The origins of recycling at Origins

Origins is a huge game convention (“con”) held annually at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio.  We’ve attended every year since 1999.  In addition to enjoying the exhibits and activities, we’ve helped our friends from Looney Labs sell their wonderful games and operate their “Lab”, a large room where people can try out their games and compete in their tournaments.  Volunteers who help Looney Labs are called Mad Lab Rabbits and wear lab coats.

We’ve also helped the Looneys with smaller game parties at other cons, and at most of these I set up a recycling bin for bottles and cans discarded by guests and staff.  Kristin Looney heard many favorable comments about the recycling, and in 2001 she asked me to “make it happen in our space at Origins.”  I made it happen. It turned into a much more ambitious project than Kristin had envisioned. Partly this was because I just couldn’t stand to see recyclables going to waste, and partly it was because so many con-goers were so pleased to have the opportunity to recycle.

But my biggest motivation was the transformative moment I experienced when Daniel came storming into the booth to tell us that our flyers were being ripped down.  (The description in the above article doesn’t fully explain the injustice: Daniel turned around from taping up a flyer to find that a janitor was following him, ripping down the flyers and stuffing them into the trash, but hadn’t bothered to speak to him!)  He was very angry, and I thought, “Okay: I can get angry too and let this defeat me, or I can step back from this roadblock and walk another way.”  A surge of positive energy made me feel about a foot taller even as I decided to do a very humbling thing: to turn myself into a walking advertisement and to walk around reaching into garbage.

It was disgusting, but it also was fascinating. Which parts of the convention had more caffeine consumers, more juice drinkers, more dieters?  What was the best angle to step on a can or bottle to crush it?  I learned about recycling programs all over the world from people who stopped to talk with me.  Overall, it was a very positive experience.

Therefore, although I was disappointed that GAMA didn’t line up a recycling contractor for the next year, I was willing to do it again–bigger and better! Looney Labs wholeheartedly supported this effort, making recycling my #1 job (I still did some game demos and distribution of promo cards) and paying for my con badge and hotel room.  After all, it was great publicity for their company.  We did it again in 2003 and almost doubled the amount of containers collected.

At that point, we still weren’t sure we’d changed the future of Origins, but the popularity of the recycling program was growing: More people volunteered to help, including companies who wanted to have recycling bins in their spaces, and more people sought me out to thank me and/or ask questions.  One question I kept hearing was, “Are you going to do this at GenCon?”

The odds were against it.  I’d never been to GenCon before and hadn’t planned to go that year.  It’s in Indianapolis, twice as far from my home as Columbus.  It was only a few weeks away.  Looney Labs was planning a much smaller presence there, with no space for me to store bags of recyclables.  But there was so much enthusiasm from other companies who would be there and other people who planned to attend!  I felt a calling. I tried to weasel out of it.  Twenty thousand people were going to be there; why couldn’t somebody else recycle?  On the drive back to Pittsburgh, one of my friends tried to talk me out of it (and any further recycling at Origins) by saying that the con and convention center had no motivation to hire recycling contractors if I was willing to do it for free.  That made sense, and yet . . . Kristin was enthusiastic about the possibility of recycling at GenCon and already making contact with important people who could help it happen.  Then she got Russell Grieshop, who was the Rabbit Coordinator at the time, involved in setting up everything I needed.  Everything was coming together, but I was very nervous.  Who was I to think I could save the world?  It wasn’t as if I’d entirely succeeded at Origins.  Why do all this hard work to make just a tiny drop in the bucket?

Then, three days before leaving for GenCon, it was my turn to read in church.  I didn’t have a chance to look up the passage in advance; I just walked up to the lectern and found myself reading Isaiah 6:1-8, in which the prophet Isaiah first feels unworthy because he has lived among unclean people, but then he responds to the Lord’s call by saying, “Here am I.  Send me!” As I read those words, again I felt that sensation of rising up, growing bigger, being ready to serve a purpose.  I realized it didn’t matter that I wasn’t the only person who could recycle at GenCon or the best person for the job; what mattered was that I was willing to stand up and say that it needed to be done and pour my time and effort into it.

Well, GenCon was quite an experience. It’s even bigger than Origins, and the exhibit hall is humongous, filled with flashing screens and bleeping sounds because GenCon also includes computer games.  The building seemed even huger because Russell and I got to go behind the scenes, not just into the loading dock where we did the rinsing and crushing, but also into the vast warren of windowless concrete rooms in the basement, where we met with the various staff members who supported and prevented interference with our project.

I was touched by the way employees pushing huge carts of garbage would pause in their work to dig out every visible bottle and can from the muck and toss them into my sink before sending the nonrecyclable garbage into the compactor.  What was in it for them?  Well, they liked the idea of finding a useful destination for some of the huge volume of stuff that had been discarded.  Sticking their arms down through damp paper and rotting food didn’t disgust them as much as seeing useful materials get thrown away. I agreed!

