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A conversation with Billy Pepmeyer

Billy Pepmeyer is the little recycler who could. In the shadow of Glenshaw Glass on Route 8, Pepmeyer middle-mans tons of sticky glass from Pittsburgh's bars, pallets full of rumpled office paper from a million worthless meetings, and more forklift loads

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How did you get into this business?
Fourteen years ago, I wanted to have a positive effect on things. Approached a friend who worked at the Park House -- the gentleman who [owned] it [then] was very into the environment -- and he said, "Sure, you can do it." So I started doing it part-time after work. I delivered flowers for my regular job. I said "Can I use the van to do recycling?" My boss said, "No problem," so I took the van home after work and I'd go to the bars, pick up their cases of beer, their bottles and their cardboard.

So you were a freelance recycler. Did it pay?
They paid for glass, like we do now -- a little bit more than we do. So it was a part-time job, making a little extra money. Then I read that the state was passing a law called Act 101, which mandated all commercial properties to recycle, as well as municipalities to have curbside. I talked to my friend Ed -- "Here's an opportunity for us to start a business" -- and he's into the environment like I am, so we each pitched in a thousand bucks and bought a truck and went around to businesses asking if they wanted us to take their recycling.

...We did a lot of Dumpster-diving when we first started out.

Is there a lot of competition?
Not for our niche. My niche is sort of where the big haulers don't want to deal with it.

Is it still mandatory for all commercial operations to recycle? Because I had no idea...
Yeah. It's not enforced. Mandatory items are aluminum cans, cardboard and office paper. It's never been a high priority to make sure everybody's doing it.

How does Pittsburgh do, compared to other places?
I've never been to other places. You hear someone's moved from Seattle or Portland -- "What do you mean we can't put our Styrofoam out on the curb?" The city government has never been really pro-recycling.

How so?
Well, it took 'em a long time to get their curbside recycling started. It was supposed to start in 1991; they were getting threatened by the [Department of Environmental Protection] with fines. They're doing it now, but they've never enforced it. They're cash-strapped, they could get a lot of money that way. How hard is it to look in someone's Dumpster and say, "Hey, you're throwing cardboard away, why don't you recycle it?"

I mean, we're the No. 1 state for importing trash in this country. Because landfill space is so cheap -- just dig a hole and put it in. Which might be a good thing in the future -- we'll end up mining all those landfills to get stuff back out again!

How do you envision that happening?
All the plastics we throw away. It's just oil -- we're putting it back in the ground! There has to be a way you could burn it to get energy out of it. I mean, it's just liquid oil made into a solid. So when we're hurting for energy ...

And Pennsylvania has a history of oil production; maybe our landfills are our next extractive industry.
There you go! When I have a bag of plastic bags, or a bag of Styrofoam in my hand, I think, I wish I just had someplace, like a little thing to throw it into and burn it. Cleanly of course, not big black smoke coming out and everything, but ... I don't see why that hasn't been investigated. Because there has to be a high energy ratio in that plastic compared to paper and other things.

How do you convince people that recycling's worth the trouble?
I don't try to convince anybody. They have to convince themselves. You read that they cut down virgin forests for pulp [for paper], not even for lumber, just for pulp, and for me, that's such a waste.

There was a big push for recycling around Earth Day in the early 1990s, and you don't see it so much anymore. Has it actually diminished, or was it just PR in the first place?
A little bit of both. But then again, we get probably four to six tons of paper on a Saturday here. And they say that a ton of paper is equivalent to 17 trees.

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