science. Chemical engineering graduate student Sage Hiibel and Dominick Belli of the UNR motor pool also played major parts in development of the program.

A trip into the bowels of the Laxalt Mineral Engineering Building leads to the device. It’s a bit underwhelming, really. Although it is accented with various technological wonders, like a computer and various mixers, it resembles nothing so much as a wooden cart with some stuff on it.

The concept is simple, radical and effective. Used (or new) vegetable oils or animal fats are strained of food particles and combined with ethanol and mixed for several hours. The materials are pumped into a reservoir, where the output forms into two distinct layers: the top is biodiesel, the bottom glycerin.

Graduate student Sage Hiibel holds a beaker full of liquid gold bio-diesel.

Photo By David Robert

Glycerin can be used for soaps or lotions or even as a biodegradable dust suppressant for construction sites.

Any diesel engine can use up to 5 percent biodiesel—B-5 in the parlance—and most have no difficulty with B-20. The campus shuttles are running on a B-20 mix. Most important, most diesel engines, sometimes requiring slight modifications, can run B-100.

“Petroleum diesel is generally dirtier than biodiesel,” says Geddes. “If you’ve been running it for a while, and you put biodiesel in, the biodiesel will strip and clean your entire engine, and it dumps all that in your fuel filter. You have to change your fuel filter after the first tank, which is a good thing. The only other problem you have is a lot of the rubber components that are in an engine sometimes don’t hold up to the biodiesel as well.”

This cart, which goes by the ponderous name “Mobile Process-Controlled Continuous Biodiesel Production Unit,” is only Phase 1. The prototype’s $15,000 cost was funded by Washoe County Air Quality Division and the Applied Research Initiative. While the group is currently producing only about five gallons of biodiesel a day, it has bigger plans. The second phase will produce up to 20,000 gallons a year.

Since the device is mobile, after development it may be possible to take the cart to, say, a casino, where it will process all the available grease, which can be used to run the business’s diesel generators.

Still think recycling can’t pay? According to Geddes, the university produces about 10,000 gallons of cooking grease a year. Currently, the school pays between 50 cents and $1.70 per gallon to dispose of the stuff. There’s a double savings, since the university will no longer have to pay for the regular diesel fuel that is gradually being replaced with the biofuel. As of April 12, diesel fuel was going for about $1.69 a gallon. You do the math.

Along other lines, although perhaps with less profit potential, the university has a zero-waste-discharge policy, recycling large percentages of its wastes, including computers, aerosol cans, light bulbs, ballasts, white paper, plastic, glass, toner cartridges, batteries, photo waste—too many items to name.

Keeping up the recycling drumbeat

Personal recycling for fun and profit doesn’t just result in products for the lawn, garden and diesel-fueled devices. There are entrepreneurs like Tony Belcastro, a drum maker who constructs his instruments out of recycled wood.

“I make them out of recycled wood pallets,” said the black-bearded and earnest businessman. “I make them out of fencing—anything that’s been used before.”

Each drum requires about six to seven hours of labor, precisely cutting the compound miters that give the drums their shapes, gluing the parts and finishing the exterior. Materials, like the cords that give the drumheads their tautness, are also made from recycled materials.

“Everything here I pulled from the trash,” he said. “I make trash into something beautiful.”

And beautiful they are. The bodies are in various shades of creams and browns depending on the wood. The prices mostly range between $100 and $200.

Drum maker Tony Belcastro turns trash into sonic treasure. He recently quit his regular job to make drums out of recycled materials.

Photo By David Robert

Belcastro learned his skills while apprenticing with various drum makers around the Northwest. He tends toward traditional drums such as the African djembe, ashiko or doumbek. He’s been selling drums for three years and recently quit his job to be a full-time artist. When not at festivals (he’ll be at the Reno Earth Day celebration Sunday), he sells the drums out of his shop at 751 1/2 Lander St., 324-1736, where he lives with his wife, Hallie, and daughter, Zion.

Like many artists, Belcastro says the hardest part of his job is putting a price on his art—even if it is made of recycled materials.

“I’d like to give them away, but I’m an artist and I’ve got to sell them. Still, you get more out of this than a 9-to-5 job—less money, though. Now I’m doing this, and hopefully, hopefully everything goes good. I haven’t had success, yet, but I hope to market the recycled part. The recycling is a good thing; the whole drum experience is. They go together.”

Do it in the dirt

“I have a degree in shitology,” says Craig Witt, the owner of Full Circle Compost. Full Circle Compost is another example of a business that took a simple green idea and is turning it into gold.

Full Circle Compost began as a dairy farm in the Carson Valley near Minden. Some 350 cows were milked three times a day. With that many poop factories wandering around, the farm’s owners became expert in manure management. From one point of view, the farm simply changed the type of livestock raised, from cattle to microbes.

Composting essentially harnesses the natural processes of rotting. Plant material—yard clippings, banana peels, paper, coffee grounds, just about anything the average person wastes that began as something that grew—is combined in carbon-to-nitrogen ratios to increase the speed with which the materials decompose. On a small scale (the composting reaction can happen in a thimble), the materials can be used to amend soil in potted plants. On a grand scale, like that with which Witt produces compost, the humus produced can be used as a natural fertilizer for commercial farms.

Witt’s Full Circle gets its compostibles from a variety of sources—horse owners, landscapers. He will even compost the refuse from Earth Day celebrations.

The process on the 20-acre farm is simple on one level, complex on another.

When compostibles are received, they are ground up, piled into windrows and turned with tractors about 27 times during the 10-week composting cycle. The process creates heat, and the rows stay about 150 degrees, even in winter. The windrows are checked daily for carbon dioxide, and if necessary water and oxygen are added. Full Circle also does custom mixes, adding minerals as needed to the compost. Call (775) 782-5305 for directions or check out

The completed compost looks basically like healthy soil, sweet-smelling and dark.

