By SARA ARTHURS
Sorting through other people’s beer cans and pop bottles can be a sticky job, sometimes even downright gross. But Litter Landing’s staff are motivated by a recognition that they’re helping make the world a better place.
Courtney Comstock, operations manager for the Hancock County Solid Waste Management District’s recycling facility, first started working for the county as a receptionist for what was then the special projects office. At the time they asked her, “What do you recycle?” She opted to answer honestly, and she replied, “I don’t do anything of the sort.”
But as she learned more, Comstock became more passionate about recycling. Along the way, “I had kids” and began thinking more about the future.
“The reality is, we only get one planet,” she said.
Comstock has worked at Litter Landing for 12 years, although there was a brief hiatus. What’s kept her?
“I am way too passionate about this job,” she said, acknowledging sometimes she can’t leave work at work.
“I was at a birthday party several years ago and I’m like,” she mimicked looking around, “Where’s your recycling bins?” She’s the person you might not invite back to a party, Comstock admits. But she has changed some minds about recycling.
And, aside from the environmental benefits, she said households and businesses save money through recycling, as they’ll have a lower garbage bill.
‘A messy job’
Litter Landing has seven employees, including three truck drivers. Most of the center’s volunteers are people doing community service, but there are opportunities for volunteers among the general public.
Marv Schroeder, a truck driver, said, “If you look at the big picture,” we can’t just be a disposable society.
Schroeder has worked at Litter Landing for five years. He said it can be a messy job, but “after you’ve had kids” you get used to handling messy stuff.
And there is a lot of stuff.
Comstock said it takes about a month to fill a truckload of plastic, two weeks for cardboard, a week and a half for steel, three weeks for aluminum and two weeks for newspapers.
In 2018, Litter Landing processed over 800 tons of cardboard; over 640 tons of newspaper, magazines and office paper; 215 tons of plastic; 51 tons of steel food cans; and “only about 15 tons” of aluminum cans.
Most of those numbers, except for cardboard, are an increase from 2017, Comstock said. But because the market has gone down, the revenue in 2018 was $178,722 in 2018, compared with $247,231 in 2017.
“Unfortunately, recycling is a business,” she said.
And it’s harder to make money at it when there’s less demand. Many American communities once sent their recycling to China, which has closed its borders. Since then, “things are piling up,” Comstock said.
It still costs the same to process and ship the materials, but Comstock is not getting as much for it.
The Hancock County commissioners oversee the solid waste district, but Litter Landing is supposed to be self-sustaining and does not receive tax money. Just over 80 percent of its budget comes from the materials it processes and sells. Litter Landing also gets money from fees through the solid waste district — for example, if you are disposing of a large item like a mattress at a landfill and must pay a fee.
Local glass — newly recyclable once again at Litter Landing — goes to Dayton. Newspaper goes to Bucyrus, where it becomes insulation. Cardboard goes to Michigan, and is made into pizza boxes and moving boxes. Plastic goes to Haviland, Ohio, and is made into drainage tile.
Comstock has seen some of the resulting products, like the drainage tile, and it’s helped her become more passionate about the mission.
She finds community residents are excited about recycling, too.
“Our phone is constantly ringing,” and people reach out with questions about recycling on Facebook.
And when Comstock does presentations in schools, kids get really excited. She explains where items came from, such as that plastic used to be oil. Children have stumped her with questions, too, such as one child who recently asked when the first plastic bottle was made. Comstock looked it up afterward — the answer is 1908.
Comstock said the average family of four produces 2.9 to 3 tons of trash per year.
Businesses and organizations, of course, dispose of items on a larger scale. Many businesses throughout the community bring items to Litter Landing, and the recycling center works with organizations like the Hancock County fair board.
Comstock has put together a guide of materials Litter Landing can and cannot accept. There’s also information on the website about places that take other items — for example, Litter Landing cannot take old televisions, but Restore will.
