Field Trip Day for EPA Interns

One of the great things about being an intern at EPA is that I have plenty of opportunities to get away from my desk. Sure, a trip to the Montgomery County (Maryland) Recycling Center – which happened earlier this month – isn’t the most exotic destination I could possibly imagine, but it’s still nice to get a break from staring at a computer screen. And, as it turns out, recycling centers are more interesting than you might think!

Everything about the Montgomery County Recycling Center – the bright colors, the pictures on the wall, and even our tour guide – exude enthusiasm about recycling. “We have a goal of 50 percent recycling for Montgomery County,” our guide told us (they’re currently at 44 percent). The Center is all about helping residents learn what they can do to recycle more; they try to make recycling as efficient and convenient as possible, and they even sort residents’ glass, cans, and plastic bottles (no need for residents to do it themselves!). That’s probably one of the reasons that Montgomery County is inching closer to a 50 percent recycling rate (the national average municipal solid waste recycling rate was 33.4 percent in 2007).

The Center receives about 200 tons of paper a year. Nationwide, 54.5 percent of paper products were recycled in 2007. I ran the numbers and figured that, if Montgomery County is consistent with the national average, then for every 200 tons of paper that come into the Center annually, there are about 167 tons of paper that are go into the trash. That’s not surprising – paper is the single biggest type of trash that we generate.

Right next to the Center is a solid waste transfer station, which accepts materials that the Recycling Center doesn’t, such as oil, point, dirt, electronics, batteries, propane, helium (who has excess helium? Clowns?) tires, scrap metal, and building materials. Just about anything that can be manufactured can be recycled.

In my program, the Industrial Materials Reuse Program, we deal with recycling every day. It was interesting to see where recycled materials actually go, and it was enlightening to look at the tons of materials in the Center – pile after pile of glass, metals, paper, and plastic – and realize that if they hadn’t ended up there, they would have ended up in a landfill.

About the author: Ayende Thomas is an undergraduate Civil Engineering major at Howard University with an interest in environmental engineering. She is currently a summer intern in EPA’s Industrial Materials Reuse Program.