Annie Spalding: Recycling Queen
Annie Spalding never really set out to have a mission — she was a dental hygienist with a fulfilling career when her life took a terrible, tragic turn. “I lost my brother and grandparents to cancer in a five year period,” she says. Spalding and her mother were cancer survivors, too — and that, coupled with the losses put her in a slump. “I had to figure it out, “ she explains, “I needed to know why I was still here. Instead, I asked myself a different question —‘What is it that I love?’ You have to follow what you love to do, otherwise our life is pointless.”
A love of the ocean
Spalding always had a fascination with the ocean and what she calls the mysticism of it, so she began volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium (http://www.seattleaquarium.org) where she learned about the gyres of trash in the Pacific Ocean (see sidebar on page 41). Gyres are massive, slow rotating whirlpools, which accumulate plastic trash that has made it way into the ocean. According to the website 5gyres.com, “The North Pacific Gyre, the most heavily researched for plastic pollution, spans an area roughly twice the size of the United States – though it is a fluid system, shifting seasonally in size and shape.” When Spalding learned about the gyres, she set out to make a difference, starting in the dental practice where she works. First, she got in touch with Cleanscapes/Recology and had them conduct a waste audit of her office. “They had us save up all of our trash for a week prior to the audit and did a full report of the contents of our trash,” she relates, “They found that 65 percent was recyclable plastic. None of the dental companies have any infrastructure in place to recycle any of the plastics — and now I see why. We’re habitual as an industry, and in the 80s when cross contamination issues first came to the fore, we set standards in place to protect our patients – gloves, masks, plastic barriers for everything. It’s a necessary evil. But the plastics part got me wondering if we really need all those barriers. That’s uncertain at this point, but at least we can recycle it.”
Spalding started putting out feelers and found that the morass of recycling criteria and laws is a lot to wade through. Within King county, each of the cities contracts a different recycling contractor with slightly different criteria – it’s a mess, and was a battle Spalding knew she couldn’t effectively fight. Instead, she decided to make it her mission to create awareness and serve as a conduit for information, so that people are aware that recycling dental plastics is possible — albeit to varying degrees, depending on where you live. She explains, “My goal was to get each office participating in recycling just one type of plastic — the sheaths we use to cover chairs and lights — and create one stream for that kind of plastic to be reused. The trouble is, that represents so much plastic, that in order to recycle it an office would have to have a lot of storage space, or be able to transport their recyclables to a facility often enough to not require storage.”
A mountain of waste
Even a regular sized office can generate an enormous cache of recyclable plastic in a month’s time (see inset photo — that’s the amount of recyclable plastic Spalding collected from her own office in one month). Spalding had her work cut out for her, noting that plastic consumption is all over the map — “I’ve been in offices that use twice as much plastic as ours, and those that use less.” To illustrate the amount of plastic used in King county, Spalding describes it this way. “In King County there are about 2,000 dentists, and if every office used just one bag per patient per visit (in her office Spalding says they use three bags per patient, per visit), in one year the bags used would fill 3.25 Olympic-sized swimming pools full of plastic waste — and that’s just in King County.”
For the time being only Cleanscapes/Recology has a program in place that will take the clear bags, and even then only in parts of Burien, Carnation, Des Moines, Issaquah, Seattle and Shoreline. Everyone else can visit www.bagyourbags.com to learn how they can recycle bags and film in the following areas: Auburn, Bellevue, Bothell, Burien, Covington, Des Moines, Duvall, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Issaquah, Kent, Kirkland, Maple Valley, Mercer Island, Newcastle, North Bend, Redmond, Renton, Seattle, Shoreline, and Woodinville.
For those not fortunate enough to live in an area serviced by Cleanscapes/Recology, the quandary is storage and transportation of the material, combined with finding interested people with a passion to make a difference — people willing to schlep bags from their practice to approved facilities. Spalding gets it — there are a lot of hoops to jump through, but she’s looking for budding conservationists to take the baby steps with her to get this movement off the ground. And, she realizes that not many practices have the room to save up the materials before transporting them to an approved site, although some simple solutions might work, she says, explaining, “It’s all air, we need to condense it down so it doesn’t take up so much space and is easier to transport offsite. We have to make it easy for them.” She’s come up with ideas like vacuum-sealing the film into bricks, or finding other ways to minimize storage issues. And while Spalding says that King County is on board with her efforts, she’s a one-woman operation, and hasn’t had the time to revisit with them to see how all of this could be coordinated. To make matters worse, the bags can only be recycled together — not with any other plastics, and you have another impediment to the problem.
So what’s next? Spalding looked into creating biodegradable bags and, but there’s a catch: the film needs organic material inside and around it to properly degrade — a bag filled only with film would take too long. The bags can also be broken down and made into pellets to make lids and hundreds of other recycled products. There are companies who use the products – Trex is one, International Paper is another. But it’s still a matter of getting it to one location and baling it. The shocking truth is that nearly all of our recycling waste right now goes to China. Recently, however, China has started to refuse recycling and garbage shipped from the US, because the number of colors and types of plastic made it too hard to work with. And, she says, the biggest problem is access: even though coverage in western Washington is spotty, she knows there’s even less on the east side of the state. There is much work to be done, and Spalding’s goal is that this piece will generate interest in helping her attack the problem.
How you can help
Like the gyres she hopes to eradicate, Spalding is awash in a problem too big for one woman (no matter how determined she is) to handle. She needs allies and foot soldiers to help her take her campaign to the next level. If you would like to join her cause, you can reach her through her website at cleanseaconsulting.com, on her facebook page at facebook.com/pages/Clean-Sea-Consulting/1405908532961453 , or at her email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, Spalding says you can purchase recycling bins for your office and purchase clear plastic liners for your bins (low density polyethylene) to recycle all of your clear plastic film. It is imperative that the liners that you use are clear, you cannot use black. Remember to separate out all of your clear plastic bags during the course of your day at the practice. And please, visit 5gyres.com to read about this tragedy on the seas. It’s a problem that won’t go away on its own.
King County Bag drop locations*:
CleanScapes/Recology (current customers):
*The clear dental plastic bags MUST be bundled in a clear plastic bag.
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