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Most people will recycle when given the opportunity, but when blue bins or visible signs and other reminders are absent, it is easy to toss a plastic bottle in the trash and tell yourself you don’t really have a choice.
But you do have a choice: Instead of accepting less-than-ideal circumstances, work to change them. This is how the showerhead recycling program at Rainshow’r Mfg., Inc., in San Gabriel., Calif., began more than 15 years ago.
Since then, Rainshow’r has offered a recycling program for the spent cartridges returned by customers. In the beginning, Rainshow’r contacted scrap dealers and salvage companies who picked up the cartridges, broke them open and removed the KDF media.
But about four years ago, when a scrap dealer came to pick up a load of materials he informed George Ricci, president of Rainshow’r, that because of California’s environmental laws and labor costs, they would have to ship everything to China rather than take apart the showerheads themselves. Ricci decided that this was unacceptable.
“As a result, I started to accumulate stuff and began to look for recycling firms that would give the media to American smelters,” Ricci said.
After about three years of searching, Ricci sent samples to Darren Segal, president of Active Recycling of Los Angeles, and received good news in return—Segal found two American smelters who would take the material. However, they would not crack the cartridges or separate the materials.
“So what we had to do then was say, ‘I guess we’re going to have to do this ourselves,’” Ricci said, even though they do not profit from the recycled material in any way and would have to take on the labor expense of doing the process in-house.
Ricci opened a recycling unit in one of the company’s three buildings, and had to ensure the necessary safety equipment was provided for his employees. Two to three employees work on the task, usually in mid-summer, the slow point of the company’s production year.
“We separate the oxidized KDF from the KDF that has crystal bits in it,” Ricci said. “We accumulate it in buckets, and that is what is given to Active
Recycling.” They wait until they accumulate about 2,000 lb, and then inform the recycler that the material is ready for pickup.
Active Recycling then sells the material to the smelters, who add tin to the alloy. The resulting bronze alloy can be used in making bronze statues in U.S. parks and museums, Ricci said.
After finding a recycler for the brass, Ricci and his staff were still left with KDF with bits of crystal in it, as well as the plastic showerhead bodies. “We kept accumulating the plastic bodies, and finally I came up with an idea,” Ricci said.
With almost 1,000 lb of KDF and crystal on hand, he talked to Segal and suggested that the material “would make a great topping finisher for people who make driveways and sidewalks where they want texture, color and grit for a gripping surface.”
Still left with the plastic bodies, Ricci suggested crushing them and offering them to companies who make roadbeds and highway repaving, using the crushed plastic the same way rebar is used in concrete to create a reinforced concrete base in streets and highways.
“So we recycled everything except the polyester prefilter, and those we have to throw away,” Ricci said. “The plastic is inert, and the brass is inert, but it simply sits there in the landfill and occupies space.”
Perhaps the most important part of a recycling program is making people aware of its existence. Rainshow’r accomplishes this through describing the program in print and online.
“It’s in all of our instructions and it’s on the website,” Ricci said. The website provides a history of the program as well as a note of appreciation to customers for their participation.
Customers mail the materials for recycling back to Ricci, addressed to Good Earth Recyclers. “People pay $7 or $8, sometimes as much as $10 and $15 to return material to us. We have a responsibility to do something with that,” Ricci said.
The fact that customers take it upon themselves to return the cartridges, absorbing the postage costs, really speaks to the need that is there, Ricci said. “It’s not like you just go to a bin and drop something in. You have to package it and go to the post office. Since we don’t make any money on it, and we pay employee expenses for the time taken breaking them open and sorting, and we can’t use any of the recycled material again, we have no margin to give some sort of discount for returning it.”
With a little imagination powered by a lot of initiative, Rainshow’r found a use for almost every part of a product many would have considered trash. “We put everything back into use that we can,” Ricci said.