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Ashland hardware story owner Phil Emard with longtime employee Cathy Trower. Photo by Nina Egert

Act Locally: Working on being a recycling Ace

During the interview for the previous installment of Act Locally, Recology’s Jamie Rosenthal pointed out that the barista at the coffee shop where we met had inserted a plastic straw into my glass of ice coffee without my request. Having been duly reminded that we need to cut our dependence upon single-use plastic items (see the Act Locally column in the April 19 Tidings), I walked into Ashland General Hardware on A Street intending to recycle a compact fluorescent bulb, only to be confronted with a wall display of rainbow-colored plastic straws. I thought perhaps I should have a conversation with the store’s proprietor.

Quite to my delight, owner Phil Emard and his staff could not be more environmentally conscious. (The straw display was merely a clearance sale to eliminate the last of the store’s remaining inventory.) Ecologically sound practices have long been on Phil’s radar screen.

He was working as an engineer for Boeing when “I nearly purchased a business in Seattle 30 years ago with the idea of processing post-consumer plastic waste. Problem was, at that point (with curbside recycling still in its nascent stages), we couldn’t yet be assured of a consistent supply of plastic waste coming in so that we could deliver product to our customers.” Instead, Phil began consulting for medical facilities all over the country. Wanting to stay closer to his family home in rural Jackson County, he purchased Ashland’s hardware store eight years ago.

As part of a cooperative of ACE Hardware Store owners, Phil now provides Ashlanders with plastic and metal household items, as well as zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) indoor and outdoor house paints and artists’ supplies. While his store does carry a few harsh chemicals, the trend is toward offering environmentally safe products whenever possible. Suggestions for alternative, DIY solutions are often posted for customers to consider.

As environmental consciousness becomes system-wide, ACE is now replacing plastic packaging on its products with recyclable cardboard. Quantities of ACE products are shipped to stores in larger, re-usable plastic “optipacks” or smaller plastic totes. Most importantly, Ashland General Hardware serves the community as a temporary repository for all types of household items that need to be further recycled.

That said, only a small percentage of the plastic products sold in the store are made from post-consumer materials. Phil enlightened me as to some of the technical problems with recycled plastic. The most serious issue is that the quality of plastic becomes reduced with each reprocessing; using inferior plastic would run contrary to ACE’s corporate standard of providing only top-rated products. Another problem with recycled plastic is that, due to the labor costs of reprocessing materials, post-consumer products often come with a higher price than newly made plastics. Phil feels that at this time many housewares made from recycled plastic, if they are even available, are not in the best interest of his customers. But still that does not dampen his passion for repurposing products whenever possible.

To that point, one action that readers can take is to bring recyclable household items down to Ashland General Hardware, so that Phil and his employees can properly redistribute them. These include small items like batteries, house paint, and fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent light bulbs, as well as big ticket metal items like used water heaters, barbecues, and lawn mowers. While Recology does accept some of these items, Phil sends metal products to one of two companies in White City, and house paint (if still in its original can) to a Portland-area company called Paint Care Oregon. Additionally, the store has a ‘use and re-use’ policy for certain plastic packing materials; customers can take home free used bubble wrap located in a blue recycling bin at the back of the store’s parking lot.

Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s.

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