2011-03 "Bay Area Firm Tackles Festival Trash; For most of us, having to choose whether to put trash into the recycling bin or the garbage bin is one of the tedious-but-necessary prices we pay for living in today’s world—a simple chore that minimizes our environmental impact" by Bill Picture from "Bay Crossings" newspaper
For most of us, having to choose whether to put trash into the recycling bin or the garbage bin is one of the tedious-but-necessary prices we pay for living in today’s world—a simple chore that minimizes our environmental impact. But for Mary Munat, founder of Green Mary, a firm that devises and implements waste-diversion strategies for large events happening throughout the Bay Area, sorting trash is both a passion and a livelihood.
“This is going to sound crazy, but figuring out how to keep more trash from ending up in landfills literally keeps me up at night,” Munat joked.
The Bay Area hosts dozens of large events each year—from the wild-and-crazy Bay to Breakers footrace to the already eco-friendly Green Festival held annually at San Francisco’s Fort Mason complex. With attendance figures averaging in the tens of thousands (attendance at last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass event in Golden Gate Park drew nearly 750,000 music lovers), a single event has the potential to generate thousands of pounds of landfill-bound waste. Munat offers her expertise in trash, along with the necessary manpower, to the organizers of these events to help ensure that a day’s worth of fun in the sun doesn’t leave a footprint on the planet that can last for decades or even centuries.
Munat works with event producers to determine in advance, based on attendance projections and event layout, the number and placement of EcoStations (three-bin stations with easy-to-understand signage explaining what kind of trash should be tossed into each container) needed to handle the waste that will be generated. Then, on the day of the event, Munat and her team of earth-loving worker bees set up a sorting station on-site, where they pick through the waste that’s collected to make sure that nothing recyclable or compostable ends up in landfill.
“That’s the part we love, getting our hands dirty,” she said. “And it’s the most important part. The only way we can make sure that things end up in the right place is to get our hands in it.”
Growing up green -
Munat credits her passion for waste diversion to her childhood in Vermont, where to this day many residents must haul their own trash to the closest dump and then pay a per-pound fee for anything that can’t be recycled or composted.
“They don’t come to your house every week to pick up your trash, like they do here,” she said. “You drive it to the dump and sort through it right there yourself.”
Of course, not even Munat could have foreseen her family’s weekly trash ritual later becoming a way to help save the planet and put food on the table. In fact, it wasn’t until 2001, while volunteering at the Health & Harmony Festival, an annual arts and music festival held in Sonoma County, that she had the moment of realization that led to the founding of Green Mary.
“Julia Butterfly Hill was one of the speakers that year, and she said we need to stop talking about saving the world and actually do something,” Munat explained. “Later that day, I noticed these huge bins of unsorted trash and a light bulb went off."
Munat pitched her idea for a “zero-waste” event to the Health & Harmony Festival’s organizers first, explaining to them that the idea was both good for the environment and good for the event’s public image. They agreed. And with Health & Harmony onboard, Munat began knocking on the doors of other big events, like San Francisco’s Carnivale celebration.
“And word spread fast,” she said. “Next thing I know, event producers are coming to me to ask for my help, and people are tracking me to down to say they like what I’m doing and want to work for me.”
It takes an army -
At the very beginning, the Green Mary team consisted largely of marginalized Bay Area residents, including homeless persons and recovering addicts, for whom the work was a way to help get their lives back on track. But as word of Green Mary’s noble mission has spread, the team has grown to include more and more “eco-groovy” people, as Munat describes them. “They want to change things,” she said. “Friends are bringing friends in, and people are moving here for the summer season from other parts of the country to help out.”
At last count, Munat’s team numbered more than 100 people, allowing Green Mary to provide its services to multiple events on a given weekend. Last year alone, Green Mary added 150 events to its resume.
Still, the Green Mary system is a work in progress, she says, and requires constant evaluation and tweaking. The system must constantly be adapted to suit not only the needs of each event, but also the way that cities process trash after it leaves Green Mary’s sorting station, as methods often vary from municipality to municipality.
For instance, biodegradable corn-based plastics, once touted as the green alternative to petroleum plastics, are no longer being accepted by some composting facilities because they claim corn-based plastics do not completely break down. To ensure that a container of compostables doesn’t end up in landfill, Munat has to make sure that the contents of that container meet the standards set by the composting facility that is to receive it.
Clearing the hurdles -
Staying on top of each municipality’s ever-changing rules and standards is just one of the challenges that Green Mary faces. Another one is combating the failure of some municipalities to properly train trash collection drivers and the staff at processing facilities. Munat recently took it upon herself to make a training video, which she has offered for free to waste management companies for them to show to their staff.
“I’ve actually blocked containers in with my car and slept there until the driver shows up so I can talk to him,” she said. “And I hang out at the landfills all the time to watch the trash come in, examine the process and make sure nothing is ending up there that shouldn’t be there. If something’s not right, I’m on the phone to whoever is in charge. I don’t mind being the tattletale.”
Of major concern to Munat lately, however, is littering at events, the instance of which she says is sadly on the rise.
“It’s really depressing,” she said. “People are drunk or maybe they’re just having a good time and not paying attention. Maybe they just figure someone else will pick it up. It’s an assault on the planet. The one thing I haven’t figured out how to do yet is make people care. But I’m working on it.”
For more information on Green Mary, visit www.green-mary.com
The Green Mary team sorts through the trash collected at events by hand to ensure that compostable and recycleable materials don’t end up in landfills. Photo: green-mary.com, showing Mike "the Super Sorter"
North-Bay-based Green Mary works with event producers to devise waste diversion strategies and help minimize the environmental impact of large events. Photo: green-mary.com