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Garbage Meets Its Potential: Thousands of Plastic Bags Become a Park Bench

A park bench can be made from tens of thousands of plastic grocery bags.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. That’s been the mantra among the environmentally conscious for the last 25 years. This hour – an in-depth exploration of recycling in Iowa.

We’ll talk about some innovative programs that are working to do more… groups that compost restaurant and school food waste, a cooperative that can make a park bench out of 12,000 grocery bags, and a program that aims to clean and recycle material that is already sitting in the landfill.

How is Iowa doing when it comes to recycling?

According to the Executive Director of the Iowa Recycling Association, Theresa Kurtz, Iowa is recycling about 1.2 million tons of material; the recycling industry creates more than 11,400 jobs, and the industrial output tops $2.4 billion.

While these figures place Iowa in mid to high ranking for recycling nationwide, there are still a ways to go. Estimates for how many recyclables end up in the landfill range from 50 to 80 percent. That means that much of our landfill waste could find better use someplace else.

Credit Clare Roth
Recycling drop-site at City Carton's Iowa City location

Out of tens of thousands of plastic bags, comes a park bench...out of dirty garbage, ethanol.

The "Build With Bags" program is organized by the Iowa Grocery Industry Association – and is a cooperative effort of Keep Iowa Beautiful, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Metro Waste Authority, City Carton Recycling and The Des Moines Register. Basically, it takes plastic bags and recyclable material and makes them into park benches, playground equipment, speed bumps, and park tables. More information can be found here.

Let's face it - some people are never going to recycle. That's what the organization Fiberight says, and they plan to do something about it. In a nutshell, Fiberight aims to take soiled but recyclable garbage out of the landfill. They then wash, steam, and feed the material to enzymes; all of which turns the mixture into a fiber solid or liquid, which can in turn be used to make ethanol. For more information on the Fiberight process, you can check out this video.

Food waste makes up the majority of Iowa’s garbage - Composting as recycling for the soil.

“We have 40 million hungry people in this country, and we’re throwing away a quarter of our food," says Scott Koepke, Chief Gardener for Soilmates Organic Garden Education Service. "Not to mention the fact that the methane gas that’s created when we throw all this food into the landfill [creates] a lot of unnecessary greenhouse gas.”

Scott says anyone can compost, even in urban areas; and the key to avoiding a big stink pile is to get the recipe right. The ratio of brown to green organic matter should be 2:1, and avoid meat or dairy. If you follow those simple rules, you can help keep landfill mass low, while building organic matter for soil.

Recycling 101: Are you doing it right?

See Iowa Public Radio's list of dos and don'ts when it comes to recycling.

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa