Aaron Coffin makes his first cardboard save in the alley between Main and Broadway in downtown Missoula. He kneels over a pair of FedEx boxes and uses a butter knife to scrape off the clear plastic flap that holds the shipping manifest. So far he is not impressed with what he’s doing.
First, the subject of Coffin’s attention is a lot more scarce than he expected. He’s looking for corrugated cardboard boxes that someone else intends to recycle, and he’s removing any kind of plastic—tape, labels, packing fodder—so it doesn’t get incinerated and cause pollution.
But there’s a dearth of cardboard set aside for recycling today. Most cardboard is in dumpsters headed for the landfill with general trash. Add this disappointment to the extra cold inside the dark canyon of the alley and Coffin becomes skeptical of the whole project.
“Nobody is going to do this,” Coffin says. “This is a ridiculous activity. What we need are packaging standards.”
It’s Wednesday during the last week of November, and Coffin is one member of a lunch-time crew organized weekly by the environmental group Cold Mountains, Cold Rivers. Before the crew splits up and heads out, director Darrell Geist explains how and why it’s important to raise public awareness about stripping plastic off cardboard.
During the recycling process, cardboard is dumped in a pulping vat. Anything from the old boxes that can’t be used in the new boxes, like the FedEx flap from Coffin’s first save, is separated from the pulp and burned for electrical power to help run the factory. But since the FedEx flap is made of chlorinated plastic, burning it creates dioxin.
The only cardboard recycling facility near Missoula is the Smurfit-Stone mill west of town, and Geist reminds the seven members of his crew that the mill can burn up to two tons of plastic waste per day. He demonstrates how to safely remove a label by puncturing the top layer of the cardboard wall and pulling it off the corrugated interior.
Geist adds the scrap to a bag already filled with one pound of waste which presumably would otherwise have been burned at the local mill. Geist says the project has tangible benefits. Dioxin causes cancer, for instance, so less dioxin means a healthier environment. Additionally, Geist believes recycling-minded people can learn to remove plastic from cardboard on their own, just as they learned to sort aluminum cans from brown paper bags a decade ago.
Later, in the alley between Broadway and Pine, the crew discovers a large cache of cardboard in a recycling bin and spends the rest of the lunch hour filling up five shopping bags with tidbits of plastic. Suddenly, with so much work to do, the alley doesn’t feel quite so cold.