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Trash Talking

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You know the drill: You drink the last of your Pepsi, you crush the can in your fist and toss it into a little green box. Simple.

So you may have been puzzled, at the Three Rivers Arts Festival, to see "environmental assistants" standing at attention near their wire-framed plastic bags. But sorting your garbage turns out to be more complicated than it looks. You may have been told, for example, that despite all appearances, your fork was not plastic: Cutlery offered by festival vendors was made from cornstarch, and it's as biodegradable as paper.

Visitors were also urged to dispose of their food separately, for use in compost piles that return nutrients to the soil. And "[f]ood-waste composting is a very specific operation," explains Dave Mazza, regional director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council.

Cans and bottles are easy to dump, sort, clean and recycle: They can be reused even if dented, punctured and covered in molasses. Compost is more sensitive: "Food waste can tolerate only 2 percent contamination," Mazza says. A bagful of half-eaten funnel cake could be ruined by little pieces of Styrofoam or aluminum foil.

The compost and recycling campaign is an aggressive collaboration between PRC and the arts festival, as well as by their respective patrons, the Colcom Foundation and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. It's the most recent effort of the Zero Waste Initiative, a city-wide program headed by PRC. And to ensure proper disposal, PRC hired 15 assistants to monitor the bags and explain the difference between recycling raw materials and composting organic matter.

Most festival-goers didn't realize how many "plastic" cups were actually made from potatoes, and the pressure was high to keep the waste as pure as possible -- strange as that might sound.

There were other challenges as well: A couple booths offered samples to their customers, and not all containers were as eco-friendly as those spud-based cups. Some visitors avoided the high price of carnival goodies by buying from nearby fast-food chains, and the assistants had to deflect such debris as waxy Arby's cups and plastic Subway bags.

PRC catalogued and weighed every bag of compost, and last week the organization estimated that it had diverted 50 to 55 tons of waste from landfills. That's roughly the same volume as in 2008, the first year of the initiative. But because of the economic downturn, this year's festival was much shorter -- 10 days instead of 17. And Mazza estimates that in all, 83 percent of the rubbish was carted off to recycling plants and compost heaps.

Helping people itemize their garbage isn't easy: "I can tell you that the first Friday night, we probably had 25,000 people in that park for The Black Keys, and it was a little overwhelming. And [closing-night performers] The Wailers probably had twice that. It was a bit of a chore, to say the least."

But unlike volunteers, the assistants were paid for their efforts. Trash-sorting may not sound like a pleasant job, but more than 60 people applied for the 15 slots. "We didn't have any shortage of people," Mazza says.

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