Peninsula kids pioneer color-coding as a recycling system

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Recycling is the number one activity we can do to protect Planet Earth. These tips will help you become a better participant.
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Recycling is the number one activity we can do to protect Planet Earth. These tips will help you become a better participant.

What started as a summer science project for Gig Harbor and Peninsula students has blossomed into something Mandi Thorne feels could change recycling and waste management in the Gig Harbor area for years to come.

The idea is simple: color coding. Orange for plastics, yellow for metal, green for glass, and so forth.

Thorne calls this project the Rainbow Connection.

“How do you get a rainbow? Through a really large storm,” Thorne said. “Right now that’s where we stand in this waste management crisis we are in.”

The idea grew out of a summer Environmental Science course organized by West Sound Technical college for students from Gig Harbor and Peninsula high schools.. Thorne, a longtime Gig Harbor environmental activist, was the teacher.

Studying the way cities and counties collected recyclables, the students discovered there were a lot of confusion. Different localities had different systems. Recyclables are often collected all jumbled together, requiring a lot of labor and expense to separate them later.

What if there were an easier way to separate recyclable waste, right where it was collected?

Suddenly, what began as a boring school project quickly got interesting.

”I couldn’t believe how excited these kids got,” she said. “It expanded and grew and all it took was giving them the tools.”

Thorne and her students spent weeks looking into every part of the present system, looking at how each piece of waste was created, what alternatives can be used, and how each nearby county deals with waste.

They devised the color code and painted the bins themselves.

“Simplifying this to colors is something all ages could get behind,” Thorne said. “There isn’t much confusion when it’s just colors.”

The students made collection bins for each kind of recyclable: Metal, glass, paper, plastic, compost, single-use plastic. There’s also a bin for material that can be “upcycled,” or turned to a new use.

Then they took their research to the Waterfront Farmers Market. Four times in July and August, they laid out the whole picture to market shoppers, informing them of the alarming recycling and landfill statistics.

“There is 6.7 million tons of trash just in our landfill,” Thorne said. “Additionally, 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced by Americans annually and only nine to 12 percent ends up being recycled.”

The concept was so well received at the Farmer’s Market, Thorne said, that she’s been talking to officials at PenMet Parks about trying out a pilot program in the system’s five parks. She’s formed a nonprofit for that purpose.

“We talked with PenMet about how we can partner and make this ripple grow to the parks,” she said Monday. “We are getting ready to do a pilot with the Rainbow Connection in the parks so youth of all ages can get involved.”

PenMet spokesman Chuck Cuzzetto said the park system is interested, but is encouraging Thorne to start small, perhaps with educational programs, and then ramp up to a pilot program.

“We do have events with six, seven thousand people, and that involves a lot of trash,” he said. “So naturally we’re interested in a strong recycling program. And we love having partners in the community.”

Cuzzetto said the district already has portable recycling stations in can roll out for large events, but there are only two bins — green for compost and blue for paper and plastic. He said he could see expanding to a larger color-coded system if there were an external partner to do the sorting.

Thorne said the city of Gig Harbor may be interested as well. She explained the system at a recent Waterfront Alliance Board meeting.

“I want to see this color-coding system tested and have a discussion with the community like we had at the Farmers Market, where it was super well accepted,” Thorne said.

Because of this reaction, Thorne said moving forward she wants to create more avenues for youths to get involved in environmental friendly activities.

She described the young people as warriors in a the new eco-friendly movement.

“There is no right or wrong way right now, and these kids are pioneering the way for the next leap in our human existence,” Thorne said. “It’s about taking that green handprint and designing a new carbon footprint that isn’t as destructive as the one we currently have.”

Rainbow Connection Color Code

Red: Recycling

Orange: Single-use plastic

Yellow: Metal

Green: Glass

Blue: Paper

Purple: Up-cycled material

Brown: Compost

Black: Landfill