Making the State Fair greener
Walking into the state fairgrounds this August, you will see signs that proudly proclaim "The State Fair of West Virginia recycles." But perhaps what they should say is "Matt Tate recycles."
Tate, of Mill Point, has volunteered to spearhead the state fair's recycling efforts for the past two years and plans to do it again this year.
The Mill Point resident has a propensity for recycling and finding new uses for things people might otherwise discard. He makes biodiesel from used cooking oil collected from local restaurants, and he's more likely to go looking for car parts at the scrap yard than the discount parts store.
His efforts to help the state fair go a little greener started with a few phone calls to the fair's office in Lewisburg. There, he spoke with Marlene Jolliffe, the state fair's manager.
Jolliffe told Tate they could use someone to coordinate the fair's recycling program.
Tate volunteered to be that person.
"He followed through and spent every day on the fair grounds," said Jolliffe. "He was amazing. He put his money where his mouth was."
That first year that Tate volunteered was the fair's most successful year for recycling, Jolliffe said.
Previously, the fair's trash collectors handled recycling.
"I don't think they were as invested in the recycling program to make it work," Tate said, "and the general fairgoers weren't made as aware of what recycling was happening."
Greenbrier Valley Solid Waste Authority in Ronceverte also wanted to see improvements in the recyclables it received from the state fair, Tate said.
"It was full of trash," Tate said. "They were supposed to get bags full of either aluminum cans or plastic bottles. That's all that should be in those bags. But a lot of it was cotton candy, half-eaten hotdogs, sauerkraut and all this other yuck mixed in with the recyclables."
"The problem was that the fellows who were picking it up would go to a recycling bin and find it full of all that stuff," Tate added, "and they didn't want to pick through it. So, they just sent it down."
When he took over the fair's recycling program, Tate made a few simple changes that quickly cleaned up the recyclables. First, he pressed into use the fair's newly donated cardboard recycling bins, which looked visibly different from the trash cans. Before the cardboard recycling bins were donated, the fair used barrels for recycling that only differed from the trash barrels in color.
"The big thing I tried to change was make sure that no recycling bin stood by itself. Because, if there's just a bin there, people are going to use it as a trash bin."
But, if it's next to a trash can, then they'd have to be kind of a jerk to put trash in it," he added with a laugh.
Having the two types of bins has been very effective at cutting down on the trash that finds its way in to recycling bins.
"It's very rare that I get trash in my recycling bins," Tate said. "The only times that happens is when the trash can is totally overflowing."
At that point, Tate said, people choose the lesser of two evils and throw their trash into the recycling bin rather than tossing it on the ground.
Even with the visible, well-placed recycling bins, the trash cans take in many more bottles and cans, said Tate. So, he takes matters into his own hands-literally.
"It would take many days for my recycling bins to fill up," said Tate. "So, I could stand there for many days and wait for that to happen, or-since I'm at the fair anyway-I go around and collect recyclables out of the trash bins."
Tate is at the fair grounds every day of the fair, all day long, at least 14 hours a day-sometimes longer.
"All I do, all day long, is go around to trash bins, and I pull recyclables out," he said.
By doing this, Tate effectively triples the amount of bottles and cans recycled at the state fair.
During the course of the fair, Tate hauls a full pick-up truck load of recyclables each day. Each truckload is roughly 21 leaf and yard-waste bags full of recyclables. Do a little math, and you'll find that Tate has filled 14 of those bags by hand-picking bottles and cans from the trash.
Tate does get some help in his efforts. Each year, he e-mails friends to ask for volunteers to lend a hand. In exchange they get free admission to the fair for the day. So far, about eight people have volunteered each year for a day or half a day.
"If you spend all day there, you get to walk around, people-watch and see the exhibits," Tate said. "It's a way to see the fair."
"You definitely get to see all the crazy things that happen at the fair, like the cow and llama costume contests," he added.
And Tate said he's happy to have the helpers, even if they don't want to dive into the trash cans for recyclables.
"It's a lot of work, too," he said "You're walking around, pushing a cart in the sun all day. I don't make people dig through the trash like I do, but I do supply big yellow dishwashing gloves, so if they care to, they can."
In two years, Tate and his fellow volunteers have collected an impressive amount of recyclables: 2,833 pounds of plastic bottles and 478 pounds of aluminum cans. But Tate says he's probably only catching about 40 percent of the recyclables on the fairgrounds. There's also room for expansion of the fair's recycling program, Tate said. The company that runs the amusement rides handles its own trash collection, separate from the rest of the fairgrounds. Tate's current efforts also don't include the fair's campground or parking lots.
But for Tate, recycling at the fair is about something larger than the cans and bottles collected during one week in August.
"More than the bottles and cans I'm recycling, I'd like to think that it is presenting the idea of recycling to people," Tate said. "I hope that it helps make them aware."
Jolliffe thinks it's raising awareness among fairgoers-and more.
"He has been instrumental in bringing attention to recycling," Jolliffe added. "He's also making people think twice about throwing their plastic water bottle in the trash and has sent a clear message about what true volunteerism really is."
Tate also sees it as a point of state pride.
"It's the West Virginia State Fair," Tate said. "I feel like it represents our state. For recycling not to happen there, I think, reflects badly on us. Also, I saw it as a great opportunity to introduce people to recycling, because I know that recycling doesn't happen in a lot of places and it's definitely harder for it to happen in smaller communities. But at the state fair it's pretty easy, and it could be people's first introduction to the idea."
"A lot of people who come to the fair don't have recycling in their home communities," he continued. "Although they might hear about it on TV or whatever, they're not used to it. It's not something they think about. The fair is crazy busy, and there's lots of stuff going on. I don't blame them for not thinking, 'Ooh, is that a recycling bin? Great!' There are a lot of wonderful things going on at the fair, so that shouldn't be in the forefront of their mind."
Instead, Tate said it's simply about giving people the chance to try recycling.
"Maybe a few of them see it and think about it," he said. "Hopefully they'll take it home with them as an idea of something they can do."