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Talking trash: Volunteer spirit drives Moab's recycling efforts

Volunteer spirit drives Moab's recycling efforts

MOAB — From the parking lot of the Canyonlands Community Recycling Center, you can look out across a pile of broken pallets to a wire fence. Beyond that the scenery gets prettier. Beyond that are a valley, a town, then the red cliffs of the Moab Rim.

At last count, Moab had 4,800 residents and more than 1 million visitors per year. Those visitors come because of the red rocks, and they make the economy zing. But they also leave behind a certain amount of garbage for the Moabites to handle.

Hence a lot of local efforts, of which the Community Recycling Center is only one. There are also Friends of the Parkway cleanups, the Volunteer Vacations, the group cleanups and on and on.

If you'd happened upon the Earth Day party, held at the recycling center earlier this spring, you would have heard Moabites talking about their successes and challenges.

Inside the cavernous recycling center, Penny Jones had decorated a table for food and hung balloons. The disco effect was enhanced by the shiny walls (insulation backed in foil) and the industrial-looking bailing machine.

Jones, who helped start the recycling center in 1990, took it back as a nonprofit when Grand County's solid waste managers grew frustrated because the center was costing more to operate than it was bringing in. (Even today, according to the recycling center's site manager, Mike Horrocks, the center brings in only about 80 percent of its $65,000 a year operating budget and depends on donations and grants to make up the difference.)

Sara Melnicoff was at the party, too, and brought her sister, Dorthea Melnicoff, who was visiting from Philadelphia. Sara Melnicoff oversees more than a dozen local cleanup and restoration projects under the title the Solutions of Moab.

Solutions is mostly a volunteer effort. (An example of the mission: Sara describes spending 11 days in a row over Easter picking up garbage, including 300 pounds of recyclables, from one illegal campground after one party.)

The two Melnicoff sisters had been on the radio the night before Earth Day. They took calls and talked about saving the Earth.

Dorthea Melnicoff had been quiet on the radio, but the next day, during the party, she told a reporter that the entire time she was listening to callers talk about American Indian spirituality, she was thinking about her own Christian faith.

Dorthea said she believes we were made to live in the Garden of Eden, made to protect the paradise we see around us. Even when we are tourists. "On Earth as it is in heaven," she said.

Others who showed up for the Earth Day party at the recycling center included Kim Shafer, who brought her three children and a big sack of cans they'd been saving. And Tim Graham was there, too. Graham is an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Canyonlands Research Station in Moab.

Later he talked about life in this part of the state. When people visit, he says, "They don't realize that we are just a dinky little town." Some Moabites feel there should be something done to help the locals, he said.

What would happen if some of the transient room tax, some of the money that comes from the visitors, went to support the impact of the visitors, Graham wonders. "Instead of having all that money going back into tourism promotion." That way, he says, "the cost of the landfill, the cost of recycling are born fairly and not just by the local people."

Meanwhile, you might ask (feeling a little guilty to have come from a city where your recyclables get picked up at the curb), what can visitors do?

Graham suggested, "In terms of what they buy when they are here: less packaging." If you don't see a recycling bin, you could take your recyclables home with you, recycle them there.

Or, Sara Melnicoff added, you could ask the Moab business owner to provide a recycling bin. Or you could bag your cans and plastics and drop them off yourself at the Canyonlands Community Recycling Center, 1000 E. Sand Flats Road. (It's on your way to the Slickrock Trail, Melnicoff points out.)

Or you could get online at the Tourist Bureau's site and learn about volunteering while you are here on vacation. On two days' notice, Melnicoff found a meaningful project for a group of Brigham Young University students, she says. They picked up trash and recyclables from an old orchard.

Melnicoff suggests another little project she calls the Underground Recycling Railroad. The Moab recycling center can't find a market for cereal boxes, #2 plastic, phone books or catalogues — they don't accept those items. Still, a number of Moabites don't want to throw their cereal boxes and phone books in the landfill.

So Melnicoff has been storing stacks of unacceptable materials, and when someone is going to Salt Lake City or some other big city, she'll send a package with them. If you would be willing to recycle the things the Moabites can't, just give her a call at 435-259-0910.

You can drop the Moab cast-offs at a center in a bigger city and the center will make money by selling the stuff, Melnicoff points out. She says some friends recently drove a load to Salt Lake City and deposited the catalogues and boxes in the recycling bin at a private school.

If you really want to help pay for the fun you've had as a visitor to Moab, you might consider bringing some of your own recyclables to their center. Aluminum cans fetch a good price and so do brown bottles. (But clear and green bottles do not.) The center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

A few weeks after the Earth Day party, Sara Melnicoff was walking in Millcreek Canyon, picking up trash, when she saw a group of kids and teachers approaching from the direction of the nearby elementary school. She says she had two thoughts at the same time. "One: I am so glad I'm doing what I'm doing. And, two: I'm not doing enough."

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Sara Melnicoff, who lives in Moab, believes that recycling saves water, lowers air pollution, creates jobs, preserves natural areas and promotes personal responsibility. To help her neighbors recycle, she published a little directory, listing places where people can recycle their batteries, tires, computer printer cartridges, paper and plastic bags, packing peanuts, old appliances, clothing, motor oil and the like.

To find similar information for your own neighborhood, try calling your county government or go online at