Simplifying Recycling: The Missing Piece?Editor's note: Welcome to the first edition of Q&A, where Green Options writers answer your questions about greening the good life.
Got a question for our writers? Submit them here.
Question: One of the most disturbing realities of recycling is how hard it is to bring schools and commercial enterprises on board. When our daughters were in school they tried to get their middle school to recycle with very limited results and I know that they were not alone. As I proceed through everyday life I like you, see the lack of recycling opportunities all around–city parks, airports, schools, restaurants, shopping centers, and hospitals, to name just a few. At the small business where I work, I was excited to see in the shopping center we have a dumpster for "cardboard only" but in the daily trash all the bottles, paper, and styrofoam (remember, this is Tucson, where Rathje did his study) must make up for that effort. How can we ask people to recycle when it is made so difficult–people are just not likely to take their trash home to recycle from the outside… I know this is a problem everywhere. Is someone working on this very public aspect of recycling on a national level? So much has changed since the early seventies and recycling has moved from being a "counter culture" thing to being taught in schools to becoming economical so I know progress is being made. After reading your article yesterday in a daily report from www.schwartzreport.net, I was moved to go to your site and pose the question to you guys who are more in the know than the average person. Thanks for all you do. — Katya Peterson, Tuscon, AZ
Answer: For those of us who have made recycling part of our daily lives, we often forget that recycling beyond the home (or even at home) is difficult for the general population. As you mentioned, not everyone will haul his or her recyclables home from work everyday. Reverse vending machines in offices offer one incentive based solution, but the problem of simplifying recycling goes beyond office machinery. We do need to make recycling easier for people who are not moved by "green guilt" to make it a priority in their lives.
In my opinion, solutions have to occur locally, as the options vary greatly from community to community. For example, my mother does not recycle (except at my house), because she has not had "time" to go get the bins used by her curbside company. The truth is, it is not a priority for her, so she has not found the time. Solution: bring the bins to the people! The recycling truck that visits her neighborhood should deliver bins on their weekly trips. In addition, recycling pick up should be extended to offices, schools, gas stations, etc. to simplify the process. Many residents and businesses pay to have their trash picked up and hauled away. Recycling should go hand in hand with this process. Wouldn't it be great if every community had an ecobusiness running biodiesel trucks that picked up recycling?
Each community needs to come up with their own solutions for simplifying recycling, as the opportunities and infrastructure in place differ; however, communities can learn from one another. For example, RecycleBank of Philadelphia has developed a simple model in which consumers are rewarded for their recycling. It works like this: "Just place all recyclables in your RecycleBank container. Your RecycleBank recycling container has a barcode that is recorded by the recycling truck. The amount your home recycles is translated into RecycleBank Dollars that you can spend at participating stores." Some communites, such as Seattle, have enacted mandatory recycling ordinances, in which violaters can be fined or their trash may not be picked up if residents do not recycle.
Another simple model, suggested on sustainablog, is to charge people per pound of garbage they create while giving credit for recycling. This is essentially what occurs in the rural portions of Lane County, Oregon. Disposal charges are based on volume ($7 for three trash cans), with discounts given for recycling and covering your load with a tarp (to prevent roadside litter). The recyling discount is only $1, but the message is clear. You will pay for waste disposal based on the amount of garbage you create; recycling reduceNo Trash Cans Heres this amount. In fact, as Kelli wrote about in Green Myth Busting: Recycling, "we should be able to recycle as much as 80% of our what currently goes into our landfills. Half of landfill contents is good old paper–easily recyclable."
Furthermore, recyclable items are not trash, and we must change the mindset of those who think of it as such. It is hard to throw something into the garbage that you do not view as trash (imagine throwing a diamond ring away!). In fact, if the situation was reversed and waste disposal was more difficult than recycling, we would be discussing how to make waste disposal simpler. What if communities only offered curbside recycling, yet people had to haul their trash to the dump? I realize this is not a practical idea, but it demonstrates the point. For recycling to become fully mainstreamed into our culture, it must be as simple as throwing something into the millions of trash receptacles that surround us.
Recycling is the third and final step in reduce, reuse, recycle. To fully address the problem, we need to consider the overconsumerism of American culture. Americans like convenience, and disposable, cheap items offer such ease. By utilizing services such as Free Cycle, we can share the items we no longer need. If we can do a better job reducing and reusing, there will be less need for recycling and waste disposal.