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Mobtown Beat

Waste Not

Local Restaurant Employee Makes Recycling a Priority

Frank Klein
ONE MAN'S TRASH IS ANOTHER MAN'S POST-CONSUMER CONTENT: dana koteen, a server and community liaison at Roy's in Baltimore, worked with the city to develop a recycling program for the restaurant.

By Jessica Leshnoff | Posted 2/22/2006

When Dana Koteen, a server and community liaison at Roy’s restaurant in Inner Harbor East, saw how much of the restaurant’s recyclable waste was going straight to the trash, he was appalled. The 22-year-old New York native and lifelong environmentalist couldn’t bear to stand by and watch, so he did what any civic-minded individual would do: He picked up the phone.

What seemed like an easy task at first—setting up a recycling program at a downtown restaurant—turned out to be trickier than Koteen expected, mostly because Baltimore doesn’t require (or really encourage) businesses to recycle. One phone call to city officials led to dozens more, and weeks became months. So began the Towson University senior’s long and winding journey toward his ultimate goal: getting the city to change from two monthly pickups of glass recyclables from the restaurant to one a week.

“Restaurants are huge waste producers,” he says. “It’s just the nature of the business. There’s going to be things left over.”

Koteen started working at Roy’s in April 2005, and his quest to get a recycling program implemented at the restaurant began in August. It took him until December, he says, to complete his research and plans and to order recycling bins through a private vendor.

At Roy’s, a Hawaiian fusion chain launched by renowned chef Roy Yamaguchi and owned by Outback Steakhouse Inc., the bulk of waste weight comes in the form of glass. One weekend alone produces enough wine and beer bottles for a hearty pickup, Koteen says. He points to an enormous blue recycling bin kept in a spacious garage-type area behind the restaurant. It’s overflowing with multicolored wine bottles. “That’s just from last night,” he says.

When it comes to recycling, Baltimore residents and businesses are offered the same services, explains Joe Kolodziejski, chief of Baltimore’s Bureau of Solid Waste. Neither individuals nor businesses are required to recycle, but the city provides free collection services for those who want to do so.

But for many businesses, recyclable materials gather so quickly that two pickups a month are not enough. Rather than store recyclable items till the city can get them, many either hire private companies to pick them up or just throw recyclables away. Roy’s is lucky to have a loading dock out back where it can keep recyclables, Koteen says, but two pickups a month are still not enough.

Kolodziejski is aware of the frustrations of Baltimore businesses that want to recycle. He says that his agency will meet with businesses to discuss extra pickups, but the city’s trash and recyclable pickups can’t compete with the services offered by private waste-management companies.

“If that’s not good enough for the customer, then they’re going to have to go privately,” he says. “I do this for free. Whatever they’re paying [private companies], this would be a savings for them. . . . If I had a business, I’d get a Dumpster and probably fill it up every two days. When you’re a private business, you do what the customer asks you to do.”

But Koteen says that most businesses aren’t even aware that the city will pick up their recyclables at all. In 2002, the city dissolved the recycling office of the Department of Public Works due to budget constraints. Kolodziejski says that since then the city hasn’t been able to lobby businesses to get on board with recycling.

“We’re not out looking for [businesses to recycle] anymore, and previously we were,” he says. “We all had to pull our belts in.”

Recycling education is now in the domain of the mayor’s office, and it focuses on encouraging residents, not businesses, to recycle. Kolodziejski says city employees may sometimes approach businesses that produce lots of waste—like convenience stores or restaurants—about recycling’s benefits, but they can’t push the issue.

“Recycling is not a mandatory activity in the city,” he says. “It’s strictly voluntary. You can’t make people recycle.”

Municipalities that mandate business recycling are actually few and far between. Montgomery County, home to more than 35,000 businesses, is an unusual exception—it requires businesses and residents to recycle, says Eileen Kao, chief of the county’s recycling program. The county does not provide pickup services for businesses, but business owners are briefed on the recycling regulations and heavily fined for noncompliance: After a first warning, a business may be fined $100, plus $150 each day until it is in line with county recycling regulations.

“To be honest, in this day and age, I’m a little bit surprised other jurisdictions are not mandating recycling, especially by businesses,” Kao says. “Businesses generate so many different materials that are highly recyclable and are resources we need to preserve.”

Koteen agrees, estimating that Roy’s produces some 500 bottles a week, which translates into a whopping 2,000 bottles a month. The restaurant’s employees follow recycling procedures Koteen put in place.

Koteen—who probably has enough creative energy to power a small generator—says it wasn’t easy to get the city to respond to his requests for recycling cooperation. The effort, he says, would have probably made a less-determined person just give up.

“I definitely got the runaround,” he sighs. “But I’m a New Yorker. I’m a very, very active person and I won’t take no for an answer.”

He says he hopes his efforts can be replicated at other businesses in Baltimore (and at other Roy’s restaurants around the world).

“I’m here because of my environment and, as best as I can, I’m going to work to not destroy it,” he says. “I hope that other people recognize the need to do waste management differently. There needs to be a re-evaluation of what’s important.”

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