NACOGDOCHES — It was a tough and sometimes big job, but the glass recycling group known as the Bottlers was glad to do it.
Until the pandemic shut down everything in 2020, loyal volunteers smashed, sorted and shipped the glass that was left in absolutely massive quantities in a roll-off bin behind the public library, said Steve Chism, president of the nonprofit known as C&R Kuttbottle.
Smashing glass was somewhat therapeutic, but dealing with contaminants left in the bins was not. Volunteers confronted everything from rancid homemade canning failures to the blackened contents of a burn barrel one person kept emptying into the container under the cover of night — right on top of the emptied and rinsed recyclables.
“All we could do was shovel it out and put it in the dumpster,” Chism said, adding that 99% of people brought only what could be recycled. “One time there was a couch sticking out the end of the plastic recycling roll-off — it was a constant source of entertainment.”
But when the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and being a Bottler was more scary than entertaining.
“I couldn’t put my volunteers at risk,” Chism said. “And I’m not getting any younger.”
Glass recycling in Nacogdoches was discontinued and remains on pause two years later.
“We had hopes initially we could start it up again, but it didn’t work out,” he said. “It’s just become too difficult both physically and safety-wise.”
And as the bottlers experienced firsthand, the idea of recycling could be doing more harm than good.
Chism and his volunteers have found old tires, aquariums, clothes and even a complete pool cleaning set in the glass recycling container, part of a phenomenon they call “wishcycling.”
“As in, ‘I wish someone would take this,'” he said.
Wishcycling is the delusion that a recycling cart is some sort of portal to another universe. Thus, Chism says, the idea that something can be left into a recycle bin has only enabled the real problem: Overproduction and overconsumption of single use materials.
“The plastic producers kick it down the road: You buy it, so it’s your problem,” he said. “The political wheel has never forced these manufacturers to deal with it, and that’s what we’re up against.”
Recycling programs everywhere got an unpleasant dose of reality in 2018 when China, once the top importer of the world’s discarded plastic and paper, stopped accepting virtually all of it. Like other cities across the country, Nacogdoches ceased its recycling plastic and mixed paper in 2019.
“When China ceased acceptance of our trash, all of a sudden there’s no easy solution,” Chism said. “We can’t just ship it off and act like it doesn’t exist any more.”
The mere thought of the containers, packages and straws that are used once and tossed daily is enough to send anyone into blind denial, said Keep Nacogdoches Beautiful Director Ashley Villarreal.
“People are intimidated by it — they don’t want to bring Tupperware into a restaurant so they don’t do anything,” she said. “But if a million people went to a restaurant and said, ‘No, I don’t want a straw,’ that’s a million straws that aren’t used. If a million people made one change, that’s a million ways to help our planet.”
A mom of two and forestry major at Stephen F. Austin State University, Villarreal is entering her second year as director of the nonprofit focused on reducing waste, beautification and recycling education.
Keep Nacogdoches Beautiful holds its next technology recycling event April 23 and is planning its second tire recycling event for May.
The drive-thru behind the public library was once the drop-off for plastic and glass, and still serves as a drop-off site for cardboard recyclables. The city in 2019 purchased a grant-funded “Cram-a-Lot” machine that does just that to cardboard, creating bales that can sold to recyclers for more than it costs to transport it.
Shipping for glass recyclables has always outweighed profits, but Chism’s organization closed the gap by selling upcycled art made from used glass.
“If you can break even, you’ve won the battle, because it’s the right thing to do,” Chism says. “We did it as long and as much as we could, and I’m pleased with that. I am hoping another group will step in and pick up the torch, and I’ll sure help if I can.”
Flattened cardboard, minus oil-stained pizza boxes, can be dropped off any time behind the library.