Caroline Hosford remembers sifting through the mountains of trash.
There were Post-it notes and paper clips, possibly tossed by a laid off worker cleaning out a desk.
Another bag included a gag gift — a coffin-shaped gift box for a 40th birthday that still had everything in it, probably tossed by someone who didn't like the joke, said Hosford, environmental training specialist for the Sedgwick County Environmental Resources Department.
There were tons of dirty diapers, uneaten apples, a frozen turkey, a fully cooked turkey with a few bites missing, clothes with tags, a bedspread, fast-food wrappers and maggots.
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Lots of maggots. And cockroaches.
For the second time, Sedgwick County workers picked through trash piece by piece to see what we throw away and how the millions of pounds we toss each day can be reduced.
They found residents and businesses are still tossing recyclables — there were tons of corrugated cardboard, office-grade paper, aluminum cans, plastic bottles and wet, moldy grass clippings and leaves.
But they also found that we are doing better.
A decade ago, Sedgwick County residents each threw away 6.97 pounds a day. The most recent trash study showed that's down to 4.76 pounds a day, just slightly more than the national average of 4.4 pounds a day.
The findings may help county commissioners determine future changes to the county's trash policy, such as whether grass clippings should be banned from transfer stations and whether the county should implement a pay-as-you throw system, where the trash bill is based on the amount thrown away.
Amount of waste falls
The latest study — from the fall of 2008 through the summer of 2009 — showed residents are throwing grass clippings away at higher rate than they were a decade ago and at a rate higher than the national average.
In 2009, the amount of commercial and residential trash determined to be yard waste was 17 percent; in 1997, it was 12.5 percent.
It also shows that residents could recycle more.
More than 21 percent of the items thrown away by county residents were paper products; 31 percent was yard waste.
"Grass clippings and yard waste are a significant part of the waste stream," said Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton "We've known that for several years.
"But it will take some tough action to change that. And so far, there hasn't been much political will to move that forward without having mandatory recycling programs and a pay-as-you-throw kind of system."
Although it's uncertain when the issue may come back to the commission, Chairman Karl Peterjohn said whatever action the commission takes will need to be low-cost.
"The county is closely monitoring this," he said. "It will need to be a system that provides good service and tries to keep the cost at a level that will be competitive, especially in light of the fact we don't have any sort of landfill for regular trash."
One of the policies the county adopted after the 1997 trash study put a huge dent in the amount of trash.
The County Commission banned construction and demolition materials from the transfer station, Hosford said.
After the ban, more construction debris was recycled. Plus two construction and demolition landfills were created to receive those materials. Those landfills are cheaper to build than those engineered to hold regular trash.
The economy also may be reducing the amount of trash thrown away, Hosford said.
"Hopefully, people are recycling, and they are starting to get it," Hosford said. "They are paying attention to what they are buying.
"But we know when the economy is bad, there is less trash. People aren't buying as much."
What's in the trash
Hosford has participated twice now in Sedgwick County's Waste Characterization Study.
Picking through other people's trash has given Hosford a wry sense of humor, if not a brief sociological study into what Sedgwick County residents will throw away.
"I'm a veteran picker," Hosford said. "It's not a job one would want to aspire to."
Assisting in the study were some teenage students from the Chisholm Life Skills Center who were paid minimum wage to come and help sort through the material. The workers wore coveralls, shoe covers, two types of gloves, safety glasses and vapor masks.
The crews picked their way past batteries, furniture, mattresses, appliances, diapers, animal waste and by-products, syringes, needles and disposable razors.
When they were done, the clothing they were wearing was disposed of due to contamination and excessive dirt and odors, Hosford said.
Raheem Peters, a student at Chisholm Life Skills Center, participated in the trash study.
He remembers thinking "we surely are wasteful people. We need to be recycling more."
In the trash, he saw toys and an old cell phone.
He saw money.
"We went through one bag that had pennies, nickels and dimes dropping out," he said. "Some bags had cockroaches coming out. It was like a new experience for me."
Katrice Hood, also at Chisholm Life, couldn't believe the number of plastic bottles and aluminum cans that were thrown away.
"Those are supposed to be in the recycling bin," she said.
The experience changed her. Hood said she is making a more honest effort at recycling.
"I think we are throwing away a lot of recyclable stuff that we don't really need to throw away."