“There’s about a billion beneficial microbes in this little handful of soil,” says Witt. He couldn’t pay for a better spokesman for his company; with his wavy, shoulder-length hair, clear blue eyes and quick smile, it seems as though Witt lives for composting. “That’s the workforce that delivers the nutrients in an ecological correct way to our plants. The other thing is, the active carbon that’s formed by the microbes digesting organic matter holds five times its weight in water. …We should use compost for the water-saving issue because water is the most precious resource we have.”

Witt’s conversation, despite its focus on his farm and product, tends toward the tangential. When a person is concerned with the environment, many side issues—pesticides, landfill, waste, politics, worms—come into play.

Craig Witt, compost king, turned a dairy farm into a large business that makes natural fertilizer out of other people’s garbage.

Photo By David Robert

But it’s not all about the good feelings that come from careful stewardship of the land and environmental resources. Full Circle makes money in several ways. First, the farm charges to take in the compostibles, and then it charges for the finished material.

“Our recycling fee is basically $8 a cubic yard,” Witt says. “We give you a $3 credit on finished product. Your out-of-pocket cost is $5 per cubic yard. For Earth Day, we are giving a $40 recycling incentive. If you come to us with 5 cubic yards, we’ll do that for free. It’s the only livestock farming where you can be paid to take the food you feed to your livestock.”

It’s not pure profit, though. Composting on the grand scale is labor intensive. While material is screened when it comes in, most of the removal of non-compostible materials must be done by hand.

The company sells its compost in a variety of ways. Bags sell for $3.25, but that’s not the method Witt recommends.

“We promote pre-cycling, he says. “The best way to get your compost from us is to get it in bulk. Then we don’t have to pay 75 cents for the label or 35 cents for the bag. If you fill your own bags, you get a five-gallon bucket for $1.75, twice as much for about half the cost.”

Even that’s pretty inexpensive, Witt says. “Lowe’s carries Kellogg’s compost. The sacked-bag cost, worked out to the cubic yard, is $75 per cubic yard. Our premium product is $41.”

Of course, anything is expensive in comparison to doing your own compost.

Take a bite o’ worms

Sarah Tone isn’t a big, for-profit corporation or an institute of higher learning. Just the same, she receives personal financial benefit from recycling. She works for Incline Village General Improvement District as a resource conservationist, but she’s also a home composter. She keeps a small, green plastic bin, a bit larger than a shoe box, under her kitchen sink.

In the box, mixed in with the vegetable remainders, newspaper scraps and coffee grounds, are dozens of little, squirmy compost workers. The freckle-faced environmentalist isn’t at all squeamish when it comes to pulling a handful of the wriggling creatures from the box.

“These are red worms. You can buy them on the Internet. You need to make friends with fishermen because these reproduce pretty quickly. Red worms process [refuse] more quickly [than nightcrawlers] and can eat more things.”

Using worms to speed up the composting process is called vermicomposting.

Tone says her compost goes toward keeping her houseplants healthy. Since her needs aren’t great, she doesn’t require a big system.

Sarah Tone keeps earthworms under her kitchen sink. The little wrigglers recycle leftovers into compost.

Photo By David Robert

“It’s a natural way to add to your system without having to go to your local hardware store. I have one of these bins right under my sink, and this satisfies us, a three-person house. A lot of people put them out on the patio.”

Remember that $75-a-cubic-yard compost at the big-box hardware store?

Recycling dead trees

Have you ever felt slightly sick at Christmas time at the thought of all those little evergreens killed when they reach a comfortable ceiling height?

Jim Salisburg came up with an idea that takes the useless waste and turns it into cold, hard cash.

“I recycle Christmas trees into walking sticks. I go down to the recycling center at Rancho San Rafael after Christmas. I cut a bunch of stock, bring them home and strip off the bark, and then I break out the wood burner. I get a little creative, make them look a little tribal.”

The process is easier than might be guessed from the finished product. Basically, Salisburg strips off the bark to the cambia. The trunks are green and easily peeled. He gets $50-$75 for each completed walking stick.

Salisburg’s walking sticks range in height and heft. Some are child-sized; some have crystals or spheres imbedded at the handle. Each is unique, with Salisburg’s meandering designs burned into the wood’s surface.

“The crystal’s for the Lord of the Rings crowd,” he said. He also does customizing—such as initials—at the customer’s request. Salisburg hasn’t made his recycling hobby into a profession; he works at Patagonia and he just augments his bank account with the money he makes.

“I don’t really mass-produce them. I’ve made about 30 from Christmas until just a couple weeks ago. I do them in the garage, listen to a lot of good tunes. It’s like a winter project.”

He says there isn’t a science to picking a good walking stick. It’s all about personal preference.

“In general, you want it to have a good firm grip on it; make sure it fits good in your hand. Mine are really strong. I’ve tested them on many trails. No checking and no splitting.”

Salisburg will sell his recycled Christmas trees at Reno’s Earth Day celebration.

Earth Day will be celebrated at Idlewild Park in Reno from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on April 25. Organizers will need a lot of volunteers, so call 323-3433. There’s another opportunity for a little community-oriented recycling with Reno’s annual Clean & Green city-wide cleanup, which will run 9 a.m.-3p.m. on April 24. There will be free residential dumping for Reno residents. The city is also offering a volunteer opportunity to paint "no dumping" signs on storm drains. Not to carry this idea of environmental self-interest too far, but there are free food and T-shirts for all volunteers. Call 334-2099 or 851-5185.