Tuesday, September 30, 2008

More on Santa Monica Recycling

Earlier in the month I posted about a short Q&A from the Santa Monica DPW regarding their recycling program. Here is some follow-up information based on questions I asked not long after the original ones. Again, the responses are slightly edited for readability. (Note: the answer to how we pay for the luxury of dealing with commingled material is great.)

I recommend you read the first set of questions and answers. There's a little bit of context in this conversation that comes from that first one.

Sorry for the delay getting these out.

Recycling pickup isn't really free since we pay for it through our taxes. How much does our recycling program cost?

Just to clarify - recycling in the City of Santa Monica is not paid for through any taxes. The Solid Waste Management Division is in charge of refuse collection, as well as recycling, yard waste and food waste collections (and bulk item pick ups to remove mattresses and other miscellaneous items dumped in alleys). The Solid Waste Management Division is an "enterprise division" that is required to pay its own way. All services we provide are paid for by the actual users. In this way, recycling is "free" because the trucks are already out on the streets collecting everything else and we are trying to encourage folks to recycle through this adjusted fee schedule.

Even though we receive no taxpayer money, we are still required to have our fee schedule and expenditures approved by the City Council.

How much do we pay for the luxury of commingled material?

Our recyclables buyer allows us to submit our items in this way at no extra charge. We receive full price for the recyclables collected by the City trucks. I believe that they utilize Community Service workers to sort everything once it arrives at their facility. In this way, the facility does not pay the "volunteers" and the volunteers repay their debt to society.

Recycling programs across the country cannot pay for themselves. Santa Monica is no different. We encourage people to recycle, but there's a lot of misinformation spread around that is difficult to counteract. Wes Thompson is our Recycling Outreach coordinator and he tries to educate people regarding WHY it is a good thing to recycle.

Once recycling is regarded as something that's "natural" to do (rather than an inconvenience or something "other people do"), a larger recycling revenue stream is likely - due to the increase in the number of buyers available for the recycled items.

Where does recycling money come from?

I hope I explained that with the description of the fee schedule. However, if you mean "in general", then recycling money comes from the commodity buyers.

Regular folks can take their recyclables to the Buy Back Center at 2401 Delaware Avenue. I'm not sure what their rates are, as it is a private enterprise run by the Allen Company. Their phone number is 1-310-453-9677 if you would like to check on the current pricing structure.

Also, if you would like to have Wes Thompson come out to your office and discuss the City of Santa Monica Recycling program, please give him a call at 310-458-8546 and he will be more than happy to help.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

An observation about facial tagging

I am happy to see that the Picasa team launched their new facial tagging feature. I've had the pleasure of playing with it/testing it/providing feedback before its release and am glad to see it released to the world. While it was internal, I did not dedicate my time to seriously tagging photos. Consider: when something is in an internal testing phase, there's always an outside chance that the engineers might have to clear out historical data. Now that it's public, I've tagged thousands of faces.

I discovered something interesting from tagging this many faces. Let me give you some background: the facial tagging feature does two things very well: it can identify faces in a photograph, and it can identify when the same face appears in multiple locations. In other words, it can easily tell you when several photos contain the same person. What it can't do is tell you who those people are -- that's something you have to do. It may know that these are all the same person but only you know that's Chris's Mom.

So here's the thing. While looking at a nonstop stream of faces that represent my entire social graph, I all too often could not name face. Twice so far I failed to recall the name of colleagues I see every day. Often I see faces that I can only seem to tag as "Ellen's baby" or "Chris's Mom." You can get away with that sometimes but you can't get away with it when it's "your coworker who you mostly remember because of the great socks she wears."

This is unsettling. And it's also a good way to test my recall ability. You typically see faces in conjunction with other related faces. With Picasa, facial tagging lacks the context of related faces, and clusters of faces do not appear next to their related faces, so I find myself going from coworkers husband to niece's friend to next door neighbor. In this case, my brain cannot leverage its ability to cache related concepts up front.

Incidentally, what is Chris' mother's name?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Wow, Santa Monica really does have resident-friendly recycling.

I wrote to the city in order to clarify the reality of their recycling program. Here are my questions and responses (Edited for clarity):

I hear some people in my office say "it doesn't matter which bin you put your recycling in, it all gets sorted at the end." Is this true?

As long as recyclable items are put in to a "recycling" bin, it does not matter what the items are. Santa Monica has a commingled recycling program in which all recyclables can be placed in a single container. The idea is to make recycling easier and more convenient for everyone. All the recyclables are then sorted by commodity at the recycling center.

Oftentimes I'll see a trash and recycling container side-by-side, yet there are things like plastic bottles in the trash. I have an urge to move things that are recyclable from the trash to the recycling bin. My question is: is that actually worth my time? Does this actually make a difference in how it gets treated?

That said, if recyclables are put in to the garbage, then no - they are not sorted out. All items in the refuse bins are taken to the Transfer Station (not the recycling center) and then straight to the landfill. It is true that sometimes recyclables are sorted out of the trash by scavengers, but this isn't the sort of practice we'd like to promote. So, YES - it IS worth your time to separate out your trash from your recyclables if you are concerned about the recyclables getting to the right location.

Sorting also helps reduce your (or your office's) trash bill, because most of what is thrown out is recyclable. Say an office pays for a 3-yard trash bin to be emptied 3 times a week, but then has the office occupants sort out the recyclables. Recycling pick up is FREE in the City of Santa Monica. If a large portion of recyclables are then diverted out of the trash stream, the office can downsize to a smaller container (perhaps with fewer pickups per week) and realize a significant savings.

It's my understanding that commingling paper with glass makes separating the two difficult. For instance, New York City requires paper to be in one container while glass, plastic and metal sit in another container. In my office, though, we just put everything in one container. Is this genuinely sufficient for Santa Monica recycling?

Different cities have different methods of dealing with recyclables. Some have buyers who want the items pre-sorted, but the City itself doesn't have the manpower or space available to provide the sorting. Those cities require citizens to pre-sort their recyclables. Hopefully, those cities also provide their citizens with appropriate containers for all the sorted items. As I mentioned, Santa Monica utilizes a commingled recycling system in which all recyclable items can be placed in any blue recycling container - even the big 300-gallon ones in the alleys around the City.

How important is it to wash or rinse food containers before putting them in recycling?
Washing and rinsing food containers is voluntary. However, insects and other pests will certainly be attracted to unwashed food containers piled up in a collection bin, so that's something to consider.

Before putting plastic in the recycling bin, I check the number on the back. My presumption is that you recycle 1s and 2s, and dispose the rest. What do you accept? How important is it that I check the number before recycling?

We accept plastic with recycling numbers 1 through 5. This includes soda bottles, plastic bags, meat wrapping film, sandwich bags, yogurt cups, Tupperware and anything else with a 1 through 5 designation. Plastic number 6 is Styrofoam and we do not accept that right now, as it is non-recyclable. Plastic number 7 is "Miscellaneous" and can include plastic made from numbers 1 through 6, so we do not accept that right now, either. If you do not check the number on the bottom of the container, it will certainly be checked at the recycling center.

I hope this answered your questions. Please let me know if you need any additional information about recycling or any of the other programs we offer.
Update: I have added a second set of questions and answers.