Old Lyme - Peter Karter, a nuclear engineer who became a pioneer of the recycling industry, died early Wednesday morning, March 31, 2010, of complications from Alzheimer's disease at his home in Old Lyme. He was 87.
Karter invented a process that made it easier to sort and break down glass bottles, cans and other household waste previously sent to landfills. By reducing the cost and improving the quality of the extracted materials, Karter played a crucial role in establishing the viability of recycling for communities across the country.
The company that Karter started in an old Branford factory, Resource Recovery Systems, opened the first recycling plants in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, and grew to operate 13 plants in eight states.
"At my age, it is easy enough to think that I will be dead before the environmental crunch comes down on mankind," Karter told a trade publication in 1993. "I keep working because I keep thinking about my grandchildren."
Peter Karter was born to Greek immigrants in Chicago on Aug. 19, 1922. After the outbreak of World War II, he enrolled in the U.S. Army and was shipped to England on the Queen Mary to prepare for D-Day. But the Army changed its mind, plucking him from the ranks to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1947 and was stationed in Germany, then sent back to school again, this time at Harvard for a master's degree in Engineering. Karter served in the Korean War and then was stationed in Waterbury, Conn, where, after the Great Flood of 1955, he directed the rerouting of the Naugatuck River to prevent a recurrence of the tragedy. He concluded his military service as a lecturer at West Point, retiring as a captain in 1957.
Karter met his wife, the former Elizabeth Carmen Whitman of New Britain, while serving in Germany. They were married in Darmstadt in 1950 and had four daughters. She died in 2004.
After leaving the Army, Karter worked as a nuclear engineer for American Machine and Foundry, on projects including nuclear reactors in Pakistan and Iran, part of the U.S. government's Atoms for Peace program.
In the early 1970s, his work as an engineer turned in a new direction. Growing concern about pollution, including the celebration of Earth Day in 1970, was fueling a movement to reduce waste through recycling. As in many towns, some residents of Old Lyme had started to set aside bottles and other materials. Karter's wife and other recycling advocates were smashing the bottles in giant metal bins to create useable pieces of glass, which were then carried in pickup trucks to a glass plant in Dayville.
That kind of recycling remained expensive and inefficient, and cities were reluctant to shoulder the cost.
Karter produced an answer. Working in a former foundry in Branford, he developed a system for sorting glass by color and cans by metal content. He created and patented machines that crushed the glass and cans, producing a stream of consistent and contaminant-free materials for use by manufacturers. The result was the nation's first materials recovery facility, a system that enabled curbside collection of mixed bottles, cans and paper.
Karter incorporated RRS in 1974 and started pitching governments on the idea that recycling now could be cheaper than landfills or incinerators. The business was not an immediate success. It was serving a market that did not yet exist. But as landfill costs rose, the environmental movement gained strength, and RRS got better at extracting useable materials from trash, cities started signing up.
The company opened its first large-scale facility at Springfield, Mass. in 1989, a joint venture with the state of Massachusetts that processed curbside recyclables collected from Lee to Worcester. It was a financial success and served as a model for other communities. The company also made continuing advances in processing materials, allowing the inclusion of mixed plastics, cardboard cartons and textiles in curbside recycling programs.
RRS opened additional plants in New York City, in the suburbs of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. and in states including Georgia, Florida, and Michigan.
Karter sold RRS to the rival firm FCR Recycling in 1998 and retired with his wife to their home and gardens. He volunteered at the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, and was an active member of St. Anne's Episcopal Church, where he served on the vestry.
He is survived by a brother, Theodore Karter of New York; four daughters, Jean Gulliver and her husband, John Gulliver, of Falmouth, Maine, Dede Appelbaum and her husband, Paul Appelbaum, of New York, Trish Karter of Milton, Mass., Liddy Karter and her husband, Lex Richardson, of Old Lyme; ten grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the organizations through which you knew him or to the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library or the The Old Lyme Conservation Trust.
A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 3, at St. Anne's Episcopal Church, 82 Shore Road, Old Lyme. A private internment will follow.
Published in The Day on Apr. 2, 2010.