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Exchange program unites waste producers with new end users
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Exchange program unites waste producers with new end users

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 It sounds like a dirty job — matching up the waste generated by one business or organization with another that can reuse it. But Julie Plummer has to do it, and loves it.

The area resource specialist for the Iowa Waste Exchange has been reducing the waste stream, particularly for manufacturing and industry, for the past 15 years.

"I'm a matchmaker," said Plummer.

"The whole goal is to help Iowa businesses and industries with smart solid waste management strategies. I help them reduce, reuse and recycle the wastes that otherwise would go into the landfill."

Since the program's inception in 1990, Plummer has assisted companies in diverting 193,340 tons of waste from the landfill. She also has tallied 6,029 company assists, some repeat customers, and matched waste materials to 1,461 recyclers or new users.

In the past five years, she has diverted 51,949 tons of waste, matched 871 waste materials to recyclers or new uses, and made 2,415 company assists.

"When I go to a company, I look in their garbage Dumpster and say 'Oh, my, you're throwing that away?'" she said.

Once she has identified the waste produced, Plummer finds another user who needs that material in their operation, perhaps as a raw material, or links the client to a recycling market.

The Iowa Waste Exchange is a free, confidential and non-regulatory program funded by an Iowa Department of Natural Resources grant. Plummer is one of six resource specialists covering the entire state. Her employer, Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, is the last community college still providing the program, which also gets financial support from the Scott County Waste Commission.

"She does an amazing job for us," said Kathy Morris, the commission's director. "A lot of times businesses, especially small businesses, struggle to know what to do with fluorescent tubes or electronics, or they generate a small amount of hazardous waste." 

But Plummer's familiarity with Scott County's different programs helps her guide them to alternatives, she added. "Anything we can do to save that (landfill) space is a value," Morris said.

Morris hopes that this summer, when the county goes from dual stream recycling to a single stream — meaning no more sorting of recyclables, more businesses might adopt recycling practices. Diverting materials from the landfill also lowers the DNR fee that the commission pays based on each ton put into the landfill, she said. 

Plummer works a lot with pallets, 55-gallon drums, wood waste and scrap metal from her manufacturing clients. "But it can be any material a company has — a one-time thing or something they produce over and over as part of their waste stream," she said.

Now beginning her 16th year, Plummer said "A lot of the easy stuff is gone; it's been recycled away. Now more and more, I get called by larger companies when they have more difficult items to recycle."

The program also works on the opposite side of the match, finding materials requested by recyclers and businesses. For example, companies may need pallets to send their finished product on, or scrap wood to grind into mulch or bedding. In one of her unusual matches, she helped divert new motorcycle engines to area high school and college industrial programs. 

The Habitat's ReStore retail shop in Davenport is a regular recipient of items that would have been thrown away if not for Plummer's matchmaking.

"We have over the years had quite a few connections with her," said Cindy Kuhn, ReStore's director. "She often will send us an email (saying) 'Is this something you want to look into?'"

Over the years, Plummer's "finds" have added to ReStore's building materials inventory as well as for their own uses. Kuhn said the non-profit continues to use large wooden bins it received from a Cedar Rapids company for displays as well as stickers from the children's magazine Highlights. "I'm not sure how she got those, but we have boxes and boxes and give them out to children in the store and they love it."

Plummer said that in her tenure she has seen some manufacturers go landfill-free, "which means they don't throw anything in the landfill."

Less waste also is a financial benefit for the companies as they avoid landfill tipping fees and other waste removal costs. In some cases, if the material has a recycling market, companies can be paid for their waste. Since 1990, companies Plummer has assisted have saved $7.613 million. That includes a collective savings of $1.905 million in the past five years. 

"Once somebody finds us and we help them, they keep coming back," Plummer said.

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