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Local companies working to reduce our trash footprint

Trash needs to be on our personal agenda. Consider why:

We are the No. 1 trash-producing nation in the world. Today in this country, each of us generates an average of 4.5 pounds of trash each day; that's four-fifths of a ton per year. Dump the resulting 2.4 tons of trash in the front yard of an average Erie County family and you would need boots to wade through it. (This does not even take into account the massive contributions of industrial waste.)

Worldwide, trash generation increases with income. High-income individuals create twice what lower-income people produce; almost half of the total.

The trash we generate has been polluting our streams, lakes and oceans, and the effect on wildlife is increasing. Increased plastic ingestion by young animals affects their growth, their ability to reproduce and even their lives. Research indicates that plastic debris affects at least 267 species worldwide.

Ask Sharen Trembath, coordinator of our annual Beach Sweep, about the regional social, scenic and wildlife effects of our trash-generating society.

The good news: The per-person waste generation rate is going down slowly. The bad news: Despite this, trash generation is expected to almost double in the next 15 years due to population growth.

Our general attitude toward trash has long been "out of sight, out of mind." But thankfully today many town administrators are taking trash problems seriously. And companies that remove our trash are applying science to reduce its impact.

To see what happens to those discards we set out each week, I went to the facilities of the aptly named Modern Corp., which handles trash collection from my Amherst home.

I first visited the Hopkins Street plant in Buffalo that takes the green cart discards for recycling. Several of us donned hard hats and safety glasses to be led by general manager Scott Bradley through the building.

Although the decibel level was high, Bradley was able to show us what happened to material collected by the trucks. The noise was generated by belts moving the trash rapidly around and through various sorters: magnets moved metal cans from one processing line to another; a second line shook newsprint from cardboard; another sorted out glass; an optical sorter removed some plastics, while men and women along the belts pulled plastic bags from the passing parade.

Finally, we were shown the results of all this work, ready for export to processing centers. Here were stacks of 80-cubic-foot bales separated into materials of different types: compressed cans, newspaper, cardboard, plastics. The refuse that entered this plant was sorted and ready for final recycling and reuse, a near total recapture of material.

I next joined Katy Duggan-Haas, Modern's sustainability educator, at its location on Model City Road in Niagara County. There she showed me the natural gas pumps that power their collection trucks, and tires being recycled into various products. As we climbed the hill of already collected trash, she pointed out methane collection devices. These carry the hot gas generated by the underlying highly pressurized waste to a plant at the foot of the hill. There it generates energy that powers and heats the company's quarter-mile-long greenhouse operation. In it, 170,000 hydroponic tomato plants are raised, annually contributing 6 million tomatoes to regional consumption.

Engineers like these have made a good start on trash handling, but much remains to be done. We still lag far behind the extent of recycling on the West Coast: our rate today is 20 percent; San Francisco's is 80 percent.