In the first two weeks of accepting glass, Litter Landing took in 8 tons of it. Comstock said bottles and jars can be accepted — but not mirrors, windows or aquariums.
Also, they can’t take black plastic because the vendor cannot get the dye out. Comstock likened this to a colored sock mixed in with white laundry.
Litter Landing can’t take cardboard with a wax coating like milk or orange juice cartons, but can take corrugated cardboard and “press board,” such as cracker or cereal boxes.
Keep in mind that aluminum foil is different from aluminum cans. And the bags your chips come in look like foil, but they’re actually a type of plastic that cannot be recycled.
Comstock said she’d prefer people keep the lid off jugs. The exception is if you’re disposing of household chemicals like bleach.
On Mondays in the summer, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Litter Landing will accept paint, gasoline, antifreeze and other chemicals. Some of these get disposed of, but it’s safer to do it responsibly rather than pouring it out in your driveway, Comstock said. And some get reused, such as old paint being made into new paint.
Ammunition or explosives cannot be accepted with the household hazardous waste.
Litter Landing can take hardcover and paperback books, and works with the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library when it’s discarding old or damaged books. Old encyclopedias are also recyclable.
And Litter Landing can take electronic items including phones and tablets.
Sometimes people bring in things they don’t have a way to get rid of, like styrofoam. But “just because you don’t have an outlet, doesn’t mean I do,” Comstock said.
And there have been cases in which the community service volunteers are “actually disgusted,” Comstock said.
“The sad reality is, people give us their dirty diapers,” or containers that still have food in them, she said. They might discover it’s “last month’s mayonnaise. … It gets interesting.”
Keep in mind that real people are sorting these items, by hand. If the volunteers are too grossed out, they won’t come back and Litter Landing won’t be able to process all its materials, she said.
For the most part, though, Comstock said community members do a good job sorting things.
She said taking an extra second to double-check that things are in the right place “would help us immensely.” Litter Landing’s vendors expect the recycling not to be contaminated — either with grime or other types of items — and the facility gets docked if they are.
While sorting recycling, volunteers keep bins nearby — for example, plastic #1, which is separate from numbers 2, 3, 5 and 7. But they also keep a trash bin at the ready, as some things end up in the containers that aren’t actually recyclable.
It’s illegal to dump trash at Litter Landing, but people do it sometimes, particularly after G.I.B.S. Sanitation Services of Fostoria shut down recently. The center has cameras in place, and can record the license plate number and contact the authorities.
“It is considered illegal dumping, which is a crime,” Comstock said.
Great American Cleanup
Advice for people who don’t recycle?
“It’s not as time-consuming as people think,” Comstock said.
When she does a presentation, people often respond that recycling involves having to sort items. She replies: “Do you fold your laundry?” Or put your dishes away, or mow your lawn?
“These are just habits,” and we can make recycling a habit, too.
And some people worry that recycling will create smells in their garage, and are opposed to the “filthiness of it,” Comstock said. But if you rinse the item well, it won’t smell, she said.
Comstock encouraged the public, “Try and be conscious of what you’re doing.”
She strongly suggests taking a canvas bag to the grocery store, as those little plastic bags — not recyclable at Litter Landing — blow all over.
Comstock has been known to “race” community service volunteers to see who can sort through a cage of recycling first.
“I have yet to lose,” she said.
Comstock said she thinks about the long-term rewards of her work.
“We know that we’re doing something good for the community,” she said.
This weekend is the Great American Cleanup, a partnership with Keep America Beautiful, and Comstock is looking for volunteers.
After all, in Ohio when the snow melts, everything that has been hidden by the snow becomes visible, so this is a good time for a cleanup, Comstock said.
The Great American Cleanup takes place Saturday. People register, then select an area they’re responsible for cleaning up, then bring their trash to Litter Landing. There will be a luncheon and door prizes at the event. Register by contacting Comstock at 419-424-1113 or through the Litter Landing website.