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A Truck for Zero Waste

As a household committed to the “Year to Zero” program, we chose October, designated as “Metal Month” to share our experiences.

I cannot even guess how often a vehicle gets taken off Lopez to be recycled. Maybe half a dozen times a year? Although I travel fairly frequently on the ferry, I have never seen an end-of-its-life vehicle on board. Maybe most people have been lucky (or unlucky!) enough to have their auto call it quits when they were on the mainland - much easier up there than down here to get it taken away to a salvage yard. However, I have seen vehicles on Island that look as if they could be recycled - and I actually bought one.

When I first saw it, if it had been anything less than a “vintage vehicle,” a seventy year old GMC pickup, I would have said that its highest and best use was to become recycled metal. From a recycling viewpoint, there were a couple of hundred dollars worth of steel and the copper/brass radiator was worth maybe another twenty-five dollars. Because the truck was so old, the only hazardous substances were the sulfuric acid and lead in the battery, oils in the differential, transmission and engine. Environmentally, the truck would be a piece of cake to dispose of, compared to modern vehicles with their airbags, plastic components and poisonous mercury trunk and hood switches.

But, the truck was not yet destined to be mega-shredded in ten seconds flat into a pile of steel shavings and shipped to an overseas foundry furnace. It was over seventy years old, even in tough shape, I knew it was worth a lot more than junk value and so did its owner. I bought it and began a laborious restoration that would take over two years.

Throughout the process, I repaired instead of replaced whatever I could. My project required disposal of unusable metal components, such as the gas tank, brake cylinders and rusted steel. It was easy to recycle these in the steel bin at the dump and to find clean steel (such as bed frames) at “Take It or Leave It” that I could use to weld patches and braces onto fenders and running boards. While Ruthie was volunteering at the dump, she found a new carpeting scrap that was going to be thrown away and it made a perfect floor liner.

Lopez Solid Waste District can be thankful it is not responsible for recycling automobiles. It is challenging enough to deal with the ever-increasing solid waste stream. I have discovered some daunting statistics. Auto recycling has become big business, ranked the 16th largest U.S industry and automobiles are the most recycled product. Approximately 86% of a modern car is recyclable with about 14% of it ending up in a landfill. About 12-15 million cars in the U.S. reach the end of their lives and are recycled each year.

The combination of planned obsolescence and commonly inaccessible technology has forced nearly all of us to recycle instead of repair. Restoring my old GMC is my way of opposing the “throw-away” mentality. On the Maine Island where I used to live, back in the 60’s and 70’s, I kept many clunkers going as long as there was anything to clunk so that fishermen didn’t have to lay out their hard earned bucks for newer vehicles. But, back then, you could lift up a car hood and recognize the parts. As a “dump dog” I am reminded that America is the most wasteful country in the world and am continually astounded by the amount and quality of items we recycle. For example, I can imagine how quickly everything we throw away would disappear if it were dumped in the Rio de Janiero landfill!. At least some items here get a second chance thanks to “Take It Or Leave It.” It should happen more.

Also, as a dump dog, I see a need to reduce our waste stream and I wonder if there might be an opportunity for enterprising individuals to repair and resell many of the bigger items that come in for recycling, such as BBQ’s, washers, dryers, and lawnmowers. I’ve done time-consuming dismantling of many items that had years of life left in them if they were repaired. Anybody interested in a feasibility study?

Of course, many things that come to the dump are too far gone, and modern recycling benefits the environment by keeping steel and poisonous substances out of landfills, such as mercury used in switches and sodium azide used in airbags. The disposal problems we Islanders face are daunting, as they can only worsen as the Island’s population increases, but they pale by comparison with what the rest of the nation faces. For example, there is currently no federal legislature in place that mandates or regulates recycling of airbags. With 34 million vehicles needing airbag replacement each year, there is an immediate need for a sustainable method of disposal. Once again, environmental concerns have taken a back seat.

Although Ruthie has been an avid recycler since time began, she was not very enthusiastic about my truck project in the beginning. Now that it has become an “Art for Heart” vehicle, a way for her to benefit the community through donating all proceeds from her creations to local non-profit organizations, she’s pretty happy about it.

Keep recycling, or better yet, look for ways to get the most life out of anything you can. See you at the dump – look for the green and black ’46 GMC!


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