On the first Saturday of every month, Esther Morrison jubilantly stacks trash on her immaculate front lawn. Morrison welcomes all kinds of trash: thousands of crumbling newspapers, bags of cans and boxes of old letters and computer tapes. All the better for recycling.
"It's quite promising at this stage," says Morrison, directing a newcomer to pitch a pile of newspapers onto a large truck.
With the help of the national Black Veterans Organization of Washington, Morrison manages to run one of the most successful recycling centers in the metropolitan area.
Neighbors from blocks around carefully separate the recyclables from their garbage and take them by wheelbarrow, car and bicycle on the first Saturday of every month to Morrison's house on North Carolina Avenue SE.
White hair tucked up, Morrison stands on her sidewalk, greeting all passersby, whether she recognizes them as recyclers or not. And she usually makes some converts.
While she does not have the figures to prove its profitability, Morrison manages to organize the recycling effort without any costs.
"I just feel we can't let it down. The prospect of putting all these papers on the street or in the garbage -- it's wrong. People who come always say they're glad to have a place to bring their paper," says Morrison.
Her genteel manner veils a tough Chinese scholar with a keen social conscience. She has a sociology degree from Louisville College and a doctorate in Chinese studies from Harvard. After World War II, she worked in China with the YWCA, offering special leadership training for women.
Morrison went on to teach at the University of California at Berkeley and at Howard University. Having just retired from Howard last year, Morrison says she plans to write a book on the Chinese bureaucracy.
Morrison says she started the recycling center more than a year ago because she could find no one else to do it. Holding to her conviction that newspapers were a valuable resource that could be used again, she attacked that papers in her basement.
After contacting neighbors through phone calls and fliers, she arranged for the National Black Veterans Organization to pick up the first load of 1,500 pounds in December 1979. This spring monthly collections have increased by ten times to April's record 15,000 pounds, plus 100 pounds of aluminum.
When it rains or the truck fails to show up, Morrison has been known to carry the stacks of papers from her lawn to her living room. Once when her neighbors were having a party next door, Morrison says she talked them into coming over to relay the papers into her house.
The national Black Veterans Organization provides the truck and four men to collect the trash, in exchange for the revenues from the recycling. They receive about $150 a run.
In 1976, the organization wanted to "get enough trucks and people to pick up all the trash in Washington," says Eddie Orr, former NBVO project manager. With the loss of eight employes who were working on recycling projects through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act -- victims of budget-cutting -- the project operates with a four-man crew. Now there is emphasis on the collection of high-grade office paper, which offers more stable, higher prices than newsprint.
"Morrison runs our most successful newsprint operation, and we wouldn't drop it," says Yvonne Austin, technical manager of the project.
Of NBVO's $40,000 net profits last year, about $1,500 came from newsprint.
The city's year-long experiment in recycling paper in Ward 4 has fared worse than NBVO's efforts. The city has lost money paying the city's trash collectors to pick up the area's discarded newspapers.
According to D.C. government figures, the Ward 4 experiment last year lost $56,151, figuring operating costs of $76,509 and paper revenues of $20,358. The city was able to absorb the personnel costs through its normal work force, says Ann Witt, Ann Witt, acting deputy administrator of the city's solid waste management. Faced with $1.9 million worth of cuts in the solid waste department, including layoffs of 236 employes, the D.C. government is studying other less expensive ways to continue recycling.
"We might let private groups take over, or contract for private collection," says Witt.
"The city supports the concept of recycling," adds Witt. "We believe it can be done . . . If we knew where all the Esther Morrisons were, we'd have it knocked."