I worked so hard! I spent hours each day hauling massive bags across huge rooms, unscrewing bottle caps, rinsing, crushing, counting, sorting, and then starting all over again.  I got very sticky from the unfinished beverages people left in their bottles.  Each night I washed my lab coat by scrubbing it with my feet and some shampoo while I showered.  Trying to get to sleep, I found an endless parade of plastic bottles dancing inside my eyelids.  That Beck song with the refrain, “Bottles and cans, and just clap your hands…” was stuck in my mind all weekend.  At the end of the con, when the exhibit hall closed and everyone was packing up and the orderly grid of booths disintegrated into a chaos of boxes and poles and people and carpet rolls and wildly veering forklifts, I had to retrieve all my bins before someone threw them away (there were a couple of near misses) and do the final rinse-and-crush.  When I finished, I went back into the hall and found most of the Looney Labs staff sitting with their pile of stuff waiting for Andy to go get the van.  I lay down on the floor and literally could not move for over an hour.  I’ve had only two other times in my life when I felt that exhausted: mononeucleosis and the seventh week of pregnancy.

Then I had to get up at 7:00 the next morning to meet the recycling truck, and after that I had to drive back to Pittsburgh.  I was worn out, and it was a very dark, gray day.  What kept me going was the 80 hours of light in my trunk. Just the 4 aluminum cans I’d picked up on my way to the car represented enough energy savings to light my way home (metaphorically!) 10 times over.  I had recycled only a small fraction of what was discarded at GenCon, and many people there hadn’t even noticed, and I might not have inspired any permanent change…but I had made a difference; I had brought a little more light to the world.

For Origins 2004 we switched tactics.  We still collected and processed bottles and cans, but we also circulated a petition demanding recycling services the next year. It was the right decision: Our 3 years of recycling had raised awareness and created demand, and I was pregnant and not able to do as much physical work as before.  In fact, I’d been very sick and very tired for the past two months . . . yet somehow, for those five days I had the energy to crush bottles and walk the exhibit hall, and I didn’t throw up once!  I asked for help more than before, but I had the energy for what I needed to do.  (Then I went home, collapsed, and took a Secret Journey.)

And it worked.  It worked!  Origins 2005 and Origins 2006 featured a Rumpke Recycling bin in every major area.  I was overjoyed to see them filling up with bottles and cans and relieved that I didn’t have to rinse them myself.

What about Origins 2007? Well, I saw only two recycling bins, including the one Andy Looney had made for the Lab, and wondered what was going on.  Eventually, two of the Rabbits told me they had asked workers who were emptying the trash and had been told that recyclables were sorted out behind the scenes. I was suspicious: If the convention center was doing that, wouldn’t they be advertising it?

After finding no information on recycling on the convention center’s Website, I called and spoke with Senior Operations Manager Manny Magno.  He told me that the convention center has been recycling cardboard since early 2005, but they weren’t able to continue recycling bottles and cans.  “The volume of material that we saw going into our recycling containers was less than we would like to see,” he explained.  Most recyclable containers were getting put into the trash cans, even with recycling bins right next to them, and a lot of trash was winding up in the can-and-bottle recycling bins. Rumpke would not accept bags of recycling contaminated with trash. Having convention center staff sort the recycling to remove the trash took too much time and therefore was not cost-effective. The convention center did its best to make recycling convenient, but too few people cooperated. “Many people ‘talk the talk,'” Mr. Magno said, “but more need to ‘walk the walk.'” He said he worked at the University of California at Berkeley when it launched a recycling program in the early 1990s, and at first, participation was surprisingly low; despite all the eco-talk in the Bay Area, very few people were willing to walk over to a special bin to throw away cans and bottles. Recycling didn’t really catch on until the university heavily publicized it. Mr. Magno says he recycles his household waste as much as possible and wishes he could do recycling in the convention center: “I support it. I live it. But I don’t have the labor to sort out the trash.”

I wish this article had a happy ending.  I wish I could say that my amateur effort led to a permanent improvement.  But all I can say is that I tried, I did make a difference, and the reason that things now stand as they do is not that the Origins organizers wouldn’t take responsibility or that the convention center didn’t give recycling a fair try.  It’s that too few people were willing to participate responsibly in a recycling program that was convenient and accessible and provided free of charge.

Now it’s your turn.  What will you do to stop the mindless squandering of resources by your fellow Earthlings?  You could be the one who turns the tide, at least in one place, at least for a while.  You’ll never know until you stand up and get out there and give it a try.

Update: Recycling at Origins 2008

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