Going Green in Mercer County with Meals on Wheels

By Joanne Mullowney

Most overviews covering the current state of recycling in the United States are pretty grim.  From the lack of markets and escalating costs, to contamination, to the prevalence of materials in our everyday lives that need to be recycled;  the effort to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” the mass of potential recyclables in our trash is not one of our proudest achievements.  And, getting most of the public to recognize the extent of the crisis and make the changes needed to both their consumption (think bottled water) and recycling habits has not been overly successful.  That is why we are delighted to highlight the work of local non-profit Meals on Wheels of Mercer County (MOWMC) in making changes to their operations during 2019 that significantly reduce their non-recyclable output.  Their willingness to take the initiative in finding ways to reduce their reliance on single-use plastic bags is a success story of which they can be justly proud.

I sat down with Meals on Wheels Chief Executive Officer Sasa Olessi Montaño last week to learn more about their efforts to reduce the use of plastic in their operations.  Meals on Wheels of Mercer County is a local non-profit that provides daily, home-delivered meals to individuals who are homebound, and are unable to shop or prepare meals for themselves. These “meals-on-wheels” are delivered by volunteers five days per week and may include weekend meals. The meals are prepared at Rider University and up to two meals per day are available to participants.  This process necessitates a lot of packaging.

“In late 2019,” Olessi Montaño shared, “Meals on Wheels switched from using single-use plastic bags for meal deliveries to reusable shopping bags.  With over 250 deliveries each day, what seems like a small change will save an estimated 60,000 bags from going into landfills each year.”  In addition, MOWMC has been making changes to its operations over the past years to become more sustainable.  The organization now serves the entrees and salads in eco-friendly, compostable containers made from natural fibers.  The cold drinks such as milk and juice are served in recyclable containers.  No utensils or straws are dispensed.

There is one last piece in the meals that MOWMC staff are working to resolve.  State regulations require a programmatic safeguard of keeping the hot and cold items separated.  Cold items are currently placed in separate small white plastic bags.  Since condensation from the cold items could dissolve paper bags, greening this aspect of the operation remains to be worked out and is under discussion with the caterer.

The decision to jettison the plastic bags also involved weighing the environmental benefits with the needs of both the volunteers and the program participants.  Participants generally fall into three categories: those who are fully functional and able to carry both the hot and the cold portions of the delivery from the door to their interiors without assistance; those who use walkers when coming to the door and are thus unable to transport their meal to the kitchen without bags; and those who allow the Meals on Wheels volunteer to carry their meals indoors for them.  Volunteers were asked to identify the second type of participant throughout the delivery routes and those participants were given extra reusable bags to keep and hang on their walkers to transport their food deliveries from the door.

Most volunteers (over 90%) were very pleased that MOWMC was making a very positive environmental change and some 40% said that they had abandoned using the plastic bags for quite some time on their own.   Others are gradually coming on board with the need for the change.  The program participants also embraced the change without difficulty. CEO Olessi Montaño said that she was very pleased with the success of the adoption of the new procedures and the donation of reusable bags from Ewing ShopRite and Whole Foods in Princeton that helped make it possible, commenting that “Mercer County is a very giving community and that both businesses are great neighbors and community partners.”

We are delighted with the positive changes in their operations that Meals on Wheels has embraced.  Not only do they make a difference daily to the lives of their program participants, but they are also contributing positive environmental changes to our little section of the planet while accomplishing their mission.  A positive and heartening lesson for us all!

Shred Day – May 4th

shreddayDispose of your sensitive documents safely and securely at Ewing’s first Shred Day of the year, Saturday, May 4th from 9 – 1 at the Ewing Township Municipal Building. Document shredding will be done on site. This service is for Ewing residents only and proof of residency is required.  As this is a popular event, please be prepared to spend a few minutes waiting on line.

The Ewing Green Team will be on hand to assist.

Event Summary

Date: Saturday, May 4th
Time: 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Location: Municipal Building, 2 Jake Garzio Drive
The next Shred Day will be Saturday, October 12th.

Recycle Right: Please Don’t Put Soiled Pizza Boxes in Your Recycling Bucket!

Most people assume that pizza boxes are recyclable.  And, if we were to ask you if you could recycle your pizza boxes, and you answered ‘yes,’ you would be wrong.  Why so?  Most pizza boxes have recycling symbols on them and are made from corrugated cardboard.  These should be recyclable, right?

However, the answer is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no.  Unused pizza boxes are indeed recyclable.  However, used pizza boxes, with their greasy stains are NOT!  A pizza box is only recyclable if the soiled grease and food parts are removed.

This sounds complicated for the average individual who just needs a simple answer while trying to decide what does or does not go into the recycling bucket.   To understand the whys and the wherefores you need to know how pizza boxes are recycled.

Basically, it comes down to the issue of food contamination.   Grease and oil are the worst contaminants in the paper recycling process.  During this process, paper products are mixed with water and turned into a kind of slurry.  When there is grease or oil contamination in the slurry, the oil forms at the top and the paper fibers cannot separate from the oils and the batch is ruined.  This also explains why other food-related items that are similarly grease/oil stained cannot be recyclable (think used paper plates and towels and napkins.)

We would also like to point out that adhesives such as those that attach coupons and other stickers also contaminate the paper recycling batch.  Ink, however, is generally not petroleum-based so they are not a problem.  Food remains the problem.

Our New Recycling Reality

You may have read about the restrictions placed by China on importing recyclable materials from the United States.  China has closed its doors to many types of recycling materials and is requiring that the material be 99.5% free from contamination.  According to the staff at the Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA), the contamination rate for recycling collected from Mercer County communities is 11.4%.  This means that we have significant work to do to make our recycling acceptable for the market.

China was also the largest consumer of US recyclable volume and no longer is purchasing the volumes that it did in the past.  This means that there is a glut of supply in the market which is significantly driving down the value of this materials.  As a result, in many cities across the nation, recyclables are ending up in landfills.

The Pizza Box Answer

You may only recycle the unsoiled portions of your pizza boxes.  Cut out or tear off the soiled portions and throw them in the regular trash.  If you are absolutely sure that the whole box is grease and oil free you can recycle it.  However, if there is any doubt, please throw it out!  You don’t want to contaminate an entire load of recycling.

“What about composting it?” you may ask.  Although the cardboard will break down in your compost pile, the grease is still problematic and may attract rodents and other small critters and bugs.  It may cause odors.  It also is not good for the plants when the compost from your pile is ready to harvest.

Most people think that it is better to err on the side of “over-recycling” rather than “under-recycling” and that more is better.  They don’t realize that one piece of garbage contaminates the whole load and that the whole batch could end up in a landfill.  We encourage all residents to observe the follow rule: One piece of garbage makes it all garbage and when it doubt, throw it out!

And, the Winners Were…

Scarecrow Contest 2018 Results

The nor’easter that blew in yesterday may have dampened the costumes, but not the spirits of Ewing’s Trick or Treaters who came out en masse with their families for the annual Spooktacular Halloween Celebration held yesterday at the Ewing Senior and Community Center, which was moved indoors this year to accommodate the inclement weather.

Held in conjunction with Trunk or Treat was the Green Team’s annual Scarecrow Contest. This year, our fifth celebration of the event, we also moved our Scarecrow indoors and offered pumpkin painting for the little kids and the opportunity to participate in our new community art project – a mural that we will be creating out of plastic bottle caps.

We extend kudos go to all of the participants in our 2018 Scarecrow Contest.  The entries exhibited new heights of creativity, resourcefulness and recycling know-how.   We thank and congratulate everyone who contributed an entry.  All were winners, whether they took home a prize or not.  Winners were judged on originality, artistry and the creative use of recycled materials and had to be constructed of at least 80% recycled, reclaimed, and/or reused materials.

As has been our custom, there were ca$h prizes.  This year there were three $50 prizes for the following categories: (1)  Family, (2) Youth Groups (Schools, Scouts…), and (3) Adults (only).  New this year was a $25 prize for the People’s Choice that was determined by Trunk or Treat event goers.  Each Trunk or Treater was given a raffle ticket to vote on their favorite Scarecrow.    Without further ado, here are the winners.

Family Award

Winning the Family Award this year were Cora and Samantha Dupee for their Adams Family entry, Thing and Cousin ItCousin It had a base constructed from an animal feed bag, hair made up from hay bale twine, a hat made out of cardboard, and glasses made from sunglasses. Thing’s base was repurposed metal fencing and the actual hand was made from bottle caps.

Group Award

The Group Award was won by the Ewing High School Environmental Club for Trash Tin Man, with the Reduce, Reuse and Recycle theme.  Trash Tin Man was created from plastic bottles, cans, cartons, wrappers, packaging wrap and stuffed with bubble wrap.  He was dressed in damaged clothing.  Also used was recycled cardboard, one-use trash pick up gloves, and hazardous waste cleanup collection (paint).

Adult Award

Billy Ann Stark took home the Adult Award for her very clever entry, Mary Pumpkins.  Mary was constructed using two pumpkins, clothing from the attic, free-cycled fabric scraps and repurposed cardboard for the hat, alpaca feed bags for the body and ornamental grass.

People’s Choice Award

The popular favorite was Scaredy Crow.  This entry was created by Meghan Jackson and family members Allison and Aidan Wittman.  This scarecrow is new to the job and is finding out the hard way that it may not be the right job for him.  You see, he’s scared of crows!  Let’s just say he’s not quite outstanding in his field yet.  His head is made from a plastic jug and newspaper  and wrapped in burlap.  His arms and legs are made from water and soda bottles, supported by wire hangers.  His clothes were made from woven plastic bags (think a kid’s potholder project).  The body of the crow is made from papier-mâché (water, flower, and newspaper).  Its feet and wings were shaped from wire hangers.  The feathers were made from flattened aluminum cans.

We also extend our thanks to the local municipal officials and artists who had the extremely difficult job of scoring the entries:  Councilwoman Jennifer Keyes-Maloney, Ewing Arts Commission Chair Mel Antler, local artist Robin Keyes, and local artist and member of Art Has No Boundaries, Ann Cheslock.  Thanks also to Councilwoman Sarah Steward who served as the event announcer.